Darkness covered the land… (A Good Friday Sermon)

Darkness covered the land… (A Good Friday Sermon)

It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, for the sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”   When he had said this, he breathed his last.  The centurion, seeing what had happened, praised God and said, “Surely this was a righteous man.”  When all the people who had gathered to witness this sight saw what took place, they beat their breasts and went away.  But all those who knew him, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.  (Luke 23:44-49)

Jesus died in the dark.  In the middle of day, when the sun was supposed to shine, from noon to three, a deep darkness shrouded the whole land.  The sun wouldn’t shine.

Just as, “In the beginning,” when the earth was a dark, formless, chaotic mass, before God said, “Let there be light,” as Jesus hung on the cross, the earth was plunged, once again, into chaotic darkness.  Which is strange, because Jesus came to be a light in the darkness.  At Christmas, we read…

  • The people walking in darknesshave seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.” (Isaiah 9:2)
  • The light shines in the darkness,and the darkness has not overcome” (John 1:5)

Yet, that Friday, it seemed darkness had overcome the light, overwhelmed the light, snuffed out the light.  The light of the world – the innocent, sinless, Lamb of God, who came to take away the sins of the world – was crucified by evil men.

They’d conspired.  They’d told lies.  They’d taken advantage of the weakness and greed of one of Jesus’ own trusted inner circle.  And, now, the miracle worker and so called, “King of the Jews,” was defeated.  Darkness won, or so it appeared.

 It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, for the sun stopped shining.

            We often, rightly, associate darkness with evil.  Evil deeds are done under the cover of darkness.  But the darkness on Good Friday was NOT the darkness of evil.  Though dark deeds were done, this darkness was something else.

What was this darkness?  This was the darkness of the Father’s grief, watching his beloved son suffer and die.  This was the darkness piercing the heart of God, as the Holy Trinity experienced the separation and death of the Son.  This was creation reacting to the evil done to its creator.  The sun, itself, refused to shine on this dark day.

It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, for the sun stopped shining.

            Lent, and especially Holy Week, is a darker season of the Christian year.  During Lent, reflect on Jesus’ journey to the cross, and his sacrificial death for our sins.  Lent is for repentance, confession, self-denial, and self-examination.   Compared to Christmas and Easter, Lent is meant to be darker.

But, this particular Lent, here in Coral Springs and Parkland, has been much, much darker than usual.  Some have referred to the February 14 tragedy at Stoneman Douglas High School as the “Valentine’s Day” tragedy.  It was also Ash Wednesday – the first day of Lent.  Some will always associate the Stoneman Douglas tragedy with future Valentine’s Days.  Not me.  I’ll always remember it on Ash Wednesdays.  For me, Ash Wednesdays will never be the same.

That Ash Wednesday night, as we gathered in the immediate aftermath, we marked our foreheads with ashes, in the form of a cross, as a reminder of our sin, mortality, and absolute dependence on God.  “From ashes you have come.  To ashes you will return.”  But, that night, as the dead were still lying where they’d fallen, as the injured were being treated, and many parents were still separated from their children, and as the names of some of the dead had not yet been announced, the cross-shaped ashes we wore also represented our terrible grief and lament.

For the families and friends of the seventeen who died, for the families and friends of the seventeen who were injured, and for our whole community, these forty days of Lent have been undeniably dark.  Darkness has covered the land, here, too.

 It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, for the sun stopped shining… Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”   When he had said this, he breathed his last.

            As Jesus hung on the cross, in the darkness, he was bearing on his shoulders the darkness of sin, and the brokenness and evil of the entire history of this world.  In some way, defying comprehension, Jesus’ death, even includes the darkness of our own recent and the dark and difficult days that have followed, here, for us.

If Scripture teaches us anything, it’s that God is with us when darkness crashes over us.

Martin Luther King preached, “We must also remember that God does not forget his children who are victims of evil forces…  When the lamp of hope flickers and candle of faith runs low, he restoreth our souls, giving us renewed vigor to carry on.  He is with us not only in the noontime of fulfillment but also in the midnight of despair.”

And, in his final moments Jesus said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”   When he had said this, he breathed his last. 

            At last, at about 3:00 in the afternoon, his ordeal was over.  The Son of God was dead.  For the moment, darkness defeated the light.

There is a phrase used at many funeral and memorial services, that says something like, “Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant…” adopted from the final words on Jesus’ lips.  I didn’t attend the funerals of the seventeen who died, but I’m certain some version of that phrase was said – pastors, priests, and rabbis committing the souls of the innocent to our heavenly Father, just as Jesus offered his.

            “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”

Undeniably, Jesus’ ordeal was horrific.  Starting with an arrest; then a long, sleepless night– full of hate, ugliness, condemnation and abuse; dragged to Caiaphas, to Pilate, to Herod, and then back to Pilate; the abuse and mockery of cruel Roman soldiers; rejection from the crowds shouting, “crucify him!”; a severe beating, nearly killing him; a crown of thorns shoved down on his head; a long walk to Golgotha, carrying his own cross on shoulders already flayed by the soldier’s whip.  All before he was nailed to the cross.

When he came to Golgotha, long nails were driven through his hands and feet, affixing him to the cross.  And, then his cross was raised, leaving Jesus dangling from just three nails, driven through his flesh.  For six, long, excruciating hours, he suffered unspeakable agony, as life slowly drained from his body.  Few deaths are as gruesome or humiliating as crucifixion.

And, while he hung on his cross, his disciples abandoned him and the leaders of his own religion mocked him.

As darkness covered the land, he may have wondered if God abandoned him too.

But, as Jesus’ final moments came, Jesus appeared to be at peace.

Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”  (Luke 23:26)

            As Jesus died, he was in control.  The casualty of terrible human cruelty, yet Jesus was no victim.  Dying in the darkness, yet nothing could extinguish his light.  Dying because he chose to give his life for us, sacrificially.  Satisfied, that he accomplished what he came to do.

John Stott writes, No-one took his life from him, he insisted; he was going to lay it down of his own accord.”

“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”

            And, Jesus said these words in a “loud voice” – not an embarrassed whisper, or pathetic whimper, or mumbled in weakness.  He wasn’t a scared child, calling out in the dark.  In his strongest voice, Jesus proclaimed, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit”; spoken in strength and confidence in the one who would receive his Spirit.  Even as his physical strength faded, his faith in God was unwavering. As he was betrayed, abused, abandoned and killed by everyone else, HE KNEW he could entrust his spirit, in that vulnerable moment, into the faithful hands of his Heavenly Father.  He surrendered his spirit to God, and he breathed his last.

Most images of Jesus on the cross, depict him with head lowered, and eyes closed.  In other words, most crucifixes portray a dead Jesus.  But, for the majority of the time Jesus hung on the cross, he was alive.  I’m sure he was in agony.  I’m sure he was too weak to hold up his head.  I’m sure his eye-lids drooped after that long sleepless night, and as weakness overcame him, as he hung in the darkness.

But, Jesus faced his destiny with eyes wide open.

Jesus faced his accusers with eyes wide open.

Jesus faced his cross with eyes wide open.

In the darkness of Good Friday, his eyes were focused and clear.

And, in his final moments, Jesus embraced his death, with eyes wide open.

Moments, later, he would open his eyes again, and behold the face of his Father.

Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last.

            I wonder when the sun shined again.  Did the sun return that day, after Jesus was taken down from his cross, or did the darkness remain, as afternoon passed into the night?  Was it dark, when they laid Jesus in his tomb?  Did the sun rise with the dawn on Saturday morning, or did dark clouds linger that day too?  Whether the sun literally shined, or not, until the empty tomb was discovered on Easter morning, while Jesus lay dead in his grave, the world was dark a place.

But, Easter morning, the darkness lifted.

Dr. Martin Luther King also said, “When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds and our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a Great Power in the universe whose name is God, and he is able to make a way out of no way, and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows.”

For a dark moment in history, darkness appeared to win.  And, undeniably, for some, the darkness of this year’s Ash Wednesday will never pass, not in this life.  The darkness of grief will always be with them, in this life.  And, that is tragic.  This life, this world, as we know, can be filled with terrible darkness.

But, light has overcome the dark.  Death was confronted in the darkness, and was defeated.  We may endure too many dark Good Fridays, in this life.  But, the dawn of Easter is coming.

 

“Come” – a sermon in a series called “Thirsty?,” preached at First Church Coral Springs on Sunday, March 4, 2018

“Come” – a sermon in a series called “Thirsty?,” preached at First Church Coral Springs on Sunday, March 4, 2018

Thirsty?

I carry a water jug around with me, most of the time.  I, normally, fill it at least once or twice a day.  But, on Sundays, I get so thirsty from preaching and talking, I have to fill it three times.

When I work outside of the house, or in the garage – like I did yesterday – my wife frequently asks me if I’ve had enough to drink, because it gets so hot here, in South Florida.

Often, when I’m riding my motorcycle, for any length of time, especially in the sun and heat, I realize how quickly I feel dehydrated, and need a drink.

God designed our bodies to need water.  About 60% of the human body is composed of water.  We can’t survive more than a few days without water – less than that if we are in a hot or dry climate.  Virtually every part and function of the human body, down to the molecular level, depends on water to function healthily.  We need it to thrive.  We need it to survive.

And, when we need more, the body’s natural, God-designed response is to feel thirst.  When the body’s hydration equilibrium gets out of balance, and needs more water, the central nervous system alerts the brain, which sends us signals like dry mouth and the craving for fluid.  When we feel thirsty, we know we need something to drink.  We don’t need a doctor’s report to tell us.  We just know.

But, we aren’t just physical, of course.  We’re also spiritual beings.  Just as the body needs water and food and oxygen to live and function, our souls need the Spirit.  And, just as the physical body thirsts for water, the Bible says that we are designed to thirst for the Spirit.

Sometimes we don’t recognize spiritual thirst, as spiritual.  Sometimes, we just feel an inner need or drive that demands attention.  We need to feel valued, or loved, or accepted, or important… or to stop feeling loneliness or pain.  If we don’t understand our thirst as spiritual, we might look for other ways to quench it.  I wonder if, sometimes, our thirst for worldly things –  like wealth, or possessions, or popularity, or approval, or status, or substances, or escape, or sex, or food, or fun, or any number of other things –  might actually be a thirst for God, that we’re attempting to quench with cheap substitutes.

We likely only figure that out when we get what we thought we wanted, but it just doesn’t satisfy the thirst.

C.S. Lewis, wrote, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”

            There is an old Ethiopian proverb that says, “In the abundance of water a fool is thirsty.”

St. Augustine once wrote, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”

            Nothing can replace God.  If the thirst is for God – and it is, because God made us that way – nothing this world offers can satisfy it.  Until we realize that only God can quench the thirst, we will remain restless.

You may have noticed, the symbol for this series is a gold fish.  You may have wondered, “Why goldfish?”  Have you ever noticed, goldfish are never thirsty?  A goldfish needs water, just like humans do, though they have a different anatomy to process it.  Water passes through the goldfish’s mouth, and out their gills, and somehow water is absorbed into the fish’s body by osmosis somewhere in between. A goldfish never thinks, “I’m thirsty.  I need a drink of water,”  because a goldfish is literally swimming in it, and breathing it.  I’m not sure if a goldfish even knows what water is, unless it jumps out of the fishbowl!

Imagine if we, like the goldfish, were actually fully immersed in living water!  We are!   Acts 17:28 says, “For in him we live and move and have our being.”

Ponder that for a moment.  God is everywhere.  God is always with us.  Like a goldfish in water, we are literally swimming in God’s presence.

            If you live in a place like South Sudan, water is not always easily available, and quenching a thirst may require walking miles in search of a dirty water hole, or stream.  For most of us, clean water is more easily available.  It’s as close as a water fountain, or a water tap, or a bottle of water from the store.

What if our spiritual thirsts are even more easy to quench than our physical thirsts?  What if there’s living water as available to us as water is to a goldfish, “For in him we live and move and have our being.”  Can you imagine being so deeply immersed in God, that we will never thirst again, that we could absorb God by osmosis, as he passes through us?  Can you imagine?

 

Living water…

One day, Jesus was walking with his disciples, and came to a well in a village called Sychar.  It was in the middle of the day, and Jesus was thirsty, and he didn’t have a bucket and rope to draw water.  So, Jesus asked a woman who had come to the well, to give him a drink.

In those days, it was unusual for a stranger to speak to woman, much less ask her for a favor – it wasn’t the custom.  And, this woman was a Samaritan, and Jesus was a Jew, and Jews were supposed to hate Samaritans.  The woman asked, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?”

            Jesus replied, “If you knew me, you would be asking me for living water.”

            Notice how Jesus switched the topic from literal water, to living water?

            She said, “You don’t even have a rope.  How are you getting water?”

            Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”  (John 4:13-14)

            The woman said, “Sir, give me that water.  I want that water!”

The conversation began with a simple request for a drink of water.  But, the conversation quickly turned spiritual.  Jesus wasn’t talking about water, drawn from a well.  He was offering himself.  He was offering her the Spirit.  Jesus was saying, the gift of the Spirit – in whom we live, and move and belong – is like a fresh spring of water that never ends, even for eternity, and it’s available to everyone.

And, that living water is available to us every moment of every day.

 

“Let the one who is thirsty come…”

The last chapter of the book of Revelation describes the end of times, when all will be well.  It says there is a never-ending stream, flowing from the throne of God, and  through the main streets of heaven.  And, the Spirit invites everyone to come and drink, Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life.”  (Revelation 22:17)

            The Spirit is inviting us.  Jesus is inviting us.  There is a river of living water flowing all around us, that will quench our deepest thirsts and desires.  All we have to do is drink.

            One of the first scriptures I ever learned was, Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Luke 11:9-10) The same passage appears in Matthew and Luke’s Gospels.  But, Luke adds, “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead?  Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?  If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:11-13)

Even a terrible, dead-beat, sad-excuse-for-a  father, will usually feed his hungry kids.  If that’s true, then our heavenly Father will give us so much more.  “How much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”  You can ask him for the living water, and know for sure that he will give it to you!

           

You can lead a horse to water…

            Friends, God does not play hide and seek with us.  God isn’t stingy.  God doesn’t want us to thirst for him unnecessarily.  God doesn’t make us jump through hoops to catch him.  The offer is made – “Come and drink.”  The offer is made – “Ask me, and I will give you living water.  Ask me, and I will give you my Spirit.”

            There’s an old expression, “You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make them drink.”  I don’t mean to call y’all horses… but if horse shoe fits…  If the thirst fits…

If you are spiritually thirsty… if you’ve realized that nothing in this world can quench your deepest thirst… come and drink the living water.  It’s all around you.  All you have to do is ask.  All you have to do is drink.

 

 

“Wounded” – A sermon on 2/18/18 for First Church Coral Springs, following the 2/14/18 tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School

“Wounded” – A sermon on 2/18/18 for First Church Coral Springs, following the 2/14/18 tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School

Shock and Disbelief…

On Wednesday, as I was running errands, several emergency vehicles passed me at high speed, with sirens blaring and lights flashing, heading northwest to Parkland.  Shortly after, I stopped by my house, and could hear helicopters in the distance.  My next-door neighbor was standing in her yard, visible shaken – trembling, actually – and told me there was an active shooting happening at the High School. Texts started pouring in.  The news reported seventeen “injured.”  I sat for a few moments in utter shock and disbelief.  “This can’t be happening!  Again.  Here.”  I could still hear the helicopter’s blades, within walking distance from my home.

I flashed back to Columbine, way back in 1999, and the shock I felt then.  I’d never imagined anything like that could happen – at a school, of all places – or could ever happen again.  But by now, “Columbine” is synonymous with the many school tragedies that have happened since.

But, “Columbine” was 2000 miles away.  Virginian Tech, West Nickle Mines, Sandy Hook – tragedies, but so far away.  And, there’ve been countless others we’ve forgotten, on campuses and off.

Now, our own Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School has been added to the list.

Shock.  Disbelief.  Fear, anger, outrage, grief.

How could this happen?  How could this happen here?

 

Wishing for Lions…

            Revelation 5 paints a picture of God’s throne in heaven, high above the violence and chaos of this world.  God asks, “Who is worthy?” to open a scroll, foretelling events yet unknown.  When no one was found, Revelation 5:5 says, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”

This, of course, is the risen Jesus Christ, the Lion of Judah, who conquered death, dying on the cross, but rising from the dead.  Death is the ultimate enemy of humanity.  No one has ever conquered death. No one, except the Lion of Judah.

When tragedies, like this, occur, we turn to God.  I did on Wednesday.  I immediately prayed for the protection of everyone at that school.  I prayed for the first responders.  I prayed for the families who couldn’t get to their children.  I prayed that the reports of injuries were only injuries, not fatalities.  I prayed for the incident to end as quickly and as peaceably as possible.  I prayed God would prowl through the halls of Douglas High School like a triumphant, powerful, fearless lion, to save the day!

When tragedy strikes, I pray for God to move in power.  In the words of Isaiah 64:1, “Oh, that you would burst from the heavens and come down!  How the mountains would quake in your presence!” Isaiah 64:1

            I want the God who sent plagues on Pharaoh.  I want the God who parted the Red Sea.  I want the God who defeated armies.  I want the Jesus who drove out demons.  I want the Jesus who calmed the storm.  I want the Jesus who raised the dead.  I want God to show up in power, defeating evil, saving the innocent.

Psalm 18 says, “In my distress I called to the Lord; I cried to my God for help.
From his temple he heard my voice; my cry came before him, into his ears.  The earth trembled and quaked, and the foundations of the mountains shook; they trembled because he was angry.  Smoke rose from his nostrils; consuming fire came from his mouth, burning coals blazed out of it.  He parted the heavens and came down; dark clouds were under his feet… The Lord thundered from heaven; the voice of the Most High resounded.  He shot his arrows and scattered the enemy, with great bolts of lightning he routed them.  The valleys of the sea were exposed and the foundations of the earth laid bare at your rebuke, Lord, at the blast of breath from your nostrils.”

That’s the God I wanted Wednesday.  A God who intervenes.  I wanted God to be like Superman, to swoop down and save the day.

But, when the day was over, seventeen were dead, fourteen injured, the assailant in custody, families traumatized, and a school, community, and nation in shock.

I’ve no doubt God was in the bravery of the students, faculty and staff, in the first responders, and in the comfort of family and friends.  I’ve no doubt God was present in the worship services and prayer vigils.  I’ve no doubt God has been present in acts generosity.  I’ve no doubt God is here, with us, now.

But, I suspect we’d give all of that up in exchange for God saving those seventeen lives.

 

Worthy is the Lamb who was slain…

            According to the Bible, God has moved powerfully in history.  Yes, the Lion of Judah triumphed over death.  But, the following verse, in Revelation 5:6ff, says, Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne… He went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne. And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people. And they sang a new song, saying: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.”

The Lion of Judah appeared as a wounded, sacrificial lamb – not a lion.  The one who is worthy, is the one who was wounded – wounded for our transgressions; for our sinfulness; for our rebellion; for our disobedience; for our brokenness; for me; for you; for Columbine, Sandy Hook, and Marjory Stoneman Douglas; wounded for the sins of the world.

Worthy is lamb who was slain.  Worthy is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.

God’s greatest act in history – when death was defeated – looked in every way like weakness, tragedy and defeat.  No one at the cross saw a roaring lion.  And, yet, on the cross, true power and greatness were revealed.

Pope Benedict XVI said, “God’s distinctive greatness is revealed precisely in powerlessness… God consciously revealed himself in the powerlessness of Nazareth and Golgotha. Thus, it is not the one who can destroy the most who is the most powerful…but, on the contrary, the least power of love is already greater than the greatest power of destruction.” 

Henri Nouwen wrote, “In Christ we see God suffering – for us. And calling us to share in God’s suffering love for a hurting world. The small and even overpowering pains of our lives are intimately connected with the greater pains of Christ. Our daily sorrows are anchored in a greater sorrow and therefore a larger hope.” 

            Isaiah 53:2-3 says, He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.  He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.  Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.  (Isaiah 53:2-3)

As we now know firsthand, we live in a world filled with senseless violence, tragedy, and death.  This isn’t the first, the only, or the last tragedy.  We know that.  But, this is OUR tragedy!  As people of faith, we may wonder where God is when tragedies occur.  Where was God last Wednesday?  If he doesn’t come in power to intervene, where is he?

The cross is God’s answer.  The wounded Lamb is God’s answer.

            Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted.  But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.  We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”  Isaiah 53:2-6

            “By his wounds we are healed.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The Cross is the eternal expression of the length to which God will go to in order to restore broken community.” 
            One of my seminary professors, Richard Hayes, writes, “God has chosen to save the world through the cross, through the shameful and powerless death of the crucified Messiah. If that shocking event is the revelation of the deepest truth about the character of God, then our whole way of seeing the world is turned upside down.”

God rarely shows up in force, at least as we see it.  God rarely comes like a roaring lion.  God comes as a wounded, sacrificed lamb.

`           Where was God last Wednesday?  God was with the pain.  God was with the suffering.  God was with those students, faculty, staff, and families huddled in fear.  God was with the dying.  God is with the injured.  God is with the grieving.  Wherever there is pain, suffering, fear, grief, God is there – holding us together, whispering words of comfort, promising that one day all will be made well.

One day all will be well – but, not yet.  Until then, he suffers with us in our sorrow and our pain.

 

Reconsidering the Cross

Though my thoughts and emotions are scattered, I keep returning to a single thought.  In light of this tragedy, and so many others like it, so many things seem so small and insignificant now.  The things I fret over daily, pale compared to what we’ve lost.

But, as so much seems smaller, and less important, the cross looms larger, and more important, than ever before!

How often do we talk about the cross as the place Jesus died to make me a better person?  How often do we talk about Jesus dying to save me from my bad habits?  How many times do we think of the cross as the antidote for our insecurities and low self-worth?  How many times do we treat the cross like a charm, as protection from bad luck?  How many times is the cross little more than a fashion accessory to our otherwise unspiritual, worldly lives.

Yes, Jesus cares about small things.  But, the cross is so much bigger.

When Jesus hung on the cross, by all appearances defeated and destroyed, he was dying for the sin of the entire world – yours, mine, everyone’s.  He sacrificed himself so that the most broken stuff of this world could be restored.  He was wounded to make us whole.  He was wounded so that days like February 14, 2018 will not define history.  On the cross, he carried the weight of every sin, of all pain and suffering, of every tragedy – including ours.  With the 17 victims, Jesus was wounded too – with them, for them.  He was wounded to make ALL things new.

He didn’t die to make things better.  He died to make them NEW!

We may want a lion, to intervene in moments like this.  God knows that.  But, God knows we need a wounded Lamb, to be with us suffering; to carry our suffering, to redeem our suffering, to ultimately save us from our suffering.  Wherever there is pain, darkness, and suffering, Jesus is there, bringing hope, restoration and redemption.  Hopefully that is a comforting thought.

But, I also hope we can hear the whisper of the wounded Savior calling to us, the Church, “If anyone wants to be by follower, if anyone wants to claim me as Lord and Savior, they must deny themselves, pick up a cross and follow me, to join me in the dark, and the suffering, and the pain, to make this world new again!”

While we would do anything to turn back the clock, to stop the evil, to bring back the dead, we can’t.  There is evil in this world, and terrible tragedies happen.  God doesn’t always stop them – that is undeniably true.  But, God has entered our darkest suffering, and is with us.

            “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain — to receive power and riches and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and blessing…  Blessing and honor and glory and power belong to the one sitting on the throne and to the Lamb forever and ever.”

He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.”

           

 

 

“Seek Simple” – the first of a 5-week sermon series, called “Simple,” preached at First Church oral Springs on Sunday, August 20, 2017

“Seek Simple” – the first of a 5-week sermon series, called “Simple,” preached at First Church oral Springs on Sunday, August 20, 2017

St. Francis…

            One of my spiritual heroes is St. Francis.  Francis was born in Italy, near the end of the 12th century.  His father was a wealthy cloth merchant – so Francis grew up in wealth, ease and luxury.  But, after a long illness, Francis experienced a radical spiritual conversion.   After giving away some of his father’s expensive things to the poor, his father dragged Francis to the local priest, demanding Francis repent and stop.  Standing in the middle of the town square, Francis stripped down to bare skin, renouncing his father’s wealth and possessions, living from that day in complete poverty.  Francis shunned owning any property, beyond wearing a simple monk’s robe, dependent each day on God for his needs.

If Francis were alive today, most of us would likely think he was a crazy, homeless man.  But, his way of life and his love for God drew followers by the thousands.  Francis started a movement, that many believe was the salvation of the Church in the Middle Ages.  And, that movement was based on simple living, and a simple trust in God.

Overly-busy, overly-committed, over-spent, over-drawn, over-timed, over-stuffed… overwhelmed!

            What a contrast to our modern lives.  Very few people, by choice, live simple lives.  The vast majority of us are over-worked, over-burdened, over-scheduled, and overwhelmed by modern life.  We have too much to do, too much stuff to take care for, and too many commitments. Our lives and homes have become cluttered.   It’s become increasingly hard to keep up.  And, the result, for many of us, is greater stress and anxiety, and less time, energy and space for the things that matter most – God, family, friendship, peace, joy.

In 1928, economist John Maynard Keynes imagined a world in which, thanks to advances in technological innovation, future generations would be freed to embrace a less “busy” lifestyle – perhaps only working three days a week.  Can you imagine?

When Dwight D. Eisenhower accepted the Republican nomination for president in 1956, he envisioned a world where…  “leisure will be abundant, so that all can develop the life of the spirit, of reflection, of religion, of the arts, of the full realization of the good things of the world.”  Let me ask you – when was the last time you had abundant leisure?

The exact opposite has happened.

Americans are working longer hours than ever before. Somewhere around the end of the 20th century, busyness became a way of life and a badge of honor.  I heard a radio show, last week, saying Americans are taking less vacation time than ever before.

We simultaneously attempt to do our work via conference calls, while maintaining multiple conversations via texting and social media, while shopping on-line, while driving, while applying make-up, while listening to the radio, while shushing the kids in the back seat while we take them to school, before we try to squeeze in multiple errands before heading to the office, including picking up an extra-large coffee, for the extra caffeine we need because we never get enough sleep.

We talk on our phones, while we workout, while we watch the news, before we pick-up fast food from a drive-through for dinner, followed by chores and a little television, checking how many likes we got on social media, before collapsing into bed, for a fitful night’s sleep.

A recent survey found that 38 million Americans shop on their smartphones while sitting on the toilet. We can’t even wait in a grocery line, or a red light, or for a doctor appointment without pulling out our smart phones.

One of the things I’ve noticed in Guatemala, when we break from our construction projects for lunch, is that the North Americans tend to rush through our meal and are ready to get back to work.  Whereas, the Guatemalans eat more slowly, and take time for rest and conversation, and maybe a short nap, before heading back to work.  And, by the end of the day, they always outwork us.

There is in our culture and psyche a compulsion to “go, go, go,” filling every minute of every day with activity and noise.

Due to our over-filled lives, Americans report that they’re too busy to register to vote, to date, to make friends, to take a vacation, to sleep, to volunteer, etc.  Even church attendance is falling, due to people needing Sundays to get everything done!

Another study has shown that the compulsion to multitask is making us as stupid as if we were stoned.  Many believe that our compulsive “busyness” has actually become the cause of greater ineffectiveness – not effectiveness.  I think we all know that’s true.

And, like I said, it’s squeezing out the things that really make life worth living.  Why work longer and harder for a bigger, nicer house, filled with more stuff, if we can’t enjoy it?  Why fill our schedules with more and more activity, if those activities aren’t enjoyable and life-giving?  Why have thousands of friends and followers on social media, but not have any real friends?

We’ve accepted the lie that we can have it all – we can’t.  We’ve bought into the lie that efficiency, organization and time saving devices can give us more time to do things that matter – but, they don’t.  We seem to think that activity and busyness and stuff is the meaning and purpose of life – it isn’t.

We are humans, limited by time and certain mental, spiritual, and emotional capacities.  At some point, we become overloaded.

Have you ever noticed that Jesus didn’t have many possessions, he didn’t keep a calendar, and he frequently left the crowd to pray?  Is there a reason we think we can handle more commitments and stuff than Jesus?

The only way to make space for the things that matter most is to simplify, which means reprioritizing our lives, learning what to say “yes” to and what to say “no” to.  And, frankly, we need to say “no” a lot more often!

John Michael Talbot writes, “Simplicity is the time-tested tool that we can use to prune our lives… It seems that if ever there was a time when the virtue of simplicity was desperately needed, it’s in our own fast-paced, consumer-oriented, information-overloaded era.”

Do not worry…

Though the world in Jesus’ day was much different, it was still filled with reasons to be worried and anxious.  In Matthew 6:25-30, Jesus says, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?  Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?  Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin.  Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.  If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 

            But, we do worry.  Americans are taking an unprecedented amount of a prescription medication for anxiety and depression.  Modern-day compulsions and concerns have produced unprecedented levels of stress, anxiety and depression, marital and family dysfunctions, road rage, workplace shootings, and addictive behaviors.

Again, John Michael Talbot writes, “Clearly, something is out of balance when millions of people are wracked by stress and medicated against despair.” 

 The birds & the flowers…

            Jesus provides very simple advice.  Don’t worry.  Trust God.  As an example, he points to the birds and the flowers.  “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?”  Why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin.  Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.

            Jesus is asking, “Don’t we trust that God will take care of us?  Don’t we trust that God will provide what we need?”  Don’t we trust that God knows best?”

            Simple logic – if God cares about birds and flowers enough to provide for their daily needs, won’t he take care of us!

Instead we worry about the stuff we have, and the stuff we think we need.  We worry about protecting and preserving what we have, and acquiring more.  We accumulate, in fear of it all going away.  How much of our time and energy is consumed in the acquisition and care of stuff that we don’t really need, don’t really want, and doesn’t really bring much joy to our lives?

Jesus taught us to pray, “Give us, this day, our daily bread.”  Jesus asks, Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?”  Jesus said, “Do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’…  your heavenly Father knows that you need them.” 

 Seek first…

So, how do we do that?  According to Jesus, the answer is priorities.  “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.  Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

            Jesus is being clear.  It’s about real, actual priorities.  Do the first, most important things first, and, if we trust him, everything else will work out.  But, focus your life on compulsive consumption and busyness, and you’ll never get around to what really matters.

            Here’s a simple, and probably familiar, illustration.  Imagine that a large jar represents your life – your time, energy, focus.  Imagine that several tennis balls represent the important things in life – health, family, service, spirituality, joy, generosity.  This is the stuff that Jesus was talking about when he promised us “abundant lives.”  Imagine marbles representing all of the little tasks that have to be done – getting gas, brushing your teeth, doing the laundry, etc.  There are usually a lot of these.  Now imagine that sand represents all of the stuff that might be enjoyable, but isn’t really necessary or important, and isn’t really necessary, but, if we aren’t careful, can take up a lot of time and energy – social media, watching television, checking email, texting, wandering the mall, online searches, 24-hour news reports, etc.

If you fill the jar starting with the sand, then the marbles, and last with the tennis balls, there’s a good chance that the tennis balls won’t fit.  That’s the way a lot of us live our lives.  We will fill our lives with the least meaningful/helpful/important stuff first, and by the time we have reached our full capacity of time and emotion, there’s no room for the stuff that really matters.

But, if we make sure we put the important stuff in first – if we “seek first the kingdom of God,” there tends to be room for the other stuff too.  If the tennis balls go in first, then the marbles, and then the sand, it might all fit.  Most importantly, the most important stuff fit.

Practically, how do we do this?  We have to make the most important things the top priorities.  Taking care of your family, your health, and your spirituality are most important.  Connecting with God and real friends really matters.  Serving God and giving really matters.  Give those things first priority in your schedule and in your budget.  Then, do the marble sized things.  Then, if it still matters, do the sand-sized stuff.

But, let me be clear.  We don’t seek God first in order to fit more in.  We seek God first, and the things God calls a priority, because they matter most!

The secret to a happy, fulfilling, joy-filled life is the exact opposite of what the world says.  The secret is simplicity.

 

 

 

 

“More” – a sermon preached at First Church Coral Springs on August 13, 2017

“More” – a sermon preached at First Church Coral Springs on August 13, 2017

Possibilities…

It was the last semester of my last year of college.  I was facing the reality of impending adulthood; and, I wasn’t ready.  I was about to graduate, but I had partied my way through college.  My degree was unmarketable.  My grades were pathetic.  I didn’t have any real-world work experience.  I didn’t have any purpose or direction.  I was scared.

But, I had hopes.  I wanted to be a responsible adult.  I wanted to marry.  I wanted to do something meaningful with my life.  I just didn’t know what, or how.

As graduation approached, my anxiety intensified, daily.  One night, alone in my fraternity house bedroom, overcome with anxiety, my Bible caught my eye.  I’d never read it.  Something told me to pick it up, and start reading. I read a few pages.  The next night, I read a few more.  I read a little every night until I worked my way through the four Gospels.  By then, Kelly and I were searching for a church.

A year later, I was the Youth Director at the First United Methodist Church of Orlando.

The point of this story is that a particular message stirred me as I read the four Gospels.  Over and over, I discovered Jesus saying things like…

  • “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.  (Matthew 7:7-8)
  • “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 impossiblefor you.”  (Matthew 17:20)
  • “If two of you on earth agree about anything they askfor, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.”  (Matthew 18:19)
  • “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”  (Matthew 21:22)

And, finally, “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.   And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.  You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.” (John 14:12-14)

Notice the theme?  Over and over, Jesus says anything is possible with faith and prayer.  All things are possible, with God’s help!  In fact, Jesus says, we’ll do even greater things than him!

At that moment in my life, those were powerful promises.  They still are.  I was scared and unequipped for adulthood.  I felt like I was facing insurmountable obstacles.  But, Jesus said anything is possible.  I took him at his word – literally.  Ever since, I’ve believed, with faith, God does impossible things.  Throughout my ministry, I’ve operated out of this core belief and promise.

A small, old, rinky-dink church…

It was February, 2016 – just 18 months ago.  I’d been the Senior Pastor at Ortega United Methodist Church, in Jacksonville, for just 18 months. I’d just rearranged my office, and just hung some things on my walls – settling in, for the long haul.  I’d just preached a series, introducing our new vision.  I’d just led town-hall meetings to discuss how we would implement the new vision. I planned to be there for many years, and to watch that vision come to reality.

Then I got the call.  I was, unexpectedly, being moved to First Church Coral Springs.

You should know that I said, “no.”  I thought moving was a mistake, for Kelly and me, and for Ortega.  It was too soon.  We weren’t ready for a change.  Ortega wasn’t ready.  But, the decision wasn’t up to me – that’s how it works in the United Methodist Church.  We go when and where we are sent.

The reason for the move was that First Church needed a specific kind of pastor.  For some reason, I was discerned to be that pastor.

I was told that First Church is large, growing, and preparing for future growth.  I was told that First Church is culturally diverse, with the opportunity to become more diverse.  I was told that First Church is committed to missions and impacting the world.  I was told that First Church is a warm, welcoming church.  I was told that there are vision and dreams and plans for the future.

And, I was told, from the perspective of the United Methodist Church, First Church has the kind of ministry potential that could impact the entire south east region of Florida.  We are seen, by our denomination, as one of the strongest, healthiest, most vital churches in Florida, and in the denomination.

Even though I didn’t want to move, I admit that I was excited by the potential.

First Church is, in so many ways, the great church that was described to me.  This is a large, dynamic church.  This church is committed to mission and service.  This church is warm and welcoming.  This church has tremendous possibility and potential.  And, we are blessed with more diversity than any church I’ve ever served before.

But, more often than not, that’s not the way I hear “us” describe our church.

This year, our average worship attendance is about 800 people, per week. The average church attendance in America is only about 184.  Half of all churches in America only worship 75 people, or less.  90% of the churches in America worship less than 350 people, per week.  We are, at least, twice as large as 90% of the churches in America!

We are a large church!  We aren’t a mega–large church, like Church by the Glades or Calvary Chapel.  But, by all comparisons, we are a LARGE church – much larger than most, including most of the other churches in Coral Springs and Southeast Florida!  And, a church as large as ours, is capable of doing remarkable things!  In fact, we have a responsibility to!

And, yet, I’ve heard our leaders describe us as “small,” “rinky-dink,” and “declining.”

My point?  There’s a significant difference between how we are seen by others, and how we see ourselves.

This church already does great things; Bethlehem Revisited, Food Share, Vacation Bible School, and great Children and Youth Ministries.  But, when I bring up new ideas, I’m told – over and over – “We can’t do that,” “We can’t afford it,” “We don’t have enough volunteers,” “We don’t have enough leaders,” “We’ve tried that before, and it didn’t work.”

When I ask about our hopes and dreams for the future, the best I’ve heard is that we like what we currently do, now, or that we like what we used to be.  Don’t get me wrong.  I know we love First Church, and love what we currently do.  But, when it comes to the future, I don’t hear much dreaming.

My point is not to be critical.  My point is, there is a problem with self-perception.  There’s a gap between how we perceive ourselves, and how we are perceived by others.

The Johari Window…

johari-model

            During college, I learned about the Johari Window.  The Johari Window is a box, divided into four windows.  The top left, window #1, represents things I know about myself, and others also know about me.  Window #2, on the top right, represents things about me that I don’t know, but others do know – they call this the bad breath window.  Window #2 could also be the potential others see in us, that we don’t see in ourselves.  The bottom left window represents the things I know about myself, but others do not know about me – my secrets.  And, finally, the bottom right window represents what is unknown to both of us.

In the case of First Church, there are things that we know about First Church, that are also public knowledge.  That’s window #1.  Window #2, I think, represents the potential others see in First Church, that we don’t see in ourselves.  Window #3 represents what we know about ourselves, that others don’t know: things we’ve tried and failed, challenges we face.  And, window #4 represents, I think, what only God knows about our future.

My point, today, is to challenge us to see First Church, as others see us; to challenge our ideas about who we are, and what we can do; to move us into the second window – to see what other’s see; and even the fourth window – to begin to believe that there is potential and possibility that only God can see.

 We can’t, but God can…

            I want you to imagine being me, sitting in my fraternity house bedroom, anxious about the future, reading my Bible for the first time, desperately looking for hope and direction.  Instead of reading that anything is possible with God, and that God answers prayers, and that God opens doors, imagine if I read passages that said, “Ask, but don’t expect much.  Seek, and maybe you’ll find something – but, maybe you won’t.  Knock, but you better have the key to open the door yourself.”

Not very inspiring, huh?  I can tell you, if that’s what Scripture said, I would NOT be here today.

Instead, I am here today because I deeply believe that Jesus was telling the truth when he said, “Whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.   And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.  You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.” (John 14:12-14)

I’m here, at First Church, because I believe, with all of my heart, that God has big plans for First Church.  I’m here, because I believe that First Church’s greatest days are not in the past, but are in our future.

The missionary, C.T. Studd, said, “Christ wants not nibblers of the possible, but grabbers of the impossible.” 

            The Christian philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, said, “If I were to wish for anything I should not wish for wealth and power, but for the passionate sense of what can be, for the eye which, ever young and ardent, sees the possible. Pleasure disappoints, possibility never. And what wine is so sparkling, what so fragrant, what so intoxicating as possibility.”

Who does this church belong to?  Who does this church exist for?

            Let me ask you two questions…

  1. Who does this church belong to?
  2. Who does this church exist for?

My hunch is, while we might know the correct theological answers, the honest answers are: This is our church, and this church exists for us.”  But, that’s not biblical.  In fact, it’s heretical.  First Church is not ours!  First Church belongs to Christ – he’s the head of the Church, and we’re his body!  And, Scripture says the Church exists for the needs of the world.  Our two primary functions are to honor God, and to serve the world.

Honor God and serve the world.  The church doesn’t exist to serve us – the members.  We are the church, and we exist to serve the world!

Earlier this week, I heard a pastor friend said, “The Church does not exist to feed its membership.  The Church, and her members, exist to offer a plate of life-giving food to a hungry world!”

So, if the Church belongs to God, and the Church exists for the world, then there’s NOTHING we can’t do, NOTHING’s too big to try, and NOTHING’s impossible, because God will provide the inspiration, the motivation, and the resources to do it.  It isn’t up to us.  It’s up to God!

Maybe we don’t have enough money – now.  Maybe we don’t have enough leaders and volunteers – yet.  Maybe we don’t know exactly what to do or how to do it – at this moment.  Maybe it will stretch us out of our comfort zones – that’s fine.

But, the issue, I think, isn’t lack of resources.  The issue, I think, is lack of faith.

Jesus did NOT say that anything is possible for US.  He said ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE for HIM!  We don’t need more faith in ourselves.    We need faith in what God wants, and can do through us, if we’re willing, prayerful, and faithful.

That’s my question: “Are we willing to be prayerful and faithful, to be the church God is calling First Church to become?”

Listen – if we prayerfully discern together that something is unbiblical, unwise, or that God simply doesn’t want it, that’s one thing.  But, until we’ve dared to dream God-sized dreams, and set God-sized goals, given generously, and prayed audacious, impossible prayers, how dare we say what we will or won’t, can or can’t do?!?

Let me tell you something.  First Church is not small, and not rinky-dink!  First Church is not declining!  First Church’s best years are not in the past – they’re in front of us, not behind us!  And, we haven’t even begun to dream of all God can and will do here, if we believe and if we will act.  God wants to do more at First Church, than we’ve ever dared to dream!

I believe that with all of my heart.  Do you?

I love what Paul writes in Ephesians 3:20-21, “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.”  (Ephesians 3:20-21)

 

 

“Release” – the 5th Sermon in a Series Called, “The 40-Day Summer Stretch,” Preached at First Church Coral Springs, on Sunday, July 23, 2017

“Release” – the 5th Sermon in a Series Called, “The 40-Day Summer Stretch,” Preached at First Church Coral Springs, on Sunday, July 23, 2017

Stupid Monkeys…

One technique for catching monkeys is to drill a hole in a coconut, just large enough for the monkey to slip his hand through, and fill it with rice.  When the monkey reaches in, to grab a fist-full of rice, he’s trapped, because his full-fist is too big to pull out of the hole.  The monkey just needs let go.  But, letting go never crosses the monkey’s mind.  He clings to what he thinks he has.  In reality, what he thinks he has, has him.

If only he could let it go, he could be free.  If only he could let it go.

Isn’t nice to be smarter than a monkey?

Before we are too self-righteous about how stupid monkeys are and how smart we are, we probably need to be reminded that there are some who believe humans evolved from monkeys.  Even if you don’t believe that, monkeys do seem to be our closest animal relatives.

Maybe monkeys aren’t the only ones who have a hard time letting go.

I wonder, what’s inside of your coconut?

 

What are your plans?

Learning how to let go is one of the ways that many of us need to be stretched.

Humans, like monkeys, also tend to cling.  We cling to stuff.  We cling to hurts.  We cling to relationships – even unhealthy ones.  We cling to ideas – even when we’re wrong.  We cling to traditions.  We cling to prejudices.  We cling to people – which why we say some people are called “clingy.”  We cling to our children – which is why some people are called “helicopter parents.”

Today, I want us to focus on the myriad ways we cling to the illusion of control.

Most of us believe that we are basically in control of our lives.  We live like we want.  We work where we want.  We hang out with whomever we want.  We eat what we want.

We try to have our finances under control.  We try to have our careers under control.  We attempt to have our kids well disciplined, well behaved, and under control.  We even try to have our spouses under control.

We set daily goals, weekly goals, monthly goals, annual goals, a 5 and 10 year plans, and plans for retirement.  Our days are well-planned – scheduled to the minute.

Most of all, we keep our images under control.  Even if we don’t really have everything under control, we wouldn’t want anyone to know.  Keep a smile on your face.  Never let them see you cry.  Never let them see you sweat.  Maintain a stiff upper lip.  When anyone asks how you’re doing, just say “great!”  In essence, lie.

Then,d something unexpected, unforeseen, unplanned, uncontrollable happens.  The car breaks down.  The kids get sick.  Lightning strikes.  Your husband gets fired.  Your parent dies.  You’re hospitalized.  The kids move back home after college.  Your aging mother-in-law moves in.  A category 5 hurricane blows through town.  The economy crashes.  The house catches on fire.

Or, maybe it’s not something so negative.  You win the lottery. You’re offered a great new job.  A long-lost friend calls.  You meet your future spouse.  You make a new friendship.  A friend invites you to church, and it changes your life.  You break a terrible habit.  You finally get help you’ve needed.  God calls you to do something unexpected.  You go on a mission trip that changes the way you see the world.

The point is that control is an illusion.  We may attempt to manage some level of control in our lives.  And, there’s nothing wrong with that.  Planning and organization is wise.  But, even the best plans are not always possible to execute, and there’s only so much we can do to plan for the unexpected.  Everything, no matter how well it’s planned or how under-control you think you are – EVERYTHING – is subject to change.  Unexpected stuff happens.

We used to have a magnet on our refrigerator that said, “We plan.  God laughs.”

While we may think that we’re in control; while we might attempt to be in control; while we might cling to our plans and agendas: we’re definitely not in control, no matter how tightly we cling!  You’re not in control of your life, oy anyone else’s.  Control is an illusion.

One of the primary principles of all 12-step recovery programs, like Alcoholics Anonymous, is that addicts have to confront the illusion that they are in control and capable of managing their lives successfully.  Every addict believes that they’re in control of their “problem,” and can quit any time.  There’s no hope for recovery until the addict acknowledges they are out of control, and that they have a problem they CAN’T control.  The first 3 steps are…

1.     We admitted we were powerless over our addiction – that our lives had become unmanageable.

2.     We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

3.     We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God.

You may not be an addict that needs 12 steps to recover from an addiction to drugs or alcohol.  But, lots of us are addicted to control, and would do well to, turn our will and our lives over to the care of God.”

 

Sovereign God…

While God gives us free will and responsibility for our lives, God is the only one ultimately in control.  I may control what time I set my alarm clock, or how fast I drive, or what I wear, or what I eat for lunch, etc. But, the Bible is clear, God, and God alone, is ultimately in control.  Theologians use the word “sovereignty” to mean that God is in charge, in control, and that ultimately his divine purposes will be accomplished.

1 Chronicles 29 tells the story of King David gathering all of the materials that were needed to build a Temple for God in Jerusalem.  David made plans to build the Temple himself.  But, due to some significant moral failings, God gave the task of building the Temple to David’s son, Solomon.  So, instead, David humbled himself, and gathered the materials that would be needed.

In 1 Chronicles 29, as David completed his collection, he offered a prayer of thanks.  In verse 11 he prays, “Yours, Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the majesty and the splendor, for everything in heaven and earth is yours.  Yours, Lord, is the kingdom; you are exalted as head over all.”  I like the way the New Living Translation says it, “We adore you as the one who is over all things… for you rule over everything.” 

God is over all things.  God rules over everything.

It ought to come as great comfort to us to know that, even when we think we are in charge, ultimately God is the one over all things.  That doesn’t mean I can be irresponsible.  I’m responsible for all that God has given me.  But, it does mean that when I mess up, or things don’t go as planned, God is still in control!

            Proverbs 29:21 says, “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand.”

            And, Jeremiah 29:11 says, “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. “

 

Living with Open Hands…

Many spiritual traditions talk about the importance of “detachment.”  In simplest terms, “detachment” is learning how to let go of our impulse to cling too tightly to our plans, to let go of our false-sense of control, and to trust more in God.  Detachment is letting go of agendas, plans, control, demands, and expectations.

Henri Nouwen writes, “To be able to enjoy fully the many good things the world has to offer, we must be detached from them. To be detached does not mean to be indifferent or uninterested. It means to be non-possessive. Life is a gift to be grateful for and not a property to cling to.  A non-possessive life is a free life.”

            Here’s a helpful exercise in detachment.  Hold something in your hand, and make a tight fist.  Cling as tightly as you can.  Really squeeze!  Depending on what your squeezing, clinging might feel uncomfortable.  Eventually, your hand will definitely get tired.

Do you possess it?  Of course.  But, at what cost?  And, with your fist closed tight, how can you receive anything new?

Now, still holding the object, turn your hand palm-up, and release your grip.  Likely, the object is still lying in your hand.  You still possess it.  You can relax.  The item can rest there without stress or pain.

Do you still have it?  Of course. Is it possible it could be taken from your hand?  Yes.  You could close your grip, momentarily, temporarily, if you need to.  But, maybe it needs to be removed from your hand.  Maybe, something even better could be put in its place?

In your relationship with God, do you want to approach him with clinched fists, or with open hands, ready to give and receive?

One of my favorite books is The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis.  The book is a fictional correspondence between a senior demon, named Screwtape, and his apprentice, Wormwood, about their efforts to undermine a young Christian man.  Screwtape shares that what he finds most outrageous about God is how he asks his followers to surrender control of our lives to him, but then gives everything back to us, “When He (God) talks of their losing their selves; He means only abandoning the clamor of self-will; once they have done that, He really gives them back all their personality, and boasts (I am afraid, sincerely) that when they are wholly His they will be more themselves than ever.” 

That’s detachment.  We also call it surrender.

Let me ask you a question.  Do you profess that Jesus is your Lord and Savior?  To call Jesus Savior, acknowledges that you need someone to save you from your sinfulness, and that Jesus did that for you on the cross.  But, “Lord” means something else. Lord is a term of royalty and authority.  A Lord rules over a place and a people.  To say that “Jesus Christ is Lord” is to say that Jesus rules.  He’s in charge.  He calls the shots.

To say, “Jesus is your Lord,” is to say that he’s in charge of your life.  If Jesus is your Lord, that means he is in control, and you’re not!

Many of us say Jesus is our Lord and Savior.  But, really, we just want to benefits of a Savior.  Taking the next step of surrendering to the Lordship of Christ is a difficult step,

Jesus doesn’t have any desire to be just a figure-head in your life, a puppet-king, an absentee landlord, ex-officio, a silent partner, an accessory, or even your assistant manager.  He refuses to be second in command.  Either he is Lord of all, or Lord of nothing.  That’s why he’s crystal clear about what it means to follow him, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?”  Mark 8:34-37   There are no half-measures with Jesus.  With Jesus, it’s all or nothing.

 

Option C

I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with people, who are stuck between two options – a or b – neither of which they like.  They’ve done their homework.  They’ve considered the options.  It’s either this or that; black or white; stay or go; yes or no;  A or B.  And, like I said, they don’t like either option.

I don’t personally believe that God is limited to just two options.  I believe in “Option C.”  There’s always an “Option C.”  When I can only imagine Options A and B, it’s because I’m thinking from my very limited perspective.  But, God always has another option; an alternative; maybe a better option; an “Option C.”  But, the only way you’ll discover Option C, typically, is to let go of Options A and B, and surrender control to God.

What outcome are you trying to control?  What are you clinging to?

You have to let go.

You can either trust God, with open hands.  Or, you can clinch your fist and hang on to your plans – like a stupid monkey!

 

 

 

“Look!” The Fourth Sermon in a Series Called “The 2017 Summer Stretch,” Preached at First Church Coral Springs on July 16, 2017

“Look!”  The Fourth Sermon in a Series Called “The 2017 Summer Stretch,” Preached at First Church Coral Springs on July 16, 2017

Last Sunday, we watched a video, in which the Kid President advised us, “Before you say something about the BBQ sauce on someone’s else’s shirt, take a look at the BBQ sauce on your own shirt.” I don’t know about you, but that sounded very familiar to me.

Like when Jesus said, in Matthew 7:1-2, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” 

I like the way The Message versions says it, “Don’t pick on people, jump on their failures, criticize their faults— unless, of course, you want the same treatment. That critical spirit has a way of boomeranging.”

James adds, “There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor?”  James 4:12

And, in the words of the great prophet, Bob Marley, “Who are you to judge the life I live?  I know I’m not perfect… before you start pointing fingers… make sure your hands are clean!”

Confession:  I judge people all of the time.

I judge people for what they wear.  I judge people for how they talk.  I judge people for how they spend money.  I judge people for how often they miss church, or if they don’t go to church.  I judge people for how educated they are, or not.  I judge people for where they are from.  I judge people for how they drive.  I judge people for talking too loud on their phones – I don’t need to hear that.  I’ve judged old people and I’ve judged young people.  I even judge people for judging people.

I’ve judged other Christians.  I’ve judged non-Christians.  I’ve judged other pastors.  I’ve judged the President.  I’ve judged family members.  I’ve even judged some of you – most of you – maybe, all of you!  Maybe, I’ve judged you this morning.

And, I know for a fact, you judge me to.  It just goes with the territory of being a pastor.

We are judging, judgmental, judge-ful, judgers!  And, Jesus says… “in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”  For a bunch of judging judgers, this is NOT good news!

And, to make matters worse, we feel so superior and self-righteous when we do it.  That’s called pride – and it’s a sin – and it’s gross.

Years ago, when I started a church in Port St. Lucie, I intentionally marketed our church as a place for people that didn’t normally feel welcome in church – because of their pasts, or because of how they dressed, etc.  And, that’s who came.  I had clean-cut professionals, and scruffy blue-collar laborers, bikers, builders, landscapers, construction workers, tradesmen, addicts, the bankrupt, poor people, divorcees, former-inmates and current-inmates, a tug boat captain and a Coast Guard officer, a former stripper, a bunch of punk kids from the neighborhood – and everything in between.  In order to help anyone and everyone feel welcome, I grew my hair out long, had my ears pierced, got a tattoo, and wore jeans and t-shirt.  Lots of “church people” came to our church, got one look at me, and never came back – and that was fine.  Lot’s more came, who wouldn’t feel welcome in any other church, looked at me, and stayed.  I always figured if someone couldn’t handle my long hair, then our church wasn’t the right place for them.

Later, when I became a campus minister, I still had long hair and earrings.  But, that created a problem I didn’t expect.  As a campus minister, I preached in churches, like ours, to raise money to support our ministry.  Time after time, I showed up at churches, where I was scheduled to preach on a Sunday morning, robe and Bible in arm, and was completely ignored.  Now, I’m not easy to miss – especially with long hair.  At one glance, you know if I am a regular attender, or not.  Time after time, it was obvious that, until they found out I was the visiting pastor, that I was not wanted or welcome.

I eventually had to cut my hair, because it was getting in the way of raising money for my campus ministry.

The truth is, the only reason I don’t have long hair today is that it’s just too much trouble to grow back, it’s too hot in South Florida, and I don’t want to deal with the complaints.  And, that there would be complaints, is a major problem!  I always tell people; I still have long hair in my heart!

In 2012, a book was written, called UnChristian, based on an extensive study of non-Church-going young adults conducted by the Barna Research Group.  The book reveals that nearly 9-out-of-10 young adults believe that the Church is too judgmental.  Conversely, less than half of those surveyed, including church-goers, believed that churches love unconditionally.

Isn’t the message of Gospel of Jesus Christ that – in spite of our failures, flaws and shortcomings –  Christ loves us, died for us, and saves us, even when we fall way short?  Why do so many people think that the message is, “Jesus will love you, when you stop being a sinner.  We, the Church, will love and accept you when you look like us, act like us, think like us, and get your act together”?

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard Christians justify judging others by saying, “Love the sinner, but hate the sin,“  as though they’re quoting Scripture.  They aren’t.  It isn’t in there!

Instead, I especially like what Tony Campolo says “Jesus never said, love the sinner, but hate his sin… He said, love the sinner and hate your own sin.”

Jesus asked, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?  How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?   You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”  (Matthew 7:3-5)

In other words, “before you hate the speck in your brother’s eye, hate the log in your own!”

Now, listen to me.  Jesus is NOT condoning walking around with sawdust in our eyes.  He is NOT endorsing having eyeballs covered in sawdust.  He is NOT saying that sawdust in a person’s eye is not a problem.

The greater problem is the people who are so quick to see, judge, reject and publically condemn the sawdust in another person’s eye, while they are walking around with a log, or a plank, in their own.

Here’s the image.  Sawdust in your eye is a problem because it impairs your sight.  Jesus talked a lot about spiritual-blindness, and having eyes to see the truth.   Good vision matters – physically and spiritually.  But, comparably, a log or plank in your eye is a far greater impairment than a little sawdust.  If a little sawdust impairs vision, then a log is blinding!

If I’m blind, because I have a log in my eye, how can I see the sawdust in your eye accurately?  If I’m blind, because I have a log in my eye, how can I see accurately enough to assist you with removing the sawdust from yours?  If I’m blind, and have a log sticking out of my eye, how can I possibly get close enough to you to help you with your sawdust – my log will just hit you in the face!  And, if I’m blind to the fact that I have a log in my eye in the first place, then I’m in absolutely no position to say anything to anybody about anything!

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “Judging others makes us blind, whereas love is illuminating. By judging others, we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace which others are just as entitled to as we are.” 

Think about that log in your eye, standing between you and the person you’re judging.  That’s what judging does – it distances us.  I can judge you without bothering to know you.  I can judge you without knowing your history, your story, your background, your pain.  I can judge you without getting my hands dirty.  I can judge you easily, without having to do the harder work of self-examination.  I can judge you from a distance, without any intention or desire to help you with your sawdust.  I can just feel safely smug and self-righteous, by keeping my distance.

So, what’s your log?

Is it pride?  Insecurity?  Fear?

Is it self-centered, self-focused, self-righteousness?

Is it an inability to feel empathy or sympathy?

Is it hate?  Jealousy?  Immaturity?

Is it a lack of mercy?

What’s your log?  And, what are you going to do about it?

We can never forget that the opposite of judgement is not acceptance.  Let me repeat that.  The opposite of judgment is not acceptance.  The point of this passage is not to accept the sawdust in other people’s eyes.  Sawdust in eyes is a problem!  The opposite of judgement is self-examination.  Before I judge someone else’s shortcomings, I need to take a good hard look at my own.

Is my own spiritual house in order?

Am I sin free?

Am I doing/being all that I have been called to be?

Am I seeking God?

Do I have any skeletons in my closets?  Any unresolved conflicts?  Any brokenness?  Any shortcomings?  Any failures?

We can never forget that Jesus was judged, too.  Jesus was constantly being judged by the religious leaders, for…

  • Breaking rules, like healing on the Sabbath.
  • Associating with sinners – like tax collectors and prostitutes.
  • Being from Nazareth – nothing good comes from Nazareth.
  • Being the son of a carpenter – not a rabbi.
  • Forgiving sins.
  • Touching and healing the untouchable.

In response, Jesus had a few words for the religious leaders, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. You blind guides!  You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.   Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.  Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness. “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? (Matthew 23, selected verses)

In contrast, Jesus was amazingly gentle with others – those, whom the religious leaders were quick to judge and condemn…

  • Zacchaeus, the tax collector…
  • The woman, caught in adultery…
  • The prostitute, who anointed his feet…
  • The sick, the blind, the deaf, the lame…
  • Children…
  • The demon-infested…
  • Foreigners…
  • The poor…

Nadia Bolz-Weber writes, “Every time we draw a line between us and others, Jesus is always on the other side of it.”

The Pharisee’s judgement of Jesus ultimately led to his crucifixion.  But, from the cross, Jesus said, “Father, forgive them.  They don’t know what they are doing.” 

Even dying, he didn’t judge.  And, if Christ is for me, who do you think you are to judge me?  If Christ is for you, who am I to judge you?

Jesus said, “First take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

The point is, before you have any business pointing out the speck in someone else’s eye, you need to deal with the plank in yours.  My first spiritual responsibility is to be aware of the log in my eye, and to do all I can to remove it.  Such spiritual awareness only comes with humility.  Such spiritual awareness only comes from surrender, confession, and repentance.

The truth is, there is no place for smugness, or self-righteousness, or priggishness for a truly humble Christian.  ALL have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.  ALL are sinners in need of a savior.  EVERYONE has sawdust in their eyes.  EVERYONE needs Jesus.

The more you become aware of the log, or logs, rolling around in your own eye, the less you are likely to judge, and the more likely you are to say to someone with sawdust in their eyes, “Me too.  I get sawdust in my eyes too.”

And, the more we become aware of our own logs – how many there are, and how hard they are to remove, how blind we can be so much of the time –the more compassionate we are likely to be.

Think about it.  If I have sawdust in my eye, I hope you won’t point your finger and condemn me for it.  I hope you will feel compassion for me, and offer to help.

It’s those who are most aware of their own logs, who know the pain and burden of them.  It’s those who are most aware of their own logs, who’ve felt the guilt and shame.  It’s those who are most aware of their own logs, who’ve felt the most helpless at removing them.  And, it is those who are most aware of the logs that have been removed, who are most grateful, and most likely to offer compassion and grace to others.

Makoto Fujimura writes, “Compassion can be made available to those willing to wade into the uncertain, muddy territory of the human heart.” 

            So, back to my question.  What’s your log?  What’s the log that is blinding you to God’s mercy and grace – for you and for others?  What’s your log?