Abide

This message was presented at the FSU Wesley Foundation on February 9, 2014, based on John 15:1-17.

            Here’s a question you may have never thought about before…

            When you think about God, or maybe when you pray – where is he?  Do you imagine God as being off in some far off, distant heaven?  Do you imagine him everywhere?  Do you imagine him close – nearby – maybe even here, now?  Locationally speaking – where is God located?

            When I was in seminary, there was a small group of monks living near the school, who would welcome us into their home for daily Eucharist, retreats, spiritual direction.  I was a regular, and met frequently with a monk named Father Brian for spiritual direction.  Brian was a funny, quirky, odd, Canadian, stereotypical monk – as wide as he was tall – and incredibly opinionated, and, wise, and deeply spiritual.  I told him once that God felt distant, so he assigned me this passage from John 15, of Jesus as the vine, to read and pray with everyday for a month.  I said, “A Month?  I think I can be finished with that in a couple of days!”  Brian said, “1 month.  Every day.”  Father Brian was unbending.

            A month later, I had discovered a God who was not far away, but lived deep within me, and I deeply within him.  Since then, as I pray, I don’t look up to some far off heaven, but I seek the God who lives in me – but whom I often forget or ignore.

            Jesus present us with the image of a mature grapevine, a common image in the lands Jesus walked and taught in.  Jesus says that he is the vine itself – in other words, the trunk – deeply grounded and rooted into the life-giving soil.  We are the branches, connected to the vine.  And, what would be the point of having a grapevine if the branches did not bear fruit – thus we as branches are expected to bear fruit.  What is the fruit?  We’ll get to that.

            The passage begins with a lot of talk about pruning.  That’s not really my focus today.  But, you can’t ignore it either.  Jesus said, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunesto make it bear more fruit.”  Apparently, for a grapevine to produce the optimum amount of fruit, it has to be pruned.  First, you cut off the unproductive branches – they’re not bearing fruit anyway.  Then, you cut back even the fruitful branches, so that they can bear even more fruit.  Jesus describes it as a process of spiritual cleansing that we must go through in order to be spiritually pure and mature.  On a grapevine, the branches tend to be come so thick and full that some branches are blocked from the light, which is needed for fruitfulness.  So, the branches have to be pruned back so that the light can shine through.  Apparently the same is true for us.

            We could talk a lot about the process of refinement and purification in the life of a Christian – but today I want us to focus primarily on the following words…

            Jesus said, Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.  I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.”

            Abide.  Abide in me, and I will abide in you.  When I hear the word I think of a place I will live – my home.  It is similar to the word abode, as in “my humble abode.”  You abide in an abode.

 The early English version of the word simply means to remain.

            The NRSV, The NASB, and the King James version of the Bible all use the word abide.  The CEV says “Stay joined to me.”  The Message says, “Live in me.”  The NIV says, “Remain in me.”  All are  slightly different, but conveying the same idea.  Jesus is inviting us to live in him, as our permanent dwelling place – to be joined to him, and to stay joined to him – to make him our abode, and for him to make us his abode.

            Henri Nouwen writes,

“Jesus, in whom the fullness of God dwells, has become our home.  By making his him in us he allows us to make our home in him.  By entering into the intimacy of our innermost self he offers us the opportunity to enter into his own intimacy with God.  By choosing us as his preferred dwelling place he invites us to choose him as our preferred dwelling place.”

            Think of the image of the vine and the branch, and their connection.  You can sever a branch from the vine and clearly have two distinct things – but the branch will soon wither and die.  But, a branch growing out from the vine is deeply connected.  Where precisely does the branch begin and the where does the vine end?  The branch is deeply rooted in to the vine, and dependent on the vine as it draws nutrients from the vine.  And, the stronger and thicker the branch, the greater the connection to the vine.  The vine is joined to the branch and vice versa, and must stay that way for the branch to be fruitful.

            In the same way, we are to be spiritually joined to Christ in such a way that we cease to know where we end and he begins, or he ends and we begin.  We live in him and he lives in us.  And, to live and stay fruitful we must stay deeply connected to the vine.  We must intentionally abide – remain – in the constant presence of Christ.

The Trappist Monk, Thomas Keating wrote, “We rarely think of the air we

breathe, yet it is in us and around us all the time.  In similar fashion, the Presence of God penetrates us, is all around us, is always embracing us.” 

Jesus says it another way in,”  John 17:21-24 (The Message)…

“Just as you, Father, are in me and I in you, so they might be one heart and mind with us.  Then the world might believe that you, in fact, sent me.  The same glory you gave me, I gave them, so they’ll be as unified and together as we are—I in them and you in me.  Then they’ll be mature in this oneness, and give the godless world evidence that you’ve sent me and loved them in the same way you’ve loved me.”

Thomas Keating writes, “God and our true self are not separate. Though we are not God, God and our true self are the same thing.”

To be united with Christ, to abide him, is to receive life.  Likewise, to be cut off from him, is death. Thomas Merton wrote, He is closer to us than we are to ourselves and that is why we do not notice him.”

Jesus said, “Apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.”  I used to read that as extremely harsh and severe.  It felt like the threat of punishment.  “If you chose to be severed from me you will pay the price!  I’ll throw you in the fire!”  But, increasingly over the years, I have both found these words to be true, and to hear Jesus speak them with compassion.  It is true – a branch cut off from the vine withers and dies.  If we are cut off from the source of our life, we too will wither and die.  As I hear Jesus say it, I hear his heart breaking for us.  “Don’t be cut off from me.  Don’t wither.  Don’t die.  I made you for life.  I made you for abundance.  I made you to be my home.”

Richard Foster writes, “At the very heart of God is the passionate disposition to be in loving fellowship with You.”

But, we get busy.  We get distracted.  We neglect our devotional time and spiritual disciplines.  The world increasing robs our attention and ensnares us.  And, sometimes we feel our selves withering.  Though God is everywhere, we allow ourselves to drift further and further away from him.

We need reminders, and practices, that keep us deeply rooted in the vine.

What Jesus is describing in his metaphor of the vine and branches is an invitation to intimacy.  Intimacy with the creator of the universe.  Intimacy with the savior of the world.  Intimacy with the Holy Spirit of God.

In the words of Henri Nouwen, “Jesus says: ‘You have a home…I am your home… claim me as your home… You will find it to be the intimate place where I have found my home… it is right where you are… in your innermost being… in your heart.’”

And, you can’t speak of intimacy without speaking of love.  Love, by it’s very nature, seeks union.  It is love that draws us to Christ, and him to us.  In addition, Jesus said, Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.”  The first and greatest of the fruits of the Spirit is love.  Jesus ends this passage with these words…

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends… You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

And so, this presents us with both an invitation and a warning – but a warning spoken with the deepest of love and compassion.  The invitation is to enter into a life of intimacy with God.  The warning – spoken as a parent to a child, as an intimate friend, as one lover to another – apart from me you will wither.  This passage is Jesus inviting us to pursue him and know him more deeply, more fully, and more intimately.  To abide.

 

Prepare the Way

This message was preached on Sunday, February 16, 2014 at the FSU Wesley Foundation.  Based on Isaiah 40:3-11 and Matthew 3:1-12.

Besides Jesus, my two favorite Bible characters have always been John the Baptist and John the Apostle.  I love John the apostle’s spirituality, and his intimacy with Jesus.  On the other hand, I love John the Baptist’s wildness, and I suppose I wish I was a bit more like him.  Though we have been focused on Jesus this year, exclusively, I want to deviate slightly today and focus on John the Baptist.  But, because of who John was and what John did, he will inevitably point us right back to Jesus.  That’s what his life was about – preparing people for, and directing people to Jesus.

John and Jesus were cousins – both born miraculously, and born 6 months apart.  We have no way of knowing if they had a relationship, as they were from different towns.  But, it is entirely possible that they might have, and that they might have even talked about what they knew God was calling them to be and to do. 

John was the son of a priest, which might mean that he was likely also a priest, which was typically the case.  But, rather than work in a synagogue or in the Temple, John made his home in the desert.

Perhaps a priest, most definitely a prophet, John was by anyone’s standards a wild man.  He lived outdoors, in the desert area near the Jordan river.  He wore camel’s hair and a leather belt for clothes.  Can you imagine what wet, unwashed camel’s hair must have smelled like?  His diet consisted of bugs and wild honey.  Some think that he had taken a Nazarite vow, like Samson, and so he never cut his hair or shaved his beard.  He was known for fasting.  He preached to anyone who would listen, without holding back, or politeness, or softness, or fear of offending.  He frequently called religious leaders a “brood of vipers” and threatened that no one was safe from God’s coming wrath.

John is best known as the “baptizer.”  As the crowds would come to hear him preach about the coming kingdom of God, he offered a ritual washing in the Jordan to signify repentance and the washing away of sins.  John also said that another was coming who would baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit – of course, he was talking about Jesus.  Everything John did was about Jesus. 

Many wondered if he was the long awaited Messiah.  But, John was always clear…

“No.  I am not.  I am the voice crying out in the wilderness…”prepare the way of the Lord.”

“There is someone coming after me… I am not even worthy to untie  his sandal.”

The purpose of john’s ministry was to prepare the way the way for Jesus.  As the prophet Isaiah had said…

A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
    make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
    and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
    and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
    and all people shall see it together,
    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

Interesting that he is the “voice.’  In the Gospel of John, Jesus is referred to as the “word.”  John is the voice that declares that the “word’ is coming soon.  John 1 also says,

There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.”

 

John is sometimes referred to as a “herald,” who came before to Jesus to announce his coming, as a herald would go before a king to announce his coming.

But, it’s the WAY he prepared the way for Jesus that’s important.  It’s the message he spoke.  Preparation for the Messiah required repentance. 

John said,

Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

Repentance goes hand in hand with confession, which John required for baptism.  Repentance is about an attitude, a decision.  It is the realization that you are in the wrong.  It literally means to turn around.  It is the awareness of sin and guilt, and the acknowledgement of wrong-doing.  Both John and Jesus preached about repentance constantly, saying that it was an absolute requirement for entry into the Kingdom of Heaven.

Martin Luther said, The recognition of sin is the beginning of salvation.

Repentance is a bit like preparing a gourmet meal for your favorite family and friends, and realizing that all of your plates and cups haven’t been washed in weeks and are crusty with old, hardened, caked-on grease and grime.  They not only have to be washed – they need to be scrubbed.  Then, and only then can they be filled with delicious food.

Or, you’re picking up your new boss at the airport, and you realize that you car smells like sweat and feet, and it’s full of fast food wrappers, and old french fries.  The outside is filthy and covered in mud.  You need to get that car detailed before anybody can get in it!

Or, you’re going on a date with your dream girl.  You haven’t showered in a few days.  You’ve just been to the gym.  You ate a garlic sandwich for lunch.  Your best clothes are dirty, stinky, and balled up in the corner.  You haven’t shaved in weeks.  You’d better get yourself cleaned up, polished up, sweetened before you even think about knocking on her door!

God’s grace is the soap and the scrub brush and the brillo pad and the bleach and the shop vac that we need to clean us up from all of our sin.  Confession and repentance are the awareness and acknowledgement that I need God’s grace and forgiveness desperately.  Cleansing, symbolized by baptism is the prerequisite for participation in the Kingdom of God. 

Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola write,

“To be baptized by John meant that you were being purified from your sins.  That you were being freed from the burden of the filth from your past and loosened from the burdens that were attached to it.  It meant that you were starting all over again.”

And for John, real repentance was reflected in a change of lifestyle.  John told anyone with 2 shirts to give 1 to the poor.  He told the tax collectors to stop collecting more than they were required.  He told soldiers to quit robbing people and falsely accusing them.  He expected to see real, actual, tangible change.

And, the right disposition of heart for confession and repentance is humility.  No one in all of Scripture, except for Jesus, was more humble than John the Baptist.  John said, “I must decrease, so that Jesus may increase.”  John said, “I am not even worthy to untie his sandals.  When I read that, I always imagine wealthy, important people coming to be baptized by John, and their servants kneeling in the mud, untying their sandals.  I imagine John looking into the eyes of the servants, saying, “someone is coming, so great, that I’m not even worthy of getting down in the mud with you and untie HIS sandals.”  Thus, John identifies himself, and his ministry, as less than a servant of Jesus – and, yet, Jesus said of John, “among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”

John the Baptist was nothing less than a prophet. Anointed by God.  But, he knew that he was not the Messiah.  He, too, needed a Messiah.  Humility and repentance do not diminish who we are.  Humility and repentance reestablish the place where we belong…under the Lordship of Christ. 

Without humility and repentance, we live our lives pointing to ourselves – “look at me, look how special I am, look how important I am, look how beautiful I am, look how popular I am.”  Or, we do the opposite – we hide in shame, hoping that no one will ever see us.  Humility isn’t about false-pride or about shame.  Humility is about, as John knew, our true value, our purpose, our calling.  For John, and for us, that meant living a life that points constantly to the greatness of God. 

On the day Jesus showed up at the river, to be baptized by john – not baptize john, but to be baptized by him – John said, “Behold, here is the one I have been talking about.  Here is the one I have been preparing the way for, here is the one who baptizes with fire, here is the lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world.  All of John’s ministry was for that purpose, to point to Jesus, and to prepare people for his arrival. 

Often, we think of confession and repentance as something we need to do before we accept Jesus…before we become Christians.  But, what about after?  I wonder if we need to hear John’s message with some regularity.  I wonder if we need frequent reminders that we are not Jesus, and that we need Jesus, and that the sin in our life is real and keeping us out of fully participating in the Kingdom of God.   I wonder if we just might need to frequently practice confession, and to repent.

 

Gratitude

This message was preached at the FSU Wesley Foundation on Sunday, November 24th, 2013.

           This week is Thanksgiving – a time we think about travel, time with family, turkey, football, and Black Friday sales.  But, way before that, Thanksgiving was about giving thanks.  A day was set aside to reflect on the previous year, and to give thanks for all that had been provided.

            And, so today, I wonder, what are you thankful for?  For what are you grateful?

            I’m thankful for…

my wife…

my kids…

my parents, and the opportunities they provided me…

my job, and the opportunity to do the things I do…

my home…

for money in the bank…

for close, intimate friends…

and for my motorcycle, because I really enjoy it!

            This week, I had some minor surgery on my left arm. In spite of not really enjoying surgery, I am thankful.   I’m thankful for a procedure that will make my hands stop falling asleep!  I’m thankful for health insurance to pay for it.  I’m thankful for the doctors and curses who took care of me.  I’m thankful for the anesthesia that put me to sleep through it, and the pain medicine I took after it.  I’m thankful for my wife who took care of me afterward.  And, I’m thankful for having my right hand operated on in a month. 

So, again, what are you thankful for?  And, maybe more importantly, to whom are you thankful?

According to Robert Emmons, of the University of California-Davis, the word thanks and its cognates appear in the Bible more than 150 times.

Martin Luther referred to gratitude as “The basic Christian attitude.”

Jonathan Edwards believed that gratitude is one of the most accurate ways of finding the presence of God in a person’s life.

I discovered a video on Youtube this week…

  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oHv6vTKD6lg

The video talks about the joy experienced by the one expressing thanks.  I wonder, if it had been measured, if the people receiving thanks would also experience increased joy?  I suspect that they do.

Luke 17:11-19 tells the story of Jesus and ten lepers.  Jesus and the disciples were traveling between Galilee and Samaria, when they encountered a group of lepers.  Leprosy is a disease of the nervous system, and that usually leads to severe skin damage and disfigurement.  Because it is highly contagious, leprosy also meant ostracism from society, family, business, and religion.  The lepers called out to Jesus for help.  Jesus told them to go to their priest to show that they had been healed, which was required in the book of Leviticus.  Nine of the lepers went to their priest and received healing.  One – a Samaritan – returned to Jesus to say “thank you.”  Strangely, Jesus asks, “Where are the other nine?”  After all, Jesus hadn’t asked them to return.  They did what they had been told.  Possibly, the Samaritan knew the Jewish priest would not receive him, as Samaritans were hated by Jews.  Maybe Jesus was the only place he could go.  Also strange, Jesus told the Samaritan that his faith had made him well.  All ten were healed, and yet Jesus credits the Samaritan with faith.

Like the ten lepers in this story, we are all so very blessed.  One of my favorite traditions of the African-American church is the phrase often heard in prayer, “Thank you for getting me up this morning.  You didn’t have to, but you did.”  In the African-American church, gratitude begins with our existence, our life.  Every other blessing comes after this basic fact – life is a gift.  Our existence is a blessing.    Beyond that, we have received the gifts of health, education, money, friends, Christian community, family, etc. 

Psalm 107:8-9reads, “Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for mankind, for he satisfies the thirsty and fills the hungry with good things.”  All things come from God.  Everything we have are gifts from God.

And, yet, as Christians, we also know to be thankful, not just for the blessings we desire and enjoy, but for everything.

Thessalonians 5:18 reads, “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

Ephesians 5:20reads, Always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Give thanks in ALL circumstances.  Give thanks to God for EVERYTHING.  ALL and EVERYTHING includes good and bad, highs and lows, victories and defeats, celebrations and hardships, joy and sorrow.  How is that possible?  Who can feel grateful when their world is falling apart, when they are lonely, when they are in pain?  We are not told to FEEL grateful.  We are told to BE grateful, based on the foundational Christian belief that God works in all things for our good.  Though we may struggle to be thankful for our immediate conditions, we have faith that God is using everything in our lives for good.  God doesn’t cause our suffering.  Neither does God ever let it go to waste.

C.S. Lewis writes, “We ought to give thanks for all fortune: if it is good, because it is good; if bad, because it works in us patience, humility, contempt of this world and the hope of our eternal country.”

Thomas A Kempis writes, “Be thankful for the smallest blessing, and you will deserve to receive greater. Value the least gifts no less than the greatest, and simple graces as especial favours. If you remember the dignity of the Giver, no gift will seem small or mean, for nothing can be valueless that is given by the most high God. “ 

            Thus gratitude is more than a feeling.  Gratitude is a choice.  We choose to be thankful, regardless of how we feel about our current circumstance.  We can choose to feel entitled to better than we have, and thus not feel grateful for what we do have.  We can choose to resent what we don’t have or the situation we are in, or what others may have. 

Henri J. M. Nouwen writes, “Gratitude as a discipline involves a conscious choice. I can choose to be grateful even when my emotions and feelings are still steeped in hurt and resentment. It is amazing how many occasions present themselves in which I can choose gratitude instead of a complaint. I can choose to grateful when I am criticized, even when my heart still responds in bitterness. I can choose to speak about goodness and beauty, even when my inner eye still looks for someone to accuse or something to call ugly.”

As I studied this passage and watched this video, the lesson I learned this week is that gratitude is ultimately relational.  Gratitude ultimately leads you back to the giver.  Gratitude creates a relational connection, and relational bond.  The only difference between the one Samaritan leper and the nine is that the Samaritan leper returned to Jesus to thank him face to face – to acknowledge Jesus as the giver of the gift of healing.  Ultimately his expression of gratitude was his salvation. 

Meister Eckhart writes, “The most important prayer in the world is just two words long: ‘Thank you.’”

John Chrysostom writes, “Let us give thanks to God continually. For, it is outrageous that when we enjoy His benefaction to us in deed every single day, we do not acknowledge the favor with so much as a word; and this, when the acknowledgment confers great benefit on us. He does not need anything of ours, but we stand in need of all things from Him.

In point of fact, thanksgiving adds nothing to Him, but it brings us closer to Him.“

            Gratitude expressed ultimately leads us to the one who is the giver of every good gift, the one who created us and gives us life, the one who sent his son to die for us, the one who offers us eternal life.  Ultimately, isn’t that the goal for every believer – to draw closer to God?  Gratitude leads us right to him.

And so I ask you again, what are you thankful for?  Who are you thankful too?

 

Todo es Posible

This message was preached at the FSU Wesley Foundation, on Sunday, November 10, 2013, based on Matthew 17:14-20.

I started college with a deep faith in God, and big dreams of being a leader on campus, of going to law school, and eventually going into politics.  But, by my senior year, my spirituality had become absent, I had partied my way through college, my grades were a joke, I had given up on any major career ambitions, and I had developed some pretty bad drinking habits. 

I was the president of my fraternity, which meant I had my own private bedroom in the house.  At night, I would close the door, sit on my bed, and anxiety about the future would flood over me.  I knew that graduation was quickly approaching and that I would need to get a job – but who would hire me?  I was dating my wife, and I knew I wanted to get married – but how would I support a family?  I knew my drinking was a problem – but how would I quit?  I had wasted my college years, and was totally unprepared for the adult world.  And, I felt very, very, very far away from God.  I was afraid.

One night, as I sat on my bed, my Bible caught my eye.  It was given to me when I was baptized in High School, but I had never read it.  I knew a few Bible stories from when I was a kid – but that was all.  Something told me that I needed to read it.  Honestly, I was desperate.  So, that night, I opened it to the New Testament, and read the first two pages.  Every night, before I went to sleep, I read two more.  One night I came to today’s reading, and one verse leapt off of the page…

“Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”

It spoke to me.  I was facing mountains – no real education, no real work experience, no connections, no prospects, and obstacles to things I wanted and had hoped and dreamed about.  And, though my faith had dwindled, I figured that it was at least as big as a mustard seed.  That night, I took the Bible very literally.  Maybe my tiny, pathetic, unpracticed, untested faith was big enough to move the mountains standing in the way of the life I was supposed to be living.

That verse is at the end of a story about Jesus healing a boy.  Jesus had been approached by a father who desperately wanted help for his son.  The boy was possessed by a demon, who would cause him to have terrible seizure, and would cause the boy to fall into fires or into waters.  You can imagine everything the man had already done to find help for his son.  He had approached the disciples before Jesus arrived, and they couldn’t manage to drive the demon out.  But, it says that Jesus rebuked the demon and that the demon left him in an instant.

When the disciples asked why they had been unable to drive the demon out, Jesus said, because YOU have such LITTLE faith.  But…

“ if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”

Here’s the interesting thing – they obviously had faith.  They had tried to cast the demon out, meaning that they believed they actually could!  I think the problem was that they their faith was misplaced.  They had come to have faith in themselves instead of God.  They thought THEY possessed the power they needed.  Their problem was that they actually had too much faith – but faith in the wrong thing. 

Basically, I think Jesus was saying that an ounce of faith in God is far greater than a pound of faith in your self!  Jesus’ power was always grounded in his connection to his Father.

As I sat in my fraternity house bedroom, I felt overwhelmed by the future – by the mountains I faced – because I had absolutely no faith in myself or my abilities.  In my fear, my mountains looked huge, and my ability to move them seemed pretty puny.  I think we do that all of them time.  When we are faced with challenges, we assess what we can or can’t do – and that is our reality.  We either assume we can, or we can’t deal with our mountains, based on the talents, abilities, connections, education, physical strength we think we need.   We either become overwhelmed or over confident.

But, Jesus is saying that if we place our faith in God, rather than ourselves, nothing is impossible.  We can actually move mountains.

Hebrews 11:1 says, “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.”

St. Augustine said, Faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe.

So often, the only thing we can see is the mountain in front of us.  We can’t see past it, or over it.  We can’t imagine climbing it.  We can’t imagine it moving for us.  But, faith looks past the mountain.  It sees the impossible.  It believes in what only God can do.

I won’t bore you with all of the details.  But, within 12 months of discovering this verse – and literally believing what it said – I had stopped drinking, I was engaged, I was the youth director at the First United Methodist Church of Orlando, and had been accepted to Duke for graduate school.  My life had purpose, and direction.  I was making responsible decisions and choices.  My faith in God was flourishing.  My mountains – at least the ones at that point of my life – had disappeared.

Knowing I was going to be preaching today, this passage has been on my mind a lot this last week.  You may or may not know that Logan, Will and I were in Guatemala, visiting our friends in the village where we take groups.  One of the things you frequently hear Christians say in Latin America is, “En Christo, nada is impossible…en Christo, todo es possible.” 

Our groups will often sing some of our songs in Spanish for them.  One of them is the song Mighty to save.  The chorus is… “Savior, he can move a mountain.  My God is mighty to save.  He is mighty to save.  Forever, author of salvation.  He rose and conquered the grace.  Jesus conquered the grave.”

In Spanish…

Cristo Puede mover montes
solo Dios puede salvar
mi Dios puede salvar
por siempre autor de salvación
Jesús la muerte venció
él la muerte venció

 

Our village is literally in the mountains – over 6000 feet above sea level.  But, it is also full of other mountains – poverty, disease, addiction, malnutrition, natural disasters, oppression.  That song comes to life for me there, because the mountains they face are often so huge, and the resources seem so small.  And yet, God is so faithful.

Let me tell you some stories…

When I first came to Wesley, one of my goals was to find some place in the world that we could take teams of students, and develop a long-term relationship.  But, Wesley had never been on an international mission trip, and I didn’t have any connections.  After much prayer and searching, God led us to the village of Chontala in March 2008.  Since then we have taken 14 teams to the village, built 8 houses, led a dozen vacation bible schools, built chicken coops, set up a computer lab, and have had 6 different people from Wesley living and working in the village for the last 6 months.  We are deeply invested in a place none of us had ever heard of 7 years ago.

Dona Maria Thomasa is a friend who lives in the village.  During a long, terrible civil war, her husband, and many others, were killed by the government.  At that time, crops were destroyed, homes were burned, and their church was bombed with men trapped inside of it.  The women who survived had no means of supporting themselves or their children.  But, they had a vision of starting a weaving cooperative called “Naomi and Ruth.”  Now, their cooperative sells handmade Guatemalan goods all over the world, and provides aid for local families, and scholarships for children.  When I was on a cruise to Canada this summer, I found a bag for sale, made by my friends in Chontala.  Facing the mountains of war, genocide, death, and extreme poverty – they had faith that God would move their mountain, and he did.

My friend Hugo is Dona Maria Thomasa’s son in law, who also sews for the cooperative.  For a number of years, I have been buying things for Hugo to bring back to the states to sell – purses, handbags, blankets, bracelets.  It helps us raise money for trips.  But, it also provides more income for Hugo and his family.  I’ve bought hundreds of dollars of merchandise from Hugo over the last 4 or 5 years.  I just discovered this week that before I started buying his work, Hugo was very ill and couldn’t afford the medicine he needed.  The money we have paid him was the money he needed for medicine.  Now he is well, strong, and healthy.  When facing the mountain of sickness, God provided a business opportunity and moved his mountain.  And, let me be clear - I buy the stuff – but God moved his mountain!

Theresa also lives in the village, and is 18 years old.  Theresa is very smart, and always helps us with Bible School.  One day, several years ago, she was on one of our worksites, and I asked why she wasn’t at school.  She said that she didn’t go to school.  Lots of children only go to elementary school because families can’t afford to send them to what they call “secondary school” – kind of like our middle school.  But, I later discovered that she had never been to school in her entire life.  We sponsor a number of children in the village, and so I asked Theresa if she would like to go to school for adults.  She jumped at the opportunity and just successfully completed her first year.  She has especially loved her science class, and now wants to go into the medical profession in some capacity.  What I didn’t know was that Theresa’s parents died when she was young, leaving her as an orphan.  She was adopted by another family in the village, who couldn’t afford to send her to school.  Facing the mountains of loss and being an orphan, poverty, and no education, God moved her mountain had has opened up a new future for her. 

I wonder what mountains you are facing today.   Most of us will never face the extreme mountains that they do in a place like Chontala.  But, we all have our mountains – difficulty in school, relationship problems, family problems, health problems, mistakes we’ve made, insecurities, anxiety, depression.  Which one is yours? Are you frightened by it?  Do you feel overwhelmed by it?  Does it look impossible to move?  Do your resources – your faith – seem too small?

John Eldredge writes, “Our experience of Jesus is limited most often by the limits we impose on him.”

Here’s the promise of Jesus – if you take your eyes off of the mountains, and look to him - if you take your eyes off of your limited resources, and look to him – he will move the mountains in your life.  Even if your faith in him is teeny, tiny – only the size of a mustard seed - he will move your mountain, and nothing will be impossible for you. 

En Christo, nada is impossible – todo es possible!

 

 

What’s Your Name?

This message was preached at the FSU Wesley Foundation on Sunday, November 3, 2013, based on Luke 8:26-39

Jesus has finished teaching the crowds on the Jewish side of the sea of Galilee, and he and the disciples have taken a boat ride across to the gentile side, to the land of Gerasenes.  There, he encounters a man who was plagued by a legion of demons. 

The word “legion” would have been particularly meaningful to the people in Jesus’ day, because they lived in a land conquered, occupied and ruled by the Roman army – known as the Roman Legion.  A “Legion,” in Roman terms, was an army of as many as 6000 soldiers.  Apparently this man wasn’t only possessed by 1 demon, he was possessed by as many as 6000 demons.  He was naked, tormented and alone, as an outcast, living in a tomb among the dead.

Imagine the isolation.  Imagine the loneliness.  Imagine the torment.  Imagine the hopelessness.

I’ve read this passage numerous times, and never noticed a small, crucial detail. 

Jesus asks the man, “What is your name?”  He replied “Legion.”  Jesus didn’t ask the demons their name.  He asked the man. 

But, the man’s name is NOT Legion.  We don’t know his real name – but he had to have had one.  His parents must have named him.  He must have been called something by his family, by his friends, by his co-workers, by his community.  Maybe it was a name similar to one of the disciples – Andrew, or Simon, or Bartholomew, or James.  Maybe it was like Old Testament name – Jonah, or David, or Samson, or Jeremiah.  Maybe Gerasenes had different names, we’ve never heard of.  We don’t know his name – but it DEFINITELY was NOT Legion.

Isn’t that curious?  Some how, some way, at some point during his possession, he had begun to identify himself with his affliction.  Jesus asked his name, but in his mind his name had become synonymous with his condition.  “I am Legion.”  This was his identity.  This was his name.

I wonder how many of us do the same.  When asked our name, we give the one on our birth certificate or our drivers license.  But, when we look in the mirror, when we think about ourselves, we go by another name.  In our hearts, in our spirits, we have named ourselves by our afflictions. 

My name is …, I am fat…

            I am stupid…

                        I am a failure…

                                    I am unwanted…

                                                I am dirty…

                                                            I am broken…

                                                                        I am unloveable…

                                                                                    I am stupid…

                                                                                                I am hopeless

I am Legion.

 We call that shame.  When we identify ourselves so closely, so intimately with what we have done, or with what’s been done to us, we experience shame.  Shame becomes our identity.  Shame becomes who and what we are.  The specific shame we feel differs from person to person, depending on what we are ashamed of.  But, the root of shame is the same – it’s not just that I have done something wronge or that something wrong has been done to me.  Shame says, “I am wrong. At the core of who I am, what I am is wrong.”

Once our shame becomes our identity, we begin to experience and interpret the world through that shame.  We hear that God loves us, that God desires a relationship with us, that God heals, that God restores.  But, not us.  We are too broken.  We are too dirty.  We are too fallen.  We are too far gone.

 John Eldredge writes,  “A fair share of your difficulty with Jesus is simply your own brokenness getting in the way…What do you think Jesus thinks about you?… The incarnation ought to be proof enough that Jesus doesn’t shy away from getting down in the muck of this world…Tell Jesus what you think he thinks of you.  Ask him if it’s true.”

Tell Jesus what you think he thinks of you.  Ask him if it’s true.  If we were totally honest with him, and, if we took the time to listen to him, we would find out that Jesus sees in us far more than our brokenness, and that we are far more than our shame.

The truth about all of us…ALL of us…is that we are a mixed bag of good and bad, virtues and vices, achievements and failures, holiness and sin.  Each one of us were made in the image of God, and each of us are a filthy mess of sin.  Each of us are loved and desired by God, and each of us struggle with some degree of self-hatred and self-rejection.

The whole point of Jesus is that our shame is not greater than God’s love, and that there is nothing, nothing, nothing beyond God’s ability to forgive, heal, restore, or redeem.

Brene’ Brown writes, “We’ve all got both light and dark in us.  What matter is the part we choose to act on.  That’s who we really are.” 

Jean Vanier writes,

Yes, in the broken child,

A light is shining;

In the man in prison,

A heart is beating;

In that woman, victim of prostitution,

There is a yearning for life;

In the rich and greedy person, seeking power,

There is a child of purity;

In that young man dying of AIDS,

There is the light of God;

In every person, no matter how broken, sinful, hardened,

dominating or cruel

There is a spring of water waiting to flow forth.

This legion of demons had robbed this man of the essential truth – that he was created in the image of God, that he was loved, that he was redeemable, that he had a name.

Oscar Romero writes, “The Church believes that in each person is the Creator’s image and the everyone who tramples it offends God.” 

Thomas Merton writes, “There is only one problem on which all my existence, my peace, and my happiness depend: to discover myself in discovering God.”

And so, the legion of demons know they are no match for Jesus.  They know that he can and will destroy them.  So, strangely, they ask if they can leave the man and enter into a herd of pigs that are grazing nearby, and as soon as they do the herd stampedes into the lake and drowns – just like that, in an instant, the legion of demons is gone and the man stands with Jesus delivered, and fully-restored. 

Now his name is… Free

                                    Healed

                                                Renewed

                                                            Son of God

                                                                        Beloved

                                                                                    A New Creation

Thomas Merton writes, “The human soul is still the image of God, and no matter how far it travels away from Him into the regions of unreality, it never becomes so completely unreal that its original destiny can cease to torment it with a need to return to itself in God, and become, once again, real.”

Timothy Keller writes, “In God’s eyes all of mankind is royal”

There’s a song that we sing, that goes, “You’ve taken my pain and You call me by a new name. You’ve taken my shame and in its place, you give me joy.”

But, here the story takes a strange, surprising twist.  The man is fully restored to healthy and normal.  The pig herders saw everything that had happened, and it says they were terrified.   The pig-herders ran to town to tell everyone what they had seen.  Soon the villagers arrived on the seen to see for themselves, and instead of celebrating the man’s deliverance, instead of inspiring interest in who Jesus might be, instead of bringing their sick to Jesus for healing… they are afraid and ask him to leave.  

They preferred the status quo.  They preferred the pigs.  They preferred the man filled with a legion of demons.  It was what they knew.  It was what they were comfortable with.  They preferred a world without Jesus.

Sometimes our families are like that.

Sometimes our friends are like that. 

Certainly, the world is like that. 

You’ve stopped drinking but your friends haven’t.  You’ve made a commitment to sexual purity, but your boyfriend wants to have sex.  Your becoming an adult, but your parents still treat you like a child.  You feel called to ministry, or missions, or some kind of service… but the world tells you to be rich and powerful.  You are becoming emotionally healthy, but the people in your life are still dysfunctional.  You are becoming more like Jesus, but the world keeps trying to lure you into something much, much less.

When we start to change, when we start to live differently, when we break free from the shame, it changes us, and that affects the world around us.  And, people don’t always like it.  While no-one in their right mind would intentionally deny us growth, and healing, and deliverance – it might make them uncomfortable when it actually happens. 

Sometimes, it’s us.  Sometimes we are afraid of change.  We’ve become to too comfortable with our shame – like an old pair of shoes, or an old jacket.  It’s just too hard to imagine being freed from the shame we have known for so long…that we have identified with so long.

Brennan Manning, “Our identity rests in God’s relentless tenderness for us revealed in Jesus Christ.”

The real battle is to believe in who Jesus is and what Jesus does.  In spite of what lies the world says… or our feelings, or the demons, or our shame… God always tells us the truth….

For God so loved YOU…

Now, there is no condemnation for anyone who is in Christ…

I will separate your sin from you as far as the east is from the west…

You are my beloved…

You are my child, and in you, I am well-pleased…

You are a new creation, the old is past, the new has come…

In Christ – you are restored, redeemed, and recreated.

You are more than the lies you have been told.  You are more than the lies you have believed.  You are more than lies you have told yourself.

You are Christ’s.

What is your name?

 

 

Tribal Blessing

This message was preached on Sunday morning, October 13, 2013, on the FSU Wesley Foundation’s “Tribal” Beach Retreat.

I’ve recently been working my way into a different kind of tribe – with it’s own set of traditions, customs, attire, and language.    One of things that has most surprised and impressed me, is how generous and charitably-minded this tribe is.  Almost every weekend, you can find groups of bikers riding and contributing to some worthy cause.  Bikers are among the most generous people l know.

But, let me back track for just a moment. 

Friday night, I talked about Christians being too respectable, too civilized.  I still remember, as a child, having special, Sunday-only clothes.  I even had special, Sunday-only shoes, that I wasn’t allowed to wear anywhere else, any other time of the week – but they were so hideous I never would have wanted to wear them anywhere – including church! 

I want to suggest that instead of special, Sunday only dress-up clothes, that we are not allowed to scuff or wrinkle, that we actually ought to be wearing fatigues, work boots, overalls, tool belts, and hard hats, and protective eye wear.  When we leave worship, we ought to be ready to get to work, to get dangerous, to get messy.

Annie Dillard writes,

“Why do people in church seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? … Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us to where we can never return.”

Why? Because the point of our gathering is ultimately that we be sent back into the world to make a difference.  Jesus said, we are the light in the darkness.  That means we have to actually go into the darkness – where our light might get rained on, and people might try to snuff us out.  But, we are to go nonetheless, believing that our light is greater than the darkness, and that the darkness flees as we advance.  Pastor Mark Batterson writes, “I would like to think that when I pronounce the benediction at the end of our church services, I am sending dangerous people back into their natural habitat to wreak havoc.”

Unfortunately, a common weakness of most tribes is that their identity is so strong that they exclude others, and that they focus primarily on the protection and self-preservation of the tribe itself.  Cliques are like that.  Too many churches are like that too.

God’s vision for his tribe has always been that we exist for the benefit of every other tribe.

The story of salvation begins with God forming a tribe – first a family, then eventually twelve tribes that form the nation of Israel.  God began with Abram and Sarai, saying…

 

 “I will make you into a great nation,
    and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
    and you will be a blessing.
 I will bless those who bless you,
    and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
    will be blessed through you.”  Genesis 12:2-3

This was God’s plan – that our tribe exists for every other tribe on earth.  We are blessed to bless others.  Everything we are and everything we have is meant for us to give away…

·      Our possessions

·      Our love

·      Our forgiveness

·      Our acceptance and grace

·      Our service

·      Our defense of the weak, our voice for the voiceless, our care for the sick, our food for the hungry, our clothes for the naked

·      Our companionship for the lonely

 

Too many churches exist only for their own programs, their own agendas, their own members.  There was once a time that churches and Christians existed for the needs of the world and weren’t afraid to tackle big issues, and do big things, determined to make the world a better place.  Missionaries were sent into dangerous places.  Hospitals were built for the sick and hurting.  Universities were built to offer a distinctively Christian education.  Orphanages were built to care for those without families.  Most churches today care more about offering nice programs for Christians than about sacrificing and serving the needs of the world.  We’ve given the important things to governments, not for profits, and to corporations, and keep our blessing to ourselves.

            Richard Stearns , President of World Vision, writes…

The world we live in is under siege-three billion   are desperately poor, one billion hungry, millions are trafficked in  human slavery, ten million children die needlessly each year, wars and  conflicts are wreaking havoc, pandemic diseases are spreading, ethnic  hatred is flaming, and terrorism is growing.

There are some 340,000 Christian churches in the United States and about  155 million regular churchgoers! Ponder the potential  to change the world if all of these churchgoers   "activated" and ramped up their  commitment to love their neighbors to a  new, even higher level. 

 

There are still tribes/peoples to be reached and served, known and loved by the Church.  There are still “literal” tribes in the world with real practical needs, and who don’t know about the love of Christ.  But, there are also “tribes” to be reached on every campus – athletes, Greeks, international students, academic departments, residential halls, etc.  There are groups in our communities and around the world that need to be served and witnessed to.

Dallas Willard writes,

"The world can no longer be left to mere diplomats, politicians and business leaders. They have done the best they could, no doubt. But this is an age for spiritual heroes - a time for men and women to be heroic in their faith and in spiritual character and power."

Mark Batterson writes,

“A world in desperate need can’t do without what you will bring when you become part of something that is bigger than you and more important than you: the cause of Christ in this generation. The stakes could not be higher. And like the first-century disciples, we have the opportunity to turn the world upside down.” 

Jesus told a parable called the parable of the weeds…

“Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.  “The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’ “‘An enemy did this,’ he replied. “The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’  “‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them.  Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’”  (Matthew 13:24-30)

            Any farmer listening to Jesus would have to conclude that Jesus didn’t know much about farming.  Maybe they figured he was a carpenter, or a rabbi, and just assumed he didn’t know farming.  But, Jesus is, after all, the creator of the world.  You see, the problem with this story is that the aforementioned weed is darnel, which is toxic.  Allowing the weeds to grow intermingled with the wheat is a guarantee that the wheat will be ruined.  And, yet, the way Jesus tells the story, the farmer just lets the weeds grow, with obviously no concern for the outcome.  Jesus obviously doesn’t understand farming!

            Perhaps Jesus is trying to make a different kind of point.  If the field is the world, and the wheat is how the world is intended to be, the toxic weeds represents the intrusion of evil into God’s perfect world.  The fear for all of us is that evil will prevail.  A good farmer would pull the weeds out.  But, God’s kingdom works differently.  In God’s kingdom, the positive influence of the wheat – us – might just taint the weeds!  Jesus is saying that who and what we are as wheat is more powerful than weeds, just like the light is greater than the darkness.  Let the weeds grow!  Don’t pull them out!  Let the wheat do its work!

A question I have often asked is, “What if the Wesley Foundation ceased to exist?”  Of course, it would be sad for all of us.  But, the question isn’t about us.  What difference would it make for FSU, for Tallahassee, for the world, if the Wesley Foundation ceased to exist?  Would it matter?  Would FSU be less because of it?  Obviously we don’t know.  But, if we can’t have some confidence that we are a blessing to FSU, Tallahassee, and the world, then it is time to close our doors.  We are just wasting our time.  Wesley is not for us.  We exist for the campus, for our neighbors, for the Church, and for the world.

This weekend you have been divided into tribes named after all animals.  Each group of animals has a name.  Wolves move in packs.  Birds fly in flocks.  Fish swim in schools.  A group of bears is called a sloth.  A pack of elephants is called a herd.  A bunch of snakes is a den.  Lions form a pride.  Gorillas live in a band.  Hyenas prowl in a cackle. 

Though not one of our tribes, I thought I would mention that a group of buzzards is a committee.  Think about that – a committee is a group that gathers to feed on a rotting carcass –never agree to serve on a church committee!

There is one more tribe of animals – the rhinos.  A group of rhinos, running at full speed, is called a crash.  I love that.  Once they get started, they have a difficult time stopping until they run into some thing!  I think the rhino is a perfect symbol for the Christian tribe.  We are called to leave this retreat and to crash into the world – impacting the world with all of the blessings we have to offer. Erwin McManus writes, “When we shake free of domestication and civility…we become an unstoppable force.” 

What difference does it make for the world that you came this weekend?

What difference does it make in the world that you attend Wesley, or any other church or ministry?  What difference does it make to others that you are follower of Jesus?

If Wesley, this retreat, Christianity is just for you, just for you to be blessed, then we have truly wasted a lot of time and money.  We are blessed to be a blessing to others.  Our tribe is blessed to blessed every other tribe. Pete Grieg writes, “In our cynical age, God is looking for those naïve enough to believe that the world can still be changed, those simple fools whose vision is to live and die for Christ alone.”

 

Sacred Worth

One of my favorite authors/bloggers is marketing guru Seth Godin.  I always find his ideas motivating and challenging.  I recently read an older blog of Seth’s, suggesting that people want five basic things…

Notice me.

Like me.

Touch me.

Do what I say.

Miss me if I’m gone.

Though writing for a broad audience, I think Seth has hit on something the church ought to pay attention to…and, in fact, already know and practice.  With the exception of “Do what I say” (which people undeniably want - but may not be appropriate, ethical, or even healthy to act on), the other four speak to the basic need for human dignity in all of us.

One of things I love about the United Methodist Church, is that one of our core, guiding principles is that EVERY person has sacred worth - regardless of gender, socio-economic status, age, education level, sexual orientation, political persuasion, immigration status, skin color, language, or vocation.  EVERYONE is created in the image and likeness of God, and deserves to be treated as such.

Do we notice each person that walks through the church’s doors?  Do they feel welcomed, wanted, and valued?  What about those who don’t come in, but live across the street, or walk by everyday?

Of course we know Jesus tells us to love everyone, but do people walk away from our churches feeling liked and appreciated for who they uniquely are?  Do they know that we are truly glad for them, specifically?

When people encounter our churches and ministries, do they receive an outstretched hand, open arms, a warm embrace?  Do our ministries touch something deeper and more personal within?

When we haven’t seen someone in a while, do we notice?  Do we graciously reach out to them?  What about the people we haven’t met yet, who may not know what we offer, or that they are welcome - do we miss them?  Are we aware of their absence?

We all struggle with feelings of value and worth.  We all need people who like, love, and respect us.  We all need communities that welcome and include us.  We need places and people that care enough about us to know us deeply, to accept us unconditionally, to hold on to us when we pull away, to challenge us when we need to be challenged, and to welcome us back when we run away.  Though the world might make me feel unimportant and small, the Church must always be a place where I can see my true value and dignity in the loving and compassionate faces of my brothers and sisters.

This requires us to be more than places people attend.  This requires more from us than membership.  This requires more than attending when it is convenient.  This requires personal investment in people.  This requires me wanting to know you, whoever you are, and to be known by you.  This requires us to value people enough to…

Notice them.

Like them.

Touch them.

And, miss them when they are gone.

And, let’s add… honor and love their sacred worth.

And, to act like it.

Tribal Christianity

This sermon was delivered on Friday night, October 11, 2013, at the FSU Wesley Foundation Beach Retreat.

When I think of describing something as “tribal”…

·      I think a group of people, who for very reasons are set apart and different from the world I know.

·      I think of distinctive customs and traditions.

·      I think of distinctive ways of dressing.

·      I think of values, codes, morals, and laws that are specific to a particular group.

·      I think of a group of people who see, understand, and interact with the world in a unique way.

·      I think of a deeply religious group of people.

·      I think of people who have a deep reverence and a deep connection with creation.

·      I think of a community that has existed for many generations, with an ancient history, and a long story.

Described that way, we are a tribe.  Christians are a tribe.  The FSU Wesley Foundation is a tribe.

The Apostle Peter writes,

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.  1 Peter 2:9-12

As a tribe of Christ followers, we are God’s special possession – we are “foreigners and aliens” in this world.  We are now the people of God, and part of the long unfolding story of God.  The customs, values, traditions, and beliefs of our tribe are quite unlike the other tribes of this world.

            But, I want us to think of “tribal” in a different way…

One of my favorite movies is Rocky – all 6 of them!  But, the best of the 6 is Rocky 3.  In Rocky 3, Rocky, the heavy weight champion, faces Clubber Lang, who is a fiercer fighter than he has ever faced.  His old coach, Mick, refuses to coach this fight, saying “The worst thing that could ever happen to a fighter happened to you, Rock.  You got civilized.”

“You got civilized” – a very bad thing for a fighter.  And, I want to suggest, a very bad thing for Christianity!

Some people will cringe by what I am about to say…  I don’t mean this to sound overly stereotypical, or demeaning, or pejorative.  I know it is politically incorrect.  In fact, I mean this in the most positive way.

When I think of something as tribal, I also think of something primitive, primal, undomesticated… something that exists in the wild… untame… uncivilized.

Unfortunately, very few people would call the Christian tribe wild, or untamed, or primal.  Christians are usually thought of as being good rule makers and keepers.  We’re good neighbors and good citizens.  We’re nice.  People like us.  We don’t get into trouble, and we don’t cause trouble.  We’re teacher’s pets, citizens of the year, the girl or guy next door.

I’m not suggesting that we should start making trouble for no reason, or being annoying, or making a scene, just because…there’s absolutely nothing wrong with good manors.  But, I think we’ve become too tame, and not nearly tribal enough. 

Mark Batterson writes, “Do you really think God’s ultimate dream for your life is to see you sit in a pew for ninety minutes every week listening to a message and singing a few songs?”

Erwin McManus writes, “How is it, that for many of us, being a good Christian is nothing more than being a good person? The entire focus of our faith has been the elimination of sin, which is important but inadequate; rather than the unleashing of a unique, original, extraordinary, wonderfully untamed, faith.”

John Eldredge writes,  “Truth be told, most of us are faking our way through life.  We pick only those battles we are sure to win, only those adventures we are sure to handle, only those beauties we are sure to rescue.”

The Bible is full of wild tribal men and women…

·      Samson was known for his long, uncut hair and amazing strength.

·      King David was a great warrior, and remembered for dancing before the Ark of the Lord in an “undignified way.”

·      The prophets said and did bizarre things as messages from the Lord, including Isaiah who walked around naked for 3 years.

·      John the Baptist was a wild man who wore camel hair and ate locusts.

And, Jesus was the most tribal, uncivilized of them all.  His family thought he was crazy.  The Pharisees were outraged because he broke the rules, and didn’t wash his hands properly.  The final straw was when he made a whip and drove the moneychangers out of the table.  Our image of a pretty Jesus, holding a baby lamb, dressed in white and baby blue couldn’t be more wrong.  He was a Wildman, and a threat to the status quo establishment.

Alan Hirsch writes,  “If hugs and kisses were the sum total of Jesus’ character, why would anyone have wanted him dead?   Nobody wants to kill a big bal of daddy-love do they? “

Philip Yancey  writes, “How would telling people to be nice to one another get a man crucified?  What government would execute Mister Rogers or Captain Kangaroo? “

Many of us have been members of churches with the word “First” in their title – First United Methodist, First Baptist, First Presbyterian.  I’ve worked in “First” churches.  Typically, members of “First” churches are very respectable, elite, upper class.  They are, quite civilized.  “First” churches usually sit in prominent locations, on the corner of Main Street and Church Street – across the street from government buildings, or banks, or law firms.

When Methodism came to America, there were no church buildings.  We were a frontier religion.  Early Methodists would gather from ranches and farms for “Camp Meetings,” which were so wild that they became known as “Shouting Methodists.”  When was the last time you heard someone shout at “First” church?

Early Methodist preachers had three requirements…

·      They had to be authentically converted.

·      They had to preach “reasonably” well.

·      They had to own a horse.

Their ministry was not to a particular church – they rode from house to house, farm to farm, camp meeting to camp meeting.  The average Methodist preacher died in their late twenties, because the conditions the lived and ministered in were so harsh.

            What if Christianity was meant to be more tribal!?!  What if we were bolder!?!  What if we lived in more distinctively Christ-like ways!?!  What if we spoke out more for things that matter!?!  What if our code, our morals, our ethics, and our integrity really were unique and distinctive!?!  What if we lived more radical lives, like Jesus did!?!

We were made for lives very different from the ones we have been taught to live…

·      We were born to be warriors – but we have been raised to be boyscouts and girlscouts – selling cookies in front of Walmart.

·      We are lions, but we have been raised to be pussycats.

·      We were born to be dangerous – but we have been taught to be nice.

·      We were made to be bold, but we have been taught to be polite.

·      We were born for adventure, but we have been taught to be responsible.

·      We were born for community, but we have been taught to be cautious.

·      We have been made to worship recklessly, but we have been taught not to embarrass ourselves.

·      We were born to be in the world, but not of the world – but we have bought everything the world has to offer.

·      We were born to take bold risks for the kingdom – but we’ve been told to be careful.

·      We were born for great things - but we have settled for good enough.

·      We have the Holy Spirit of God in our hearts, who is untamable, uncontrollable, unstoppable, uncontainable – but we have been told not to be one of those Jesus radicals, Jesus freaks.

·      At the core of our spiritual DNA we are all barbarians, we are savages, we are wildmen and wildwomen, a bunch of radicals, sages, dreamers, mystics, poets – but we are being trained for 9 to 5 jobs in office cubicles, and to drive 4 door sedans, and to live in gated communities.

·      We were born to be tribal – not civilized.

Tribal Christianity is about being in the world but not of the world, about not hiding who we are or what we believe, or what we value in Christ.  I fear sometimes that we have become so enamored with the world, so enthralled with what the world has to offer, such lovers of the world, that we have given up the things that really make us distinctive.  We are called to be a different kind of tribe than the world.  Jesus calls us to be something else entirely.

It’s certainly not about “being good boys and girls and not getting in trouble… maybe we are supposed to get in trouble – even make some trouble

Erwin McManus writes,

“Jesus beckons HIS followers to a path that’s far from the easy road. It’s a path filled with adventure, uncertainty, and unlimited possibilities - the only path that can fulfill the deepest longings and desires of your heart. This is the barbarian way: to give your heart to the only ONE who can make you fully alive. To unleash the untamed faith within. To be consumed by the presence of a passionate and compassionate GOD. To go where HE sends, no matter the cost.” 

 

 

 

Storms

This message was preached at the FSU Wesley Foundation on Sunday, October 6, 2013

Recently, most of our students have endured the first round of tests, projects, and papers of the semester – for the freshmen, their first in college.  They’ve looked a little overwhelmed – to say the least – a little frantic, a little harried, a little  bit frazzled, a little shell-chocked.  I can’t wait to see what finals week does to them!  But, most of them have made it through their first round of challenges, and have survived. 

Life is a bit like that… storms roll in, even expected ones, and we get overwhelmed and wonder if we will survive, or if we will drown.

Jesus has been teaching the crowds along the shore of the Sea of Galilee all day long.  It has gotten late, and Jesus suggests a boat ride across the sea to the other side.  Jesus, tired from a long day of work, falls asleep in the stern of the boat.  While he is sleeping peacefully, a storm, a whirlwind, blows in unexpectedly.  All of a sudden, the situation changes from a calm, peaceful evening, to danger and fear as the boat is being beaten by the winds and the waves.  All the while, as the disciples panic, Jesus remains fast asleep.  Some of the disciples were former fisherman, and thus skilled boatmen.  No doubt, they had weathered storms before.  But, apparently even they had reached the limits of their skill and were convinced that they were surely going to die.  In a panic, they woke Jesus. 

I wonder why – just to make sure he is awake when he dies, or if they think that maybe he could do something about it?  They said, “Don’t you care if we drown?”  I love that!  Of course he cares!  He’s Jesus! It’s amazing what we say, and think, and feel when we are panicking. 

            It says that Jesus then rebukes the wind and the waves – “Peace, Be Still” – the way a parent rebukes a child – “quiet!” “hush!” “Shhhhhhhh!  Settle down” And, of course, just like our children (ha, ha), the wind and waves obey. 

            So, this story reveals that Jesus had the power to calm the wind and the waves.  Jesus is the creator, and the creation accepts his authority.  But, it doesn’t say that Jesus always calmed the storms.  He did this time, and another time when he walked on the water.  But, we don’t have any record that Jesus made a habit of it.  I’m assuming Jesus got rained on just like the rest of us.  I assume he didn’t exert his authority over every rain cloud and breeze.  And, that’s important… that Jesus CAN calm the storm, doesn’t mean he will. 

            In fact, Jesus seems more inclined to prepare us for the storms.  He said that the rain falls on the good and the bad alike.  He talked about the wisdom of building your spiritual life like you would build a house on a rock, so when the rains and floods come it won’t be washed away, and not build your house on sand that will get washed away when the storms come.  Jesus promised tribulation, persecution, and hardship.  Jesus never actually promised to calm the storms in our lives – he promised the storms would come, and to be ready to handle them when they do come. 

            This isn’t news.  Sometimes real, actual storms blow in a create chaos – there’s been lots of anxiety this weekend over Tropical Storm Karen.  I still remember the summer and fall of 2004, when 4 hurricanes crisscrossed Florida – that impacted that whole school year, and beyond.  Last fall, my son, John, was stuck in New York City during hurricane Sandy – which was distressing for his parents, to say the least. 

But, there are other kinds of storms too…

·      Midterms and finals can be storms… and telling your parents about failing grades at the end of the semester can be a storm too!

·      Losing your job can be a storm.

·      Health problems a can be a storm.

·      Money problems can be a storm.

·      Stress, worry, anxiety can be storms.

·      Relationship problems, breakups, divorces can be storms.

·      The loss of a loved one can be a storm.

·      Unexpected catastrophes of all kinds can be storms.

And, wouldn’t it be great if, just at the right moment, Jesus would just zoom in like Superman to rescue us and save the day!  But, if we are honest, we know that he doesn’t.  I’m not saying that God doesn’t do good things in our lives – we know that he does.  All of us are blessed.  All of us experience miracles everyday.  But, it is naïve to think that we are going to get through life… storm free.  The question is, to what, to whom do we turn when the wind blows and the rains fall?  Do we reach out in faith, or do we cry out in fear? 

      By this point the disciples had seen Jesus’ power demonstrated – he had turned water to wine, he had healed the sick, he had cast out demons.  But, in the storm their first instinct was fear and terror.  They said, “Don’t you care if we drown?”

      Have you ever felt like you were going to drown in anxiety, in worry, in sorrow, in depression, in pain, in hopelessness, in weariness, in brokenness, in troubles, in fear?  Have you ever cried out to Jesus, “don’t you care?”  Haven’t there been times you have wondered if Jesus is sleeping on the job, or if he is even there?  “Why won’t you stop this!?!”  “Why won’t you fix this!?!”  “Where are you when I need you!?!”

I think those are entirely normal, legitimate questions to ask when we are scared, alone, afraid.  Even the strongest person of faith doubts sometimes – especially when life get’s rough.  But, faith does give us an alternative.  Though the storms may not just go away, knowing who is stronger than the storm might just gives us the strength to hold on. 

The book of Hebrews describes our hope in Christ as being like an anchor – something that keeps us secure when the waves crash down.  James 1:6 says, “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.  But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson writes, “The wise man in the storm prays to God, not for safety from danger, but for deliverance from fear.  It is the storm within which endangers him, not the storm without.”

Pastor Mark Batterson writes, “Sometimes the most spiritual thing you can do is just hang in there.”

I wonder… when Jesus said, “Peace, be still,” to the storm, if he might have also been saying it to the disciples!  And, maybe, to us.  “Just calm down.”  “I’ve got this”  “You are going to be ok.”  “It might get ugly.  It might get really rough.  You might suffer significant losses.  It might seem like all hope is lost.  It might not seem like there is reason to carry on.  The pain and loss might be more than you can bear.  Just hang on.  Just hang on.  I am with you.  I am greater than the storm.”

That’s why the Bible so frequently refers to God as a shelter, a rock, a hiding place, a fortress.  “A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing.”

Jesus asks the disciples, and us, “Why are you so afraid?  Why so little faith.”  Sometimes Jesus calms the storms.  But, more often, what he offers to people of faith is the peace to endure the storm.  I’m not talking about some kind of super human peace that defies reality.  I’m talking about a deep calm, that in spite of sleepless nights and restless days, knows that everything is going to be ok, because the one who can calm the storms can also carry us through the storms.  Samuel Wells writes, “Faith doesn’t obliterate fear, but it enables us to live without being paralyzed by fear.”

Philippians 4:6-7 says,  “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” 

I wonder… what you are anxious about this morning?  I wonder what storms are raging your life?  I wonder if any of you feel like you are about to sink under the waves?

 To some of your storms, maybe even this morning, Jesus might just command the wind and waves – “Be quiet, be still!” – and they will obey.   Wouldn’t that be great!  To others, Jesus might not be talking to your storm, at all – he might be talking to you. “Peace, be still.  Just hold on.  You are gonna make it.”

Community

I’ve been thinking a lot about community lately, as you could probably tell from my last two posts.  I am deeply convinced that we were made for community, that we need community, and that our lives are severely diminished when we lack community.  We need people that know us, count on us, support us, and believe in us - and, vice versa. 

Community can happen naturally, organically, of course.  One thing leads to another, and voila’, you have community.  But, not always.  Sometimes people can gather without even becoming anything more than acquaintances.

I believe community can be encouraged and nurtured.

Now, it is absolutely true that you cannot and should not force community to happen.  Pushing too hard, expecting too much, promising too much too fast can ultimately lead to awkwardness, mistrust, suspicion, and alienation.

So, it is a dance.  Dancing requires a sense of timing, cooperation and grace - that way no one’s toes get stepped on - at least not too much!

So, here are a few thoughts about nurturing community.

  • Get people face to face. While there is a lot to be said for technology and social media for communication and keeping us together, nothing can substitute face to face contact - even Skype!  We need to be in close proximity.  We need to be in the same room, for an un-distracted chunk of time, to share our lives face to face.
  • Get people away from their smart phones and social media.  Until we focus on the person in front of us, look them in the eye, and hear what they are actually saying, we can never know them or be known by them.  Ask people to run their phones off for a short period of time, or leave them in a basket, or leave them in the car.  Even better, take them somewhere their phones don’t work - up on a mountain, or on a cruise ship, or in the country, or overseas!
  • Ask and answer meaningful questions.  Ask people what their favorite ice cream topping is, or favorite birthday memory, or their middle name, and soon conversation has begun and common ground has been discovered.  Ask a few easy questions, and then move into questions that require a little vulnerability, and then more, and then more and greatest fears, and hopes, and dreams, and regrets - soon people are pouring out their hearts and bonds are being made.
  • Give people a common task to do together - especially something meaningful.  Nothing bonds people like having to work on a project together - especially if it is for a good cause.  Community forms while preparing a meal, or painting a house, or working in the garden, or tutoring children. 
  • Encourage laughter.  Play silly games.  Tell jokes.  Tell funny stories.  People bond when they laugh together.  And, something about laughter opens our hearts.  In some mystical way, laughter loosens the thick protective walls surrounding our emotions.  People who can laugh together will soon find they can also cry together.
  • Create a safe emotional environment.  It might be obvious, but it never hurts to be very clear that no one is going to be judged or ridiculed, that everyone is valued, and that secrets will be respected and not be shared.  People will not be vulnerable if they do not feel safe.  People will not vulnerable if they do not feel respected.  People will not be vulnerable if they do not sense that someone cares.
  • Eat together.  Sitting around a table, passing plates of food, saying a prayer, and a dinner conversation builds relationships.  Why?  I have no idea.  But, it works!
  • Pray together.  Depending on the group, this may take time to develop.  But, once people are comfortable and vulnerable enough to share what they need prayer for, and to pray in front of that person, deep, spiritual connection is happening.

This takes time and intentionality.  It does not guarantee that strangers will automatically become instantaneous best friends, or even ultimately like each other very much.  But, as people come together, and are intentionally encouraged to share their lives with one another, it will begin to happen more and more spontaneously.  Community begins in small acts, and grows, and grows, and grows.