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!

If.

If?

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):

Grace
She takes the blame
She covers the shame
Removes the stain
It could be her name
Grace
It’s a name for a girl
It’s also a thought that
Changed the world
Grace finds goodness
In everything
Grace
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.

BUT I WAS SO SURE I WAS PRESSING THE RIGHT KEY

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.

Loving Las Vegas

A hand reaching out of a puddle in the forest.I’ve never been to Vegas, but after the mass shooting there last night, they’ve been on my mind and heart this morning. Enough that I posted this to Facebook this morning:

Praying for #LasVegas, and for a country that can seemingly agree on nothing except that we should pray.
Maybe that’s the best place to start.

Of course, sharing such a sentiment gets “likes” and positive comments.

And, then I read this post from my friend Jared Slack:

the fact there we’re all secretly hoping Stephen Paddock (Vegas shooter) is a by-product of our political/religious rivals is the problem.

After that bounced around in me for a while, I realized a potential shortcoming of my post.

I left it too easy for us to end up just praying for the other. Sure, “others” like victims, victim’s families, friends, residents of Las Vegas, the shooter and his family, friends, etc.

But if all we all agree to do is pray like that, for the other, whoever the other might be, I think we give in to remaining caught in this tragic cycle of simply agreeing to pray.

What if we moved a step further?

What if we invited God, in our prayers, to help us see the steps we, ourselves, can make beyond the impasse of only agreeing that we can and should pray?

If we remain in our place, disagreeing with so many others about so much, and only willing to agree to pray, I believe we find ourselves in the place of the Pharisee in this story from Luke 18

Jesus told this parable to certain people who had convinced themselves that they were righteous and who looked on everyone else with disgust: “Two people went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed about himself with these words, ‘God, I thank you that I’m not like everyone else—crooks, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week. I give a tenth of everything I receive.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He wouldn’t even lift his eyes to look toward heaven. Rather, he struck his chest and said, ‘God, show mercy to me, a sinner.’ I tell you, this person went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee. All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.”

I hereby commit to continuing to pray for Las Vegas, victims, victim’s families and friends, Stephen Paddock, his family and loved ones.

I further commit to finding, meeting, interacting, and listening to some of the “others.” for whom I am praying. Let’s call this reaching out.

When I reach out, the place for me to reach out from is the recognition that something or some things about me and the way I view and move in the world might be part of the problem.

I am reaching out not only to help, but for help.