FrustrATE to DecorATE

First message in our Advent Series:Empty wishlist for Santa Claus laid on a wooden tableI was on the phone the other day with a customer service rep. I don’t remember what it was about, but that doesn’t really matter, does it?

The CSR was handling the issue very well. So well, in fact, that it was one of those things that, even if I couldn’t get the outcome I wanted, I would have to have admitted I was treated very well.

Except that I ALWAYS opt out of those “brief survey at the end of this call” things. I don’t trust myself to be mature about them.

So everything is going along swimmingly, when she says, “the Mrs.” As in “you and the Mrs.”

Wait, what?

I’m pretty sure I’ve never referred to Rachel as “the Mrs.” I don’t think I’m opposed to the term, or offended by it, but it strikes me as a bit quaint and antiquated.

And some of you are probably wondering, “Well, Steve, if you weren’t bothered or offended by it, WHY do you still remember it?”

Good question. Sometimes I am so easily distracted!

I am learning (finally!) what some of my buttons are. For example, when I hear anyone disparage young people simply because they are young, I pull out my soapbox and let loose.

I suppose it comes from memorizing 1 Tim 4:12 as a youth: “Let no man despise thy youth; but be thou an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity.”

I memorized it in King James English.

So; if you disparage youth, I am going to react. If you blame the problems of the world today, or even the problems of youth today, on youth, I’m probably going to go off.

There I am, distracted again! (Squirrel!)

So. Anyway. Where were we?

Oh, yeah: Mark 13:24-37.


Many of us are distracted by apocalyptic writing.The destruction, the vivid imagery, the dire tone all play well to our media-and-entertainment-and-cgi-engulfed culture.

We get so caught up in the vivid imagery that we miss the message.

Apocalyptic was (or is?) a style of writing in the bible. We find it in several places in the OT, three of the gospels, and, of course, Revelation.

Originally, “apocalyptic” meant “revealing.” It comes from the greek word “apocaluptein” which means, literally, “uncover.”

It has come to mean, though, “describing or prophesying the complete destruction of the world.”
“resembling the end of the world; momentous or catastrophic.”

How did it come to this?

Because, I think, we are both easily distracted and quickly frustrated.

Does talk about the end of the world frustrate you?

Does graphic imagery about the end of the world frustrate you?

You may be thinking that it excites you, rather than frustrates you.  That’s ok, and I’m not out to make sure everyone is frustrated, but have you considered this:

This morning’s text, Mark’s account of Jesus’ apocalyptic Olivet Discourse is approaching 2,000 years old. And, within this morning’s reading is this: I assure you that this generation won’t pass away until all these things happen. (verse 30).

So, whatever Jesus is talking about has already happened.

Today marks the first Sunday of Advent. Some of you already have all your decorations up and your shopping done. Some of you don’t bother with decorations and have barely given shopping a thought.

And, besides the lights and trees and angels and sleighs and mangers, besides the Black Friday onslaught and Cyber Monday and exchanging Christmas wish lists, there’s all the parties. And the family gatherings.

And this probably isn’t new, but my memory didn’t hold it from before, but the internet is offering us ways to have decent family conversations at our family gatherings.

While I don’t remember that, I do remember a time, almost 30 years ago now, actually having this thought: “I hate Christmas.”

It was my 2nd year out of seminary, my first on the staff of a church large enough to have an associate pastor. I was that associate pastor.

There was so much going on!  And I don’t mean just so much going on at the church – though there’s plenty of that! – there is so much going on in church, in family, in family finances, and if all that weren’t enough the year is coming to a close AND the way we’ve decided to situate all this, days are growing shorter as we approach Christmas, and the increased darkness naturally dulls our moods and dims our outlook.

What a frustrating combination!

While we sing this is the “most wonderful time of the year,” some of us cannot wait for it to be over!

So, what is the Christian response? Maybe, “suck it up” works in your family, but that’s not a message that I think resonates with people.

In fact, no. Maybe you were always, or often told to “suck it up” when you were younger, but that’s not how Jesus approached people who were frustrated or hurting.

So that’s not how we are going to approach people who are frustrated or hurting.

Jesus didn’t tell this story, this apocalyptic story, this end-of-the-age story intending to frustrate his disciples, but, rather to give them hope.

Advent isn’t intended to be frustrating, but a time to build hope toward a celebration of Immanuel, God WITH us, God incarnate in human form!

If you hate this time of year, this series is especially for you. If you love this time of year; you have already worked through all your frustrations, or, perhaps, you don’t have any, I want this series to be for you as well.  

Today, in our efforts to follow Jesus better today than yesterday, and to prepare our hearts, our minds, and our souls for celebrating Christmas, I invite you to move from frustrATE to decorATE.

Though we are distracted by the vivid imagery of Jesus’ words in Mark 13, if we can take a breath and step back, we see that he closes with what is really important – with what he wants his disciples to take away from the session.

“Stay Alert!”

How can we stay alert if we aren’t already alert?  What if we are so distracted by the apocalyptic language – and maybe frustrated either that we don’t understand it or that it hasn’t happened yet, that we can’t get to alert?

Here’s a hint about what Jesus was talking about. Did you catch how in verse 35 Jesus says,

Therefore, stay alert! You don’t know when the head of the household will come, whether in the evening or at midnight, or when the rooster crows in the early morning or at daybreak.

There’s that pattern evening, midnight, early morning, or when the rooster crows,and at daybreak. Mark repeats the pattern in the following chapter: 14:17, Jesus begins the Last Supper with the disciples in the “evening.” then, in the garden, Jesus goes to pray and comes back to find them sleeping. Why? It was this middle of the night. Third, Jesus is arrested, and Peter denies him when the rooster crows. Finally, Jesus is taken before Pilate in the morning.

Something about the pattern of the end that Jesus tells us about in 13 is mirrored perfectly in the events leading to his death in the following chapters!

Some of what Jesus was talking about, some of what he was encouraging his followers to “stay alert” for, was about to happen.

For whatever else remains, you and I join the original followers of Jesus in expectation and anticipation. And frustration. We want Jesus to come and finish the job!

Can you admit that Jesus frustrates you? Have you had a conversation with God recently in which you’ve expressed – or shouted – how frustrated you are when or if things don’t work out the way you thought they should – the way it seemed clear as day God wanted them to turn out?

Frustration is a theme in Mark’s Gospel… Every time Jesus heals someone, he tells them, “Don’t tell anyone.”  In fact, in chapter 9, in Mark’s version of Jesus’ “Who do people say that I am? Who do you say that I am? Passage, when Peter answers, “You are the Christ,” Jesus ordered them not to tell anyone about him!

And, right after that, Jesus starts teaching them that he must suffer. And die.

In expected Peter fashion, Mark tells us, Peter “scolds Jesus.”

Jesus tells Peter, “get behind me,” and concludes the teaching with this:

“All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. [(‘take up your cross’ didn’t mean have people look at you funny if you bow to pray over your meal at a restaurant. It certainly didn’t mean face the abject persecution of having someone say “happy holidays” rather than Merry Christmas!” ‘Take up your cross’ meant, as Bonhoeffer reminds us, that “Jesus bids us come and die.”)]

Welcome to frustrATE!

In response, I invite you to decorATE.

I don’t mean to take a second mortgage out on your house to try to win the HOA’s Christmas decoration contest.

Our HOA gives offers up to 5 $100 prizes for best decorations in the development. Several of our neighbors spend at least a couple hundred each year in pursuit of a $100 gift card.

That’s not what I mean by decorate.

Here’s what I mean: find a way, make a way, to inhabit the world you inhabit. Make the time, the effort to be still and know that God is God.

The point of decorating is not to win contests or gift cards. The point of decorating is to oo and aw. To have the space around you settle you, suggest peace, help you just to be.

Can you just BE this close to Christmas?

I am coming to learn that I am not very good at just BEing. Well, I’ve known for years I’m not good at BEing. I’ve come to learn relatively recently part of the reason, and part of the solution.

I don’t decorate.

From my earliest days of living on my own, I’ve had little to no sense of style or decoration. Ok; honestly, I’ve had little to no sense of being willing to spend any money at all to support a sense of decoration.

If it were left to me, all the walls of our house would be the same color – whatever color they were when we moved in.

One of them would have a picture on it. Because that’s all the wall art I had ever actually purchased.

It’s an Ansel Adams print. His Mount McKinley Range, Denali National Park picture.

I saw it once and was blown away at the majesty. First thing I saw was the mountain range across the bottom. Any mountains look big in texas, right? And the clouds floating over them. Then, and it took me a second to catch it, then you see the next level of mountains, snowcapped, rising behind and above that coastal range.

Then you see – or then I saw, THE MOUNTAIN shrouded in clouds, rising as high as the clouds themselves.

Seeing that, pondering that, decorating one wall with that gives me some perspective on how small I am and how big God is.

And that helps me BE.

I don’t know how much decoration you need to help you be. I am pretty sure it doesn’t require your bankrupting yourself. In fact, a lesson from the Psalmist, and a lesson this Ansel Adams print would tell me if I took the time, is that creation – the natural world around me – might be decoration enough to draw me back, out of my frustration, to a place I can recognize God.

I got home from running an errand last Saturday and tried to get seamlessly back into putting up Christmas decorations. We had arrived home about 6 the night before, from a great week away for Thanksgiving. I had a long, slow run, longer than I’d run in several months. Just before the errand I had gotten out the trees that replace the hibiscuses that stand watch at our front door. So I brought in the groceries, put them away, and went back out through the garage. I went that way on purpose because next on my agenda was to replace the autumnal doormat at the front door with the one we had put in the garage.

So, I picked it up, went out the garage, turned the corner, and was reaching down to pick up the matt as I turned, and noticed there was a brand new doormat there already!

So I went and asked Rachel, as I often do, when we had gotten that.

When we were at Aldi a month or so ago, You and I. Together. Shopping. And we saw that mat, and we talked about how worn out ours was. And we decided, together, to buy it.

Even when there is decoration, I can miss it!

Probably because I am so easily distractible and too quickly frustrated.

Don’t frustrATE


Catch yourself running ragged and BE. Notice creation. Look for beauty. Slow down.

So decorATE. DecorATE your soul with peace that passes understanding, even at this time of year.

Combatting Fake News

Sermon 4 in the 4 week Series


Today, we are concluding our “The Gospel Isn’t Fake News” series with “Combating Fake News.”

One time, not too long ago, I thought I saw a sign that read “Complete life repair.”  thinking oh, that’s an odd thing for a sign to say, I looked at it again. This time I read it correctly: “Complete Leaf Removal”?

Was the world trying to tell me something?

If so, how about this: a sign I first read as “Bravery,” actually read “Brewery.”

I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who misreads things.

Of course, misreading signs like these examples is mostly funny, unless you’re a real Freudian. But we face a greater danger.

You see, I may want to read Brewery as Bravery to excuse my getting a beer. And I may need to read “Complete Leaf Removal” as “Complete Life Repair” as a call to visit my therapist. Was I seeing what I wanted, or needed, to see?

If you find yourself willing to believe allegations of sexual abuse based the political affiliation of the accused, you may need to admit that you are seeing what you want to see. Can it really be that all the allegations against people you don’t like or respect are true and all the allegations against people you favor are made up?

I read an article a few years ago that a Muslim man in Detroit had sued a nearby church when he found out they had put him and his family on their prayer list.

I was outraged! How could anyone NOT want to be prayed for? I remembered why C.S. Lewis had said we could never scientifically prove the efficacy of prayer. To do so, he explained, you’d have to run a control group. For example, you’d have to set aside some sick people for whom NO ONE would pray.

How could Christians actually ever agree to that?  Jesus requires us to pray for our enemies!

After several minutes of outrage, I happened to notice that article about the lawsuit was published by the Onion. In case you don’t know, The Onion is a satire and parody site.

They make fake news. On purpose. And they admit it. It’s their claim to fame.

The Onion would be funnier if our world were not so polarized.

Sometimes what we read and what we watch plays into our desire to see what we want to see, to hear what we want to hear.

I’m quite sure that was the case in today’s scripture reading. Fresh back from the temptations in the wilderness, Jesus goes to synagogue in Nazareth. His hometown. He stand to read the Isaiah scroll: Isaiah 61:1-2, which everyone there would have recognized as 2 things – a reference looking back to the past, and one to the future. First, Isaiah was calling their attention to Deuteronomy 15, the Jubilee Year. The Law of Moses had a calendar built into it: once every 7 years God’s people were to take a sabbath year. Then, every 7th seven years, Deut 15 called for a bonus year – the 50th year. In addition to Sabbath, all debts were cancelled and all slaves were freed.

To be clear: society then wasn’t built on debt the way our society is today. God’s people were not allowed to charge interest to the poor, and we’ve absolutely turned that on its head – today, the poorer you are, the more interest you pay.

So Jesus was calling their attention to maybe the greatest promise of the Torah – that God’s people would be so blessed that they could, and would, totally reset every 50 years.

And there’s also the look to the future. By this time – more than a 1,000 years after the the Jubilee had been established, they had never actually carried one out. God’s people had lived in a shorter cycle than 50 years. One generation would know God and worship God and bless God, and the next generation wouldn’t

They’d seen good times – even great times, and also horrible times. Times when their nation was the center of civilization, and times when they were hauled off into exile – reminding them of the years they spent in slavery in Egypt.

In the years since, the promise of a Messiah had risen. Isaiah was writing about Messiah.

Messiah would come and restore the Kingdom, in all it’s glory. This included Jubilee.

The reference that looked back, and the reference that looked forward.

And then, Luke tells us,

He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the synagogue assistant, and sat down. Every eye in the synagogue was fixed on him. He began to explain to them, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it.” Luke 4:20-21)

Jesus wasn’t just echoing Isaiah’s promise of a Messiah. He was claiming the status for himself!

And everyone is excited! “Raving” the CEB translates. “Spoke well of him” the NRSV says, more modestly. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son! They agree.

Everybody loves a hometown hero, right?

They’re living in an echo chamber, though, and Jesus is about to bust the bubble.

You know what an echo chamber is, right?  An echo chamber is when you only hang around with people who agree with you, who see things your way. You only watch or listen to the news that tells your version of the story.  

Much of the modern media is designed to maintain, even more deeply entrench, echo chambers. And that’s not just true of the media you don’t like. In fact, in most cases, it is why you like the media you like.

Algorithms rule the media; especially social media. The theory is that engagement – making us feel good and connected, makes us want more, which means more advertising can be sold. But, again, don’t blame the advertisers. This is on us.

When we want what we want and only what makes us feel good about ourselves and our own positions, we don’t just buy products, we “buy” stories. Stories and perspectives we like – so we believe better-than-real made-up claims about “our side” and worse-than-real made up claims about the other side.

Here are 7 steps that we should all consider as we continue to face the onslaught of more and more information:

  1. Do you know who the source is, or was it created by a common or well-known source? Example National Geographic, Discovery, etc.
    2. How does it compare to what you already know?
    3. Does the information make sense? Do you understand the information?
    4. Can you verify that the information agrees with three or more other sources that are also reliable?
    5. Have experts in the field been connected to it or authored the information?
    6. How current is the information?
    7. Does it have a copyright?

This should help us get out of our echo chambers. Also, get to know people who are different than you. Listen to their stories and their perspectives.

Nazareth was an echo chamber, but it wasn’t one Jesus was willing to be part of. Do you remember his response to the sentimental joy following his reading from Isaiah?

He dredged up 2 other scriptures:

Elijah went to a non-Israeli widow, not one of their own, during a sever drought, and raised her dead son.

Elisha healed Naaman, a Syrian General of leprosy, but didn’t heal a single skin disease among God’s own people.

And what did they do now, in response to this?

When they heard this, everyone in the synagogue was filled with anger. They rose up and ran him out of town. They led him to the crest of the hill on which their town had been built so that they could throw him off the cliff.

When Jesus talks about “Making Israel great again,” they love it. But when Jesus reminds them that God loves those foreigners, too, they are literally ready to kill him.

How do they turn so fast?

Is that really even a question you can ask today? We are so easily swayed  by some of the stuff we see!

Did the Seattle Seahawks really burn an American flag in their dressing room? You saw the picture? No; that was photoshopped. And, not even all that well photoshopped.

I’ve bought into things I read or saw and wanted to believe. And I have learned that I have this great community of friends on social media. Several of them have called me on things I’ve posted.

I know how easy it is to get sucked into a story you WANT to believe is true. It’s just as easy as refusing to believe something you don’t want to believe.

It’s not limited to what we want to believe, either. On Sunday, October 30, 1938, CBS Radio broadcast a realistic portrayal based on H. G. Wells’ novel The War of the Worlds. Many listeners were easily convinced that Martians had landed in Grover’s Mill New Jersey and started their assault on planet earth.

Thankfully, not a lot of people were listening to CBS radio that night.

So it isn’t new.

What’s the deal?

I believe it comes down to this, really: we want to believe what we want to believe. And, as we like to say, we don’t like change.

Which isn’t exactly true.

When Jesus proclaimed the Jubilee, the coming of the Messiah, and even claiming to BE the Messiah, well, it’s hard to imagine there could be more change than that.

And at that, everyone cheered him on.

Change isn’t the problem. The problem is change that gets outside our comfort zone.

When change is up to us; when we get to pick it, choose it, direct it, we are more than willing to accept change. How many of you have children? If you really, really didn’t like any change at all, you never would have had children!

It is the change that isn’t up to us that strikes us with uncertainty and fear.

The appeal of fake news – the success fake news has had, is almost always its appeal to fear.

Jesus counters with a reminder of God’s long faithfulness. The promises first spelled out in Deuteronomy 15 were still fresh in God’s mind.

Those promises weren’t actually new in Deuteronomy, either. There they were a spelling out of God’s’ original promise to Abraham – that he was blessed to be a blessing to all.

If God’s people would learn to trust God as their deliverer, as their source of life and hope, they, too, would be blessed to be a blessing to all. If, on the other hand, they tried to trust in their own abilities, they would likely find themselves missing the mark, moving away from God.

In other words:

Trust in the Lord with all your heart; don’t rely on your own intelligence.
Know him in all your paths, and he will keep your ways straight.

That makes it sound easy, so I want to add this to close: We can only really learn to trust God with all our hearts, and know God in all our paths, if we are willing to do the hard work of following Jesus. And to do that, we need each other.

We need to worship together. Not because God is keeping attendance, but because we need this kind of experience to know who God really is, and what God really expects of us.

And we need worship and our congregation not to be an echo chamber – we need each other especially as we don’t see eye to eye.

Because only together can we really, truly, learn to hear Jesus and not want to kill him, and also fall into sentimentality.

How will you remember?


Six years ago today, we checked Eliza into Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children. It was the beginning of what would end up being an almost 7 month process of correcting the dysplasia in her left hip.

The hospital was wonderful; we still have annual follow-up appointments as she grows.

If we didn’t have these annual follow-ups, and if she didn’t have the scar, I don’t think Eliza would even know she had been through two procedures, one surgery, and 24 weeks in a spica cast.

It is up to Rachel and I to remember it for her. We want to help her remember it well!  We have awesome stories about how we got to Texas Scottish Rite Hospital, which include a chance encounter with a good friend of mine from more than 20 years before.

We all are who we are because others have done some remembering for us. Sometimes for the good, sometimes not.

I read someplace a few years ago, a recommendation to spend money on travel rather than things. The article argued that even trips that leave a lot to be desired end up being “improved” by memory as the years pass. I have found this to be true in my own life, but I also know people who seem to remember things as worse than they could possibly have been.

How will you remember?  Some of what you remember may have a great affect on how you live, and even on the lives of others.

Thanksgiving is Good News

t is gn.jpgThere’s this funny thing about being United Methodist in the 21st century. Do you remember 6 degrees of Kevin Bacon? The pop culture version of our connected world. Back in the 50s (pretty soon we’re going to have to say “1950s”, someone did a study of how many connections it would take to link a person randomly picked from a phone book in one city to another person randomly licked from a phone book in another city. 6 was all it took.

And the big takeaway from that is really, “when was the last time you used a phone book?”

Anyway, the funny thing about being a United Methodist in the 21st century is that number is, I’d say, 3 or 4 at the most.

We are more connected than ever as a society, and United Methodists even moreso!

Geoff and I went to highschool together. We were also in UMYF and Boy Scouts together. Then we went off to school – me to Southwestern and him to A&M.

I saw him once after that – he happened to be passing near Wilmore, Ky., when I was in seminary there, so we had a visit. In the late 80s. Next time I heard from Geoff was following 9-11. He had been at the pentagon when the plane hit it. He was safe.

Then, another decade or so, now we’re connected on social media. You know how that goes, a flurry of interaction, then pleasantries, then back into regular life.

Then Geoff messages me. He’s retired Navy, settled in Georgia. I said we had been in scouts together. Well, the message was that his son’s troop had sent a team to Philmont scout ranch in northern NM, and one of the kids had sickle cell anemia, which doesn’t react well with high altitudes. So that boy, half a continent from home and family, had been rushed to a hospital in Albuquerque.

Did I know someone who could check on him?

Why, yes; my mind went quickly to several United Methodist clergy friends in Albuquerque. And also, as it happens, to my mother in law. A deeply committed, lifelong United Methodist, and certified Spiritual Director.

Donna Berry, Rachel’s mother, my mother-in-law, visited the scout in the hospital.

Thank God for connections and connectedness!  Thank God for opportunities to do small things with great love for people you haven’t seen in 2 decades and for people you never have and never will meet!

I have no doubt you have some similar story; We live in such a connected world that if we simply pay attention, we cannot help but be awestruck at the way God can work in us and through us to bless and encourage and comfort others.

And, of course, we cannot help but be awestruck at the way God works in others to bless and encourage and comfort us.

But this is 2017. Almost 2018. We travel without a thought. Few of us have lived here all our lives, and those who have have likely visited lots of other places. And met many other people.

So, nearly 2,000 years ago, Paul was quite a traveller, but he didn’t have social media. To be fair, he did, but his social media was letters and couriers.

At this point, Paul has never been to Rome. He has travelled much of the empire, and he has planted churches.

He has travelled to Jerusalem – headquarters – to argue for accepting the gentiles into a faith that started entirely Jewish. His argument won the day, we learned last week, against those who said new gentiles Jesus-followers had to obey the law of Moses. “They and we are saved the same way; by the grace of Jesus.”

So, now, in the opening chapter of Paul’s letter to Christians in Rome, why does he thank God for the Romans? He hadn’t been there. He didn’t know them.

As you know if you have spent any time in this letter to the Romans, Paul has some things he wants to teach them. He is committed to helping them clear up some misunderstandings.

But before correcting them, or even beginning to teach them, he gives thanks for them.

Do we give thanks for people we have never met? Do we give thanks for people we feel obligated to teach, to correct and direct and educate?

Today, we do. If we want the gospel to be good news for us, we do. If we want the Gospel to be good news for others through us, we do. We give thanks!

Our willingness to give thanks helps make the gospel good news.

And let me be clear, because giving thanks too easily degenerates into listing the stuff or benefits we have.

Giving thanks is not just being able to list stuff – as though our relationship with God, or our mental or spiritual health rises and falls with what we have.

In another of Paul’s letter, Philippians, he thanks for Philippians for their support:

10 I was very glad in the Lord because now at last you have shown concern for me again. (Of course you were always concerned but had no way to show it.)

Then he expands upon his thankfulness:

11 I’m not saying this because I need anything, for I have learned how to be content in any circumstance. 12 I know the experience of being in need and of having more than enough; I have learned the secret to being content in any and every circumstance, whether full or hungry or whether having plenty or being poor. 13 I can endure all these things through the power of the one who gives me strength. 14 Still, you have done well to share my distress.

Paul isn’t grateful simply for the collection the Philippians have taken up and sent on. He is grateful for the connection with them; the encouragement he received from knowing them and spending time with them.

He is, in fact, thankful whether in need or having more than enough, whether hungry or full, whether having plenty or being poor.

Is that how thankfulness works?

Yes. Yes it is.

If we can learn to, and practice, being thankful and expressing thankfulness, no matter our situation, thankfulness works on our behalf.

Learning to be thankful people makes us better people. Learning to be thankful people brings us closer to God.

Did you catch what Paul said here? He is responsible to Jews and Greeks, to the wise and the foolish.

It’s like Paul has really, truly learned to be thankful in everything. He may or may not know that he’ll end up in Rome because, after his arrest, he appeals to Caesar to get his trial moved there.

This is the man who wrote “to live is Christ, to die is gain.” He has learned how to rejoice in the Lord always.

He has learned the power of giving thanks.

Like Tina Kennedy. Tina’s story comes from Christian Smith’s The Paradox of Generosity. Tina lives on welfare, having suffered a spinal injury in childbirth, and so lost her job as a cosmetologist. After giving birth to one of her children, the child’s father left her for another woman, one of her good friends. She recalls that time as a particularly dark chapter in life. It was not easy, but she did find a way to move past the pain and forgive her boyfriend, her good female friend, and the doctors responsible for her injury. Instead of letting bitterness take root, she remains thankful for what she has. “I had to regroup, regroup, re-evaluate things, where you put your priorities and things of life. But overall, TIna says, I’m blessed, and that’s why I keep my strength. I have life to be thankful for, you know?” Even though she could easily be overwhelmed by her health, financial, and romantic setbacks, she still generously reaches out to other people, by providing aid to extended family members and volunteering much of her time to local schools.

Smith tells us that “It is difficult to be angry, resentful, depressed, or fearful when one is showing selfless love toward another person. Such loving acts neutralize negative emotions that stimulate physiological responses known to adversely affect immune, endocrine, and cardiovascular functions.”

Learning to live thanksgiving isn’t just good for your physical body; It’s also good for your soul.

Learning to live thankfully, developing an attitude of gratitude, is good for body and soul – and thus, also – for the Body of Christ. The Body of Christ is the Church!

Learning to live thankfully is good for the church!

Paul began this section giving thanks for people he’d never met. He closes this section with these words – right after he mentions his responsibility to jews and Greeks, wise and foolish, he says:

That’s why I’m ready to preach the gospel also to you who are in Rome. I’m not ashamed of the gospel: it is God’s own power for salvation to all who have faith in God, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. God’s righteousness is being revealed in the gospel, from faithfulness for faith, as it is written, The righteous person will live by faith.

He’s ready! Ready to preach the Gospel. The Gospel which is, by the way, God’s own power for salvation!

That’s some good news! The Good news of Jesus Christ, which is good news for all of us, is God’s power for salvation – for everyone!

And God’s righteousness, God’s goodness, is revealed in the gospel: that people are to live by faith.

Part of living by faith is learning to live thankfully. Give thanks this week. May this week be a step for you in the direction of living thankfully year around.

When we learn to live thankfully year around, it is good for our bodies, and our souls, and our church.

Give thanks with a grateful heart. Give thanks to the Holy One….




Grace is the Word

graceI wasn’t looking last Sunday when the shooting at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs started hitting the news.

This wasn’t some intentional media fast. Actually, it might have been because I don’t always have time on Sunday afternoons to watch news or scroll my newsfeed.

And, I confess, I realized I’ve become a bit desensitized to this kind of tragedy.

Maybe it’s a sign there’s something wrong in the world when one can say something like, “Oh, great, there’s been another mass shooting.” and go on with one’s day.

But here’s the deal – in my defense. There are going to be more. Well, maybe not more, but there will be another. It might be at a school, or a live outdoor concert, or a church.

It is foolish to think that last Sunday’s will be the last. Especially since, as a society, we are absolutely, totally, unwilling to do anything differently.

So, while worship ought to be a celebration, today’s worship is, at least in part, a memorial service.

We wanted today to be about remembering veteran’s and their families and the collective commitment to something larger than themselves – that when country calls with a legitimate need to defend freedom and honor, these among us have set aside their sense of self to answer that larger call.

But we can’t even let today be about worshiping God and remembering them. And we are struck by the truth that Devin Patrick Kelly, the shooter a week ago right now, had been, in fact, a member of the US Air Force.

And the USAF did, in fact, drum him out.

But we can’t drum him out of the human race.

And honestly, as Christians, we cannot be about drumming people out. We are about getting people in!

The gospel is good news and it wants to be good news for everyone! Mike Slaughter, recently retired United Methodist Pastor from Ohio, says frequently, that if it isn’t good news for the poor, it isn’t the gospel.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is good news for everyone!

So, if the good news of Jesus Christ is supposed to be good news, why is it that sometimes Christians are the saddest sad sacks in the world?

Sometimes, it’s like, “Uh-oh: this feels good. It must be a sin.”

Then there’s the guilt-trip we lay on ourselves and others. Some of us have carried burdens for YEARS for things we’ve done or things we’ve been through.  We feel guilty for them, and then when we finally have a day we don’t feel guilty, we feel guilty for not feeling guilty!

As though the good news of Jesus Christ is carrying an appropriate amount of guilt on your shoulders throughout your life.

We come by it honestly, I suppose. Our faith heritage is a people who were redeemed from slavery – just absolutely busted FREE from slavery, and then given some rules to live by.

And what did they focus on? The rules.

Rules are good for keeping people feeling guilty.

So I have to stop and ask you this: Does your understanding and experience of God lead you to believe that God is all about the rules, and that God mostly wants you to feel guilty?

Does that sound like good news?  Does that feel like good news?

When you and I talk about how great being or becoming a christian is, but then we go and live defeated lives, it seems like we’re offering fake news.

But the gospel isn’t fake news! It is real, good news for everyone!



Yeah, what’s your “if”?

The gospel is good news if…

  • If you follow the rules?
  • If you don’t do this, that, or the other thing?
  • If you go to church enough?
  • If you pray enough
  • If you read your bible enough?
  • If you sing the right songs in worship?
  • If you read the right translation of the bible?
  • If you have the right position on
    • The Trinity
    • The virgin birth
    • Abortion
    • Gun control
  • If you keep the law of Moses?

That’s where we find ourselves with this morning’s scripture reading.

Make disciples of all nations,” Jesus said, so they were. The Gospel had begun to spread among the gentiles, so friction naturally came up:

Specifically, Paul and Barnabas were leading evangelism among the gentiles, and men who converted were not required to get circumcised. The gentile converts were not required to keep the law of Moses.

So, Acts 15 starts, “Some people came down from Judea teaching “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom we’ve received from Moses, you can’t be saved.”

“They ought to have to go through what I went through!” some of the insiders apparently thought!

“we’ve had this Law, that we’ve never been able to keep, but it is still hanging over us, so those gentiles better come along and know what it’s like, too!”

I’ve been there. It’s tempting!

When you finally get “inside” or move toward the top of the control structure, why is it so tempting to want to make sure other people – people “outside” or people below you on the org chart – suffer at least as much as you did?

So there are these two factions (sound familiar?)those from Judea, who aren’t named, and Paul and Barnabas from Antioch. One group wanted everyone who came to Jesus to be subject to the law, just like they had been.

I feel like I have to offer an aside here. I mentioned this earlier, and, while I’d like to think we’ve all caught it because I have said it, perhaps, more times than anything else besides that bit about following Jesus a bit better today than yesterday.

Way back near the front of the book, these people were enslaved by other people. The enslaved just happened to be God’s people. They cried out, and God heard their cry.

God always hears the cry!

So God did what God does: God delivered them from slavery.

Then AFTER God delivers all those people from slavery, AFTER they are removed from the land and the presence of those who held them down, AFTER they were on their way to a land God would give them, THEN God gave commandments.

Most of us live it the other way around. IF we can live up to the law, THEN God will deliver us, many of us think.

That may be how your god works. But the God who delivered the Israelites, the God who raised Jesus from the dead, doesn’t work that way!

Our God delivers FIRST!

Here ends the aside. That’s just one of those things I feel like I need to keep in front of us. There’s still much in me that is oriented otherwise, but this is clear, I believe, throughout scripture:

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

If God wanted to condemn the world, the law would have come before the deliverance from sin. But that’s not how it happened. And that’s still not how it happens!

So: this sermon is titled “Grace is the Word!” partly because my mind works, as many of you know, with lyric references That’s “grace is the word” rather than “grease is the word”). But mostly because GRACE is THE essential component to our claim that the Gospel is not fake news.

So: the church in antioch sent Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem – headquarters – to present their case – the case for grace.

And “some people,” we aren’t given names – come to argue the opposite. Now, the fact that we aren’t given names of those on the other “side” is a good hint as to where this story is going. Which, in fact, if we had read the whole book of Acts, and Luke, that goes along with it, we would know. Both Luke and Acts are, in a sense, fact-checkers in support of the position that gentiles have always been part of God’s plan. In other words: God so loved THE WORLD.

Another is this, and some of you caught it when ______ was reading it: in verse 5, Luke wrote “some believers from among the Pharisees stood up and claimed , “The Gentiles must be circumcised. They must be required to keep the Law from Moses.”

This is one of those points that ought to really challenge us. Sometimes when we read the gospels and come across “Pharisees,” we know they’re the bad guys. They’re kinda the bad guys in this story too, but I hope you can also see how they’re kinda us.

At least they are kind us whenever we are the ones who are ruled more by rules than by grace.

So: the debate is set. Can you imagine what the twitter war would have been like? (collect images)

Peter stood and announced the Jerusalem Council’s decision:

God, who knows people’s deepest thoughts and desires, confirmed this by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, but purified their deepest thoughts and desires through faith. Why then are you now challenging God by placing a burden on the shoulders of these disciples that neither we nor our ancestors could bear? On the contrary, we believe that we and they are saved in the same way, by the grace of the Lord Jesus.”

“We believe that we and they are saved in the same way, by the grace of the Lord Jesus.”

Please notice: They weren’t, and I’m not, saying that rules don’t matter, or that the Law doesn’t matter.  Peter did ask, though, and he asks the Pharisee within each of us: “Why are you challenging God by placing a burden on the shoulders of these disciples that neither we nor our ancestors could bear?

Wow. Just wow.  Why would we CHALLENGE GOD by placing a burden on the shoulders of others that we couldn’t bear ourselves?

  • Because if we had to suffer, so do they?
  • Because our vision of God is more mean than loving?
  • Because somewhere, deep inside, we still feel like we have to earn God’s love?

I think that’s it. I think we – most of us – have within us a sense that we still have to earn God’s love.

If you have to earn it, it isn’t grace.

And grace is the word. The gospel is grace! Specifically, the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ!

Grace makes the Gospel good news. Without grace, it is fake news.

Don’t let the gospel you share be fake news. Don’t let the gospel you live be fake news.

Grace is the word. Grace makes the gospel good news!.

Grace, briefly, is defined as unmerited favor. I also like that the lexicon added: kindness.

That’s definition. Here’s a lyric for what grace is (thanks, Bono):

She takes the blame
She covers the shame
Removes the stain
It could be her name
It’s a name for a girl
It’s also a thought that
Changed the world
Grace finds goodness
In everything
She travels outside
Of karma
When she goes to work
You can hear the strings
Grace finds beauty
In everything

What once was hurt
What once was friction
What left a mark
No longer stings
Because grace makes beauty
Out of ugly things
Grace finds beauty
In everything
Grace finds goodness in everything

Grace is the word. May the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ fill you and be good news for you, in you, and through you.

Stand Firm in the Lord

Footprint on a sandy BeachFourth in the Philippians: finding joy in a broken world series

Preached Sunday, October 29, 2017 at Euless First United Methodist Church

One of my favorite things to do at the beach is simply to stand there, at the edge of the surf, and feel my feet gradually, slowly, sink into the sand.

As much as I like that feeling at the beach, I want my faith stance to be on a rock, not in sand.

Do you ever feel like your faith-feet are sinking? Do you worry that other people’s faith-feet are sinking all around you?

This morning, we conclude our series on Philippians with “Stand firm.”

How do you, how do we, “stand firm in the Lord”?

What does it mean to stand firm in the Lord?

Does it mean what it meant for Martin Luther, 500 years ago next Tuesday, to post 95 theses against the Catholic Church on the doors of the Wittenberg Church?

I need to clarify that: to say he was against the Catholic Church is misleading, because at the time there wasn’t really a Catholic Church. There was the Church.

And Martin Luther took it on.

He stood pretty firmly: as he is oft quoted the following April at the Diet of Worms, in defense of his rebellion:

Since your majesty and your lordships desire a simple reply, I will answer without horns and without teeth. Unless I am convicted by scripture and plain reason–I do not accept the authority of popes and councils for they have contradicted each other–my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise, God help me. Amen.

As you might have noticed, we have placed copies of these theses on the doors to the church in memory of that momentous act.

It seems fitting to conclude our series on Philippians with “Standing Firm” on the Sunday nearest Reformation Day – especially as we approach the 500th anniversary!

Martin Luther stood firm! But I think it is fair to say that his actions have had some unintended consequences.

For instance, for war strangled most of Europe for the next 37 years. If one priest, in one region could challenge Rome, why shouldn’t others?

Until in 1555 the Peace of Augsburg settled the wars with this fine sounding latin phrase, “Cuius regio, eius religio,” or “Whose realm, his religion.”

In other words, whoever is in charge gets to pick the religion.

Which sounds great as long as you are in charge!

Which actually makes it really challenging to stand firm in the Lord. Because when kings or other government officials say jump, it’s kinda hard to say “not unless Jesus tells me to jump” instead of just saying “how high?”

Which makes it really fun to consider right now that some of us are thinking, “Yeah, they caved to whatever Obama said.” And some of us are thinking, “Yeah, they cave to whatever Trump says.”

And the point I want to make this morning is that we are followers of Jesus – not of Obama or of Trump or of any other Caesar.

Sure, we render to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But we should be checking with Jesus for that list, not Caesar.

But, anyway, Thank you, Martin Luther for Standing Firm.  You read the scriptures – which were, at the time, only available in Latin, and were not widely available at that. The printing press was only 60-70 years old at this time.

So there wasn’t really much to read at Starbucks yet. Which was fine, because coffee wouldn’t find it’s way to Europe for another hundred years.

Honestly, part of the reason I introduced standing firm in the context of Martin Luther, besides the 500th anniversary and all, was that it is SO MUCH easier to talk about issues and challenges in other people’s lives.

The presenting problem, legend has it, for Martin Luther, was that Rome was selling indulgences to raise money for building St. Peter’s Basilica. Indulgences were time off purgatory.

To make it perfectly clear: there was a belief in purgatory as a holding place, or a cleansing place, for people after death and before paradise.

The indulgence theory was that living relatives could contribute money and “pay off” the deceased’s time in purgatory. Or, I suppose their own, I don’t know.

It is pretty easy for you and I to comment on indulgences, or any variety of other issues that were important and significant for others.

But when it comes to our own standing firm, It gets a little tricker, and I want to show you why.

See this key? I know, it doesn’t look like a key, but it is, I promise. It also functions like the fob most of us are used to these days. See, it has a few buttons on it: panic (of course), unlock, open the trunk, and lock.

Simple, right?

The other day, I had parked and was walking away from the car. Since I cannot for the life of me remember for more than about 3 ½ second whether I had locked the car, I reached back and hit the button again.

At which point the car should beep a little.

It didn’t

I tried again. Looking at the car this time, because, of course, I might not have aimed it very well.

Still no beep.

That’s ok; if one of the doors isn’t closed all the way, or if the trunk isn’t shut, it won’t beep.

So I proceeded to open and shut every door. No beep.

Opened the trunk. Shut the trunk. No beep.

AT THIS POINT, I realize I’ve been pressing the “unlock” keep the entire time.


Kinda like you and I are SO SURE of so many of the things we stand firm on.

Many, many people have had their faith shaken, have felt their feet move from a stone to sand by watching the History Channel. Or my reading Dan Brown.

That’s not very firm. Sometimes we are guilty of trying to stand firm on what a famous preacher or talking head tells us “has to be” the foundation of our faith.

Sometimes those famous preachers or talking heads go tumbling, and we realize our faith was more in them than in those things they said we have to believe.

Martin Luther stood upon “scripture and plain reason.” I don’t really have time to explain why there’s really no such thing as “plain” reason – but let me say this: everyone thinks their own reason is “plain.”

A lot like most every preacher tells you his or her interpretation of the scripture is “the right one.”

What we can gain from Luther, though, is this: I think he simply gave the Church’s teaching and behavior the smell test. Compared to his own reading of scripture, and his own understanding, something smelled bad. Actually, 95 things smelled bad.

But we’re not here to enumerate what’s wrong with a church – or our church. We are here to worship God and, particularly today, to stand firm in the Lord.

Which gives us the clearest, simplest place to start. Our standing firm is not on a set of beliefs or creeds or doctrines. It is “in the Lord.”

It is time to stand firm in the Lord.

It seems to me that at least two things are necessary to stand firm in the Lord:

  1. We have to know the Lord
  2. We have to acknowledge the Lord’s lordship

First, we have to know the Lord. Paul is clearly talking about Jesus: remember the kenotic hymn in chapter 2: “every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess, that Jesus Christ is Lord”

Who is this Jesus, the Lord? We could spend the rest of the day talking about who Jesus was and is. In fact, I suppose if all the things Jesus did were recorded, I imagine the world itself wouldn’t have enough room for the scrolls that would be written. (that’s a quote from the last verse of John’s Gospel – his account of Jesus’ life.)

So, to stand firm in the Lord, we have to know Jesus, and know about Jesus. One doesn’t have to know everything about Jesus – no one can! – but I believe this is essential – in our efforts to know Jesus and to know about Jesus, we have to be really careful about shooting down what others say they know about Jesus.

To stand firm in the Lord, we have to know Jesus and know about Jesus – not to prove others wrong, but so we can feel our feet are on the rock, not sinking in the sand.

Second, we have to acknowledge his lordship. It is hard for Americans to grasp Lordship because we think leaders are, and ought to be, elected.

Jesus wasn’t elected Lord! So it doesn’t matter whether you voted for him or not.

Jesus being lord means he rules. His word is final. His subjects seek his will.

I hope you can see why this second point depends upon healthy, careful, faithful commitment to the first point.

Otherwise we could end up with people going off into battle in the name of Jesus our Lord.

As if Jesus told them to.

Honestly, can you read about Jesus in the Gospels, or in the epistles for that matter, and picture THAT Jesus sending you off to kill others on His behalf?

Sure, a Lord has the power, and the authority to command his subjects to do so.

In fact, within months of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, Europe was at war, with BOTH SIDES claiming they were fighting for Jesus.

They weren’t the first, they weren’t the last. Caesars often try to convince us that waging war is God’s will.

And there are so many other things that Christ’s lordship has been read onto. For years – centuries, an obscure verse in Genesis was used by many to claim that in Jesus’ name white people were superior to black people.

For years, for centuries, and some still today, read some passages in scripture and ignore other passages to claim in Jesus’ name that men are superior to women.

This is why we need to know the Jesus who we claim to be our Lord. Because it is too easy instead to create a Jesus as Lord in our own image.

We stand firm in the Lord – not in any one version of who Jesus is or was or what Jesus said to do. But in standing firm in the Lord, we yield ourselves to Christ the Lord himself!

Only together can we know what that means!

Here, again, are Paul’s challenges to “stand firm” in 1:27

Most important, live together in a manner worthy of Christ’s gospel…. Do this so that you stand firm, united in one spirit and mind as you struggle together to remain faithful to the gospel.

And 3:20-4:1

Our citizenship is in heaven. We look forward to a savior that comes from there—the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform our humble bodies so that they are like his glorious body, by the power that also makes him able to subject all things to himself.
Therefore, my brothers and sisters whom I love and miss, who are my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord.

We can stand firm in the Lord! If we live together in a manner worthy of Christ’s gospel, and as Christ himself transforms our humble bodies so that they are like his glorious body.

Only on Jesus Christ our Lord can we stand firm!  Therefore, let us stand firm in the Lord by committing ourselves to

  1. Know Jesus Christ
  2. Acknowledge his Lordship.

What does this look like? We’ll have to work on that. Together.

Not aimed at you

young-girl-cryingOnce I noticed the little girl crying, I could not not think about it.

Being at an elementary school to meet with a 4th grader I mentor, I was sensitive to the little girl’s privacy and space. Had this happened at the church I pastor, I wouldn’t have felt the same nudge to maintain my distance.

After all, at least two teachers had stopped to talk with her.

Her situation wasn’t desperate or an emergency, but I still could not really focus on anything else. After all, I’d just preached on our “participating in Christ’s suffering” in Philippians 3. Part of what Paul is writing about, I argued, is that we must be willing to feel.

And, oh, was I feeling. So I was praying.  But I wasn’t willing only to pray, so I decided I would ask a teacher.

I caught one of the teachers on lunch duty and asked. Of course, I started with, “I realize this may be none of my business….”

“She’s homesick.”  Then the teacher added, “and she sees these tables (where I was sitting) other parents come to see their kids, and it doesn’t help.”

I was an adult there to visit a child. Not my child. Yet, my actions, to a homesick little girl, could add to her feelings of homesickness. But my visit wasn’t aimed at her.

Almost every time there is a disaster somewhere, and someone gives thanks for being spared, someone else replies with some version of “Why are you thankful? Are you saying God struck down the people who weren’t spared?”

To be fair, with almost every disaster, it is a matter of minutes before someone somewhere casts judgment, and claims God sent the disaster.

But most of us, in expressing thanks, or in simply trying to do something good (like visit a child at lunch), aren’t aiming our intentions at you.

And I’ll try to remember this next time I’m the hurt or grieving one and I observe someone experiencing joy.

Because we all get to live both sides of this one.