Tuesday, December 29, 2015

1/3/16---The Second Christmas

On this first Sunday of the new year, we remember the story of the magi coming from the east. Their story, found in Matthew 2:1-12, is a powerful message for us all.

Many of us have seen, or own, a nativity set that includes these magi, or wise men, at the scene of Jesus' birth. I hate to break it to ya, but they weren't there at the nativity scene. They showed up some time "after Jesus was born." This idea comes from the welding together of two birth narratives, the other in Luke 2, to create a third. Although they were not present (Matthew's Christmas story is in chapter 1), these characters have made their way into our collective memory of the coming of the Christ child. We may call their visit "a second Christmas," for it reveals, for the first time, that Christ came for all people.

These magi, these astrologers from the east, were not Jewish. They did not follow Torah. They were not part of the "chosen" people of God, but they found Christ after following God's light, and paid him homage. They gave him gifts fit for a king. They were the first people Matthew mentions as worshiping Christ! 

Even if the nativity scenes with magi present aren't completely accurate, there is a reason we do it. The shepherds and the magi, to us, may represent an initial snapshot of the folks to whom Christ was sent: the lowly, and the Gentile, that is, not only the high religious folks, but the meek, humble, and the seekers as well.

The magi remind me to “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened" (Matthew 7:7-8). They were the first seekers, and they found Christ by the light of God, the star. May it be for us as well.

In Christ, 


Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Christmas Eve 2015---"On This Day"

This Christmas, the message of hope, peace, joy, and love has never been louder in my ears. Perhaps it is because the voice of the world's pain has also never been louder. Usually, I think of the Advent message as a quiet, subdued, dignified whisper, speaking to me as if it were a lullaby. Not this year. I see and hear politicians promoting a message of fear; I hear stories of people overseas fleeing their homes because their lives are at risk; I see groups of people that thrive off of this fear. Perhaps I am paying more attention to the news and current events, but I believe that this is the world we live in. Fear is everywhere.

Luke 2: 1-20 tells the Christmas story of Jesus' birth, and it is a loaded scene. It begins with the phrase " In those days..." It begins in the old time, chronological time, time shaped by "the powers that be." The Emperor Augustus reigns. Time is denoted by who was in power: "Quirinius was governor of Syria." We live in such a time today, too: the time of the census and taxes and authoritative orders and pronouncements; time shaped by business as usual, by the world's accepted power structures; history defined by those in positions of power. So the story begins in the old time---the old age: "In those days..." Even the words sound tired and hopeless.

But something happens! In verse 11, the story ends on "this day." A new time has entered the world--a new age. This is not merely a temporal notation, it is time shaped by the character and quality of the new event that has happened and has changed the world--the birth of Jesus, the Savior, the Son of God. This new time is not characterized by the struggle of business as usual or the threat of "the powers that be," but the in-breaking of the kingdom of God and the "good news of great joy for all the people." From the viewpoint of the emperor--the "powers that be"--it may even be a treasonous time. For "this day" also has a political dimension; this "new time" is a direct challenge to the imperial world of "in those days." There is a new Savior, a title formerly reserved for the emperor. There is a new Messiah, the royal, anointed one who will liberate Israel from Roman occupation. And there is a new Lord, who will inaugurate a new reign. Indeed, this reign is signaled by its announcement to lowly, graveyard shift shepherds, rather than to those in the halls of power. A story that begins with a threatening decree of Emperor Augustus ends with the joyful proclamation and praise of shepherds. This day will not be characterized by fear, but by the freedom and joy of the announcement "do not be afraid."

Jesus accomplished many things for us, one the greatest being taking our fear away. We do not need to be afraid of what is happening in the world, and in our lives. This relief from fear releases us to love God and others, follow Jesus, and courageously act as God's people in the world. Someone may actually come to know God because you are not afraid to relate to them, because you reject the message from the "powers that be" that may divide us.

We live in a new time, and may it be characterized by the hope, peace, love, and joy you receive because Jesus was born, and given to us so that we may have a restored relationship with God.

Merry Christmas!

Rev. Jack Ladd

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Sent: Jesus Brings New Life

The holidays bring about so many emotions. Some of us are on cloud nine: we are joyfully anticipating Christmas day, enjoying the hustle and bustle of the season, shopping, decorating, and eating the appropriate holiday treats. Some of us, though, dread the holidays. The feeling of loneliness and isolation are never as strong as when the holidays approach. The preparation and excitement are unnecessary and suck the joy right out of the season. Most of us, I venture, are somewhere in the middle. We like the holiday, but get annoyed with all of the "noise," or get easily stressed with all of the prep.

The one in the first scenario may wish that things will never ever ever change about this time of year, while the other two think they never will, although they could do with a little bit of holiday cheer, hope, and love.

Consider Ezekiel 37:

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.”

When Ezekiel had this vision in the valley of dry bones. he did not seem to see much hope (why would he?). When asked, "can these bones live?" he replied (possibly with a smidgen of sarcasm) "Lord, you alone know." Can you relate to that answer? I can! I probably would have answered something like: "I have no clue, God. You know everything so why don't you go ahead and answer your own question and let me know. It is really possible for things to change like that?" In the middle of a vast valley of death, Ezekiel could not see what God saw---the possibility for new life.

So, this holiday season, my hope and prayer is that you may have new life through Christ. If you are an avid Christmas season enthusiast, may you see and experience the meaning behind it all---to share God's gift to the world in the baby Jesus. If these weeks are some of the most difficult that you face all year long, may God give new life to you and your "valley of dry bones" by showing you the love of God. And for those who are somewhere in between, may God's love show up in surprising ways, maybe even in the joy of picking out a perfect present or hearing that perfect holiday song right when you need it.

In the birth of Christ, God has shown that God is after each of us. Christ is the embodiment of relationship with God, given to us. May God's gift be a blessing to you this holiday season. Amen.

In Christ,


Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Sent: Jesus is God With Us

Emmanuel. God is with us. The prophets (e.g. Isaiah 7:14; 41:10) and the Psalms (e.g. 46:7) are covered with language of assurance that God is with us. Scripture speaks about God's presence in people's lives, and with us, in both the Old Testament (e.g. Joshua 1:9)  and New Testament (Matthew 1:23). This is a very common theme in Scripture, and I am so glad it is.

This word Emmanuel has become a defining term of how God relates to the people of God; this is a word that encompasses God's relation to the world. God is with us. 

During this Advent season, we focus on the terms hope, peace, joy, and love. We are assured that God is truly with us through Christ  because Jesus was sent to reconcile, set us free, and Jesus is Emmanuel (we will also discover/be reminded that Jesus brings new life, and Jesus changes everything). God is with us in the pain, the joy, through everything.

I believe that, especially during this special holiday season, that we long for this. We long for the hope, peace, joy, and love that God brings us through Christ. We long for God to be with us, and for all that brings into our lives and into this world.

There is no doubt much pain, confusion, and fear in the world today. Our hearts break for refugees in Europe, our minds are confused by the different messages we are told by our leaders, and we are scared of the world has become. But God says I am with you.

Emmanuel is not a solution to all of these problems.

Last night I was watching a rerun episode of one of my favorite shows "Modern Family." Phil was at a spa, where he started a conversation with some other women there. These women overheard a conversation Phil had with his wife, Claire (he had her on speaker phone), and they gave Phil advice. Claire was voicing her problems, and Phil was offering solutions to them. What the women told Phil was that she was not looking for solutions, she was looking for Phil to be with her, to offer her support and love through her problems.

God knows what it takes to have a true relationship with us. Yes, we look to God for answers, and God is there for us. But I believe that there is no greater portrait of love than to be with someone, with all of your support and friendship. God knows. God is with us.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

12/6/15---Sent: Jesus Sets us Free

On this second Sunday of Advent, we light the candle of peace. We will hear a word of how Jesus sets us free. And we will partake in Holy Communion.

Peace, freedom, and Communion.

The Scriptures tell us:

Jesus Christ is our peace. (Ephesians 2:14)
He is the Prince of Peace, 
and the fruit of His presence is peace. (Isaiah 9:6; Galatians 5:22)
Christ comes to bring justice, wholeness, and harmony 
to every relationship throughout all creation.
He wants to continually grant us peace in every situation. (2 Thessalonians 3:16)

Luke 4: 16-19, our focus passage for Sunday, says:

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

In our Holy Communion liturgy, we remember that Christ did what God sent him to do:

Your (God's) Spirit anointed him to preach good news to the poor,
to proclaim release to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
and to announce that the time had come
when you would save your people.
He healed the sick, fed the hungry, and ate with sinners.

So come this Sunday, ready to be set free from your burdens, ready to be at peace with God and with others, ready to be nourished by the spiritual food that God has made ready for you in Jesus Christ. 

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Sent: Jesus Reconciles

Advent is upon us! I have to admit, the long season of days after Pentecost, or what is sometimes called "ordinary time," can drag on a little too much for me. For the past few weeks, I have been anticipating and getting excited for the season of Advent. This is a season of waiting for the coming of Christ, so you could say that I was waiting to wait. That might sound strange to you, and now that I have realized this, it is quite peculiar.

I think what intrigues me so much about this season of Advent is the anticipation; the build up; the dramatic longing for Christmas day. I feel like a kid again. I remember getting up on Christmas morning with my brother, and it was commonly agreed upon that we had to try and wake up our sisters before we headed downstairs to gather around the tree. I remember the rule: "not before 6 AM!" I just couldn't wait to enjoy the holy day with my family. Eventually, my sisters would come downstairs and we'd begin opening presents, usually after some bacon and eggs.

It didn't matter that we didn't get along all the time, it didn't matter that we had just argued and fought over the last piece of bacon, or that we didn't wait until 6 to wake up my sisters. What mattered is that we were all there, spending this holy day together.

Looking back now, I can see that Christmas brought my family together. The weeks leading up to Christmas was full of excitement and anticipation...of longing for the day to come where we would enjoy what God has given us...God's very own Son. Looking back, I can see, indeed, that Jesus reconciles. And Jesus continues to satisfy our longing, that is what Jesus does.

This season of Advent, we will be participating in a Bible Study called "Sent." My preaching will coincide with this study, because I really do think God has some amazing things to show us. In the first lesson, Jacob Armstrong says "Advent is a beautiful time, even if you get frustrated with the commercialization and the busyness of it all. There is something beautiful happening in the hearts of people who long for something else, who hope that we will find what our hearts yearn for.In my estimation we are hoping and longing for reconciliation. And the longing is deep."

After receiving the news from an angel that the Messiah had been born, the shepherds "went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them" (Luke 2:16-18).

The ones to whom Jesus was sent became the ones who were sent to bring Jesus to others. That's the deal. That's the reconciliation that God sends us out to do. God has sent Jesus to reconcile us to God, but also us to one another. May it be so.

See you Sunday!

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

11/22/15---Grace: Means of Grace

Malachi 3:7. which is one of the verses that John Wesley focuses on in his sermon "The Means of Grace," says: "Return to me, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts. But you say, “How shall we return?" The prophet goes on to answer the question by saying "do not rob God," referring to tithes and offerings, and "do not speak against God." The prophet encourages the listeners by saying that God will bless them. 

Wesley thinks about it a little differently, although he regarded giving as an essential piece of Christian living. In his sermon, he begins by asking a similar question that Malachi did: "But are there any ordinances now...? Are there any means ordained of God as the usual channels of his grace?"

Glad you asked, Mr. Wesley. Indeed, there are. Acts 2: 42, which may be regarded as the first Christian community (after the Pentecost experience and the first converts), says that "They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers." These believers were also just baptized. These are the means of grace, the ordinances of God, the channels of grace. These are the ways we experience God's love in our lives and in this world.

Embedded in these means of grace are different ways in which grace can be described. In our Methodist tradition, through the teachings of John Wesley, we know grace to exist in 3 forms: prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying.

Prevenient grace is, literally, "the grace that comes before." It is grace that precedes human decision. Methodists most commonly conceptualize of this form of grace through the ordinance of baptism. More specifically, infant baptism. We baptize babies before they even know about God's love for them because of prevenient grace. Further, it explains why God is graceful to us, even when we have done wrong. It does not matter what we do, grace is available to all.

Justifying grace is the grace that pardons us from our sins. It is the kind of grace in which we understand that we are saved. It is called the assurance of faith, the kind that does depend on what we believe. In a Word document, there is a "justify" feature where you are able to line things up the way you want. This form of grace is similar: as justifying text within a document puts all the words in line, justifying grace puts us "in line" with God. 

Sanctifying grace is our response to what God has done in our lives. Because of our assurance of faith, we want more and more of God's love; we desire holy living. Wesley would say that this is our "going on to perfection" in order to live more like Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit. At this point in our journey with God, we have the assurance that God loves us. The idea of sanctifying grace, though, is that God loves us so much that God desires for us to be made new, not to stay the same. This leads to good works of faith and mercy in the world. 

What's incredible to me is that we know God's grace through our own story with God. Notice that these forms of grace are understood within your journey. So, live your story! 

See you Sunday!

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

11/15/15---Grace: It's Free

Although it seems like we hear of and experience God's grace all the time, focusing in on it gives us a great opportunity to be attuned to what God is doing in our lives and the world around us. We know something about God's grace, as we just celebrated 50 years of ministry here at Gray Memorial last Sunday. We know something about God's grace, too, as we anticipate the coming holidays in which we are intentionally thankful to God, and celebrate the birth and sending of Jesus.

For the next 2 weeks, grace will be our focus. I will be preaching on how grace is free, and the ways in which we experience grace in the world and in our lives (John Wesley calls these ways "means of grace.")

John Wesley preached about grace, too. His, and my, focus verse when talking about the nature of grace, that it is free for all, is Romans 8: 32 "He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?" The key word here is "give." God gives us grace. God does not make us earn it; God gives us opportunities to respond to the grace God has given us. There is a world of difference there. Wesley wrote a sermon called "Free Grace" in which he describes the nature of grace, largely up against the idea of predestination. He argued that since grace is free, it is also "in all." The idea of the "elect" still exists in Christian thought, although I believe the idea that we have to "earn" God's love is more prevalent (although the ideas are related). We have inside of us a mind that cannot conceive the fact that God freely loves us because of God's goodness. We cannot imagine having something like that for free, and so this idea creeps into our minds and our hearts.

However difficult it is for us to fathom, God still makes this true. On our worst days, our best days, and all of them in between, God's loving grace never runs out or is diminished. Grace is not performance based. Grace gives us a reason to be our best, to run our race with perseverance, to walk our journey with hope, to reach out in courage, and to speak with boldness of this grace.

I pray that these 2 weeks before Advent give us a way in which we may approach the holidays, knowing that it is because of God's grace that we have reason to celebrate.

I'll see you on Sunday!

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Cloud of Witnesses--11/8/15

There has been so much planning...so much anticipation, excitement, and preparation for Gray Memorial's 50th Anniversary celebration. Well, it is finally here! With all of this build up, it will not only be a relief to see it all play out and participate in such a noteworthy occasion. It will also be a blessing. It will also be something many will remember for years to come.

This Sunday, we will fellowship together, remember and celebrate Gray Memorial's 50 years of ministry, and give glory to God who is faithful to God's people here. Part of what I anticipate will make this day special is the people who will show up. Folks that have been part of the story of the ministry in and through this church will gather to celebrate what God has done. Memories will be drawn up by the mere sight of some individuals. Stories will be shared, and God will be honored by it all.

1 Corinthians 3:9-11 is also a testament to this church's ministry: Christ is the foundation of what we do. This has not been, is not, and will not be simply a place where people gather for their own sake. We do so in Christ, for the sake of Christ's mission in the world and for us: to know  and show God's love, and be made new. Christ is the foundation, Christ gives us our purpose for being here, and is reason we exist. Without a good foundation, any structure will ultimate fail, it will only stand for some limited amount of time. So it is good that our foundation is Christ, for the mission and purpose of this church coincides with Christ.

Hebrews 12:1-3 names those people who surround us as a "cloud of witnesses." Those gathered here on Sunday all have witnessed something about God in and through Gray Memorial. We can testify to God's activity through our ministry. There is no greater thing to witness than the ministry of God; that's the best kind of witness you can be.

And Ephesians 3: 16-20 names the mystery of how this ministry can actually happen in and through a community of imperfect people: because God can do more than we can ever imagine. We are witnesses to this! 50 years of ministry is no accident! God is doing the work. What a blessing it has been to many to be involved in God's ministry through this community of faith!

These are the reasons we celebrate. These are the reasons Gray Memorial can look back on 50 years of ministry and glorify God through all the ups and downs and everything in between. God has been faithful to us, praise God!

So come...celebrate, reminisce, fellowship, remember, honor, worship, and praise the God who is with us in every step of the way.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015


This Sunday, we celebrate All Saints Day, along with the Lord's Supper. On the one hand, we are remembering and honoring those people who have gone before us and have shown us the way to live in Christ; who persevered on their walks with God; who have modeled what it looks like to live like a child of God. On the other hand, we remember Christ's offering for us. We remember that Christ, too, showed what it looks like to live a life that followed and pursued God. Christ was also a saint, in this way.

Our Scripture focus will be John 11:32-44, the gospel story of when Jesus raised Lazarus. In the raising of Lazarus, God steadfastly refuses to let death have the final word (Feasting on the Word). And this is not a one-time thing. The case of Lazarus does not stand alone. There are still stories of people escaping death, and attributing that miracle to God. More importantly, this says something about God's power over death. We are all raised up. The saints you have known have been raised up. Jesus says to all of us "come out" from the power of death; he beckons us all to be unbound and let go (v44). 

This is what fascinates me: God wants to share who God is with us. God is unbound by death, and so we have the opportunity to as well. Following God is life-giving, to be sure. Being a child of God gives our lives meaning and purpose. But following God is also eternal-life-giving. We are unbound, because God sets us free. Praise God!

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

10/25/15---Tensions of Hebrews: Sacrifice once and for All

Last Sunday, I preached on Hebrews 5: 1-10, and my basic point was that Jesus is the best "high priest" we can have----he is the one who can truly save us. This week, our focus will be on Hebrews 7: 23-28, where we are reminded that Jesus' sacrifice was once and for all. Both of these points make me think about how we have our own "idols" in our life, but Christ satisfies us, saves us, and completes us.

The truth of it is that we have our idols. We have things in our lives that we "worship" over Christ. We can "worship" entertainment, people, money. We can even "worship" church and we can "worship" worship. When the way we reach God takes our attention, our praise, over and above God, we have created an idol and we have worshiped an idol. This is extremely difficult to handle for me. I can love a worship song more than I worship God. I can lift up my own spiritual disciplines over and above the God to whom they are directed. I can praise the people in my life that help me see and draw near to God more than God. I can cherish the relationships God gave me over God. I can be more dedicated to the church God has led me to over and above the God it worships and serves. But God is our focus! God is the reason! God has more for us...

Christ is our high priest, where our praise, attention, and focus is directed. Christ is the one who points us to God, opens up the relationship we may have with God, Christ is our High Priest.

God loves it when we sacrifice something for God's sake, whether it be for the church, in service to someone, or for our own spiritual growth and discipline. The danger is, though, that we can presume that our sacrifices are the ones that inevitably "earn" our relationship with God, "earn" God's love for us, and "earn" our own salvation. This can creep into our lives, folks. Believe me. This is what I mean by worshiping something other than God.

Hebrews 7: 27 says "Unlike the other high priests, he has no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for those of the people; this he did once for all when he offered himself."

God is accessible by the grace of God through Jesus Christ, not what you do for God. What you do for God does not have to be out of obligation or duty, but out of the joy of your heart as you strive to be God's child. Your spiritual disciplines can become ways to seek God, not ways to earn God's favor. Your service to God's people can become ways to share the love of God that you have received; an outpouring of God's grace. Your service to the church can become ways to nurture the community of God in which you have been so nurtured. These can all become ways to worship God in joyful obedience to God.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

10/4/15---We are all One

This week, I was heartbroken about the execution of Kelly Gissendaner in Georgia. Kelly was a graduate of Candler Theological Institute in 2011, a program that Candler School of Theology offers at the  Lee Arrendale State Prison, in Alto, GA. I became aware of her story through an ethics course at Candler, and started to follow along. Amazing stories of how she impacted the people at the women's prison, inmates and officers alike, came flowing into my heart like a beautiful song of God's love and grace might enter your ears and into your heart. These were notes to her redemption song.

There are numerous articles detailing her life and her case, but that's not all that this post is about. I would love to talk to you about her if you would like to hear more. Her's is an amazing story of the power of redemption.

God brings people together through Jesus Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit. Many thousands of people joined one another in prayer and petition (to God and to the Georgia Pardons Board) on Kelly's behalf. This is what the body of Christ is all about: the uniting power that God supplies, even (perhaps, especially) in the midst of pain, tragedy, loss, and need. I called the Georgia Governor's office multiple times this week, and each time I was put on hold or prompted to leave a voice message, and my heart flooded with a sense of unity because I knew others were calling. We became one.

This Sunday, we celebrate World Communion Sunday. Around the sanctuary, there will be several photos from around the world of families with one week's worth of food. Some of the photos will look similar to the food you have stored in your house, others will not at all. These photos remind us of our differences, to be sure, but offers us a stunning perspective on the creative unity that God displays through all. God's image is in each of us, despite where we are and what we eat. I hope that these photos will bring some awareness, but also highlight the beauty in our unity as people of God.

I will be preaching in reference to two passages. One is  Luke 5: 27-32. This is the story where Jesus eats with Levi, a tax collector whom the Pharisees saw as a sinner unworthy of their presence, or Jesus'. They ask Jesus "Why do you eat with tax collectors and sinners?" Jesus answers, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick." The other is 1 Corinthians 10: 14-17, which reminds us that "Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf." We are one, in Christ.

We are all sinners, in need of Christ's redemption and healing. What I have come to understand about God's grace (although it remains a holy mystery) is that it is final, total, and complete. It covers all things. It covers the tax collector's sins, Kelly's sins, my sins, your sins, and everything in between.

So, on this special occasion of World Communion Sunday, let's be mindful of God's universal church. Praise God! See you Sunday!

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

9/27/15---Ready For Kickoff: They Should Pray

One of the things I love about this community of faith here at Gray Memorial is that it is a praying community. We love to pray. We have faith and trust that our prayers are heard, and we are strengthened by the gift of prayer that God gives us. I at least see this in our gatherings together. Prayer is powerful, and James tells us in James 5: 13-20 that prayer actually works. I say that to emphasize that the fact that prayer actually makes a difference is an absolute work of grace in our lives and in our world, from God. 

James, again, asks us a question (this again elicits his inner teacher/coach-like features...he knows the answer but wants us to get there). His question, which opens this passage, is "Are any among you suffering?" As if his audience says, "yes," he responds by saying "they should pray." And the same goes for the cheerful (songs of praise is a form of prayer), and the sick. James answers our hypothetical question "when do we pray?" by essentially saying "all the time." We are to pray when we are suffering, when we are ill in body or in spirit,  and when we are happy. That pretty much covers it. No matter what season of life you are in, you should pray. No matter what life has thrown at you, you should pray. 

If you're like me, words like this at times feel like an admonition, an authoritative warning of sorts. Taken that way, I tend to feel guilty because I don't do what I should do. I think that is somewhere in my "default settings" as a person. But, friends, we don't need to feel guilty for not praying. God is not missing out by us not praying, although God years for us to draw near (4:7-8). Instead, I think we should feel like we are missing an opportunity to be a part of what God is doing in the world, for prayer prompts us for faithful activity on the "field" of life, the world around us. God hears us in every situation. Whether we are happy, sad, angry, or ill, we can come to God. 

That is the good news for us, friends. This good news is made stronger through James' emphasis on the communal aspect of prayer. The same outcomes of prayer that we experience privately can be manifested cooperatively as well. There are elements of accountability and support that we receive, also, when we move prayer to a public space. The prayers of the community help to shape that community and it allows the people to become more nearly the body of Christ. Prayer changes relationships and it changes lives. It reorients them towards God, who wants us to draw close. 

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Ready for Kickoff: Being Wise

The book of James is full of questions. The author asks questions, I think, in order to provide us with a space to reflect on who we are, on our lives, and the world around us.

This week, we take a look at James 3:13-4:3, 7, 8a

Three questions arise from this passage: 

1. Who is wise and understanding among you?

In our churches, we might say that our clergy and church officers are wise and understanding. That might be the "obvious" answer to this question. But is it the answer? Maybe not always! We hope that wisdom and maturity of faith afforded clergy and church officers these positions, but this is not what James says. For James, these traits are evidence of wisdom: gentleness/humility (3:13b), purity (3:17), peaceable (3:17), willing to yield, full of mercy, impartial, genuine (not a hypocrite). Hopefully your "obvious" answer is still correct, now that you know how James lays out what "wise and understanding" really means; I sure hope to fit the bill here. 

These are very difficult traits to embody, to live into. They speak of a life that is not ego-driven, not greedy or jealous. In our society, which is marked by instant and self-gratification, these words sound foreign, or at least impossible to embody. But, they aren't it is possible to live a wise life. We know people, I think, I hope, that live this way.

2. From what do conflicts and and disputes arise?

Disagreement is inevitable within any community/relationship: families, friends, churches, work places, etc. James points out that one thing may contribute to these disputes: envy (self-ambition, cravings, coveting). James sees this sin as one that feeds on itself; it always wants more of the wrong thing.

We don't need to look far to see this. Our culture is marked by the wanting of the newest, smartest, and brightest things. We want that promotion in our jobs, to upgrade the house, etc. These are not bad things! But, they can be. These desires can come from our unwillingness to appreciate the love the things we do have; they can come from being envious of what others have. And think about it: this cycle will never end. If you want something "brighter" than someone else, someone will want the next "brightest" thing, and it continues. You will never be satisfied, you will never be wise. And this seeps into our relationships, when we seek to have the best and brightest of friends, children, and churches, we don't see them as they truly are: people of God in desire of authentic relationships.

3. What does God want? 

Jump to verse 7 and 8 of this passage and answer this question. God wants us to submit, to repent, to turn our lives towards God. We are to turn away from this lifestyle of greed and envy towards God. And when we do this, God shows up, and God shows up in our relationships.In turning to God, we turn away from the "wisdom" the world wants to teach us and towards God's wisdom, which is marked by the traits listed above from the 1st question.

We remember this by our identity as children of God, not children of this world. This world will call you many things and give us many ideas about who we are supposed to be. But we are called to be children of God together. This, is wisdom.

Much of this content came from Feasting on the Word, and other portions were paraphrased 

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Ready For Kickoff: Small Things, Big Impact

I've never been on a cruise ship, but I have seen pictures of them and occasionally have viewed them driving by the ports in Cape Canaveral. Imagine what it takes for those huge ships to actually function: an array of mechanical systems that interweave and function together in order to power an engine; a crew of competent experts who know the ins and outs of all of those systems in order to oversee and direct them; a wind that is powered by the earth's weather in a way that influences the water to carry the boat. Then, think about all of the details behind creating those mechanical systems on the boat, the hours of training and learning that it took for experts to learn their craft; the science behind what makes the wind blow, and the God that's always in control.

James, in chapter 3: 1-12 of our Bible, draws on this analogy to point out that little details have a great impact, even on something as massive as a huge ship. The world is a pretty complicated place; our lives are very complicated. Every detail works together to get us, to get this world, to the point everything is right now. 

One detail James does not overlook is our speech. What we say, which at times seems trite and unimportant, literally does say a lot about us. All of those "small" things that influence a cruise ship are in good shape if the cruise ship is functioning. I think that what James is saying is that what we say indicates how we are "functioning." The words that come out of our mouths can actually bless or curse people. They can also bless or curse God. 

Our actions can also "speak." We've learned that we are not to ignore people, but this week we may also learn that in paying attention to people and their needs, we have the power to reflect God in a positive or negative way. If  we want to show people that God loves them, we can do that through the way we speak from our mouths, and by our actions towards them. 

God, help us to show people that you love them, Amen. 

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Ready for Kickoff: Faith vs. Works(?)

One of the most exciting times of the year, at least as I see it, is beginning this weekend. College Football! Some of you may not be a football fan, but it's hard to miss the busyness and excitement that the fall season brings. School has already begun. The pumpkins are coming. The festivals are coming. The fair is coming. Thanksgiving is coming. Fall is such an eventful, exciting time!

As fall "kicks off," we have a lot to anticipate and be excited about. Each of these events requires a level of readiness in order that the events go well.

Imagine that you are on a football team as the weeks wind down to the opening game of a new season. You practice every day (maybe twice) with your teammates, study the playbook, and perform the best way you can on the field in order to get ready for your first game.

Our journey with God is quite similar. For football teams, there is much practice and preparation for that opening kickoff of a game. We don't get to see it when we watch the game, but we know that the team cannot perform well if they are not practicing, if they do not have good morale, if their coaches are not on the same page...if they are not ready.

In a similar way, we must practice our faith for our faith to become realized. As players embody their coaches ideas and plays, we embody what we believe by what kind of people we become. Faith and works are one in the same; one is evidence of the other. James thought so too, I think, evidenced by James 2: 17

"In the same way, faith is dead when it doesn’t result in faithful activity." (Common English Bible).

Where the football analogy falls short is that players definitely have to earn the right to play in the game. We, do not. Christ has given you the opportunity to live a faithful life, and it is our job not to waste it (even though it is free). The game is not really between faith and works (as if they are at odds in terms of our salvation), but in our hearts. Are you willing to live faithfully? Are you willing to actively show your faith by you live?

More on Sunday...see you then!

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

8/30/15---It's Relational: Jonah

One thing that I have learned during this series of preaching about Old Testament characters, is that I come to them with some assumptions about who they are, and with a closer look, there is much much more to their story. Even when my assumptions are right, there is more to who they are then what lies on the surface. So it is with Jonah.

I know Jonah to be the man God called to call Nineveh out of their wickedness, only to turn the opposite direction, be swallowed by a whale, spit back up, sent again to Nineveh. Eventually, he goes and does God's work. That is what I came to Jonah's story with.

Jonah, then, does not really provide me with a story I can relate with. I've never been swallowed by a fish, have you? Jonah's story relates to me when I listen to it; I am able to relate to Jonah when I pay attention to his journey. For this to happen, we have to shed our assumptions and listen. (It would serve us well to do this with the people around us, too.)

Jonah's journey away from God is something I can relate to. 

God calls Jonah to go to Nineveh in 1:2 and in the very next verse, Jonah says he's going to Tarshish, which is 2000 miles in the opposite direction. He just happens to find a boat going there.

What are the chances?
Isn’t that an amazing coincidence?

It’s a long way from Joppa to Tarshish. It’s not like they had a boat leaving for Tarshish every day. Think about that.

When we decide to disobey God, there is always a boat going to Tarshish.
And there is always room for one more passenger.

We all flee from God at some point or another. In his life, in this story (actually just in the 1st chapter) Jonah went "down" somewhere 4 different times. 

He went “down” to Joppa (v. 3).
He went “down” into the hold of the ship (v. 4).
He went “down” into the sea (v. 15). 
He went “down” into the belly of the great fish (v. 17).

This was not a coincidence. It’s a statement about what happens when we disobey God’s call, when we run away from God. Any time you run from God, you never go “up"; you always go “down." 

It's easy to go "down." There is always a way to run away from God. When we do that, God still has the grace to let us disobey. God will not strike us down, God will always give us a way back, even if it is more painful. God will be there, always. Praise God! 

See you Sunday.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

8/23/15---It's Relational: Job

The book of Job is, personally, one of the most difficult books to read in all of scripture. It is a story of a man that endures much pain and suffering.

In a short period of time, Job loses basically everything: his livestock is raided and struck down by lightning (taken away by people and, seemingly, by God), and  desert winds blows down a house and kills all of his children.

Still, Job keeps his faith in God: "Then Job arose, tore his robe, shaved his head, and fell on the ground and worshiped" (Job 1:20). Then, Job is afflicted with painful sores all over his body. His wife tells him to curse God, but Job did not sin with his lips.

At this point, his 3 friends show up, supposedly to comfort him, but end up having a theological debate over why Job has suffered. They claim Job is being punished for sin, but Job maintains his innocence. Like us, Job asks, "Why me?"

A fourth visitor, named Elihu, suggests that God may be trying to purify Job through suffering. While Elihu's counsel is more comforting than that of the other men, Job's question "Why me?" still is up in the air.

God then appears to Job in a storm. In this storm, God is revealed to Job in all of God's majesty and power. This humbled and  overwhelmed Job, and he acknowledges God's mysterious ways.

God ends up rebuking Job's three friends and tells them to make a sacrifice to atone for their witness to Job. Job prays to God to forgiven them and God accepts his prayer. At the end of the book, God gives Job twice as much wealth as he had before, along with seven sons and three daughters.

The way the story ends, sadly, is not the way every story of pain, suffering, and doubt ends. Job receives more than he ever had in the first place, but the reality is that his story ends in a unique way.

To be human means that we will suffer, we will have pain, and sometimes people will say that it is our fault. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. To God, that isn't the point. God showed up to Job in a storm, in the catastrophes of his life. His story is a witness to all of us that even though there is pain and suffering, there is also the very presence of God in our lives. This does not make those things go away, but it gives us hope in a God that will never leave us. Praise God!

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

8/16/15---It's Relational: Ruth

Ruth's story, as recorded in the Old Testament, is a fascinating one. One of the reasons it's one of my favorite stories is that it only takes about 30 minutes to read, even at a leisurely pace such as mine! What impresses me about the book of Ruth is just how much, in 4 short chapters, is packed into this story. Her story has a poignant relevancy for our lives, too. 

John Piper has the following observation about the book of Ruth:

 It's a story that shows how "God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform." It's a story for people who wonder where God is when there are no dreams or visions or prophets. It's for people who wonder where God is when one tragedy after another attacks their faith. It's a story for people who wonder whether a life of integrity in tough times is worth it. And it's a story for people who can't imagine that anything great could ever come of their ordinary lives of faith.

And what a wonderful story it is. In it, I learn that God is soverign, God's ways for us are mysteriously good, and that living with God's goodness gives us freedom. 

Go and read Ruth for yourself. What does this book, her story, teach you about God? About life? About living with God? About having a relationship with God and others?

On Sunday, we'll dive deeper into the depths of Ruth's story. See you then!

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

8/9/15---It's Relational: David

King David is one of the most known figures from the Bible, no one needs to debate that. He is one of those people that everyone has heard of, and for good reason. He impacted an entire people's history, and stands directly in the genealogy of Jesus. His story, his character, and his legacy is well documented, and for good reason. 

He is known for:

Being a humble boy, anointed to be king
Slaying the giant, Goliath
Alluding Saul
Becoming King 
Enduring many wars
Committing adultery with Bathsheba
Writing many of the psalms found in the Bible

His story, his faith, his struggle, his life...impacts our faith, even still today. 

For all that David went through and struggled with, it was important for him to be strong in the Lord. In 1 Samuel 30, David finds himself in the midst of a battle (what are the battles in your life?). In verse 6, it says: "But David found strength in the Lord his God."

David found the strength time and time again, and he did so in ways that are applicable to us today. He wrote; he prayed. How often do we do this? Do we really seek the Lord's strength in times of trouble, where the world seems to be crashing down on us? Where we doubt we can ever get through something? Where our worry paralzes us? Where we are too exhausted, annoyed, apathetic, scared to follow God? David teaches us to reflect, pray, and trust God to help us. David teaches us to continue to praise God through all that life throws at us. Even when it is our own fault, God will help us; God can strengthen us; God will show us grace and love through everything.

Psalm 63:8

My whole being clings to you;
    your strong hand upholds me.

Praise God! See you Sunday!

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

8/2/15---It's Relational: Samson

Many of us probably haven't heard a sermon on Samson before. He is not one of the more popular Old Testament characters, I don't think. This may be because he has a difficult story to tell. His life is tattered with sin---lust, selfishness, and a general attitude of disobedience, along with a thirst for revenge and violence.

As we march through some of the stories of these Old Testament characters, I hope we can see the story of God working through imperfect people. Folks back then, like now, are prone to sin (and the variety of sinning is quite noteworthy). Yes, God uses us despite ourselves, but I think it goes even further than that. God wants to show us that we can be redeemed through God's action in the world. God continues to show us that God is working in the world, and that is good news, my friends. When God works, there is still hope for redemption and grace to be active in the world. 

Despite Samson's attitudes and dispositions, we have a story through him that is a story of God working through an imperfect person. We can relate so Samson. Hopefully we aren't out there killing people for revenge, but if we are honest with ourselves, we do tend to be selfish and fickle people. But we have something else in common with Samson: God uses us to show the love of God to folks that need God. God uses us despite ourselves, and God uses us to tell a story about his love and redemption. 

And when we come to the Table of Love and Grace, we remember God's story. God turned something terrible (the death of Jesus on the cross) and uses it to write a story of love and grace. 

Are you willing to be a part of God's story? 

See you Sunday. 

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

7/26/15---It's Relational: Moses

Moses, like Abraham, is one of those characters in the Old Testament that most of us are very familiar with. We know his impact was and is great to this day, even in our own faith. One of the reasons I think that is, or could be if we look at him with a fresh perspective, is because we can relate to him. Yes, he was a great man and did incredible things for God and for God's people. He delivered them out of slavery for goodness sake. The great things that he does not does not take away the fact that he was a human being, with struggles and excuses.

Like most of us, Moses did not, at first, think he could do the things he set out before him. He made excuse after excuse, highlighting his uncertainty, fear, and limitations. When Moses met God on the mountainside of Horeb, God enlisted Moses to free the Israelites from the Egyptians. Moses...did not think he was the man for the job.

God's answer to Moses was that "I will be with you." God did not argue or bargain with Moses, rather, God assured Moses that God would be with him. Moses, then, could overcome his weaknesses with God.

None of us are perfect, but God is. When we realize this, God can work through us in incredible ways. Not because God takes are weaknesses away, but because, for God, our weaknesses do not define us. Our commitment, faith, trust, and obedience to God, does. Our love for our community defines. Our love for God and neighbor defines us.

So God can use you despite your weaknesses, and perhaps even because of them. We'll never know unless we follow God into those opportunities where God leads us.

God is good, and God works through us. Praise God! See you Sunday!

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

7/19/15---It's Relational: The Life of Abraham

This past Sunday I began a series called "It's Relational." This will be an 8-week series that highlights the lives of several Old Testament characters. Last Sunday, the sermon was about Adam and Eve, whose story reminds us that God's grace adjusts to us, is creative, and steps in where our sins step out...

We are created for relationship with God, and with another ("it is not good that man is alone..."). This is the basis of this preaching series. We can be reminded of this and relate to this through the stories of these Old Testament characters.

This week I will move to Abraham, who is called the father of the faith. Galatians 3:6 cites Genesis 15:6 when it says  "Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness." Paul uses Abraham as an example to say that our faith is the basis of our salvation, not our works (this is not to say that what we do is not an appropriate outcome of our faith). Our faith saves us; our faith is counted as righteousness. For Abraham, his faith was so strong that he was willing (although not without struggle, I imagine) to sacrifice his firstborn son, because God commanded it. God ended up saving Isaac because Abraham was faithful. Thus, hos covenant with Abraham would stand.

Speaking of that covenant, where God promised to be Abraham's God and "make you exceedingly numerous," it is also the basis for Abraham's name. He used to be named Abram, but when he took on God's covenant, he was named Abraham. God changed his name because God made him the ancestor of a multitude of nations. God changed Abram (many, multitude) to Abraham (father of many) because he accepted God's covenant relationship with him.

The impact Abraham had on others is hard to miss; his decision to follow God and accept God's relationship with him had a deep and wide impact on a culture, on generations to come, and on our faith as well. We lift Abraham up for his faith and obedience to God. So Abraham teaches us that God wants a relationship with us that impacts others. Praise God for that reminder! See you Sunday!

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Sunday June 28th, 2015---Shake it Off

This Sunday, we come to the time in Jesus' travelings where he comes back home to Nazareth with a rather cold welcome. Actually, it wasn't really a welcome at all....

Does this ever happen to you? Do you ever go somewhere and expect one thing and get another? Are you ever disappointed in how someone receives you? Do you ever think "how could someone think they are so great?"

I imagine that Jesus was not very pleased in how he was received in his own hometown. There he was, teaching in the synagogue, and the townfolk thought "where the heck did he get so smart?" They were suspicious and surprised. They were repulsed, thinking "who does this guy think he is!?" And this appalled Jesus. Yes, he was disappointed to the point where he was only able to heal "a few people."

When we don't believe in Jesus, in God's work through Christ, this limits the impact God may have on someone. God uses us to reach and even heal people (although this does not mean God needs or relies on us wholeheartedly; Jesus is still able to heal without the faith of the people).

Jesus knows that a prophet will not be accepted in their hometown; he cites scripture and fulfills there in Nazareth. And he uses this moment to teach his disciples, and us today, a lesson:

"If a place doesn’t welcome you or listen to you, as you leave, shake the dust off your feet as a witness against them.”

I'm sorry, but I can't help but think of that catchy Taylor Swift song "Shake it Off." The song definitely speaks to different circumstances than the ones Jesus faced in his hometown, but it does invite us to simply be ourselves and be confident in who we are. If we take that a bit further---I think we can be led to a self-confidence that is grounded in the faith that God has uniquely shaped us, and has called us each to be who we are.

Jesus called his disciples to shake off the dust of the town that refused their message of the gospel. He called them to be confident in who they are as Christ followers, even if it means that some may not accept them or what they have to say. This is part of what it means to take up your cross and follow Jesus...to be willing to shake off the dust; shake off the shame; shake off the rejection...and follow Christ, speak the gospel; to turn your life around (repent) for God.

See you Sunday!

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Sunday, June 21st, 2015---Jesus the Multi-Tasker

Jesus multi-tasked even before it became the norm of our fast-paced 21st century culture. Mark 5:21-43 tells the classic story in which Jesus comes across the sea of Galilee (where he just calmed the storm) on a boat, where a group of people are waiting for him. Among this group is a leader from the synagogue, Jairus. His daughter is in some serious trouble and is at the point of death. So Jesus, with the crowd following him, goes with Jairus to heal his daughter at his house.

On the way there, a woman was so desperate for healing that it was all she could just to brush the edge of Jesus' clothes. She, too, needed healing. Jesus stops the caravan and says "your faith has healed you."

Jesus continues on and heals Jairus' daughter, too.

So Jesus multi-tasked. He problem solved. We can relate to Jesus in this way. So many times in life, something unexpectedly pops up and we have to take care of it, even if it interrupts our original plans. Although we do not have the power to heal people quite like Jesus did, we do know how it feels to deal with "problems" as they come up like Jesus did that day.

This story lies in a crucial portion of Jesus' ministry in Galilee. In chapters 3-6 of Mark, stories are shared with us where Jesus healed people around this lake-front town. What seemed like an interruption that day, is actually included in Jesus' ministry as one of the most significant healing acts he ever did. And it was on the way to do something else. Jesus healed on his way to heal someone else. He ministered on his way to minster.

So, when something unplanned happens in your life, it, too, may be an opportunity for you to minister to someone. Jesus stopped the caravan of people in order to speak life into this woman who needed healing. He did not simply continue on, he was present for this woman.

Unexpected things happen all the time: car trouble, deaths, chores, interruptions, accidents, disasters, you name it...Jesus is showing us, telling us, to be present in those moments for others so that we may show others that their faith heals them; that Jesus is there for them.

Ephesians 2:8

You are saved by God’s grace because of your faith.

Amen! See you Sunday!

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Sunday June 7th, 2015---"Give us a King"

Coming off of Pentecost, you may be thinking of the birth of the church. The Holy Spirit came that day, and the church as we know it began with a bang, a rush, a wind...a fire. When we think about that day, it seems pretty dramatic! What it must have been like to see the fire, to feel the wind, to hear everyone in their different languages. It seems very different than what we see and experience today.

Although that may be the case, the God who gave the spirit to those gathered there on that day remains the same. God remains the source of all we do in the church. God remains the one who leads, protects, and loves us. God's Spirit is still with us.

In  a sense, God is our King. God is the one we serve, and God is the one who provides for us. In our world; in our country, we do not have kings. America never did; we were founded on the idea of democracy, not monarchy. So the image of kingship may not mean the same to us here in the U.S. as it may in a country that has had kings and queens. Even for countries like England, Australia, and Canada, who name Elizabeth II as their queen, may in fact treat her position as a mere title.

Still, there are many countries in the world who are ruled by queens or kings . Kings ruled in the days of the Old Testament (and the NT, too).

1 Samuel 15:34-16:13 tells a story where David gets anointed as the next king by the prophet Samuel. The people of Israel desired, expected, and needed a king. It takes the rest of the 1st book of Samuel for Saul to die, and David becomes king in the 1st chapter of the 2nd book of Samuel. We know David as a great and mighty king, a "man after God's own heart," even though he had his, shall we say, "lesser" moments (he pretends to be crazy, and we all know about his encounter with Bathsheba). We will talk more about David later this summer.

This passage introduces two kings of Israel, Saul and David, but now God is the King of our lives. We worship God and we depend on God. God's love is more than anyone can ever give us. God's care is more complete than anything anyone can ever give us. God provides us with more than we could ever need. So, will we turn towards God and accept what God has for us? Will we accept God as our king?

I will admit, this "kingly" language does strike me as a bit of an odd analogy to God. The idea of being ruled by a king or queen is an earthly, human-made concept that is carried out in a variety of ways that end up oppressing people and, ultimately, not providing what God give us. God gives us life, hope, salvation....love. I take comfort in that, because God is more than we see in kings. No king can measure up to God. That's good news, friends.

See you on Sunday.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Sunday, May 31st, 2015: Tri-Unity

The understanding of the Trinity is a unique one. There is no teaching on it in the Bible, but it permeates the New Testament. The idea of the Trinity came from Scripture and seeing God at work in the world. In the NT, we see reference to the Trinity in baptism (e.g. Matthew 28:19) and benediction (e.g. 2 Cor. 13:13), and in daily life we experience the revelation of God in different ways. God is one, understood in 3 "persons." In God, we see a tri--unity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The NT readings for this Sunday, Romans 8: 12-17 and John 3: 1-17, reference this this tri-unity of God by using all 3 terms. This same God is at work in the OT readings of Isaiah 6: 1-8 and Psalm 29, which would be considered sacred text for John, Paul, Jesus, and Nicodemus, whose voices are heard in these NT readings.

At Pentecost  last Sunday we celebrated the coming of the Spirit, which unites us in our different "languages," backgrounds, cultures, etc. This same Spirit has been with God and in the world since the beginning. The Spirit is referenced in the Old Testament (i.e. Genesis 1:2; Exodus 31:3; Numbers 27:18; Job 33:4; Psalm 104:30; Nehemiah 9:20), so the understanding of God having this form has been known for thousands of years.

I myself have trouble "understanding" the tri-unity of God. Maybe that is the point. We cannot fully understand God, but God still shows up in mysterious and powerful ways in this world and in our lives. The point of this doctrine is not so we can fully understand God, but so that we may open our lives to God in many ways. We may also understand that God represents the relationship we should have with each other and with this world. God is powerful, God is mysterious, God shows up, God is perfect, and God is for us. Praise God!

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Sunday, May 17tth, 2015---Newness of Life:Live God's Testimony

1 John 5: 6-13 talks a lot about the words "testimony" and "testify." These words carry large weights in the world of courtrooms and congressional hearing rooms. When testifying or giving a testimony, witnesses must swear to "tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God." These witnesses give evidence. They prepare statements. They prepare proof of their testimony and their witness to a truth that they attempt to convince others of.  Then, their testimony is challenged, refuted, and subjected to what others testify as true.

Each witness, defendant, and prosecutor inevitably will have some angle, some bias, some sort of agenda in giving, challenging, and hearing these testimonies. The testing of a witness involves probing their testimony for inconsistencies, discrepancies, and different interpretations of what it testified. This is all done because the goal for these cases is to reach an objective ruling based on the facts, removed from any bias, emotion, perception, or agenda.

The author of 1 John seems to have a similar process in mind when it comes to our testimony, our witness to the truth. Other "truths" or "spirits" must be "tested" so that it may be determined that what they say represents Jesus' truth.

The truth we testify is that God has saved us through Jesus Christ. This testimony is not one that is thoroughly laid out in a courtroom, but known in our hearts and expressed through our lives. We have eternal life through Jesus. This is not an opinion; this is the truth. How will we "prove" it? Talking about it is not enough; talking about this truth is only a portion of the way in which it is testified: the majority of this testimony is expressed through our actions, our behaviors, the way in which we love God and love others. In this way, love is the language in which we testify to the truth of God's salvation through Jesus Christ to the world.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Sunday, May 10th, 2015---Newness of Life: Born of God

Two of our readings for this Sunday are intrinsically linked:  Our passage from 1 John says that "Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born from God...This is how we know that we love the children of God---when we love God and keep God’s commandments," that is, as Jesus made clear, and as John 15:13 reiterates, to love our neighbor. 

As Mother's Day approaches, I cannot help but reflect on who my mom has been for me. And then I cannot help but think of how my parent's have impacted my life so much. When I begin thinking about one of my parents, I naturally turn to reflect on the both of them. The apostle John, through these texts, links together love for God to love for Christ----"Who defeats the world? Isn’t it the one who believes that Jesus is God’s Son?" “As the Father loved me, I too have loved you." 

John 15 continues, saying that Jesus no longer calls his disciples servants, but friends, "because servants don’t know what their master is doing...because everything I heard from my Father I have made known to you." Jesus seems to be saying that friendship is the ideal relationship that we can have with him and with God. And so, I think of my relationship with my parents. Surely, there was a time in my life where I simply obeyed them (or was told to obey them) because I didn't really understand the reason I should do what they say. It wasn't that I didn't love them or trust them, I just didn't have any experience to tell me that following their direction is actually the best thing for me.

Isn't that how our spiritual maturity is? As a new follower, we don't understand the depth of God's love for us; that God has our heart; that God knows what's best for us. As we grow, we begin to learn that. As we obey, we take joy in following Christ's way. As we depend on God, we grow in friendship with God. 

It is one of my true blessings that I see my parents as my friends. I understand that the way they have loved me throughout my life has helped to shape me into who I am today. I understand that when they told me what to do, they were looking out for me. They were helping to shape me into their son, a man who could love people well. 

The possibility of friendship with Christ is a gift of grace in and of itself. This grace is attainable. You CAN be considered a friend of Christ in how you love others. It is then we may say with confidence that our prayer to be freed "for joyful obedience" (UMC Communion Liturgy) has been truly answered. In following Christ, we understand Christ's motives for our lives, not for a burdensome way, but for a way that leads to newness of life. 

See you Sunday!

Monday, April 27, 2015

Sunday, May 3rd, 2015---Newness of Life: Remain in Me

Jesus likes to speak in metaphors. The images he uses are familiar to his first followers, and to us as well. Last Sunday, we heard Jesus self-identify as a "Good Shepherd," and this week we hear Jesus tell us that he is the "True Vine." Both of these "I am" statements are part of a larger group of metaphors that Jesus uses to identify himself in familiar terms....bread, light, door, life, way, truth.

All of these metaphors are powerful not because they define a thing, but because they point to something else... a relationship with God, with Jesus, and with each other.

Most of you have probably seen or owned a vine before. When you forget or refuse to tend to them; when they are left alone, the vines will grow uncontrollably and result in a big ole tangled mess. Someone needs to keep those things in order! In addition to trimming it back in order to keep it nice and pretty, the vine grower must also cut away lifeless and unproductive branches and prune the branches that are productive so that they will keep producing. At some point, all of the branches need to be cut. Vineyards are long term investments  and they need a watchful eye, a careful and committed worker, and lots of patience.

The vineyard worker and the branches need to abide, or remain, committed to the process of producing fruit. This is where the metaphor involves us as branches of the true vine that is Jesus Christ. He is the source of our fruit; He is the reason we produce what we do; He is the true vine. To produce good fruit, that is, to live a life worthy of Christ, to live life abundantly, to make the most out of our relationship with Christ, we must remain in Him. We must stay in place, endure, and hold out for a more abundant life (these phrases come from the Greek root of the word we use for "remain" or "abide"---which is meno). God remains steadfast for us, so we must remain in God. That is our relationship.

If Jesus is our true vine, let's be His true branches.

See you Sunday!

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Newness of Life: With the Shepherd

Psalm 23 is one of the most cited psalms out of them all, and for good reason. These words comfort and give strength; they help us make sense of our relationship to God; they give us hope in the midst of all that life brings us:

The Lord is my shepherd.
    I lack nothing.

He lets me rest in grassy meadows;
    he leads me to restful waters;
He guides me in proper paths
    for the sake of his good name.
 Even when I walk through the darkest valley,
    I fear no danger because you are with me.
Your rod and your staff—
    they protect me

John 10: 11-18 places Jesus as the shepherd that is described in Psalm 23, the Good Shepherd, saying: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep."

We read these two passages in tandem because, in a word, they complete each other. Ever since God has spoken to God's people, God has guided, strengthened, and given hope to them. And God does that now for us. Now, we experience and know that Jesus is truly the Good Shepherd, who did in fact lay down his life for his sheep, you and me.

Jesus knows us each by name (cf.when he called out Mary's name outside of the tomb, and she believed), and gathers us into the fold, creating the community in which we grow with each other and worship God.

Our job is to be the sheep: to follow Jesus, to gather together, and depend on our Good Shepherd.

Praise Jesus, who leads us to grassy meadows and restful waters; who calms our fears by protecting us; who gathers us into the fold.

See you Sunday!

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Sunday April 12th, 2015---Newness of Life: Doubting Thomas

This past Sunday was Easter Sunday, and we all showed up to church to celebrate the resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ! It was personally a great experience, to be with so many as we observed this Holy day together. Now, we enter into the season of Easter, where we observe each of the next 6 Sundays as Sundays of, not Sundays after, Easter. This is the season where we know our lives are different because God has saved us by his Son’s living, dying, and rising. We have new life in Christ.

This Sunday’s gospel lesson is John 20: 19-31. This tells the story of “Doubting Thomas.” Thomas does not believe that the resurrected Jesus is in front of him, so he asks to touch the piercings in Jesus’ hands. The other disciples have trouble believing, too. But Jesus does not chastise them; he embraces them and extends grace to them. 

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

3/29/15---We're on a Journey...To a Holy Place

Mark 11:1-11 tells the story of Jesus' entry into the holy city of Jerusalem. Most of the text, however, relates to the arrangements for this hugely political event. 7 verses are spent on arranging the right transportation (a colt)  in to the city while 4 deal with his entry.

It is made clear that Jesus planned the entire occasion advance. He has arranged for the colt, and even the signals for the disciples to use with those who were watching the colt. So Jesus did this, knowing exactly what he was doing.

And what did he do? He rode into the most important city of his day, on a colt.

The surprising juxtaposition of humility, represented by the colt, and power, represented by the shouts of the people, dominate this text. Jesus wore no crowns or jewels, and he did not enter this holy city with an entourage of supporters. He met those who supported him there as they shouted "Hosanna, Hosanna!"

Jesus began his journey into the holy city at the Mount of Olives, the location where many thought the final battle for Jerusalem's liberation would begin. But he did not make provisions for battle, but for a journey into the city; he did not order the weapons of war, but a colt for riding on.

If we want to approach something holy, we better do it intentionally, and humbly. To approach God must be to embrace humility. That is where our abilities come from; that is how we can follow Jesus; that is what means to be a child of God.

The entry into Jerusalem may be seen as a sort of political jest in which Jesus denies domination and embraces humility. He is not going there, after all, to be exalted among the powerful, but to die on a cross for sinners...

Monday, March 16, 2015

3/22/15---We're on a Journey...With a Promise

So....we are smack dab in our journey of Lent together. Right now, you may be feeling the difficulty that this season can bring. You may be feeling accomplished because you have kept your goals, and are growing in your commitment to what God has led you to do for these 40 days. Perhaps you are feeling like you can't keep up with the promise you made to God, or you are struggling to keep it.

Wherever you are, let the words of Jeremiah 31:33 comfort you and bring you hope:

"I will put my Instructions within them and engrave them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people."

God has made us this promise. And it's a big one. God has promised to be our God, and to have us as the people of God. We are God's, and God is ours. 

Notice the first part of the verse, too. God's instructions are to be engraved on our hearts, as opposed to stone tablets, which are subject to deterioration. God is putting God's instructions within us, because we are permanent. We have eternal life if we are truly the people of God, so these instructions are put in a place that lives on. These instructions are put in a place where they have life. They are put within us.

But if we wish to be the people of God and inherit eternal life, we must lose our current, temporary life:

Those who love their lives will lose them, and those who hate their lives in this world will keep them forever. 

John 12:25 reminds us that we have a choice to make. "Hate," here, does not mean that we are not grateful for what we have in this world. This is a question about what we will follow after. Will we pursue recognition, congratulations, money, popularity, favor, and comfort? Or will we pursue Jesus? Will we pursue the way that God has illuminated for us in Jesus?  Are we willing to lose our life to save it? 

God's ways are in our hearts. Christ showed us the way. The Holy Spirit guides, protects, and can inspire us to follow it. Will we follow the promise?

Monday, March 9, 2015

3/15/15----We're on a Journey...By Grace

The following pieces of Scripture are probably familiar:

Ephesians 2:8-10

You are saved by God’s grace because of your faith. This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed. It’s not something you did that you can be proud of. Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives.

 John 3:16-17

God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. God didn't send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.

The connection between these passages is that this life we have, this journey we're on, the salvation offered us by God through Jesus Christ, is all a gift. It's all grace.

What would it look like if we treated everything we have, every opportunity we have, every place we go, every person we meet...as a gift for us from God?

In John 3, we see Nicodemus wanting Jesus to give him a sign in order to provide him with faith (don't we do this???). Jesus responds to him, a Pharisee, that he must be born again. This confuses Nicodemus, and so Jesus explains what that means to him. Faith is not easy, folks, but it provides a way for us to be transformed by the grace of God into people of God. It is not based on signs, but a relationship with God that transforms us.

Paul explains to the church in Ephesus that this faith, by God's grace, actually has the power to save you. A true faith that changes the way we live, saves us. In giving we shall receive eternal life; by faith we may always have that relationship with God.

See you on Sunday!

Monday, March 2, 2015

3/8/15---We're on a Journey...Committed to God

This Sunday's Scriptures include the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20: 1-17) and Jesus in the temple (John 2: 13-22) where he drives the money changers out and turned the tables.

Both of these texts make me feel a bit queasy. Do I follow all of these commandments? Am I more like the money changers? Am I truly committed to God's ways?

I know that these texts invite me to a deep relationship to God and those around me. The texts place the ways and will of God over and above the world's ways. We are given direction to be in the world but not of the world; to live differently...

...but the world's ways are everywhere, difficult to overcome. The Ten Commandments are given to a nation who needed specific direction on their journey to becoming people of God, and they are given to us for the same reason. Jesus' actions in the Temple make it plain to us that the world will try and taint God's holy place; God' world.

The Ten Commandments were given so that the Israelites may become people of God, who are committed to God's ways over and above the world's ways. Jesus' actions in the temple signal a new age: one where the world's ways are denounced and literally overturned, in favor of God's new reign. The temple is replaced by the temple of Jesus' body, which is a foreshadowing of his death and resurrection and its embodiment in the celebration of Holy Communion.

Lent calls for a time of repentance. We are called to turn back to God, who called the Israelites and us to a covenant relationship with God and each other. God is no longer worshiped in one central location, the temple, but everywhere, through Christ's dwelling in each of us.

This is why things change in the church: because the church is always being led by a God who never stands still. This is comforting to me, as I embrace changes in my own life. This comforts me, who will probably see things change in church, in our denomination, and in our Church universal a time or two.

Although these texts make me queasy, they ultimately point me to a God who is committed to me, to the church, to the Church, and to you. God gave us ways to commit to God, through law, through Christ, and through Church. God keeps up the promises God made and is making to us. But that doesn't include standing still.

See you Sunday!

Monday, February 23, 2015

3/1/15---We're on a Journey...Following Christ

This past Sunday I asked the congregation to reflect on 3 questions in light of Mark 1:15:

What is God's Kingdom?

What is Repentance?

What is the good news?

These questions are very layered; they are surrounded by a multitude of other questions, if you really begin to reflect and dive deep into them.

Understanding each of these things is very difficult, in part because we all have different experiences, different backgrounds, different stories, and different journeys.

A few of the  most powerful questions underlying these, for me, are "how do I know?" and "what does it mean that I know?" I believe that any knowledge of what these terms mean come directly from God. So we praise God and ask God for more. I believe that because God has shown us these things, that they have power. Repentance, for example, is powerful because it returns us to God.

So, I challenge you to reflect on these terms, how God has shown you what they mean, and what difference it makes for you.

Lent is a season that begs the question: "what does it mean to be a Christian?"

The easy answer to this question is "someone who follows Jesus." We have pondered this before; we know that following Jesus entails the willingness to take up our crosses.

During the 40 days spent in the wilderness, Jesus most likely thought about what it meant to be Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God. Oddly enough, he knew that it would entail shame and suffering.

So, this week I ask the question: "What does it mean for Jesus to be Messiah (the anointed savior?" and "What does it mean to be a faithful disciple of Jesus (a Christian)?"

See you Sunday!

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

2/15/15---Love God: Listen to God

Growing up, I did not learn so quickly that listening to someone often meant putting into practice what they said. "Clean your room" really meant keep your clean; don't just wait until I tell you to do it. "Be nice to your brother" meant to get along with him, share with him, care about him. "Turn the TV down" meant pay attention to how what you are doing might affect others.

Listening goes beyond hearing. Listening is embracing what someone is telling you, allowing their words to shape you as well as inform you. At the mountain top where some disciples saw Jesus in a new and bright way (Jesus' transfiguration), God's voice speaks to them saying, “This is my Son, whom I dearly love. Listen to him!”And Jesus told them that he would rise from the dead, but first "suffer many things and be rejected."

Jesus was not just telling them what would happen to him. He was not simply informing them, he was telling them what it meant to be a disciple. Following Christ, indeed, is more than listening to him for information. It is more than knowing what Jesus did, it is embracing what Jesus did so that it may transform us and make us new.

For the disciples, this was a theophany: a visible manifestation of God. It occurred on a mountain top, thus, Christians have coined the phrase "mountaintop experience." But the disciples did not stay on that mountain, they had to travel back down to the valley, to the reality of human life. So did Jesus, who knew that he must face his impending rejection unto death. Jesus travels with us down into the valley, always. He will never leave us. What a Christ to listen to and follow.

See you Sunday!

Monday, February 2, 2015

2/8/15----Love God: Know and Hear God

The connection between science and faith is fascinating. There are scientists, people who study the depths of the universe and the intricacies of this world, who conclude that there is a God who makes this all possible. There must be a God who sets all in motion. It is a miracle that there is life on this planet, and it is no coincidence. The fact their is enough sun light, enough water, enough land, and the right air all is a miracle.

Isaiah 40: 21-31 imagines knowing the God that sets things in motion. "It is He who sits above the earth;" "lift up your eyes and see: who created these?" "have you not known? have you not heard? the Lord is the everlasting God."  And this is the same God who "gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless."

Even some of the brightest scientists of our day cannot explain how life on earth is possible without God. This same God that makes life possible, that molds the universe, is the Lord of you and I.

We are so insignificant when you really think about how much God is the Lord over. God has created so much; we are mere specs on God's canvas. But we are so significant that God loves, lives in us, and sent Christ to die for us.

As we approach Lent, the season in which we zoom in on Jesus' teaching and healing ministry which led to his death and resurrection, I challenge us to see, know, and hear God in the world. May we see that God is all around us, may we hear the good news of God, and know that God has made a way for us.

See you Sunday!

Monday, January 26, 2015

2/1/15---Love God: Be Known by God

Back in High School, I was not someone you would classify as "in the know." I was not very popular (shocker, right?). I didn't know when the next big party was. I didn't know where people were going after the football game. I was not privy to the latest gossip or rumors. I did not know who disliked who, or who liked who, unless I saw it. I felt like I was constantly "out of the loop." 

I felt like a second-class citizen in my high school, almost. That was until I befriended someone on the baseball team (which then turned out to be several members of the baseball team). Suddenly, I knew what was going on behind the scenes. I was being invited to parties with the cool kids. I quickly discovered something that both excited me and opened my eyes: the popular kids played by their own rules. Where kids' one desire is to be accepted, they were able to use that against them, or at least take advantage of that. Some will do anything to feel loved and accepted...

The first century Christians in Corinth also played by their own rules. The Corinthian church had a strong faction of intelligent, wealthy, prominent, and sophisticated members who believed that Christians were not bound by the law of abstaining from the consumption of meat products, specifically the meat offered to idols. The reason was "simple" for them who were "in the know." They could eat the meat because idols did not exist. Idols had no power since there is one God, as proclaimed in the Shema (which was a piece of "insider language" saying that the Lord is one).

But in the Corinthian church there were also ordinary people whose incomes and habits allowed very little meat in their diets. For these folks who "didn't know any better," eating meat offered to idols threatened faith by drawing them back to the idolatrous cultures from which they had only recently been converted to the Christian faith.

This was also true for me. I couldn't be seen with certain people or in certain places unless I wanted to lose my status as a popular kid in the know. 

As in my high school, there are groups ("cliques?") of people who are "in the know" and that "don't know any better." I think part of the joy of being a Christian is that I live differently now. I know that "anyone who loves God is known by him." Part of what happens to us when we love God is that we love or neighbor with boldness, courage, and faith. That means that we entrust, we gift, we show that being "in Christ" is far better than being "in the know." Jesus offers us a life that is not concerned about knowledge, status, or popularity, but with God and our neighbor.

Yes, we are free from the law because Christ fulfilled the law. We are free to be known and loved and to simultaneously love God and neighbor. It is through Christ we are free. Thanks be to God.

See you Sunday!