Monday, January 31, 2011

You're vain, you probably think the Beatitudes are about you . . .

Below is the message I shared yesterday at Good Shepherd.  I shared from Matthew 5:1-12, which is the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount and is also the Beatitudes.  I tried to share the realization that was given to me that when Jesus said those words that we have now canonized as 'the Beatitudes' he wasn't randomly pulling out life conditions or actions, but looking at the people in front of them at letting them know they were, in fact, blessed.  We are blessed too.  Thanks for reading.

The gospel passage we heard just a few minutes ago is certainly not obscure or unknown.  Instead it is perhaps the most well-known passage in probably the most famous – and probably best sermons ever given. 
Having said that it might seem to make sense to just jump right into talking about the beatitudes because we don’t need any background information. 
But I think sometimes our familiarity with something can blind us to the power, importance and true meaning of what is going on and what is being said. 
I think the beatitudes are definitely one of those times – I have heard them so many times, that the words – revolutionary, transformative words, barely register. 
So, we are going to get a little background and maybe even go off on a tangent or two before we come back to the beatitudes. 
What we often miss when we are too familiar with something is perspective.  Understanding what Jesus is really saying in the sermon on the mount requires hearing those words in the proper perspective. 
I realized the danger of a lack of perspective when I came across a recent commentary on this passage. 
The main theme of the reflection was the assertion that Jesus, to use their terminology ‘lies’.  The author states that Jesus words don’t ring true, because those that mourn often aren’t comforted, those that are meek often get nothing and peacemakers and seekers of what is right are often simply trampled upon. 
Those thoughts might have merit, from one perspective.  But certainly not an eternal one.
I recently heard of an organization called ‘The Long Now’ and their efforts to build a 10,000 year clock. 
The clock, ticks just once a year, chimes every one hundred years and radiates with a ‘cuckoo’ every millennium. 
The point of the clock – and the Long Now foundation is, in their own words, to “provide a counterpoint to today's "faster/cheaper" mind set and promote "slower/better" thinking. We hope to creatively foster responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years.’ 
The Long now, is certainly a much different kind of perspective and I think it is the kind we need to have when seeking to understand the words of Jesus in the beatitudes. 
Too often I think we go to the exact opposite of the ‘Long Now’ approach and see only the immediate in our lives or only what we are experiencing right now. 
Looking at our current situation and saying, ‘I don’t feel blessed’ or ‘She has more than I do’ is to completely miss the eternal nature of God’s promises to us and relationship with us. 
It also misses one other key element of perspective that is central to all of our lives and all of our understanding. 
It is one that is clearly highlighted in our reading from 1Corinthians. 
Simply put, regardless of circumstance, status, or anything else we are – each of us and every single human being is clearly and truly blessed. 
We are blessed because Jesus Christ, the creator and ruler of our universe choose to also become our savior.  We are blessed because Jesus blessed us with his coming to us, with his life among us and his death for and in place of us. 
As familiar as the beatitudes are, we still need a proper perspective or lens to understand them within the context of the Sermon on the Mount.
The beatitudes are the opening of Sermon on the Mount. The sermon ends (in chapter 7) with a teaching about a difference between those who are wise and those who are foolish:
Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell--and great was its fall!   Matthew 7:24-27 (NRSV)
What is the crucial difference between the one who is wise and the one who is foolish?
It has nothing to do with what we usually associate with wisdom: knowledge, experience,  or even intelligence
And it doesn’t have to do with hearing what Jesus has said. Both cases begin - "Everyone who hears these words of mine ..."
The difference between being either wise or foolish is in acting or not acting.
It is not enough for us to hear these words of Jesus; to study them; to be inspired by them; to have hopes / aspirations / dreams based on them. We must act on them; practice them; live them in our everyday lives.
So whatever passage we read from the Sermon on the Mount, we must hear it with one question in mind:
What must I do to make this central to how I live?
Our passage gets its name, "The Beatitudes," from the Latin word for "Blessed."
Who are the blessed? The poor. The grieving. The humble. The hungry. The merciful. The pure. The peacemakers. The hated, excluded, reviled, and persecuted.
This is a tough list for those of us who are rich – or at least richer than some, or full, or laughing, or spoken well of.
But aren't all of these good things to have and to aspire to?
Let's go back to the text to see what we might have missed:
Notice the directness and immediacy of Jesus' language: you, you who are right here, right now.
Jesus is speaking to real people who are right in front of him, and he is talking to them about their actual current circumstance.
And notice that he is not saying that being poor is a blessing. Or that being hungry is a blessing. Or that being sorrowful is a blessing. Instead, he is promising that all of these will be reversed.
But being hated, being hated "on my account," now that is a blessing. For that is a sign that you are among the company of God's true prophets.
But Jesus is not saying that being rich, or full, or laughing is in itself wrong.  But that these too will all be reversed.
Rather Jesus is condemning the all too human weakness and tendancy to confuse our needs. 
Most of us here today are able to meet our needs to provide for our families, to be well fed and happy, so we neglect our need for God. Instead, what is within our immediate grasp becomes our substitute for salvation.
But the poor, the hungry, and the grieving will never confuse these things as being their salvation. And that is the blessing. They know their need of God.
So there are perhaps two main themes that need to be remembered.
The first is one of comfort and assurance to those who are right now: poor, mourning, humble, hungry, etc., etc. They are blessed now and their circumstances will not last.
The second is one of awakening and encouragement to those who are right now: satisfied, happy, accomplished, well fed, etc., etc. They too are blessed now - but not because of their circumstances – for their circumstances will not last either.
Instead, we are blessed when we bind ourselves to Jesus; when we are true and loyal to him; when our reputation is on account of him. Even in the face of persecution.
We are blessed when - whatever our circumstances - we know our need of God.
Because knowing our need of God allows us to enjoy the good things of this life without expecting them to be our salvation.
Because knowing our need of God allows us to endure the bad things of life knowing they cannot utterly destroy us.
Because knowing our need of God allows us to know the quality of life and relationships that God desires for us, and gives us guidance for aligning our personal, social, economic, environmental, and political relationships.
Because having perspective allows us to know that we need God and we need God and in Jesus Christ we are, we have been and we will continue to be blessed.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Dropping our nets or the thing we have to do before we can really follow Jesus.

Below is the message I shared yesterday at Good Shepherd.  The text for the message is Matthew 4:12-23.  I hope you find in it a word from our God.  

Many of you were here last week when we talked about Evangelism or sharing the Good News of Christ in your life with others. 
One of the ways we talked about Evangelism was that is was inviting others on the journey of following Christ with you.
As I was thinking about that, and looking at the passage from Matthew for this week, it occurred to me that maybe we had skipped a step. 
In order to invite someone to join you on the adventure of following Jesus through this life, you have to be following Jesus yourself first.
Following Jesus is something we talk about a lot.  It is a phrase that comes from, at least in part Jesus’ invitation from Matthew that we read just a few minutes ago. 
The phrase itself is often used as a replacement for or synonym for accepting or believing in Jesus.  I know that I do that sometimes.  But it isn’t really accurate.
Believing in or accepting Jesus – asking God into your heart and your life is, obviously, a critical thing for us to do. 
Following is something more than just that choice or decision, though.  It implies action, movement and a continued effort to reproduce the will and actions of Jesus
So the ‘first step’ in a life of following Jesus is certainly the choice or decision to believe in God and ask God into your heart and life.  There is another step that Jesus indicates before we can truly begin to follow him.
It is right there in the Scripture: After Jesus’ invitation to Simon Peter & Andrew to ‘Come and follow me’ with the promise that they would be made fishers of men or people.  The brothers, the Scripture tells us, ‘at once left their nets and followed him.’ 
Don’t mistake the beginning of that sentence for a non-essential narrative.  Because I believe it is critical to understanding what it really means to follow Jesus and how we can begin to do that more fully in our lives. 
Those nets were more than just the means to an end for Peter and Andrew and the other fisherman, they were representative of Who they were.  They were Fisherman – in fact we still know them that way, which goes to show how wrapped up in their identity those nets were.  So dropping – immediately no less – those nets was no small thing. 
It was and is a physical symbol of what has to take place in our hearts, minds and lives when we make the decision to follow Jesus. 
Before we can begin on the journey of Following Jesus and accepting the new thing God wants to do in and through us., w must set down and let go of whatever it is that we allow or that we look to define who we are.  
I don’t know if you have seen or heard about it, but there has been a lot of talk in the news and just all around this past week about horoscopes and a possible ‘extra’ sign that is changing what some people’s signs are. 
I have never paid any attention to horoscopes, don’t understand them and couldn’t even tell you my sign so I certainly am not the one to give the details of what is going on, all I know is, as I said it has something to do with a ‘new’ or ‘extra’ sign.   
And maybe because of my lack of connection to the zodiac and horoscopes I was really surprised by the amount of attention this got and even more surprised by the angst that some people showed over a potential ‘new sign’. 
I saw status updates in all caps screaming about how there was ‘no way I am a Virgo! This girl is a Sagittarius all the way’.  I heard interviews with people who were clearly, visibly shaken at the thought of being a different or new sign.  And many more like that with similar themes. 
So clearly for some people ‘their’ sign is very important to them.  It was apparent that it does more than give hint to when they were born, but – at least in their eyes – it gives insight to personality traits, likes and dislikes, and is in fact an important part of who they are. 
While I still don’t get horoscopes and as a Christian think they are suspect at best, when you just think about the connection some people have to their sign and the meaning that is gleaned from their sign and their horoscope, then it is pretty easy to see why the news of signs changing would be so disturbing and upsetting.
For Some people their ‘sign’ is an important symbol or marker of who and what they are.  For Simon Peter and Andrew their nets were those symbols.  Directly connected to who they were, what they did and what was important to them. 
The call of Jesus to follow him comes with a caveat:  Drop Your Nets and follow me.  To really be able to focus on and follow Jesus the fisherman disciples had to leave their nets (the very symbol of their old life) behind. 
They had to leave who they were behind so that they could embrace who God was calling them to be, what God was calling them to do. 
Whatever it is that symbolizes who you were before you invited Jesus into your life – fishing nets for Simon Peter, Andrew and some of the other disciples; the money that came with being a tax collector for Matthew; your Zodiac sign. 
Whatever it is, in order to really begin to follow Jesus you have to make the choice to drop or let go it. 
God is doing a new thing in and through you and as long as you are holding on to what used to represent or define you, then you aren’t really letting God in.  If we don’t begin by dropping whatever defines us and picking up the mantle of Jesus Christ then we can’t really, truly follow Jesus.  As long as we are holding onto our nets – whatever that looks like in our lives – then we haven’t created enough space in our hearts, minds and lives to allow the Holy Spirit of God to work in us and through us. 
If we are still holding on to our nets – it will be that, not the Holy Spirit, that guides us on the journey of our lives and it is only with the leading power of the Holy Spirit that we are able to follow God. 
Of course, it is a difficult thing to ‘drop your net’.  The thing or things that define who we are do so for a reason. 
For the Peter and Andrew their nets represented what they did and who they were.  They also represented what they were best at and, probably the only thing they had ever really done or known.  Simon Peter and Andrew were fishermen, their nets represented the work they did. 
So they were not so different from many of us then.  Often times the thing that defines us most clearly is the work we do: We are nurses or teachers, leaders in business or in research. 
Just like fishing, there is nothing wrong with these things – Jesus didn’t tell Simon Peter and Andrew to drop their nets because there was something inherently wrong with fishing. 
Rather they had to drop their nets to allow God to transform every part of their lives so that they might be able to truly and fully follow Jesus. 
Jesus asks – in fact demands to be first in our lives.  And to really and truly follow him means to be defined by and primarily identified with him first. 
This is why Mother Teresa warned not to mistake your work for your vocation.  Saying that we all share in the same vocation – the love of Jesus. 
In all of this, though it is critical to understand that God created us as who we are for a reason.  We are good at math – or not.  Interested in history – or not.  Talented artists, good negotiators, gracious caretakers – or not, because of the unique way that God made each of us. 
And we are made how we are made for a reason and a purpose. 
This is why Jesus told those fishermen 2000 years ago that they would be made fishers of people. 
God has given each of us the unique capacity for something  - and for most of you many things. 
But we can’t – if we are to be followers of Jesus – be defined by what we do, what we like or even our personality traits. 
And we aren’t all to become ‘fishers of people’ either.  We are in the sense that we are all to share God’s love and invite others into relationship with Jesus.
But God did not intend for each of us to be fishermen and God did not create us all with those gifts. 
Instead God gave us each a unique combination of skill, interest, aptitude and location all for a specific purpose. 
When we drop our nets – or our signs, or our uniforms, or our work, whatever it is, and take up the mantle of Jesus Christ seeking to define our lives with God’s love for us and for the world.  An amazing thing happens.
God takes what we love, what we have been gifted for and our particular situation and uses all of that to make us fishers, or teachers or students, or nurses or whatever of people. 
When we drop who we were to fully embrace who God created us to be and who God calls us to be, we truly begin following Jesus Christ and the way we live our lives invites others to join us on the adventure that is the life of faith, following Jesus Christ.
So let us drop our nets and follow him.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

I wanna be a billionaire so . . . . bad

So go the lines of a fairly popular song right now.  I ask that, if you know it, you sing along with the PG lyrics in your head.  The desire to be rich is if not quite, almost, universal.  Everybody - or, again almost everybody - would be able to rattle off what we would do if we had an 'extra' $100,000 or a million.  Right, we all have things that we would do and stuff that we would buy, right now.  
The pursuit of money is a tricky thing, however.  {Warning: many of you have heard me say this before] John D. Rockefeller, at the time one of the richest men in the world, when asked the question 'How much money is enough?' Immediately responded, 'Just a little bit more.'  
That is the rub with the pursuit of money, or the desire for the things that money can buy, there is never really an end to it.  There is always 'a little bit more' money to be made, 'a little bit more' stuff to acquire.  And so on.  When we allow the pursuit of money or stuff to become our focus or even just 'a' focus, we succumb to that dirty word, greed.  
This is where today's daily lectionary passages come in (which, as always can be found here:  ) 
The passage from Ephesians 5 begins by calling us to be imitators of Jesus Christ.  Paul calls the Ephesians, and all of us, to the high and challenging life of following in Christ's footsteps.  At this point Paul goes on to illustrate some of the things that imitating Christ isn't.  There is to be no fornication or impurity of any kind.  Different people will 'draw the line' of what is 'fornication' in different places, but for this discussion let us just agree that Jesus holds us - and himself - to a very high standard of purity.  
Paul says that you can't have 'even a hint' of impurity and really be imitating Christ.  And, of course, it is in imitating Christ that we are able to share God's love with others.  
It isn't until the passage gets to a discussion of greed, though, that we get the bottom line reason as to why all of these 'impurities' must be eliminated from our hearts, minds and lives. In verse 5 Paul equates someone who is greedy with an idolater.  
This is the point, when we allow things into our lives: sexual sin, desire for money and/or stuff, other relationships, anything that is not focused on God and our call to follow Christ and participate in the mission and work of God, we become idolaters.
That is an important understanding for us to have, and one that is easy to ignore.  It is easy and even natural to say its only this little sin or 'everybody wants more money or more stuff', etc.  But none of it is little.  When we choose to allow anything into our hearts that is not of God we allowing that to - even if only for a moment - to become our God.  
When our allow our hearts to lust, we are practicing worship of something other than God.  When we become greedy - as opposed to gracious and thankful for what we have been blessed with - we let money become our God.  When we give in to sin and impurity we make space for something to come between us and our God.  
How do we move away from the sin, impurity and darkness in our hearts, minds and lives?  We simply ask God to shine the light of Jesus Christ in our hearts, through our minds and in our lives.  
May the light of Jesus Christ shine in your heart and mine.  In your life and mine and may that light guide our minds and our actions.  Amen.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Who's afraid of Virginia Evangelism?

Below is the message I shared at Good Shepherd on Sunday.  It contains lessons learned on evangelism from the 'secular' world and a challenge to all of us who consider ourselves followers of Christ to share him with others.  The text for the message is 1Peter 2:2-10.  

Some of you may be familiar with a music website called Pandora.  The site asks you to tell it a favorite song or songs or a favorite artist and then plays songs for you that it thinks you will like.  It works with something called the ‘music genome project’ that breaks down music to base elements and figures out what you will like based on these elements. 
It is really a pretty neat thing and a great way to discover new music.  I have been using the site for a couple of years now. 
This week I received an email from the founder thanking me for my use of Pandora in the last year.  In reading the email I was struck by a paragraph found within it:
 First, a heartfelt thanks to all of you for continuing to be such engaged listeners and such wonderful evangelists. In 2010 we more than doubled our audience to over 75 million people! And that was mostly thanks to continued word of mouth. For that we are deeply appreciative.
Did you catch the word that caught my attention? 
He thanked me (and hundreds of thousands of others) for being ‘such wonderful evangelists’.  Saying that the growth and success of Pandora was due mostly to ‘continued word of mouth’ 
In a nutshell, the founder of this innovative website is saying that if the people that have already found it and love it didn’t share those feelings with others the website wouldn’t be a success. 
Of course evangelism and evangelists are traditionally associated with the church – even if today we tend to shy away from those terms. 
Evangelism is exactly what the last two verses of the passage from 1Peter are talking about.  Listen to those verses again, this time from the message translation:
 ‘But you are the ones chosen by God, chosen for the high calling of priestly work, chosen to be a holy people, God's instruments to do his work and speak out for him, to tell others of the night-and-day difference he made for you—from nothing to something, from rejected to accepted’
The word evangelism actually comes from three Greek words that literally mean ‘to bring Good News’.  Evangelism, could simply be defined as sharing with others the good news about what Christ has done in your life. 
However, in the church today we don’t really like to talk about evangelism. 
While we are blessed to live in a country that truly provides us religious freedom and as such we are free from any fear of physical danger in sharing our faith, there may be no more socially dangerous thing to do than to openly talk about your faith. 
Sharing your faith can be difficult: it can start fights, it can alienate you from those your work with or for, it can make you feel inadequate – like you don’t know enough.  It can make you feel uncomfortable - like you aren’t good enough to be ‘telling somebody what to do’. 
The bottom line is that, for most of us, evangelism is almost a dirty word that conjures up images of young men in short sleeved dress shirts and ties on bicycles or overbearing (even if well intended) coworkers.  Today, evangelism simply is not something most of us feel equipped for, interested in or able to do. 
But, as the email I received shows, not everybody, is shying away from the word evangelism.  Many organizations have co-oped the term evangelist and are in fact employing or trying to create evangelists for their products. 
The term ‘product evangelist’ is one that is just now becoming popular, but it has its roots, not surprisingly in a company that many people are passionate about - Apple.  Whether it be a Mac, an ipod, iphone,  or ipad.  Apple always seems to have a product that is in demand and that people are passionate about or ‘in love with’. 
Apple has actually employed at least one person with the title ‘product evangelist’ since the release of the first Mac computer in 1984. 
Apple may have been the first to use the terminology or take an evangelistic approach to sales and marketing, but today they certainly aren’t alone.  I went to SimplyHired, a online search engine for jobs, and looked for openings with the keyword “evangelist” in the job title or as a primary responsibility.  Amazingly, there were 1566 matches--and none were for churches or other religious organizations. It seems that “evangelist” is now a secular, mainstream job title.
One of the first Apple ‘evangelists’, a man by the name of Guy Kawasaki, is widely regarded as the most well known ‘evangelists’ and is credited with bringing ‘evangelistic’ methods into the sale and marketing of computers. Although no longer employed by Apple, he remains an influential thinker in both marketing and technology sectors.
Kawasaki wrote an online article about ‘evangelism’, entitled ‘The Art of Evangelism’.  As we look at some of Kawasaki’s thoughts I want us to keep in mind the words of 1Peter  : ‘But you are the ones chosen by God, chosen for the high calling of priestly work, chosen to be a holy people, God's instruments to do his work and speak out for him, to tell others of the night-and-day difference he made for you—from nothing to something, from rejected to accepted’
In describing the ‘art of evangelism’ Kawasaki lists 10 points.  A few of his points are strictly business or sales related, but several are informative as we ponder God’s call for us to be sharers of the good news in this world.
First, he says you must ‘Create a Cause’, A cause seizes the moral high ground. It is a product or service that improves the lives of people, ends bad things, or perpetuates good things.  This is the most important – and the most difficult – part.  Without this element you are simply a salesperson. 
The good news for us is that the work here has already been done for us – Christ is the moral high ground.  A relationship with Christ and the community of believers we call the church is ‘a product or service that improves the lives of people, ends bad things, or perpetuates good things. It is not simply an exchange of goods or services
The second point to the ‘Art of Evangelism’ is to Love the Cause.  “Evangelist” – or better for us, simply ‘Christian’- because the call to bring the good news to others is to all Christians - isn't just a job title. It's a way of life.
In the secular business sense this is the difference between the ‘evangelist’ and the sales person.  The evangelist loves and believes in the product he or she is selling. 
A love of the cause is the second most important determinant of the success of an evangelist--second only to the quality of the cause itself.
Kawasaki says that ‘No matter how great the person, if he doesn't love the cause, he cannot be a good evangelist for it.’  This highlights our role and responsibility in the process.  There is no doubt that Christ is the most important, the central thing.  It is Christ that must be proclaimed and it is Christ that others will see working in and through us through the power of the Holy Spirit. 
But the point about loving the cause is that how we live our lives matters.  We can know all the right things to say, but if we don’t match that with a life lived in joyful service to God many may not hear the news we have to share.  If we don’t live our lives in a manner which causes others to ask, ‘what makes him different?’ or ‘how does she manage to make it through?’  Those around us might not know we even have good news to share – and they might not be interested in hearing it unless we live our lives with Christ’s love at the center of all that we do and all that we are.  Because it maybe through us that someone first experiences Christ.
The next thing an Evangelist must be able to do is to give a demo. Again, what difference does Christ make in your life?  Can you answer that question?  1Peter talks about the night and day difference that Jesus Christ makes, I think being able to give a demo might simply mean being able to describe that difference between night and day in your life. 
The last two steps to the Art of Evangelism go hand in hand with each other.  In Kawasaki’s words you must ‘Invite people for a test drive’ and ‘provide a safe first step’.  This, can mean many things.  Maybe it is inviting someone to experience God through one of our regular worship services or a special service around Christmas or Easter.  It could be welcoming someone (and all their questions about God and faith) into an adult Bible Study or CYF.  Or maybe it is picking someone up to come and help with a mainspring lunch or another service opportunity. 
If we match up our scripture from 1Peter with Kawasaki’s points about evangelism we have a call to share Gods love with the world and also a blueprint about how to do it.  Like most things it is easier said then done.  To me the task of evangelism, of actually getting out ‘there’ and sharing what God has done in my life is still pretty daunting. 
But why is that?  Why is it that without even thinking about it or trying to become ‘evangelists’ for a product, website, song or movie we ‘love’, but when we read God calling us to share the real good news of Christ I am still a little less than excited?
It can be daunting and less than exciting because unlike any product, no matter how great, that you or I might ‘love’ it didn’t change who we are from the inside out.  To share what Christ has really done for me, I have to be vulnerable enough to share with the world or even just one other person the places in which Jesus has healed my wounds, entered into my brokenness and changed my life.  It is not easy and it takes courage, but what good news we have to share -because of Christ the difference is night and day.  Because of Christ we have gone from rejected to accepted!
The hard question for you and for me is, are we willing to respond appropriately?  Are we going to act like the holy people Christ has claimed us to be and allow God to use us as his instruments to do the work and speak out for God in this world? 
God has brought you and I from rejected to accepted, from the outside to the inside, from darkness to light, for death to life.  Because of Christ’s love and grace we have peace and joy, hope and love.  This, my friends is the good news for all of us.  Let us be used by God as his instruments and let us speak out into our world for him!

Friday, January 14, 2011

The heart of the matter

Jumping right into the lectionary thoughts today (as always, the lectionary readings can be found here:  )
If you are like me and grew up going to church, Sunday school, church camp in the summer and youth group then the words from verse 10 of today's morning psalm (51) are very familiar to you: 'Create in me a clean heart, O God'.  
I am pretty sure every single person of my generation that was in anyway involved in church as a child or youth has sung that song around a campfire, at least once (if not a thousand times).  
Truth be told I don't know that I ever really thought about it.  I don't know that I ever thought about just how important that prayer to God is.  Below is verse 10 - 13:

10Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
11Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
12Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.

What a powerful and essential thing a clean heart is.  It is essential to the words and requests that follow it: 'cast me not away from your presence'; 'take not thy holy spirit from me' ; 'restore unto me the joy of your salvation' and 'renew a right spirit within me'.  
It is only when we have a clean and pure heart that we are able to hear God's Word for us clearly. 
It is only when we have a clean heart that we are able to be in the presence of God.  
It is only when we have a clean heart that it is a suitable place for the holy spirit of God to dwell and live.  
It is only when we have a clean heart that we can rejoice in the joy of the Lord and in the salvation that comes from God.  
It is only when we have a clean heart that we can maintain a spirit of willing, grateful and faithful service to God's will for our lives and the world.  
Our life of actually following God, walking in the path of Jesus Christ begins and can only continue when we have a clean heart.  
I don't know about you, but I am not very good at keeping a clean heart.  Anger, jealousy, lust, fear, pride.  All of these things regularly stain and dirty my heart.  Usually before I am even out of bed for the day.  
How do we then begin to follow God?  Is it a lost cause, a useless effort?  Of course not.  
The psalmist was no more perfect than me - but the key is that he knew it.  The psalmist doesn't say, 'I have endeavored to make a clean heart for myself', but rather petitions God, asking 'create in me a clean heart'.  
We are dirty, stained and imperfect, we are simply not capable of creating anything clean on our own.  But this is why and what Jesus came for.  In and through Jesus Christ we have access to a clean heart and a transformed life.  
A clean heart is ready for me, if I would simply ask God for it.  A clean heart is ready for you if you would simply ask God for it.  
What a difference it might make if we started everyday with a clean heart.  A clean heart centered on God's presence, filled with God's Spirit and overflowing with a willing desire to do God's will.  
We can never begin to see that difference if we don't first ask God to create that kind of heart within us.  It is a request, I suspect, that I will have to make over and over again.  Probably several times a day.  
May you - and may I be open to God's creation of a new and clean heart within us.  May our clean hearts be filled with the Spirit of God and may a desire to be faithful to God's will and mission in our lives flow freely from the clean hearts God will create in us.  

Thursday, January 13, 2011

How much do you really like these people?

Hey everybody and a quick apology for missing the past two days - snow days can effect even blogs it seems.  Anyway.  I don't actually have a lot (in length) to share today, but what the gospel passage from today's lectionary is both simple and important.  
The lectionary passage (which can be found here: ) includes the a gospel passage from Mark 2.  This is one of my favorite gospel stories and it is a pretty well known one as well.  It is a story of a miraculous healing - in this case the healing of a paralytic.  But in a change from most healing or miracle stories this particular one is unique or interesting because how the man in need of healing gets to Jesus.  
In the passage we find Jesus teaching in a house and the people gathered around to listen and hear are so many that the crowd spills outside of the house, likely crowded around doors and windows, struggling to hear what Jesus has to say.  
Entering into the story are four friends of the paralytic man.  They have brought the man to Jesus, hoping - and believing that Jesus would heal him.  But they can't get to him.  Undeterred, the friends climb up onto the roof of the house, bring the man up with them, and then proceed to cut a hole in the roof of the home and them lower him down to Jesus and, well we know the rest of the story.  
As I say what I am about to say, it is important to recognize that it is clearly Jesus that does the healing and that is, obviously, the hard part.  
But what I want to think about a little bit is the role the friends of the man played in his healing.  Jesus did the healing, but his friends played a crucial role in getting the man and Jesus (literally) in the same room, as it were.  There were lots of people that needed healing that came to Jesus directly or that called out to him as he passed by and so on.  But some - this paralytic in particular, needed to be brought to or led to Jesus.  
What is my point?  
Simply that one of, if not the primary roles of a Christian is to bring our broken and hurting friends (those that need Jesus healing touch) to see Jesus.  Nothing more, but nothing less.
We talk about all the different ways to do that, and they are all important: sharing Jesus with the way we live, what we choose buy, what we invest our time and money in, etc.  But often, if not always, the path you take with someone else, leading them towards Jesus is only begun with a willingness to actually talk about Jesus. 
Put simply, if we really believe that Jesus is the savior, and that in and through Jesus we can be healed and made whole - then how in the world can we not be willing to talk about Jesus, to talk about our faith and to share with those around us - not strangers, but our friends - the difference God has made in our lives.  
For whatever reason, this is never as easy as it should be.  I am a minister (so this is supposed to be what I am good at, right?), and it is often difficult or uncomfortable for me.  
But it couldn't have been easy for the friends of the paralyzed man to get him to Jesus either. 
I think it is our first challenge as Christians to begin to take seriously our call to live and talk intentionally in a way that can lead others into a relationship with Jesus Christ

Monday, January 10, 2011

On the curb or in the parade?

Below is the message I shared yesterday at Good Shepherd.  I hope that in it you here God calling you to join in the mission of God that is already happening all around us.  

James 2:14-26 (The Message)
 14-17Dear friends, do you think you'll get anywhere in this if you learn all the right words but never do anything? Does merely talking about faith indicate that a person really has it? For instance, you come upon an old friend dressed in rags and half-starved and say, "Good morning, friend! Be clothed in Christ! Be filled with the Holy Spirit!" and walk off without providing so much as a coat or a cup of soup—where does that get you? Isn't it obvious that God-talk without God-acts is outrageous nonsense?
 18I can already hear one of you agreeing by saying, "Sounds good. You take care of the faith department, I'll handle the works department."
   Not so fast. You can no more show me your works apart from your faith than I can show you my faith apart from my works. Faith and works, works and faith, fit together hand in glove.
 19-20Do I hear you professing to believe in the one and only God, but then observe you complacently sitting back as if you had done something wonderful? That's just great. Demons do that, but what good does it do them? Use your heads! Do you suppose for a minute that you can cut faith and works in two and not end up with a corpse on your hands?
 21-24Wasn't our ancestor Abraham "made right with God by works" when he placed his son Isaac on the sacrificial altar? Isn't it obvious that faith and works are yoked partners, that faith expresses itself in works? That the works are "works of faith"? The full meaning of "believe" in the Scripture sentence, "Abraham believed God and was set right with God," includes his action. It's that mesh of believing and acting that got Abraham named "God's friend." Is it not evident that a person is made right with God not by a barren faith but by faith fruitful in works?
 25-26The same with Rahab, the Jericho harlot. Wasn't her action in hiding God's spies and helping them escape—that seamless unity of believing and doing—what counted with God? The very moment you separate body and spirit, you end up with a corpse. Separate faith and works and you get the same thing: a corpse.

As you may have already figured out from the title of today’s message – if you were reading ahead, we are going to spend a little time this morning thinking and talking about parades.  For some people parades, like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade or the Rose Parade on New Year’s day are established and important traditions. 
For others their primary connection to parades is through an experience in a marching band, having walked in seemingly countless ones in all sorts of weather.  And for still others, the best part or the most memorable aspect of a parade is that at some point at least, someone is going to be throwing candy.
For me my connection – and my appreciation for – parades stems from two moments from my childhood that I still remember fondly. 
The town I grew up in always had a parade Halloween night, in which any costumed person could march.  There were prizes for various catagories and age groups and every child that made it to the end got a goody bag filled with candy from some of the local businesses.
When I was 5 years old  I won the prize for funniest costume – its amazing what a little makeup, old clothes and a pillow stuffed in a shirt can do.  And as the winner, I got my picture in the paper and a small prize.  It was awesome.
My other ‘parade memory’ was walking (with my ‘boom box’) along with several of my friends as part of the ‘float’ for 1160 radio as a 6th grader.  This was for a memorial day parade and we were all wearing jean shorts, neon green shirts (with the sleeves rolled up), hats on backward and carrying our boom boxes on our shoulders.  Again – awesome.
Maybe because of these two experiences I am always pretty gung ho about parades and I always push us to make a concerted effort to get the family to every parade possible.  But if I am being honest, I realized recently that I really don’t like parades that much.  Or at the very least I have found that most parades leave me at least a little disappointed. 
I was reminded of these experiences this week as I heard about and watched a video about Bob Goff and one of his family traditions.  Bob Goff is a prominent lawyer in California and Washington state, a law professor at Pepperdine, dedicated Christian and the founder of Restore International which works through governments and the law to rescues children from slavery in India and many other places around the world. 
Bob lives in San Diego, and when his three children were young they were sitting around on New Years Day, bored. And Bob thought it was a crime anybody should be bored on New Years Day. (Let’s face it, unless you are a football fan, there’s not a whole lot to do.)
Bob asked the kids what they could do to honor the fact God gave them a day. And eventually Bob and his wife Maria, and their children, came up with the idea of a parade. So they set out to have a parade on their street. They went house to house telling their neighbors they were going to have a parade. And the neighbors must have indulged the children by saying they would watch.
But the Goff’s had a better idea than just a parade people would watch. They decided nobody could watch the parade. They could only be in the parade.  And so a few neighbors joined in. The small parade marched from the end of the street to the Goff house, where they had a small cookout, if I remember correctly.
Now, more than ten years later, the New Years Day Parade is a tradition. Hundreds of people join in (nobody watches, everybody marches) and the day has not been boring since. Not only has it not been boring for the Goff family, it hasn’t been boring for hundreds of neighbors as well.
Each year the parade selects a Grand Marshal. One year, the Grand Marshal was the mailman, who marched in front of the crowd throwing letters into the air.  And each year a New-Years Day Queen is selected, sometimes from the local retirement center. And the Queen gives a speech, and there is an annual Queen’s brunch and everything.
In the Goff Family parade nobody is allowed to watch. Nobody can sit on the curb. Everybody marches.  It’s a wonderful, true story about how much better life is when we participate.  If you’ve not made a resolution yet in 2011, make this one with me: I will not watch 2011, I will participate.
I found this story on Christian writer Donald Miller’s blog and it also had a video of the parade, most of the people not doing anything special or different just walking along, being themselves, part of the parade.  It was a powerful reminder of how meaningful life can be when we get up off the curb and join in.
Of course this is exactly what James is calling us to do in our Scripture passage for this morning. 
Having faith but not doing anything with it is sort of like going to the parade and sitting on the curb. 
You are there – you have had the experience of the parade, but sitting and watching doesn’t even begin to compare to being in the parade.
God did not call us to sit and watch life and the world pass us by. 
God did not create us to be observers of our lives. 
God did not call us to be simply observers of the work and mission of God in the world
We were created to participate in the work and mission of God.  We are called to follow Jesus as he leads us through the parade of life  actively participating in the mission of God in this church and in the world.  Life lived with God is not a spectator sport, but rather an action or practice of getting in step with the leader of our parade and our lives. 
And as we think about ‘marching’ in the parade of life, it does of course matter what direction you are marching in.  Who is leading your parade – because who you are following – can make all the difference in the world. 
Part of our call is to live lives that invite others to walk – or march – along side of us.  In fact it is the essence and at the heart of the call God places on the heart of every Christian.   The tragic events that took place yesterday in Arizona only serve to remind us that if we aren’t showing up and sharing with the world – at the very least all of those around us - what it looks like to walk into the light of God and sharing the love, peace and joy that can be found in following behind Jesus then other things and other voices will call people toward different, darker paths. 
But God is gracious and even when we or those around us fall into step behind darker voices, sit down and watch the parade go by or even start following another ‘grand marshal’ that is leading in the wrong direction. 
We hear of that Good News in James as well: Rahab – a prostitute is lifted up as a witness to the work of God and of faithfulness to God’s call for us to be working for God.  It is never too late.  Rahab heard God call: follow me, and she turned joined the ranks of those marching in the parade behind Jesus Christ and began living the life she was designed for.  As long as you have a step left to take God extends his invitation to join in the parade that is the work and mission of the church
As I am no longer a child eager for attention and not shy about seeking it out, one question remains for me in this metaphor: who am I to be marching in any parade – God’s or otherwise – isn’t that for the special or the important people? 
I found the answer to that lingering question in this quote from Marieanne Williamson:
We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?  Actually, who are you not to be?  You are a child of God.  Your playing small does not serve the world.  There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.  We are all meant to shine, as children do.  We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.  It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone.  And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.  As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
We are invited, called and qualified to march in the parade of life behind Jesus simply because Jesus asks us to.  But more than that, when we get up off the curb and begin to march in step with Jesus and life a life of faith married with service and action God uses us to invite others to get up and walk along side us.
Each of us has been uniquely gifted and as such we all look at least a little different and add something our own and special to this parade of Life.  But make no mistake our gifts – all of our gifts were made for marching, for participating in the parade of life as we follow along behind Jesus. 
We were not built to be spectators.   
That is Good News.