Advent 4: Love

Just as expectant parents prepare for the miracle of birth, decorating the nursery and buying supplies for their newborn, so we prepare our hearts to receive this greatest gift of all, the miracle of God’s love.

God does not need a labor and delivery room because God is the one in whom we live, and move and have our being. But when we are wounded by others or weary from struggling against the forces of evil we sometimes forget God is close enough to taste the salt of our tears.

Today we are tired of the bad news that bombards us every day.  We are tired of senseless violence, tired of natural disasters, tired of fearing an invisible virus, and oh so tired of separation from loved ones and interruptions to our normal lives.  

[Light Candle] And yet we light this candle of love again on this short December day because we know God is always here and everywhere.  We rejoice and hope and love, not because all is well in our weary world, but because it is well with our souls.  We are warm even this close to the winter solstice because we are wrapped in God’s eternal love.

And so we pray: O Holy One, even as our days grow shorter the candles of hope, peace, joy and love burn brightly.  Even in the darkness we see the star of Bethlehem leading us to the greatest gift of Love the world has ever received.  We know you will be with us this week even if all the gifts have not arrived, even if the guest list is missing people we love, even if we are in quarantine; because nothing can separate us from your love.  We can’t begin to explain this holy miracle, but we light candles and sing praises anyway because we feel your love in the depths of our souls.  For that gift we give you thanks and praise.  Amen

Plagues, Prayer and Peace

O Creator God, mysterious and magnificent, whose name was considered unpronounceable by our Hebrew ancestors, forgive us when our feeble attempts to describe you and name you turn you into pious platitudes. Unlike Moses we dare not put ourselves in your imminent presence. Your power is too much for us to confront directly, but when we hide ourselves from your majesty and keep you at arms length we rob ourselves of that peace that is beyond our comprehension.

It is a delicate balance between revering you and embracing you. Our fallible brains cannot grasp your simultaneous imminence and transcendence, and so we bounce back and forth like ping pong ball from one extreme to the other. And yet in these dark days of 2020 we desperately need both your motherly, tender love and your booming power to transform and heal our broken world.

We’re feeling like Pharaoh, God. Our plagues today are fires, hurricanes, flooding, racism, homophobia, earthquakes, pandemic, and the angry vitriol of deep, seemingly unbridgeable tribal cultural wars. At a time when we need each other and the milk of human compassion more than ever we don’t even know how to talk to one another. Nerves are so frayed that even something as simple as wearing a mask can become a trigger point for insults, shunning and worse.

Where are you in the midst of our human catastrophes, O God? You told Elijah that you were not in the wind, fire, or earthquake, but in a still small voice. We are deaf to that voice just now O great one. Weeping and wailing, screaming and cursing, hopeless self-pity and sheer exhaustion are ringing in our ears so loudly that we cannot hear you. When we need to feel the embrace of a good shepherd so much we feel like the lost sheep, afraid to even hope that you can or would come looking for us and leave the other 99. Our tiny minds can’t comprehend that you can seek us out and still be present with all the others who also need you. Your transcendent ability to be everywhere in the world and universe boggles are minds.

So for just a moment, a fraction of a second help us to be still just long enough to hear your voice whisper in our ears, “Fear not my children, for I have overcome the world. Come to me when you are weary and burdened. Trust me, and I will restore your soul even in this year of tumult and pain.”

Speak, O God, and give us ears to hear. Amen


I just finished “Sabbath as Resistance,” an excellent book by Walter Brueggemann. It was written a few years ago but is as timely as today’s headlines in our consumer driven, workaholic world. Brueggemann closes the book with reflections on Psalm 73, and I want to quote what he has to say about verse 23 of that Psalm: “Nevertheless I am continually with you; you hold my right hand.”

Brueggemann’s commentary on that verse goes like this: “This is no casual hand-holding. This is a life-or-death grip that does not let go. ‘No-Sabbath’ existence imagines getting through on our own, surrounded by commodities to accumulate and before which to bow down. But a commodity cannot hold one’s hand. Only late does the psalmist come to know otherwise. Only late may we come to know, but likely not without Sabbath rest, rooted in God’s own restfulness and extended to our neighbors who also must rest. We, with our hurts, fears and exhaustion, are left restless until then.” (Emphasis added)

Hurt, fearful and exhausted – describes me to a tee as the bitter conflicts over church and national politics have me so tied up in knots I feel like a pressure cooker about to blow a gasket. Yes, I badly need a sabbatical. Not because I don’t care about the fate of the world, but because I care too much. Therefore at the suggestion of my dear wife who has to live with my depression and anger I am hereby vowing to do the following for at least a week and perhaps longer. This may be my jump starting Lent 17 days early–because when we find ourselves in the wilderness can’t always be neatly scheduled on the calendar.
For the next 7 days:

1) I will not begin my day by reading or listening to the morning news. (Doing so has been my morning ritual for all of my adult life. My dad was a newspaper man. I delivered a morning newspaper as a kid. Newspapers have been a part of my life forever; so this will not be easy.)

2) Instead I will begin my day with spiritual and physical exercise of some kind, after my first cup of coffee of course.

3) I will temporarily snooze my most ardent Facebook friends on either side of the great American political divide, refrain from posting or writing any political words, memes or blogs; and stop listening to political news and talk radio in my car.

I thank you in advance for your prayers as I begin this sabbatical. Pray that I can let go of trying to control my life so God can, and feel free to help hold me accountable in any way you like—even if I act like I don’t want you to.

In the name of the one who always has me by the hand, even when I squirm and try to pull away like an indignant two-year-old, Amen.

Pastoral Prayer for World Communion Sunday

O Holy One who invites ALL who are weary to come and find rest, we the weary have heard your invitation. Rarely have we needed rest and your unifying Holy Spirit more than we do on this World Communion Sunday. We are exhausted by bitter partisan politics that divide families and friends. Some of us feel better because Justice Kavanaugh has been confirmed while others weep in despair for women’s voices that have gone unheeded yet again. But all of us are tired of the lack of civility that threatens our very way of life. When we leave this service today please empower all of us to be ambassadors of kindness and agents of compassion to every stranger we meet at school, work or in our daily lives.

We are tired of natural disasters and pray for their victims in the Carolinas and Indonesia and in places we’ve not even heard about that are often forgotten as soon as the news cycle moves on to a new crisis du jour.

But today we rejoice as the barriers of race, gender, and age disappear as Christians around the world gather at one table. We are neither Republican nor Democrat, female nor male, black, brown, yellow, red or white. We are one race – the human race—one body sharing one common loaf.

We are here to worship not because we deserve to be here, but because we need to be here. We are here because we know that all of us fall short of your glory, O God. This week we have all failed to do Christ-like things. If we pretend to be worthy we know we deceive ourselves and truth is not in us. And yet sinners that we are we come because we believe that your grace is for ALL, even for us, and that if we confess our sins you promise to cleanse us from ALL unrighteousness.

Our sins are wiped away, all grudges forgotten in the healing community we rejoice to be a small part of today. Around this table we speak different languages and have different customs; but through the transforming power of the Holy Spirit we are ALL one today and for as long as we remember who we are and whose we are we carry that holy sense of community with us.

We come, we pray, we go out to serve, in the name of the one who invites ALL who are weary to find rest. Hear our prayers O God in the name of Jesus who taught us how to live, how to build community and how to pray.

Northwest UMC, October 7, 2018

Reckless Love of Self, Ephesians 2:1-10

Before Lebron James announced his second departure from the Cleveland Cavalier one of the biggest sports stories in Cleveland was all about a basketball shot that was never taken. In game one of the NBA finals last month the Cavs lost a chance to win a critical game against the Golden State Warriors because J.R. Smith held the ball in the closing seconds of the game instead of shooting what could have been the game-winning shot. It appeared that Smith was confused, thinking the Cavs were ahead when in fact the score was tied, and he heard about it from irate sports fans.

Bob Oller, a sports writer for the Columbus Dispatch, took an interesting approach to that story. He went to one of the most admired sports heroes in Buckeye country, the only two-time Heisman Trophy winner and legendary Ohio State running back Archie Griffin. To quote Oller’s article, “Archie knows what it means to extend grace and receive mercy. Arch fumbled his first carry in his first game at Ohio State. It happens. Woody Hayes gave Griffin another chance and he made history with it. Archie also recalled another more glaring error he made when he fumbled a kick off on football’s biggest stage, the Super Bowl.” Archie’s take on JR Smith’s blunder: “It appears he lost track of the specifics of the situation….It’s a human mistake.”

Most of us don’t make our mistakes on national TV, but we all make them. What is something you regret that you wish you could undo? Words spoken in anger? Being self-absorbed with a problem and failing to notice the pain of a friend or loved one? Being distracted while driving and causing an accident or nearly doing so? As someone said recently, doing bad things doesn’t make us bad people, it makes us human.

In this sermon series we’re considering different aspects of love. Last week Pastor Chris talked about the first part of the great commandment – to love God with all one’s heart, soul, mind and strength. And most of us know the second part of that commandment which is to love your neighbor as yourself. We’re going to deal with the neighbor part of that verse in coming weeks, but today I want to focus on those final two words in the great commandment, “as yourself.” We often put so much attention on love of God and neighbor that we lose sight of those final two words that are a critical prerequisite to doing the other two.

To love anyone else as we love ourselves obviously means we have to first love ourselves, and that may be the hardest part of this whole deal. Loving yourself is hard for several reasons: 1) we are often taught directly or indirectly that it’s not cool to boast or brag about ourselves, that we should be humble; and often we get carried away with that because 2) we alone know the whole truth about all of our own dirty laundry. I believe it was Lincoln who said, “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”

That may be true, but even more true is the fact that you can’t fool God or yourself any of the time. No matter how good we are at hiding our faults from others, deep down our less desirable qualities are always with us like a perpetual bad hair day. Yes, we can rationalize or talk ourselves into doing something we know is not right, but deep down we still know it’s wrong and have to live with the guilt.

One of the biggest barriers to loving ourselves is perfectionism. Most of us don’t expect perfection from other people. We’re willing to cut them some slack, especially if we take time to consider that jerk who cuts us off on the freeway may be hurrying to get to a family emergency, or that rude clerk at the store is worried about her daughter who has run away from home. We know other people are just human, but why is it we often hold ourselves to a higher standard? I read a great line in a murder mystery the other day. The heroine of the story was beating herself up because she got taken in by a bad guy, and an old wise neighbor gave her this great advice. He said, “If I cried over every mistake I made I’d have drowned by now.”

Great advice, but part of the reason we have trouble loving ourselves is because we’ve got this accumulation of bad thoughts and behavior that seems to compound like credit card debt the longer we’re alive. And sometimes the church contributes to the guilt. I often joke that without guilt the church would be out of business. I may have borrowed that idea from the comedian, whose name I can’t remember, who joked about a church called “Our Lady of Perpetual Guilt.” But in all seriousness recklessly loving ourselves doesn’t mean excusing or sweeping our mistakes under the rug. Reckless love means embracing the good, bad and ugly, not just in others but first in ourselves, and that’s not easy to do.

The hard cold truth is that there is an evil streak in human nature. If we look honestly at the violence and suffering humans inflict on one another we have to admit it. Listen to what the writer of Ephesians says in the first part of chapter 2 that we read earlier: “You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.”

“You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived… we were by nature children of wrath.” Those are harsh words to swallow and unfortunately they are the only words some people ever hear from the church. As Frederick Buechner puts it, “The Gospel is bad news before it’s good news.” And because some Christians who don’t love themselves get their jollies beating other people up with the bad news many folks don’t stick around long enough to hear the good news. And can you blame them?

A few weeks back Pastor Mebane preached a very good sermon on integrity and used the analogy from the game of golf about the honesty it takes to call a penalty on yourself. I was sitting up here that day and if you noticed I was squirming a little it was because she was getting too close to home. Anybody else feel that way, or was it just me that got my toes stepped on? Sometimes the truth hurts like when I look in the mirror expecting to see Brad Pitt and this old geezer keeps looking back at me.

I am old enough to remember a couple of previous versions of the United Methodist hymnal, and one thing I remember was that the old communion ritual had a prayer of confession that said, “We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we, from time to time, most grievously have committed, by thought, word and deed, against thy Divine Majesty.” How’s that for a marketing strategy to attract folks to come to church? I can see the Facebook invitation now, “Come to Northwest this Sunday and bewail your manifold sins and wickedness!” I much prefer Jesus invitation, “Come to me you who are tired and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”

Another thing I remember from the days when we used that old communion liturgy is that attendance on communion Sundays in many churches was always lower than average. I have no scientific evidence for why but I have a sneaking suspicion that people stayed away to avoid being saddled with a bigger load of guilt than they already had. Now it’s true that if you made it through the confession there was the Good News of salvation offered in the Sacrament itself, but I fear that once the guilt trip was triggered people didn’t hear the Good News of forgiveness. Out of curiosity I asked the office staff to give me the attendance numbers for the last 18 months here at Northwest. I was pleased to learn that over that period our average attendance on communion Sundays is almost identical to non-communion Sundays. I attribute that to the kinder, gentler language we use in celebrating communion that stresses how all are welcome at the Lord’s Table. And yes, ALL does mean ALL.

Please don’t misunderstand; I am not saying we don’t need confession as part of worship. We all have plenty to repent of as individuals and as a society, but we have to be very careful to be sure the Good News of the Gospel doesn’t get drowned out by the bad news. We get plenty of bad news all week and in order to recklessly and completely love ourselves we need to not only hear about the radical redeeming love of God, we need to feel it and experience it.

I John chapter 1 is a perfect example of the whole Gospel. Verse 8 says, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” If we stop there loving ourselves is pretty hard to do. But the very next verse says, “If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Today’s text from Ephesians says the same thing. Once it faces squarely the evil streak in all humans it shows us the way to self-love. Beginning at verse 4 it says, “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ and raised us up with him, For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”

We can recklessly love ourselves, not in a boastful way, only because of the reckless love of God that saves us from our sin through freely given grace. It’s a love so reckless that Christ is willing to die a horrible death to show us the depth of God’s love; a reckless love that is like a sower who throws the seeds of grace everywhere, not just in “good” soil; a reckless love that runs down a dusty road to meet and embrace every prodigal child who repents and returns home.
In these days when the evil viruses of racism and nationalism and tribalism seem to be spreading like a plague it is easy to lose hope and to fear what the future holds. But fear is the lack of love, a lack of trust in God’s grace. If we trust God completely what have we to fear? As the great hymn “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” says, “The body they may kill, God’s truth abideth still,” and that truth is deep unconditional love.
Set free from fear by God’s grace we can stand up and speak up for truth and justice. We can worry less about what others think of us and do what’s right and instead of what’s popular. When we speak and live the truth we have nothing to fear because God has our back.

Think of the saints throughout our faith history who loved themselves enough to boldly love others. I love the women in the Moses story who defied Pharaoh’s authority and conspired to save Moses’ life – the midwives who refused to kill the Hebrew baby boys at birth, Moses’ mother and sister who put him in the bulrushes where Pharaoh’s own daughter would rescue and raise him. Without their courage Moses would never have grown up to lead his people out of slavery.

Where does love of self come from? Or if we’re born with it, what happens to it? One great answer to both those questions is captured in the words of a poem by Dorothy Law Nolte. It’s called “Children Learn What They Live.” Her words should be posted in every nursery and classroom. In part she says:
“If a child lives with criticism, she learns to condemn.
If a child lives with fear, he learns to be apprehensive.
If a child lives with shame, she learns to feel guilty. (That’s the bad news, but the poem goes on…)

If a child lives with encouragement, she learns to be confident.
If a child lives with acceptance, he learns to love.
If a child lives with approval, she learns to like herself.

Kids are so impressionable that the golden rule is doubly important for them and all of us whenever we interact with them. We can all help instill a healthy love of self by treating the little ones as we want to be treated, with patience, forgiveness and reckless love.

It occurred to me while working on this sermon that reckless love of ourselves boils down to applying the Golden Rule to how we treat ourselves. If I treat myself badly by living with self-criticism, fear and shame, then I’m going to treat others the same way. What if we simply begin by treating ourselves as we want others to treat us?

We can begin to do that by changing the way we do something that all of us do on a daily basis. Who do you see when you look in the mirror, when you really look? Do you see yourself flawed and imperfect physically or morally? Or do you see a child of God saved by grace, flaws and all, set free to serve God and others by the reckless love of God and self? When you look in the mirror from now on don’t compare yourself to people society tells us are beautiful or special, but see yourself through God’s eyes.

Treat yourself with kindness; treat yourself as you want others to treat you. Be like Martin Luther who it is said each day when he bathed rebatptised himself and reminded himself he was a beloved child of God, one who in the words of Ephesians is “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”

Reckless love is really quite simple: Love God and Love your neighbor as yourself.”

It all starts with loving that child of God we see in the mirror every day. Amen

“Fear: False Evidence Appearing Real,” I Kings 19:1-15

I have a few moments in life that are free of fear and worry – I call them moments of sheer panic. But with God’s help, there’s another name for such moments – we call them “peace.”

Travelers insurance ran a series of TV commercials a few years ago about fear. One of my favorites showed a bunch of cute bunnies who are confronted by a very large menacing rattle snake. We see the panic in their little rabbit eyes. But then something strange happens. The rabbits all start laughing hysterically, and as the camera pans around to show a full view of the snake, we see why. Instead of a real rattle, this snake has a pink baby rattle duct taped to his tail. And the announcer says, “Let Travelers take the scary out of life.”

With all due respect to any of you who are in the insurance industry – we can’t really take the scary out of life thru any kind of financial instruments. We even call our investments “securities.” But as we know from the recent roller coaster recession, they aren’t always. I hasten to add that we all need insurance because insurance can take some of the pain out of accidents and life events. When Hurricane Ike took half the roof off our house a couple of years ago we were very glad to have coverage that paid most of the cost of putting a roof back over our heads. But any time we get high winds and ominous skies and the tornado sirens are wailing, it’s still scary.

I even read in the Columbus Dispatch recently that you can now buy divorce insurance. Honest, I’m not making that up. What a great wedding gift for the couple that has everything? Sort of seems like betting against your own team, doesn’t it? I’ll check with Pete Rose about that next time I see him.

The problem is that it’s not insurance we need, its assurance. We all know money can’t buy happiness (even though we keep trying). Well, you can’t buy peace of mind either. That’s putting trust in things that “thieves can steal and rust and moths can consume,” – to quote Jesus in Matthew 6. Nothing that’s finite and material can give us peace because none of that stuff will last forever.

I mentioned the prophet Elijah in my Ash Wednesday post on “Transfiguration” a few weeks ago, and his story is worth a deeper look for what it can teach us. I Kings 19 tells how Elijah learned up close and personal how scary and uncertain life can be. Remember the job description for a ‘prophet’ in the Bible is not a fortune teller, but someone who speaks God’s truth to powerful people who need to hear it, and who usually don’t want to. It’s not a job for sissies. To understand Elijah’s fear, we need the back story that precedes chapter 19. In those chapters Elijah gets engaged in a super bowl contest with the prophets of Baal, one of the pagan gods in Israel. The odds are not good in this contest. 450 prophets of Baal vs. only 1 prophet for Yahweh, and that prophet is Elijah. The contest is pretty simple. Each team calls upon their god to send fire down from heaven and ignite a big bonfire they have built around an altar. The 450 prophets of Baal go first and try everything they can think of to implore Baal to show his power. Nothing happens.

When it’s Elijah’s turn, he decides to up the ante. He pours gallons and gallons of water on the wood piled around the altar. If any of you have ever been camping and tried to build a fire with wet wood, you know how difficult that is. But Elijah calls on Yahweh, and the altar is consumed in flames. And then the story takes an ugly turn. Elijah gets a little carried away with himself and his victory. It’s sort of like football players celebrating too much after a touchdown, only much, much worse. Elijah killed all of the prophets of Baal. I’m guessing he was still a little afraid of a rematch in a BCS bowl game; so he wasn’t taking any chances. But very seriously, we need a footnote and reminder that whenever we read these kinds of Hebrew scriptures that seem to glorify vengeance we need to read them thru the filter of Jesus’ commands that we love our enemies and turn the other cheek. Violence and revenge only perpetuate more of the same until someone says “enough, this is just not working.”

And speaking of vengeance – that’s exactly where we pick up the story in I Kings 19. Verse one says, “Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done.” Oops – now, Elijah is in deep do do. Ahab and Jezebel were king and queen of Israel and big fans of the false god Baal and his prophets. And Jezebel hasn’t heard Jesus’ message about loving enemies. She’s from the eye for an eye school, and when she threatens to kill Elijah he knows she means business. Let’s just say Jezebel was never in the running for Miss Congeniality.

So Elijah, quite understandably, is afraid. His flight or fight mechanism kicks in, and knowing he has no chance to win a power struggle with the wicked queen, he gets out of Dodge post haste. He goes a day’s journey into the wilderness and leaves his servant behind so he can be as alone as he feels. He is so scared and discouraged that he simply plops himself down under a solitary broom tree and asks that he might just die and get it over with.

Ever had times in your life when you are just ready to give up – when all hope is lost? Elijah is overwhelmed by fear and uncertainty. Life is coming at him fast in the form of Jezebel’s hit men, and he sees no way out. He has forgotten about the God of Moses and Ruth and Abraham and Sarah who can make a way out of no way.

There are several lessons we can learn from Elijah about coping with uncertainty in our lives:

Lesson 1: God provides for our needs.

Elijah has forgotten God, but God hasn’t forgotten Elijah. God sends room service – an angel touches him, not once but twice, and says “get up and eat or the journey will be too much for you.” And that angel is not just talking about Elijah’s trip from point A to B. He’s talking about the journey of life. When we are lost and lonely and grieving, we frequently lose our appetite or literally forget to eat. But God provides for our needs—both physical and spiritual– when we’re ready to receive them–and frequently in most unexpected ways.

Elijah eats the food provided by God, and it must have been really good food. The text tells us that “on the strength of that food Elijah went on for 40 days and nights,” Why 40? The same reason Lent is a 40-day period of preparation for Easter. 40 is a Biblical number that is used often to show us how long God provides for us; and the answer is for as long as it takes. Noah’s flood lasted 40 days and nights. The Hebrews wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. Jesus was tempted in the wilderness for 40 days. And Elijah travels for 40 days. All of that means God is with us for the long haul. The 40’s are not necessarily literal numbers but a way to remind us that God provides for us for as long as it takes, no matter how long that is.

And please note where Elijah’s journey takes him – to Mt. Horeb, the mount of God. Horeb is another Hebrew name for a mountain we know better as Mt. Sinai, the very place that Moses ascends during the Exodus to receive the 10 commandments. Just as we call that big mountain in Alaska “Denali” or “McKinley” because it was named by different tribes of people at different times, so the Hebrews had two names for this Holy place where God’s presence was found.

Elijah thought he was running away from evil, but he was really running to God. He doesn’t know it, apparently, just as we are often surprised when we stumble into God when we least expect to, because there is no place we can go that God is not already there.

Lesson 2: We are never separated from God.

And that’s another important lesson for us to learn from this story – we can run, but we can’t hide from God. God comes to Elijah in the cave where he is hiding and asks a haunting question that we all need to hear. God says, “what are you doing here Elijah?’ And Elijah takes the question, as we often do, too literally. He goes into this long sob story about how awful his life is and why he needs to hide, and how he’s the only faithful person left on the face of the earth. But the question for Elijah and for us is not so literal – it’s a life purpose and mission question – what are we doing here? What is our life purpose as individual Christians, as a church, as citizens of a troubled nation and world? What are we doing to make a difference? Hiding because we’re afraid, because life is coming at us too fast? Saving up for a rainy day instead of trusting God’s abundance and providence to meet our needs? Snarfing up all the manna from heaven we can find in case God reneges on his promise and fails to provide daily bread for us tomorrow or next week? Because we trust God to provide for us every day, the Lord’s prayer doesn’t ask for food to last us until spring or until the economy recovers – we simply pray “give us this day our DAILY bread.”

What are we doing here? Shaking in our boots, making excuses, complaining about how awful those politicians or CEO’s or terrorists, relatives, bosses, kids, spouses, teachers, coaches, preachers… are making our lives? Or are we drawing on the resources of our faith and our mighty God and living lives of faithfulness–confronting our fears and turning them over to the only one who can ever really take the scary out of life.

Lesson 3: Most Fear = False Evidence Appearing Real

Most fears are false evidence appearing real, but the only way to know that is to face them. You can’t defeat an imaginary foe. Our granddaughter once told her little brother that there were vampires living in the closet in his room. For weeks he was afraid to go into his room alone because he believed his sister’s false evidence was real. Elijah was afraid because he believed he was totally alone, doomed, abandoned by God and everyone else. He believed that he was dead meat, and as we will see, he was dead wrong on all counts. His fear was fed by false evidence appearing real.

Lesson 4: We all need time alone with God ….

The next lesson here is that Elijah needs rest – time alone with God. And we all need that. Turn off the “smart” phone and computer and Ipod and tv and telephone, and take time, regularly to relax, re-create our bodies, minds and souls. We all need vacations, sabbaticals, retreats – even Jesus did, and if he did, what makes us think we don’t? We need time to listen for God’s still small voice. As Elijah learns, God doesn’t always speak to us in earthquakes or wind or fire, but in what one translation calls “the sound of sheer silence.” In other words, if we want to hear what God is telling us, we need to shut up and listen. And that includes when we pray. Don’t just spend all your prayer time telling God things God already knows! Take time to listen.

Lesson 5: We need time alone with God… But, we can’t stay there permanently.

Next lesson, yes, we do regularly need retreats – time alone, but we can’t stay there permanently. In the Gospel accounts, when Jesus takes Peter and James and John with him for a mountain top experience and Elijah and Moses appear to them, the disciples first reaction is to homestead there. They want to build houses for Jesus and Moses and Elijah, but Jesus says, no. He knows they have much work to do down in Jerusalem and can’t stay on the mountain forever.

My church’s mission statement says “We share God’s love by words and action.” We need to walk our talk. God’s question is what are we doing here? The letter of James says “faith without works is dead.” We can’t work our way into heaven, but we also know that faith inspires lives that bear good fruit. Of course it is important to be assured of our personal and individual salvation – but that’s only half the gospel. Remember that when asked what the greatest commandment was, Jesus didn’t stop with one. He said we need to love God with all our heart and soul and strength and mind, but then he says the second is equally important — love your neighbor as yourself.

OK, I can hear what many of you are thinking. It’s the “yes, but” moment in the sermon. You’re thinking, “that’s good, Steve. We believe it, but we’ve got too much to do. There are too many problems in the world. We can’t possibly fix them all. We’d like to help and we do what we can, but we feel so alone.” When the “yes, buts” raise their ugly heads, we need to get off our buts and trust God—because …

Lesson 6: We are NEVER in this Alone!

Perhaps the most important lesson of this Elijah story is that we are never alone, even though it often feels like we are. Elijah is never alone. He is suffering, but we all suffer. It’s part of the human condition. There are two parts to this lesson – we are obviously never away from God (see point #1 above). But sometimes we feel like little Johnny who was afraid of a storm and unable to go to sleep one night. His mother went in to comfort him and reminded him that he had learned in Sunday School that God and Jesus were always with him, that he wasn’t alone. And Johnny said, “Yes, Mommy, I know, but sometimes I need somebody with skin on them.”

We all do, and the Elijah story reminds us that we never without human partners if we’re willing to see them and accept the fact that our partners in mission don’t always look the way we expect them to look. God says to Elijah later chapter 19 – “Go on your way and as you go anoint Elisha to be a prophet in your place and anoint Jehu as new king of Israel, and by the way, there are still 700 faithful people out there who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” We are never alone if we are doing God’s work.

It is so important to face our fears because fear motivates retreat. Fear shrink wraps the Gospel when it makes us afraid of being prophetic, of challenging bigotry and judgmental thinking. That kind of fear is the spark for burning flags and Korans instead of promoting dialogue and tolerance for different perspectives. Fear is what wants to throw the baby out with the bath instead of finding the good in any situation or relationship or failure or political system. Living in assurance means building on those 700 faithful ones instead of letting one evil queen or king silence the truth. Fear keeps us from getting to know others who appear so different from a distance but have the same needs for love and grace all humans have. It is so much easier to judge or fear a stereotype than someone we know as a fellow human being.

Faith is the only antidote to fear that works – it allows us to laugh at our own foolishness, just as the rabbits crack up in the Travelers’ commercial. We love and laugh at our fears because we know that God alone can take the scary out of life. How do we know that? We know the cross of Calvary and the tomb on Easter are empty. We know that in the game of life, the powers of evil and hatred and fear have a big goose egg on the scoreboard, and God’s eternal, life-giving love is off the charts. It’s a worse mismatch than OSU vs. Eastern Michigan. No contest.

Paul says it best in Romans 8 – “If God is for us, who is against us. For we know that nothing – hear that, nothing in all creation, not fear, worry, death, powers or principalities, nothing in all creation, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

I leave you with a great question: If you knew you could accomplish anything God wants you to do and were guaranteed that you could not fail – what would you do with your life? Well guess what? The good news of the resurrected living Christ that we model our lives after is that we can’t fail if we have God on our side. In Christ, God has already taken the scary out of life and death once and for all.

That means we have no excuse to run and hide when life comes at us fast. God says, hey Steve, hey church, I have already conquered the world – so what are you doing here?

At Home in the Universe, II Corinthians 5:6-6:2

Do you remember what it was like to be at summer camp or some other foreign place and be so miserably homesick that you thought, and perhaps wished, that you would die? The gospel song that says, “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child” describes that horrible feeling for me. And homesickness is not merely a childhood disease. Adolescence, mid-life crises, old age are all life interruptions that are ways of describing recurring outbreaks of homesickness—of feeling broken, alienated and alone in a strange world where we often wonder what we’re doing here?
We try to cure our homesickness with a host of home remedies—large doses of education, exercise—be it running marathons or climbing corporate ladders, accumulating friends and/or lovers who fill our time and the lack of peace we feel. Power, money, prestige, new cars, new clothes, new houses, new jobs, new spouses, booze, beauty treatments, Grecian Formula. We try it all don’t we? And for the most part it is all a huge waste of time and money. Because when we let our defenses down and find ourselves alone with nothing to do—remember those were the times the homesickness got you at camp too? When we’re not too busy to think and feel, then the old feeling sneaks up on us and we start feeling like that motherless child again.
The sad part is that we all feel that lack of peace frequently. But we rarely let anyone know. The world is full of homesick, motherless and fatherless children, and Paul tells us in Corinthians that our job as ambassadors or instruments of peace is to comfort the homesick and assure them they can always come home again—to God, the only reliable true source of peace. The homesick need to hear that word of reconciliation now—to know that peace is not off in the distant future. It didn’t help to have some well-intentioned camp counselor tell me that my parents would pick me up at the end of summer camp on Saturday when it was only Tuesday. I wanted someone to comfort me and hold me right then. I wasn’t sure I would even live till Saturday! That’s why Paul says we are already new creatures in Christ. The day of deliverance has already come in the Prince of Peace from Nazareth.
That’s the good news we need we are to give one another. But as you well know, one homesick kid cannot cure another one. The disease will spread like an epidemic once the tears start to flow. So, if we are to be reconcilers, we need first to be reconciled to God. We need to be at peace ourselves if we have any hope of being peacemakers. We need to be made whole, cured of our own homesickness before we can help others who are lost and afraid.
We need to hear and know that there is only one cure for deep, ontological homesickness, and that cure is faith–faith that is deeper and distinguished from mere belief. Belief is holding certain ideas about something, or about life. Faith, on the other hand, is a more total and deeper response of inner peace and trust. For example, it is one thing to believe a parachute will open properly, to understand the physics of why and how parachutes work. But it is quite another thing to have enough faith or trust in a parachute to strap one on your back and jump out of a plane at 5000 feet.
Faith, according to theologian Wilfred Cantwell Smith, is “a quality of human living. At its best it has taken the form of serenity and courage and loyalty and service: a quiet confidence and joy which enable one to feel at home in the universe, and to find meaning in the world and in one’s own life, a meaning that is profound and ultimate, and is stable no matter what may happen.”
To be at peace means to “feel at home in the universe,” to know as the “Desiderata” says, that “You are a child of the universe, no less than the rocks the trees and the stars, you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive God to be….and keep peace with your soul.” To be at peace at home in the universe is to be at peace with oneself and God.
I have cherished a very powerful and concrete image of what it means to be at home in the universe since shortly after the space shuttle Challenger explosion in early 1986. Part of being at peace is an ability to find meaning and truth in unexpected and even tragic circumstances. For me, the final words from Commander Dick Scobee before the explosion have become a mantra for me of peaceful living. About sixty seconds after blast off Mission Control informed the Challenger crew that they were going back to full power, and Commander Scobee’s confident reply was, “Roger, Go With Full Throttle Up.”
When we are at peace we dare to live life with full throttle up, knowing as those astronauts did that there are serious risks in living. We know also that there are far more serious risks in refusing to face life’s challenges honestly and courageously. Chuck Yeager, a test pilot famous for his description of those early space pioneers who had “All the Right Stuff,” said after the Challenger explosion that “every astronaut and test pilot knows that such a tragedy can happen anytime you go up. But you can’t dwell on the danger or you would not be able to do your job.” Then he added, “There’s not much you can do about it anyway.”
Life is like that. We are all travelers on spaceship Earth, and like the Challenger 7, we are all sitting on enough firepower to blow us all to kingdom come several times over. That’s enough in itself to make us a little queasy, a little homesick, isn’t it? Even if we didn’t have to cope with the routine hassles of living—the doubts, the fears, the guilt, and the disappointments. But we all do have to cope with those things every day. And we all need a faith that will help us feel more at home and at peace in the midst of our hectic and often chaotic lives.
When I was 6 or 7 years old I discovered one sneaky cure for homesickness. I remember coming home with my family from a visit to my grandparents’ farm or my aunt and uncle’s house late in the evening. I would often fall asleep in the back seat of the car after a hard day of playing with my cousins, but I would wake up when the car pulled into our driveway. Sometimes I would pretend I was still asleep because I knew that if I did, one of my parents would carry me into the house and tuck me into my bed. It felt so good to be held in those strong, l loving arms. I felt so secure, the direct opposite of homesick. Don’t’ we all long for that kind of security and closeness at every age?
Then we grow up. We lose that peace in our necessary attempts to establish our independence. We move away, physically and intellectually from the simple belief structures that once made sense of life for us. We become, for better or worse, independent, responsible adults. And with that independence often comes the feeling of homesickness.
How do we get in that situation? It’s like a conversation I overheard between my in-laws several years ago. They were talking about how my mother-in-law used to sit right next to Dad in the car before they were married. This was in the days before bucket seats, of course. My mother-in-law was asking why that changed after they got married. My father-in-law finally just smiled and said, “Well, I’m not the one who moved.”
So it is with our human and heavenly parents. We are the ones who think we want distance and freedom. And that’s OK. We are the ones who get embarrassed when our parents want to hug and kiss us in public, and we’re much too grown up for that kid stuff. And that’s OK too. It’s all part of growing up. And we’re the ones who think God’s rules for living are too confining, too old-fashioned, and certainly our parents are. We are very sure we can do much better on our own. And that’s OK too. So we go out on our own and we blow it, not once, but several times, and that’s also OK. We learn from those experiences. But what isn’t OK is when we are too proud or guilty to admit that we were wrong or that we really do need help.
It’s hard to admit we’re wrong. People just love to say, “I told you so,” don’t they? So we don’t even try to be reconciled with family or friends or even with God because we’re afraid we’ll be rejected or ridiculed. Paul is trying to tell the Corinthians and us that just isn’t so in this passage from II Corinthians 5. “God does not hold our misdeeds against us.” We are forgiven and loved by the essence of Being itself. “The day of deliverance has already dawned.” Peace is here, now, for those who humbly accept it.
Jesus told a story once about a very homesick young man. You know the story from Luke’s Gospel (15:11-32), but you haven’t heard the letter I found recently from that young man to his father. Strangely enough, it was postmarked in Chicago. Listen:

Dear Dad,
I’m sorry it’s been so long. You’ve probably been worried sick about me, haven’t you? Well, I’ve been meaning to write, but I didn’t have any good news, and I didn’t want to worry you. I was in Florida for a year after I left home. I lost the money you gave me on some bad investments. I got mixed up in some drug dealing and spent some time in jail. Please don’t tell Mom. I’ve been bumming around the country doing odd jobs and stuff since I got out of the joint. I was living in a half-way house here in Chicago for several months till I got into a fight with one of the supervisors last week. They kicked me out.
Things are bad here, no jobs, no money. I’ve been living on the streets, eating at soup kitchens or anywhere I can find a meal. It’s a lousy way to live. But I guess I don’t deserve any better. I know now that you were right about staying in school. I’d sure do things different if I had it to do over.
I’m real sorry I hurt you and Mom. I’m embarrassed to ask this. I’ll understand if you don’t ever want to see me again. But I’m sick and cold and would appreciate it if I could come home, for just a little while. Just till I can find a job. I’ll pay you back for my room and board as soon as I can, I promise.
Your son, John

By overnight special delivery, John got a plane ticket and a letter from his father that simply said:

Dear John,
You can always come home, anytime.
I love you,

(This sermon is included in my book, “Building Peace from the Inside Out: Stories for Peacemakers and Peace Seekers,” chapter 12)


Nationwide Insurance ran a pretty creative series of commercials a few years ago based on the slogan “life comes at you fast.”  In one of my favorites there is a pastoral scene of a father swinging his little boy in an old fashioned swing made of a heavy rope and a board, tied to a sturdy oak branch.  The dad pushes the little boy a couple of times, and then about the third time the boy swings back into the picture, he weighs about 250 pounds and knocks his poor father flat.

The sketchy details provided in the Gospels about the early life of Jesus remind me of that boy growing up very fast.  If we combine all four Gospels, which makes what a friend of mine calls “Gospel stew,” we still only get one brief vignette of Jesus between infancy and adulthood, that being Luke’s account of Jesus in the temple with the elders when he is 12 years old.  The next time we see Jesus in the Gospels is when he’s about 30 years old and being baptized by his cousin in the Jordan River.

There are lots of questions and speculation about where Jesus was during that 18 year gap because the Gospels are theology and not biography.  The only true answer is that we don’t know where Jesus spent those 18 years.  He may have been working in Joseph’s carpenter shop.  More likely he was in some kind of religious community learning the traditions of his faith and preparing for his role as Messiah, God’s anointed one.

When he makes his first public appearance in ministry in his home town of Nazareth in Luke 4, we see immediately how challenging and dangerous being a Messiah can be.

In his first public proclamation Jesus reads from the prophet Isaiah and then asserts his claim that God’s spirit is upon him.   Ok so far, we’re all God’s kids, created in God’s image.  That’s the good news – God’s spirit is upon all of us.  But immediately, Jesus makes a wrong turn and starts explaining what it means to have the spirit of God upon him or upon us.  He says he is “anointed to bring good news to the poor, release captives, restore sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free.”  Ok, we could maybe go for those last two – if we don’t’ think about it too much – like realizing that we are the blind that need our eyes restored or that the oppressed are going to want their share of the pie if we take our foot off their necks and let them up.  But good news for the poor – what about us Lord?  And release to the captives?  You mean freeing the criminal element?  Those potential terrorists at Guantanamo?   Or folks on death row?  Not so fast, Jesus.

Luke says the people still were cheering Jesus on at this point.  They were “amazed at the gracious words from his mouth.”  They haven’t quite figured out the catch yet.  And then someone says, “Hey, wait a minute, this is Joe’s kid.  We know him.  He’s just a carpenter.  What would he know about anything but nails and saw dust?  How could the spirit of God be upon the likes of him?”

They start asking for proof.  “We heard what you did in Capernaum. Show us your bag of tricks here too, Jesus!” And then Jesus goes over the edge – he pushes them too far, too fast.  He starts spouting examples from the Bible, of all places, about how God has favored the Gentiles over the chosen Jews – in Sidon and Syria – and there goes the neighborhood. They are immediately filled with rage and try to throw him over a cliff.  Oops.  Stepped on the wrong toes there Jesus.  But then, Luke’s punch line – “he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.”  Almost a throwaway line, but it is Luke’s way of saying, “see, he really is the Messiah and you can’t stop him, no one can.”  This is a preview of things to come when they really do kill him, or thought they did; and he passes through them again and goes on his way – because Jesus’ way is God’s way, not the way of people.

So, we know very early in Jesus’ story that it’s dangerous to claim a special relationship with God.  Prophets get shot and stoned and run out of town all the time.   That’s the bad news.  The spirit of God is upon all of us, and there’s good reason to avoid claiming our own Messiahship.  We feel unworthy, the responsibility is too heavy, and besides, the Greek word for “witness” also means “martyr.”  No cowards need apply.

There was a story in the Ohio news a few years ago about the power of oneness with Christ.  Thomas and Cynthia Murray appealed to Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland to spare the life of Gregory McKnight, a convicted murderer on death row.  That’s not so unusual.  Many people believe capital punishment is not a Christian response to violence.  What is remarkable about the Murrays is that Mr. McKnight was convicted of kidnapping and killing their daughter, Emily, 7 years earlier.  Emily was a 20 yr. old philosophy major at Kenyon College at the time of her abduction and murder.  She was planning to become an Episcopal priest and was “passionately opposed to the death penalty.”  Out of love and respect for their daughter and her beliefs, her parents asked for McKnight’s sentence to be commuted to life in prison.  Can you imagine doing that if you were those parents?  I’m not sure I could, even though I’d like to think I would have that courage and faith.  The Murrays showed us the power of Christ to overcome hate and revenge with forgiveness and compassion.

Let’s back up.  This story about Jesus in Nazareth comes right after his baptism.  Remember Jesus was never ordained – no bishop’s hands ever weighed heavy on his head.  In fact, no one had invented bishops yet.  Jesus was baptized – just like you and me.  So that means that the spirit of the Lord is also upon all of us, not just Jesus, and that our mission, should we choose to accept it, is also to proclaim release to the captives, good news to the poor, and sight for the blind!

Clergy sometimes tease each other about having a Messiah complex when we get a little too big for our britches and think we have to save the world in a single bound.    That super pastor attitude might be reflected in this quote from one of my favorite authors, Nikos Kazantzakis.  In his book, Saviors of God, Kazantzakis says, “My prayer is not the whimpering of a beggar or a confession of love. Nor is it the petty reckoning of a small tradesman: give me and I shall give you. My prayer is the report of a soldier to his general: this is what I did today, this is how I fought to save the entire battle in my own sector, these are the obstacles I encountered, and this is how I plan to fight tomorrow.“

There certainly might be an ego problem with that kind attitude (and I’m not crazy about the militaristic metaphor); but it may not be all bad, in fact may be very good, to take our faith and personal mission that seriously.  One way to do that is for all of us to realize that the first two letters of Messiah are “me”.

That may sound crazy, but there’s a lot of biblical evidence for that idea.  In John 14 Jesus says it plain and clear, “I am in God, and God is in me…. “The one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to God.”  John 14: 12 says, “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do.”  Wow! How is that possible?  Because, Jesus goes on …. “You know him (the spirit) because he abides with you and he will be in you.”  (John 14: 17)  And then in John 14: 20 Jesus caps it off by saying, “On that day you will know that I am in God and you in me, and I in you.”

That’s a good thing right – power. We can get Jesus and God to do whatever we want!  Well, not quite – it says “whatever you ask – in my name, this I will do.”  We can all think of some things that we might ask for that just might not qualify as “in Jesus’ name” right?

But there is something even more serious than that.  If we are all one, i.e. “in” God and Jesus and vice versa, what does that mean for God’s expectations of us?   If we are all God’s sons and daughters, as Jesus is – then are we not all Messiahs too?  Messiah means “the anointed one.”  Jesus was baptized by water in the Jordan.  And we as Christian disciples have been baptized too – so far, all the same.  The anointed part is a little trickier, or do we just make it so?  Jesus says, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me.”  Don’t you suppose that’s true of all of us too?

After a United Methodist pastor baptizes someone with water, he or she says, “the Holy Spirit work within you, that being born through water and the spirit, you may be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ. “

Whoa, that sounds a lot like pride or hubris, and we all know that pride goes before a fall; and having God’s spirit upon or within us sounds like really big pride.  That’s what the angry crowd at Nazareth thought when Jesus said it.  What keeps us from claiming our special relationship with God, from believing that we can do even greater things than Jesus did?  Is it true humility or false humility – what a friend of mine calls the “humble bit?”  That’s when we just pretend to be humble because it serves our purposes and gets us out of living up to our potential.    Is it fear of what other people will think or do, or fear of what is being asked of us?  When Jesus claims his Messiahship in his home town, they immediately try to kill him.  That’s not a great recruiting strategy, Jesus.  Is it just easier to stay in the comfort of the status quo and not make any waves?  Freeing captives and such stirs up trouble.  Those who are in positions of comfort now won’t be very happy if they have to share their wealth with the down and outers.  Oh, yes, a little charity at Christmas time is ok, but that’s not the same as changing the socio-economic rules we live by – the ones that have the system rigged in our favor.

But, even though the costs of claiming our Messiahship are obvious – the hidden cost of not doing so is even worse.

“Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee” is a famous quote from St. Augustine.  What does that mean?  It means there is no peace, genuine peace, until we claim our true identity.  To be at war within ourselves, denying our true worth and mission and purpose may keep us “safe,” but it also prevents true peace of mind and spirit from ever being possible.

Have you ever tried to keep a secret that was eating at you and hard to keep?  Or told a lie and then had to work at covering it up and remembering what you had told whom, so as not to blow your cover?  Pretending to be something we aren’t is very hard work,. It takes a lot of emotional energy.

Many years ago I had the privilege of playing the role of Bert Cates in a production of “Inherit the Wind.”  The play was demanding and required rehearsals late every night, and each night my part required that I fall in love on stage with a lovely young woman.  And then, to preserve my marriage, I had to fall back out of love again before I got home to my wife.   When the play was over I was exhausted – not just from the long hours, but emotionally exhausted from pretending to be something that I wasn’t.

And that’s also what happens all the time when we are at war with our very essence; we are tired and on edge, not close to being at peace.  We all want peace in our world, but peace has to start in our own souls and hearts. That means knowing and being true to who we really are.   In “Hamlet,” Shakespeare describes that important truth this way:

“This above all, to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

The internal conflict, the denial of our true selves as blessed children of God, me-ssiahs, happens at a deep level when we are convinced by a theology that overemphasizes the negative aspects of human nature.  Too often we hear only half the Bible, that we are horrible sinners, unworthy folks who need to “bewail our manifold sins and wickedness” (as the old Methodist communion ritual said).   But deep inside we know the truth, that we are created in the very image of God.  You see what an internal civil war that creates.

But Jesus comes to proclaim that truth, the very good news to the poor and the poor in spirit.  And that’s all of us.  When we measure our value and worth by economic standards, we inevitably feel like failures.  No matter how much we have in the bank, it is never enough – it could be gone tomorrow.  One good hospitalization can wipe out the largest nest egg.  And the same fear and negativity is true if we buy into the notion that our basic human nature awful and terrible at our core.

We are all sinners, yes, because we are fallible human beings who live in a world full of sin.  But that is not who we really are.  At the heart of our nature we are God’s children, created in God’s image.  We are one with our Lord and God – as we are told by the creation story in Genesis and by Jesus, our fellow Messiah.  He is the anointed one who proclaims at Nazareth and here today the good news that heals our spiritual blindness, sets us free from captivity to sin and fear, and empowers us to say yes to his call and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

“Mixed Messages,” (Matthew 11:28-30; 16:24-26; Mark 6:30-37)

Here’s a trivia question for anyone who is a Beatles’ fan.  Can you name a Beatles’ song that talks about preaching?  There may be more than one, but the one I’m aware of is “Eleanor Rigby.”   One verse of that song says, “Father McKenzie, writing the words to a sermon that no one will hear.  No one comes near…”  And then comes the haunting refrain “all the lonely people, where do they all come from?”  Where do all the lonely people in the world come from?  Great question and I don’t know the answer.  But I know to whom they come.  They come to the church.

Theologian Frederick Buechner says it’s not the presence of God in our lives that keeps us coming back to church; it’s the absence of God, the hunger for spiritual food to fill the God-shaped hole in our lives.  We come looking for the rest and renewal Jesus promises in Matthew 11:28-30.  Our weary souls leap for joy when we hear Jesus say, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”  Where do we sign up for that R&R Jesus?

But hold the phone before you get too excited.  Just five short chapters later in Matthew that offer seems to have expired as we hear “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Matt. 16:24-25)  An easy yoke or take up your cross?  Which is it Jesus – we’re getting mixed messages here!   Almost makes me want to set up an empty chair and have a little imaginary chat with Jesus about this seeming contradiction, but then I realized that gig has already been tried and it didn’t exactly make anyone’s day.   And to make matters worse, my research tells me that the verses about rest and the easy yoke appear only in this passage from Matthew.  None of the other gospels include it, but the part about self denial and taking up one’s cross, that appears in Mark and Luke also, and Matthew and Luke both have it twice in their gospels to make sure we don’t miss it.  And Jesus certainly walks that walk; so the Scriptures are clear that we have to take sacrifice and service to others seriously if we intend to be followers of Jesus.

Which makes me ask again, “where’s the rest for weary laborers in Christ’s vineyard?”  We hear the message loud and clear, deny oneself – serve others – be a servant of all.  We want to obey and follow, but we’re tired Jesus.  We’ve been at this church thing a long time and it often seems hopeless.  We feel empty, inadequate, and unable to keep our own soul and body together, let alone respond to the needs of all the lonely, hungry people – there must be 5000 of them!!!!

Where do they all come from?  Where do we all come from?  Empty nesters trying to cope with houses that are suddenly too quiet, kids in new schools searching for real friends, caregivers for the sick, single parents trying to be breadwinners and heads of household, the underemployed and unemployed, those without purpose and passion.  Some of us are struggling with addictions, with problems of aging. Some of us are victims of bullies or peer pressure.  Some of us are grieving the death of lifelong partners.  All the lonely people.

One of the other things I wish Jesus hadn’t said is that “the poor will be with you always.”  (Mt. 26:11, Mk. 14:7)  But there is no historical evidence that he was wrong about that.  I learned recently that even in the affluent suburb close to my home the number of lonely, hungry people is dramatically increasing.  That shouldn’t surprise me, but the numbers did.  750 people per month on average are coming for assistance to the local ecumenical food pantry.  15% of the kids in our suburban school district are on free and reduced lunches, and in two of our school buildings that number is over 50%.  And we know the problems are much worse in urban areas and vastly worse in other parts of the human family around the world.

Where do all those people in need come from and how can we possibly feed them all?   That’s the question Jesus’ disciples also ask in the familiar story in Mark 6:30-37.  Jesus recognizes that the disciples need a break from the ministry they are doing; so he takes them off to a deserted place for some rest, or so he thinks.  But apparently someone tweeted or texted their destination because there’s a whole crowd of lonely people waiting for Jesus when they arrive, hungry for his words and his healing presence.  Mark tells us they look like a bunch of sheep without a shepherd, and Jesus of course has compassion on them and begins to teach them many things.   And when it begins to grow late and folks are getting hungry, the disciples suggest they send the crowds off to McDonalds or Chipotle to fend for themselves.  But Jesus looks the disciples right in the eye as only Jesus can look at you, and he says, “YOU give them something to eat.”

“What?  You must be kidding Jesus!  It would take a week or more wages to feed this crowd.  We don’t have that kind of money.”  (That’s a loose translation)  But Jesus says, “How many loaves have you?  Go and see.” (6:38)

There is a story in John Westerhoff’s book, Will Our Children Have Faith; about a young couple who had everything in life except the thing they wanted the most.  They loved children and desperately wanted to have a family of their own.  But no matter how hard they tried or how many fertility specialists they saw, their sorrow grew with each miscarriage and each passing year of unanswered prayers.  Through their years of frustration and disappointment and anger, the person who supported them most through that lonely journey was their parish priest, Father John.  He counseled them and prayed with them and walked their path with them each step of the way.  And then the miracle happened.  When Samantha conceived and was able to give birth to a beautiful baby boy there was no question what they would name him.  He was baptized “John,” in honor of the faithful priest who delighted in seeing the little boy grow into the curious toddler who warmed Father John’s heart with his smiles and giggles every Sunday morning.

When Johnny was about two and a half he was out early one morning with his mother, taking the family dog out for his morning exercise.  The dog chased a squirrel into the neighbor’s yard, and Samantha went after him.  In those two minutes Johnny toddled over into the driveway behind the family car just as his father came rushing out of the house late for work.  Tom, unaware Johnny was behind the car backed over his son and killed him instantly.

Father John came to the house as soon as he heard the tragic news and found Tom and Samantha in utter and inconsolable despair sitting on the bed holding each other as they wept.  Father John didn’t know what to do or say.  No words seemed able to touch the depths of the devastation these grieving parents were engulfed in; so the priest just sat beside them on the bed and cried with them.

A couple of days after he conducted the hardest funeral of his life, Father John stopped by the home to see how Tom and Samantha were doing.  He was dreading the visit because he felt that he had been totally inadequate in his pastoral care of them on the darkest day of their lives.  So when he reluctantly rang the doorbell he was bowled over when Samantha greeted him warmly and threw her arms around him.  She thanked him profusely for all that he had done for them.  He said, “But I didn’t do anything.  I didn’t know what to say.  I just sat there and cried.”  She said, “You gave us all you had, and it was enough.”

When Jesus sends the disciples out to see how many loaves they have to feed the multitude, he doesn’t ask them to give more than they have, just all that they have.  He says, “Go see what you have and bring it to me.”  And when they surrender meager five loaves and two fish to him, they must have been thinking there was no way even Jesus could feed over 5000 people with five loaves and two fish.

But they suspended their doubts and gave him all they had, and when Jesus takes it and blesses it, not only is it enough to feed the multitude until they are satisfied, there’s enough leftovers to feed the next batch of lonely, hungry pilgrims already coming down the road.

I played a tough golf course several years ago and laughed when I looked down at one of the sprinkler heads on a long par 5 hole.  I knew I was a long way from the green, but where I expected to see the number of yards from that point to the green, instead there were these words from, “All You Got.”

That’s what Jesus gave for us, and what he asks for us in return.  I saw a piece of wisdom on Facebook recently that said, “When the going gets tough, we have three choices.  We can give up, give in, or give it all we’ve got.”

Did you notice at the Olympics that they never give out any medals for running the 99 yard dash?  To give all we’ve got means to finish the race, to stay with the mission of meeting the needs of the hungry and lonely people among us for as long as it takes.  I’ve been looking for years in my Bible for the word “retirement.”  It isn’t there because as long as we have breath we can give whatever we’ve got, all we’ve got.

We can’t do that if we are fearful and attached to things that don’t satisfy.  When Jesus asks us to deny ourselves, what he invites us to surrender is our false sense of self that is defined by our resume or our grade cards or our trophy case or our worldly possessions.  Those things have no lasting value, but the eternal peace and rest that comes from following Jesus can never be taken away.

The secret when we feel weary and overwhelmed by the needs around us and within us is to know that God doesn’t expect us to give more than we have.  That would be unfair, and we do not serve an unjust God.  But I promise you, in Christ’s name, that if we entrust God with all we have, our meager loaves and fishes will be more than enough.

(A sermon preached at Jerome United Methodist Church, Plain City, Ohio, September 2, 2012)


5-Hour or Eagle Energy?, Mark 1:29-39; Isaiah 40:21-31

Someone once compared ministry to being in a tank of piranhas where nobody wants much of you, but everyone just wants a little piece of your time.  That is also a great metaphor for life.  Who are the piranhas in your life – kids, parents, boss, teachers, students, the IRS, Facebook friends, customers, clients, telemarketers, the church, charitable organizations, starving children in Somalia, spouse—all of the above?  Jesus had the piranha problem often.  Mark tells us in the very first chapter of his Gospel that Jesus is going around doing his thing – casting out demons, healing the sick, teaching and preaching, and one morning he needs a break from the demands of his life so much that he goes off before daybreak by himself to pray (Mark 1:35).  But his serenity break doesn’t last long.  The disciples track him down and try to lay a guilt trip on him.  “Everyone is searching for you,” they say.  Ever feel that way?

Sometimes we flee from the piranha tank to get away from it all at some popular vacation destination, only to realize when we get there that a million other tourists had the same idea.  Modern technology doesn’t help.  Being connected to the world 24/7 isn’t how our creator intended for us to be wired.  We grow faint and weary from information overload, from legitimate demands on our time, and from too many needs we want to meet and too little energy, time and money to go around.

Jesus “went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.”  That sentence speaks volumes to me about coping with modern day life stressors.  First, finding a deserted place is darn near impossible today.  Even at home we have televisions in every room and the omnipresent cell phone, iPod, iPad, or the communication device du jour constantly within easy reach.  If you don’t think you’re addicted, ask yourself how you feel when there’s no Wi-Fi close by or no bars on your phone.  Or, have you ever realized you’ve left home without your phone and feel naked without it?  Secondly, if Jesus needed time alone now and then, why would we ever delude ourselves into thinking that we don’t?

I love the interplay among the lectionary texts for February 5th even though I’m not sure how to resolve the tension between them.  In I Corinthians (9:16-23) Paul tells us he has made himself “a slave to all” and has “become all things to all people.”  If that doesn’t sound like a sure fire formula for burn out, what does?  By contrast when the disciples find Jesus and interrupt his prayer time with a plea for him to meet the needs of the teeming masses, Jesus answers, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do” (Mk. 1:38).  Jesus isn’t distracted from his primary mission and purpose by the demands or desires of others.  A more dramatic example of that focus occurs in Luke 9:60 where Jesus says, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God” (See also Matt. 8:22).  Jesus clearly knows what his priorities are and how to say “no,” even to legitimate, heart-rending needs around him.  Remember that Jesus is not only the Messiah, but he is also fully-human like us and understands our limitations.

Competing commitments muddy human decision-making waters all the time.  If every choice of how to spend our time, money and energy was a no brainer between a good and bad option, no problem, we could all do it.  But it’s rarely that easy.  I wrote a short story for an English class way back in my undergraduate days at Ohio State.  The story was about a father who chose to spend little time with his family, but it wasn’t the common workaholic, materialistic-driven absentee dad version of that tale.  My variation on the theme was that this father was so busy donating his time to good causes at his church and in his community that he was hardly ever home when his children were awake and had little energy left over for any quality time with his spouse.  My English prof didn’t like the premise of the story.  He thought it would be more effective if the option between good and bad life choices was more clearly drawn.  40 years later, I still think choosing between two worthy causes is more common and much harder to do than opting for something that is obviously the more noble of two forks in the road.

Now the “so what” question.  What does this all mean for 21st century Christians caught on the treadmill of life that just keeps going faster and faster?  Where’s the emergency red button that stops the world so we can get off?   And if you think this is a new problem for our over-stimulated generation, Google “Stop the World, I Want to Get Off.”  That’s the title of a musical and movie made in the early 1960’s about exactly what the title says and what Mark wrote about over 2000 years ago.

Interestingly enough, the problem is even older than that.  The Hebrew text (Isaiah 40) for this Sunday, written some 500 years before Jesus’ time, addresses the same problem.  “Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted (Isa. 40:30).  So, let’s not feel special or put upon.  This is a human problem that transcends time, age, generations and cultures.  God knew from the beginning we were going to have problems with knowing when to take a day off and sets a clear example for us to follow by resting on the 7th day of creation (Gen. 2:2).  Honoring ourselves with Sabbath rest is so important it ranks in God’s Top Ten list, right up there with not killing, stealing, committing adultery, etc.

So why is this so hard?  We all know we need rest and re-creation time.  The problem is actually living it.  For far too much of human history we have wasted valuable time and energy arguing among ourselves about which day is the true Sabbath and what constitutes resting, instead of just doing it.  Please note that how we recharge our physical and spiritual batteries is different for different people.  I am an introvert, and I need quiet solitude to be refreshed and renewed.  Extroverts, on the other hand, find a loud party or a rock concert very energizing.  Whatever is restful and renewing for you – find time to do it on a regular basis.  You’re worth it.  God says so and Jesus shows us.

I love the way Isaiah puts it.  After that verse about even young people getting exhausted, Isaiah says, “but those who wait for the lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like Eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” (40:31).  The secret is waiting for the Lord.  Waiting is not easy for our instant gratification culture.  We will spend good money we don’t have to upgrade from 3G to 4G, whatever that means, to save a few nanoseconds of download time.  We don’t wait well.  Waiting means surrendering control and none of us want to go there.  But I would suggest that we don’t really have a choice.  We can either surrender control to Microsoft or the Messiah, to piranhas or peace.  Instant gratification lasts an instant or two.  Eternal life endures forever.

Finally, like most of life, this is not really an either/or choice, but both/and.  The final verse of the text from Mark for this week tells us Jesus didn’t choose A or B.  “And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues AND casting out demons” (1:39).  How could he do both?  First, he knew that proclaiming the Gospel by word and deed is one way of combating the evil demons that threaten humankind.  Secondly, Jesus knew how to say “no” to the demands of the world, take time to wait upon the Lord, and renew his strength so he could soar with the eagles.  May it be so for you and me as well.