A Rhythm to die for

rhythm1bannerGod spoke. In Genesis 1, God spoke the world into existence and into order. And it’s written in verse – it is a poem. Which means it has rhythm.

There’s a pattern, an order, to creation, whether you believe it was 7 literal 24 hour days or billions of years folded into a story that expresses A rhythm with which the world was created in literary language accessible by the cultures in which it was written.

God spoke, God created. God had, and has, rhythm.

If God spoke with a rhythm, maybe God rapped the world into existence.

Yes; God has better rhythm than you do. I know God has better rhythm than I do.

We see, we hear, we feel, we experience rhythm all around us and in us. Our hearts beat and we breathe in rhythm. When our hearts or our breath get out of rhythm, doctors get concerned.

There is a rhythm to the world, and there are rhythms to the world. Some of our rhythms are chosen, some happen to us, and some happen around us and invite us, or compel us, to enter, to join, to clap along.

For the next 5 weeks, I strongly encourage you to consider rhythm – the rhythms of your life, the rhythms of God’s creation, and the rhythms you’ve chosen and those you’ve fallen into.

One rhythm we’ve all chosen, as baptized Christians, and that has been chosen for us as beings created by God, is birth, death, and resurrection.

It is the circle of life! I suppose it is more a spiral than a circle, because it doesn’t actually go back to where it started, but a spiral represents a rhythm better than a circle does. Take a circle, and look at it from the side, you simply get a line. But a spiral, you get a waveform. Wave-forms have rhythm.

I learned recently that I run faster when I listen to music than when I listen to podcasts. Which was kinda frustrating, because I’ve got some awesome podcasts that I love listening to. But the rhythm of music – not necessarily fast rhythm, but rhythm, keeps my pace going better than listening to spoken words.

Rhythm takes us places.

God has a rhythm, and God is taking us somewhere. Where is God taking us, you might ask? Let’s go back to Genesis and see.

God spoke, creation happened. God formed, humans were shaped. God breathed, humans came to life. God invited humans to partner in caring for creation. One word for this is stewardship – God partners with us to take care of this vast beautiful world God created. God blesses us with abilities, with drives, with desires, with interests, all of which can be put to use in partnership with God.

And our abilities, drives, desires, and interests can be put to use otherwise, too; in opposition to God’s dreams for creation, and sometimes not so obviously in opposition to God, but out of line with God’s dreams. Out of beat with God’s rhythm.

By the time we get to Genesis 9, the rhythm that God intended to be beautiful music had become a cacophony. Humans living by their own beat, seeking only their own interests.

When we either give up on syncing with God’s rhythm, or go a step further and try to set our own rhythm against God’s, we get to where the world was in Noah’s day. Genesis says God was ready to start humanity over – with Noah and his faith. Humanity 2.0.

Noah, Gensis tells us, “God approved of Noah.” As the KJV put it and the statler brothers sang it, “Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord.”

Maybe, in today’s terms, God gave humanity a reboot. And God did it through water.

God’s rhythm, the rhythm of creation, with Noah becomes the rhythm of covenant. Covenant begins here, and never ends.Covenant translates a variety of ways, but covenants with God always include God’s promises and God’s faithfulness. God is faithful, and God keeps promises.

So, in Genesis 9, we find the first instance of the word covenant. This isn’t the first instance of God making promises, but this is where the writer first inserted the word covenant.

For today; for our series on “Rhythm,” this is a really good place to start, then. Humanity 2.0; God has rebooted humanity, saving Noah and his family from the flood. Now, God promises the erath will never again be flooded. And the rainbow is offered as a reminder for us of God’s promise.

But look again: the story didn’t tell us the rainbow is a reminder for us. Genesis says it is a reminder to God. Here are those words again; chapter 9, verses 13-17.

13 I have placed my bow in the clouds; it will be the symbol of the covenant between me and the earth. 14 When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow appears in the clouds, 15 I will remember the covenant between me and you and every living being among all the creatures. Floodwaters will never again destroy all creatures. 16 The bow will be in the clouds, and upon seeing it I will remember the enduring covenant between God and every living being of all the earth’s creatures.” 17 God said to Noah, “This is the symbol of the covenant that I have set up between me and all creatures on earth.”

You might not think God needs a reminder. But let me remind you of this: the Bible wasn’t written with all the “absolute” or “omni” ideas you and I might have about God.

And however powerful the God of the Bible – our God – is; the Bible’s real message; if there is one overarching theme that rules this masterful collection of texts, it is this:

God prefers relationship over the exercise of power.

This story, the flood story, may not be the best illustration of this point, but, it does end with God establishing a covenant with us – with humans, and, in fact, with all living creatures, it says. So, yes, there is the crushing, overwhelming power of flooding waters, and then there’s the promise, the covenant, and the reminder – a reminder for God – never to use that kind of power again.

God isn’t going to get God’s way anymore by the exercise of power.

We see this most cleary in Jesus, of course, where Jesus refuses to return hate for hate, or powere for power, and it costs him his life. Which turns out to be the move we all needed to find victory over sin and death.

To win by losing

To live by dying

There’s rhythm for you!

We get this backwards: many of us – more when we were younger and less as we age – go in terms of “dying to live;” we do extreme things, act in extreme ways, push ourselves to, or beyond, reasonable limits, for the rush, the hit, the high of risking life.

And our bodies, and our minds, like the rush, the hit, the high, so we do it again. But this time it takes more to get the same hit.

God’s rhythm may be opposite ours, but God invites us to learn to live according to God’s rhythm.

And, for today’s scripture readings, it starts with water.

The water Noah and his family were saved from, and the water Jesus was baptized in.

The water you were baptized in.

Did you ever stop to think that some of the water used in your baptism might have been some of the same water that Jesus was baptized in?

How about this: some of the water used in your baptism was involved in the flood!

About 7 weeks ago we gave everyone who worshiped here in either service a rubber ducky to help remember their baptism.

For many of you, that would have been like mine; when you were too young actually to remember it. I was baptized at Hillside Methodist Church in Medford, MA, when I was somewhere between 1 and 3. That morning, the congregation said this for me:

With God’s help, we will so order our lives after the example of christ that this child, surrounded by steadfast love, may be established in the faith, and confirmed and strengthened in the way that leads to life eternal.

Consider that a version of “And there was a voice from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”

The words we say today when someone is baptized, you might recall, are

With God’s help we will proclaim the good news
    and live according to the example of Christ.
We will surround these persons
      with a community of love and forgiveness,
    that they may grow in their trust of God,
    and be found faithful in their service to others.
We will pray for them,
    that they may be true disciples
      who walk in the way that leads to life.

This is our way of conveying to those baptized that they are God’s beloved children.

Who said these words, or words like them for you? Have you ever thanked them? Have you ever thanked God for them; for the promises they made, for the help, and advice, and direction, and example, and prayers they offered?

We would all do well to make giving thanks a bigger part of the rhythm of our lives.

God’s rhythm includes giving thanks. But for today, I want to focus on the rhythm of life, death, and resurrection. We see it in the gospel reading, though that reading is only 7 verses.

Jesus, living, goes into the water of baptism, which symbolizes death. He comes up out of the water, dead to who he was before, and alive to God and God’s call on his life. Life, death, and resurrection.

And it doesn’t end there: At once the Spirit forced Jesus out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among the wild animals, and the angels took care of him.

Maybe we imagine that resurrection life is sitting on clouds strumming harps or standing around a throne singing praises, but resurrection life has already begun! Resurrection life includes temptation.

But it includes, also, the ability to withstand temptation. Resisting temptation is breaking one rhythm and taking up another.

Jesus was being tempted, and where was he? In the wilderness, yes, but Mark points out that he was “among the wild animals.” Jesus was surrounded by creatures that were also included in God’s covenant with Noah. God remembered!

And there, surrounded by his fellow creatures with whom God made that first covenant, Jesus had the angels take care of him.

And then the reading (and all of the scriptures for our worship services during Lent are from the  lectionary) ends ends with this: After John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee announcing God’s good news, saying, “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!”

So, it seems there is a rhythm, life, death, resurrection (which is life again), death (resisting temptation), and resurrection again. In one sense, there is one resurrection. But in a very important sense for us, especially as we start lent, there is a rhythm of resurrection. Resurrection comes to us again and again!

So you have been baptized. You have, then, died to yourself, and been raised alive to God. That’s what fellow UM Pastor Adam Webber highlighted when he explained to a couple thousand of us at the UMC of Rez LI last year, when he said that he told people when they joined the church: “At the moment when you join the church, that’s when what the church does stops being about you!”

Which sounds really refreshing until we consider how easily we fall into talk about what we think the church ought to do for us.

That’s not what we’re resurrected for! “What’s in it for us” is the way of thinking we get to die to, and be resurrected from!

And it helps to remember all those people who made promises for us when we were baptized. So we can go on making promises to people who are baptized today.

It’s part of God’s rhythm. It is life, and death, and resurrection.

It is a rhythm we were created for, and a rhythm we are invited to live into – especially during this season of Lent.

So, I invite you every day this week, or even every day from now to Easter, specifically to remember your baptism. Who made promises? For whom have you made promises since?

What promises did God make to you in your baptism? Never to leave you. To love you always – not in spite of – but always. To take away the power of sin and temptation and death.

What do you need to die to?

What does your resurrection life look like? Now? After Easter? There’s no need to make it wait until after your physical death. The victory is already won!

We opened this service with “When we all get to heaven.” Sometimes, I have to tell you, I don’t much like that song. It’s not that I don’t look forward to spending eternity in God’s presence. No, quite the opposite: nowhere do I find in scripture that living in God’s presence is something we have to wait for.

In fact, several biblical scholars have pointed out that “heaven” isn’t someplace “up” there – we don’t believe in a flat, three-tiered universe. No: “heaven” is where God is present, where God resides.

It’s not that we’ll make heaven a place on earth; it is that in Jesus, God already has! So, when we all get to heaven is already here, in a sense!

May you live into the presence of God and God’s promises here and now!

Overwhelmed: Putting God on Trial


We are some MESSED UP people!  The good news is that the Bible clearly establishes that we are messed up in the same ways people have always been messed up, and that God both loves us anyway, AND has already done everything necessary to deliver us from our sin and to begin our healing of our messed-up-ness.

What God wants more than anything else is for all of creation to come back into line with the way God dreamed it up and spoke it all into being in the first place.

Scripture seems clear to me that the way God intends to do this is by forming a people. Calling people out of “the world” and forming them together into a people who will live as “a city set on a hill,” “a light on a lampstand.” Maybe the world that God calls us out of is our world, our limited world, you may remember that one of the messages from the Book of Job is that your world is not the world. Peter also wrote about calling us out of the world, in that sense, in 1 Peter 2, and then writes that we are

a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people who are God’s own possession. [Peter says that] You have become this people so that you may speak of the wonderful acts of the one who called you out of darkness into his amazing light. Once you weren’t a people, but now you are God’s people. Once you hadn’t received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:9-10)

We are messed up people, and we are God’s people! We are God’s marketing agency, the plan through which God intends to share this incredibly good, healing, redeeming, saving message with the world!

Once, we hadn’t received mercy. Now, we have received mercy!

Now that we have received mercy, what are we going to do with it?

Will we let God work in us?

We want God to work in the world, right?  Do we have any right to expect God to work in the world if we won’t let God work in us?

I think this is one of the great challenges the Book of Job presents to us. Like Job, most of us seem to be wired to expect God to work in us by punishing us for doing wrong and rewarding us for doing right.

But I think the Book of Job is way ahead of us on this. I think the Book of Job wants to teach us that if we think of God as “punishing for doing wrong and rewarding for doing right, we’ve got our focus on the wrong god.

But, you may think, there is only 1 God. James agrees.

Yet, here we are; regularly challenged in our lives NOT to worship the wrong god. The 1st commandment, “You must have no other gods before me,” presumes not necessarily that there are other gods, but that we God’s people – God’s people who have already seen and experienced the mighty power of God to deliver and save – we have a “bent to idolatry.”

We get God wrong.

If we are honest, we have this tendency to fashion god in the form of a superhero, or, in some cases, a larger, more powerful version of us.

But we didn’t make God in our image, God made us in God’s image.

Idolatry is the most basic challenge of God’s people – idolatry is worshipping that which is not worthy of worship.

OT idols were easier to recognize than some of our idols: I mean, melting down jewelry and forming the shape of a calf and bowing down to it, that’s obvious. What might be less obvious: they called this golden calf Yahweh. AS IF something we create could grasp actual God.

Turning to football or shopping or porn or caffeine or fitness or tobacco or alcohol or social media in an attempt to fill an emptiness inside yourself, well, that’s just not as obvious.

Yet, for us, each of these and many other things tempt us, and, potentially fill, for some of us some of the time, a place in our souls that they were not made to fill.

Sometimes we turn to these things instead of doing the difficult work of healing relationships with each other. Sometimes we turn to them to fill a place in our souls that ought to be reserved for God.

And sometime it isn’t a substance or behavior that we turn to. Sometimes we turn to an image of God we have created, or had created for us.

Like the image of a God who loves people who do well and “strive to keep the commandments” and hates people who don’t keep the commandments. Or don’t try hard enough to keep the commandments.

Throughout this series on Job I am going to keep coming back to this way of understanding the world  and God because I believe this is why the Book of Job is in the bible. Much of the time our lives do work according to the principle of “good things happen to good people, bad things happen to bad people.”

But when your one of those good people, as Job was, and horrific things happen to you, You have to do something else. You have to find a way to see the world differently. Because nothing in the book of Job anywhere indicates that God doesn’t love Job or that God is happy about what Job is going through.

And, hopefully, you learn somewhere in the process, that the God who loves you and delivered you and saved you and is saving you IS greater than the god you had constructed.

To get there, Job put God on trial.

Or tried to, or wanted to, put God on trial. The reading this morning, from Job 10, is some of Job’s pining to face God as if in court. Much of the context of Job’s responses to his friends could be read this way. Here’s another part, from ch, 23:

Look, I go east; he’s not there,
   west, and don’t discover him;
9     north in his activity, and I don’t grasp him;
   he turns south, and I don’t see.
10 Surely he knows my way;
   when he tests me,
   I will emerge as gold.
11 My feet have stayed right in his tracks.
   I have kept his way and not left it,
12     kept the commandments from his lips and not departed,
   valued the words from his mouth more than my food.
13 He is of one mind; who can reverse it?
   What he desires, he does.
14 He carries out what is decreed for me
   and can do many similar things with me. (Job 23:8-14)

Several times in Job’s laments he is openly frustrated at God’s hiddenness.

Have you ever felt like God is hiding from you? You cry out, lament, shout, maybe even kick things, drive too fast or drink too much out of frustration for feeling like God isn’t hearing you.

You aren’t alone. I mean, besides you and Job, you’re not alone. In the book, A History of God, Karen Armstrong writes about  some Jews in Auschwitz put God on trial. They charged God with cruelty and betrayal and, like Job, found no consolation in the stock answers to the problem of evil and suffering especially in the midst of their current obscenity. Finding no justification for God’s silence before human suffering, no extenuating circumstances, they reached a verdict: God is guilty as charged and deserving of death. A Rabbi pronounced the verdict, then, announced that the trial was over, that it was time for the evening prayer.

It’s like the Book of Job in 30 seconds.

Put God on trial, pronounce the verdict, and then move on to evening prayer.

I invite you this morning, to put god on trial, pronounce your verdict, and move on with life.

What you’ll find is what Job found. The god you put on trial is not the God of the bible!

The gods you and I would put on trial are the gods that we have made up – the gods we have crafted in our own image, or the image of some ideal person or superhero.

The God of the bible, on the other hand, won’t fit our definitions or limitations.

Which is why, I suppose, when God appears in the whirlwind in chapter 38 through 41, God doesn’t really make an effort to answer all of Job’s questions. Rather, God has questions of God’s own to be asked.

Interestingly, I think that’s how it works in court. Both ‘sides’ get to ask questions.

But, as I processed this, I have come to believe that even thinking of putting God on trial or taking God to court can be idolatry, if it requires us to have formed an image or likeness of something that is NOT our God and worshiping it.

We want a God who has to answer to us and make us understand everything.

We find we have a God whose coming to us IS an answer.

Wanting to put God on trial means we don’t grasp the relationship that God wants to have with us!

One of the geniuses of Wesleyan Christianity, of which the United Methodist Church is a part, is the understanding that God comes to us first. Even when we think we are coming to God, or when we feel like we want to call God to us, to put God on trial or to thank God or to ask questions of God, we believe that God actually initiates all the contact.

We believe God is Creator; while God spoke the rest of creation into existence, God formed humans, like a potter forms clay. Not only that, but god also breathed life into us. And it’s no accident that breath and spirit are the same word. God breathed spirit into us!

God hears our cry, when we recognize our slavery – our slavery to sin – and God delivers us. God delivers us, leads us, feeds us, and then, after all these things, God gives us commandments. The first of which is “”You must have no other gods before me.”

Any other gods we put before God are what mess us up.

Putting God on trial, or challenging God to answer, are all things, if Job is any indication, that get us to the place of recognizing that The God, our God, isn’t any of those gods.

Our God isn’t so simplistic as “good people prosper, bad people suffer.” Our God isn’t a superhero who swoops in to fix everything you and I and others have messed up.

Our God is the One who formed us, breathed life, breathed spirit, into us, and delivered us before asking or requiring anything of us. Our God is loyal and gracious.

Last April three of us went to Panama on a mission trip. We spent several days in Santiago, Panama, working on and with a church there. We flew in and out of Panama City.

The day we flew home, we ubered to the airport a couple hours early. We found a short line ahead of us – only about 3 people, I think. But there was only one counter agent.

Ok, well, there were 2 counter agents. But the other counter agent was assigned to the Advantage program – premium fliers, whatever that category is called. He was there, but he wasn’t helping.

I suppose he was still doing his job: he was organizing the lanes for his section. You know, those poles with belts that connect them? He was making sure they were straight. So much so, in fact, that he asked one of us to please move because our backpack was infringing on where his line was supposed to be.

In line in front of us was a woman with a child, as I remember it. Waiting in line with small children can be a challenge, so I approached the person who was so meticulously attending to the straightness of his lines, and asked if he could, maybe, help some of the customers in the line that was actually forming.

He told me he had to prepare his area.

I acknowledged that, but said, “There’s no one in your line, and you’ve got it really well prepared for when someone comes. But over here there is a ine that is getting longer, and this woman with a young child could probably use your help.”

I wonder sometimes if we get the idea that God is more concerned with the form of the line, the orderliness of the boundaries, than with the people who are in the line.

In a way, I think this is what Job was pushing up against. The boundaries of “the good life” had been removed, but he was left with an image of God who was more interested in the neatness of the line than the people in the line.

It feels this way sometimes. But let me assure you this morning: God is more interested in and concerned with people – all of whom are created in God’s image – than in the neatness or order of the lines than are drawn.

Because God knows no matter how neatly these external lines are set up, we are messed up inside, and God wants to clean the mess and start the healing. Now.

Take away: What are you making up about God that doesn’t fit the biblical story of God loving all people? What are you willing to do to let go of what you make up about God that you then use against God?


Overwhelmed: Is the Bible an Instruction Manual?

overwhelmed4forworshipAnyone besides me watch a little football recently? Watching live tv felt a little new to me – I realized how little of it I do anymore, but waiting an hour or a day to watch a game isn’t the same, so I watched several “live.” Which meant watching commercials. Or, at least, not being able to FF through them.

One of the ads I saw particularly made me chuckle. It was an Allstate ad. And, since I was watching the game streaming through an app, I saw the same ad over and over again.

It was mayhem. You know the guy? It’s actor Ryan O’Reily, but that’s no

mayhem flare

t really important.  Seeing the guy lying in the road, as though he’s a flare was cute – amusingly cute.

Then there was the text overlay. “Demonstration only. 


Do not attempt.”


And I was just about to go lay in the road and light up the top of my head in pinkish flame.

I know this is nothing new: we’ve had this kind of warning for years.

You know, the warning on your hair dryer not to use it in the shower? (Yes, there was a time when I had enough hair to use a hair dryer, so I knew this)

Some of the warnings, like on McDonald’s Coffee, come as a result of litigation and as liability protection. Some are just common sense information.

Some, I suppose, are because I am not about to sit down and read a manual. Before using a hair dryer?  Before drinking coffee? Maybe you are. Maybe you seek the instruction manual. Maybe you read the entire list of instructions before starting.

Do you read the terms and conditions on all the those things we sign for banks and software.

Then there are all those things there isn’t a manual for. Like being a parent? Is there a manual?  Would you really read it?

I didn’t even think about such a thing until my first VERY long night with a baby that couldn’t or wouldn’t sleep. And by that time, I didn’t have time to read the manual, I had to actually care for the baby!

“Excuse me, baby, could you stop for a few minutes so I can read this chapter on cholic?” Thought every new parent when first confronted with a cholicky baby.

But raising a child is far too complex for it to be containable, explainable in a single book.

So there are lots of books and articles and videos. And people who want to be good parents read and watch a variety of them and also talk with their support staff – their own parents, other people at the same stage of parenting as they are, etc. Crowdsourcing didn’t start with internet 2.0, but it sure has broadened the concept!

Because we all want to do our best, and you only have to be a parent for maybe a minute before you realize you really don’t have any idea how to do it all!

We even make up new words about these things. “Parenting” wasn’t a word a generation ago. Sure, we had parents, but no one turned it into a verb until relatively recently.

Even more recently, “adult” has been turned into a verb. People are “adulting” now. Of course, becoming an adult is nothing new; people have been doing it for years.

To be fair, I want to point out that while people have been becoming adults for years, others have resisted becoming adults all their lives, but that’s a different sermon (maybe)

I had this realization about “adulting” this past fall. As I pulled into the NE Tarrant County Courthouse a few months ago, I realized that I didn’t know what I was doing. I wanted to gift a car to my adult child, but I had no idea how to do so. Websites were not particularly clear, concise, or complete, in their descriptions, so I did what I knew I could: go to a courthouse and physically throw myself at the mercy of the automobile registration branch of the county tax assessor/collector.

The clerk who drew my number was really, really helpful.

It turns out, I think, that being an adult, or “adulting” is NOT knowing how to do or where to go for every possible thing or challenge or question or issue you might face. It is, rather, taking one step at a time in the direction you think you probably need to go. And taking each of those steps with an awareness that while the second step might be in another direction.

How, some of you might be wondering, is this an introduction to the book of Job? Because this: we too easily think of the Bible as an owner’s manual, an instruction book, as cliche as this mnemonic is, as “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.”

Several years ago now, I was part of a Divorce Care group that met at Western Heights Baptist Church in Waco. I credit that group, and it’s leader, Nancy Smith, with a lot of good and a lot of help for a time in my life when I needed it.

But I always felt well, conflicted, when we get to the week of the curriculum titled, “What does the Owner’s Manual say? Here is the description of the segment:

This video seminar explores real-world answers from the Bible on issues related to separation, divorce and remarriage, presented in an easily understandable format.

The video really did a good job of “presenting in an easily understandable format.”

But can the same really, honestly be said about the Bible?


There. I’ve said it. The bible is not simple, straightforward, or easy to understand.

But we should have expected this: After all, the first 5 books of the Bible, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, the “books of Moses,” are called the “torah” collectively by the Jewish faith.

“Torah” means “instruction.”

We understand instructions. We crave instructions!  Tell me how to change the oil in my car!  Tell me how to change a diaper on my baby! Teach me how to set up netflix on my phone and my TV! Give me step-by-step instructions on how to gift my car to someone!

Churches understand instructions: every church I’ve ever known had published at least one cookbook, and cookbooks are full of instructions!  Of course, nowadays we all just type in something like “turducken recipe” and search it up.

And we get step by step instructions – sometimes even step-by-step video – for literally almost anything we can think of.

That’s not the kind of instruction we find in the Torah, the book of instruction. Or, really, throughout the Bible.

Maybe this will help. The Torah IS the book of instruction, but not so much the book of instructions. It operates a lot like Jesus does: When Jesus was asked “and who is my neighbor?” in Luke 10, Jesus answers with “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho…” and tells the story we know as the Good Samaritan. A few chapters later, when Jesus stands accused of “welcoming sinners and eating with them,” he tells three stories: about a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son.

Jesus senses the crowds following him are hungry, so he orders his disciples to feed them. “Where are we going to get food?” they answer. “How much bread do you have?” Jesus replies. And proceeds to feed everyone.

The instruction we receive from the Bible we receive in story form because we live in story form!

I mean, I suppose you might say the 10 commandments, and most of Leviticus are straightforward instructions, but the way we get tangled up over even the 10 commandments makes me think otherwise.

“Remember the Sabbath day and keep it as holy” seems pretty straightforward, but have you ever argued with a 7th Day Adventist about it? They’re right, btw; the sabbath is Saturday. And we’re right; early on in Christianity many Christians began to meet for worship on Sunday, the first day of the week, to remember the resurrection.

But that’s just the beginning!  What does it mean to “remember the Sabbath”? Are you doing it right? Is your neighbor?

If remembering the sabbath means not working, do you honor the sabbath by not working – and by not shopping or going out to eat, either, since shopping and going out to eat both require others to work?

The book of Job invites us to the next level, actually, and in doing so, the Bible invites us to set aside some of the overwhelming pressure we exert on ourselves to obey, to follow, to keep up.

Or, as many of us do, throw up our spiritual hands in desperation, declare we can’t actually do this “be a disciple” thing, and pray for forgiveness every time we think to pray.

What kind of God is it who would want the people created in God’s image to grovel all the time, to think they were nothing but horrible, miserable sinners and could never do anything about it no matter what?

I know Paul wrote in Romans 3:23 that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” but WAy before that we are introduced to Job, a man who “was honest, a person of absolute integrity; he feared God and avoided evil.” He even got up early every morning to offer sacrifices in case his children had sinned!

Of course, you and I know he couldn’t possibly have been that good. Because Paul writes in Romans that “all have sinned….” and the Psalmist wrote (in Psalm 53)

God looks down from heaven on humans
   to see if anyone is wise,
   to see if anyone seeks God.
But all have turned away.
   Everyone is corrupt.
   No one does good—
   not even one person!

But in Genesis 6, God “approved of Noah.” and we all know that David was “a man after God’s own heart.”  Speaking of “heart,” Jeremiah 17:9 says the heart is “devious,” or “deceitful,” or even “beyond help.”

Do we believe our hearts are beyond help? No; I would guess we pull out Jeremiah 17:9 when it conveniently helps us understand what is wrong with other people, or even when we, ourselves, fail for the nth time.

But if we really believed our hearts were beyond help, we wouldn’t gather for worship. We would all throw up our hands a walk away.

Reading the rest of Job ch 1, you’d have to say if anyone had reason to throw up his hands and walk away, it would be Job.

EVERYTHING was taken away from him. Everything.

Some of us; many of us have been at a point that we felt like everything had been taken away. As though a cosmic “kick me” sign was hung on our backs and everyone was standing in line for their turn.

I know a guy who lives near here who is working hard to make ends meet. But even a full time job at minimum wage doesn’t really get you there. $15K is what you make working full time at our minimum wage. And you can’t rent a dump of an apartment around here for less than $600 a month – which is more than half that total.

This guy got training to operate a forklift – better pay, right? Pulling himself up by his bootstraps, right? (He actually doesn’t own any boots, btw, or a car, so he walks 3 miles to and from work) Then he gets pneumonia. No family to take care of him. No health insurance.

And no savings to pay the bills that keep coming even when he can’t work. None of the minimum wage jobs I ever had got paid sick time, either.

You may never have been that down and out. Your down and out may not have been financial. Maybe it was familial. Maybe you burned bridges with family and friends, or maybe they’ve burned them with you.

My guess is we’ve all felt like we were the one wearing the cosmic “kick-me.”

So, what do you do with it?

If the Bible were an owner’s manual like we think of owner’s manuals; if the Bible were a list of instructions, we would know how to take the cosmic “kick-me” sign.

We would know that we have done something to deserve it. That, in addition to everyone else in the world, God is standing in line, waiting for a turn to kick.

But the book of Job sets this story on its head! The book of Job is in the Bible precisely because the bible isn’t such a simple set of instructions because living life as people God loves, and people created in God’s image, is never so simple and straightforward.

Of course, for many of us, it is, or seems like it is. Live right, the best you can, and you’ll be ok. Keep your head down, work hard, and you’ll make it.

Until you don’t. Until you catch pneumonia. Until you say that thing you shouldn’t have said. Until someone steps in front of you in the “blessings equal material possessions” line. Until the Satan challenges God that you’re only good because God has blessed you.

We’re going to spend the next 6 weeks wrestling with the Book of Job and the rest of scriptures about how God is with us in the midst of this overwhelming thing called life.

For now, I want you to know this much from the Book of Job. Life is not so simple as if you are good God will take care of you and if you are bad God won’t. Rather, like in Job, God is with us, all the time, through it all. Even when, at the end of the story God says to Job’s 3 friends, “I’m angry at you… because you haven’t spoken about me correctly….” God doesn’t punish them or send them away.

The kind of “instruction” that the Bible is is not always enough instruction to get everything in your life settled. Sometimes even with instructions we are left without all the answers.

The overarching message throughout the Book of Job, and, indeed, the entire Bible, is that God loves us and wants us closer, not farther away. Any way of reading any parts of the Bible that are at odds with this are not being read faithfully to the overall message of the Bible.

So, for now, however overwhelmed you are, take things one step at a time in the direction you think is best from where you are. Read the bible, consult with friends, family, people you trust, and keep taking one step at a time. And adjust your direction accordingly, one step at a time.

We are a church of people trying to follow Jesus a bit better today than yesterday. What is one step you need to take to follow Jesus better today than yesterday? Just one step. You might not be certain about it, and, even if you are, it might not work. But will you commit today to taking that one step?

IncarnATE 2.0

Empty wishlist for Santa Claus laid on a wooden table
Christmas Eve Sermon, Dec. 24, 2017

A long long time ago in a pastoral appointment far, far away….

There was a bible. Actually, there were a lot of bibles. That church, not unlike this church and almost every other church, had invested in a bunch of bibles. I don’t know if “bunch” is the technically correct group term for Bibles. You know, like gaggle of geese, pride of lions, congress of crows or committee of vultures (You gotta love those last 2!).

Anyway, this church had quite a few bibles. A pantsload of bibles. Maybe even a small boatload. You get the idea.

One of these bibles, at least only 1 to my knowledge, had an error.

I’m not talking doctrine here. Get your mind out of the theological gutter.

I mean the cover was put on backwards. And, therefore, upside down.

Which, I don’t mind telling you, was more than a little frustrating, at least for me, when I’d open it to read it.

I know, plenty of us read the bible on your phones now, and your phone has this little thingamabob called an accelerometer. The accelerometer is what turns the screen the right way when you, maybe, pick your phone up upside down to read the bible.

This bible that I’m talking about didn’t have an accelerometer.

So, you know how sometimes youth find things funny that other people might not think are funny? And you know how sometimes youth have this built-in alert system that catches all us adults when we do something that we would ordinarily tell youth they shouldn’t do?

Well, here’s how that works. With a totally hypothetical story:

Just say, maybe, you were the pastor at a church that had bibles. Bunches of bibles. Maybe even a small boatload of bibles. And 1 of those bibles had an error.

YES, I still mean that the cover was applied backwards. And upside down. Come on!

And just say that, as the pastor, you were, one night, leading a youth bible study, and happened to pick up this particular bible and open it to read from it.

And it didn’t have an accelerometer in it, so you opened it upside down when you thought it was right side up.

And then imagine, because, again, this is all hypothetical, that before you stopped to think about it, you slammed the book shut and tossed it across the table.

And then imagine you said something. Something you might regret as the words were coming out of your mouth.

Something like, “I hate this book!”

Again, this is all hypothetical. Except that it actually happened. I was there. I saw it.

Yep; that pastor? That was me.

Didn’t see that coming, did you?

So those youth had caught me, their pastor, saying, about a bible, “I hate this book!”

I am SO thankful I had enough of a relationship with those kids that they laughed it off. They knew I didn’t actually mean that about the bible.

And for the rest of my years there, they never let me forget about it!

And you might wonder why I would tell you that story tonight, on Christmas Eve.

I told you that story because I think it can help us understand the scripture for tonight.

The Christmas story. You might say it is Luke’s Christmas story, which would be true, but perhaps misleadingly so – Luke is the only one with an actual Christmas story.

Matthew comes close, telling us about how the angel appeared Joseph (we don’t get Mary’s side of the story at all), then skipping to “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem….”

Luke gives us the details. But do we really want details? I mean, we don’t need the bible for details; we make up our own! Many of us include the wise men in the story, though they appear in Matthew, not in Luke, and came looking for the babe as much as two years after the birth.

But, really: who wants a 2 year long Christmas pageant?

So: we usually end up reading in one of two ways. The first is like this. https://youtu.be/suowe2czxcA

The second is like this: https://youtu.be/BqpJvey-7-s

I worry that we make Christmas either a sappy, sentimental thing for kids or a anachronistic stepping stone on the way to something else.
Honestly, I don’t think, and there is no indication, Mary felt very sappy. Giving birth is hard work – I’ve witnessed it!  And when Rachel was about to deliver Eliza, one of our favorite songs came up on the playlist we’d curated for the morning.

I lovingly and gently pointed it out. Rachel, in the process of delivering her first child and having had no pain killer, wasn’t feeling “loving” or “gentle.” In retrospect, I can’t blame her.

Pretty sure Mary wasn’t in the mood for hosting a “live nativity scene” either. Doubtful that was a silent night.

Don’t get me wrong: I like Christmas Pageants. But, folks,  This incarnation thing isn’t JUST that.

There’s one thing that probably did happen that first Christmas that I’ve seen at most live nativity scenes. At least the one with animals. Instead of just standing there like a petting zoo, the donkey, or one of the sheep,, will likely relieve itself just when you don’t want it to.

Hey, donkey, that wasn’t in the script!

Which brings me to another point. We tend to read the Christmas story like it was a stage production. As if Luke’s gospel had been written in heaven from the foundation of the world, and finally, here and now, Mary, check, Joseph, check, Bethlehem, check. Places, folks – and – action!

Luke is telling the story after it unfolded, not writing the script for how it was to unfold.

Which leads me to George Washington in the Dodge Challenger. That’s a different kind of in car nation.

We tend to tell the story of Jesus’ birth as though it only really happened so that he could die on the cross about 33 years later.

That’s getting the story out of order and reading something that happened later in history onto an event that happened before it.

Yes, Jesus is the Lamb of God who was slain from the foundation of the world.  But that “slain from the foundation of the world,” a phrase we get from Rev 13:8, is more a reference to the character of God than to an event that happened.

In other words, Jesus’ crucifixion isn’t a story about what happened to Jesus, but about who Jesus is.

Jesus, God incarnate – that is, in human flesh, is a God who suffers at the hands of the powers of the world.

Jesus, born an innocent, fragile baby, is another picture, at the other end of his earthly life, that tells us the same thing about God. That God comes to us, that God’s hope for saving the world, come powerless, vulnerable, and at the mercy of those created in God’s very image.

At this end of the story, vulnerable, powerless God receives care and love and attention. Born to a lowly woman – a woman who has powerful introspective and reflective thoughts. If you doubt it, check back into 1:46-55, or  you catch it here in verse 19: “Mary committed these things to memory and considered them carefully.”

What God was doing in that first Christmas God has been doing since the creation of the world, and God continues to do today. Tonight. In the morning.

You remember, don’t you, after Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the ONE TREE God had told them not to eat? God comes walking in the garden (do you worship a God who takes walks in a garden?), and they hide because they are “naked and ashamed.” God calls out, “Adam, where are you?”

Like God didn’t know?

No: like God is a god who comes to us, a god who came to the world God had created, as humbly and vulnerable and powerless as possible.

Because you love someone, you don’t approach them in power. You approach them humbly and with vulnerability and powerless as possible.

And that’s the way the Bible actually tells the story. My prayer is that tonight, and in the morning, you and I will hear it that way.

Empty wishlist for Santa Claus laid on a wooden table

IncarnATE 1.0

Empty wishlist for Santa Claus laid on a wooden table
Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, 2017

Mary, did you know?

No, really, Mary: did you know?

Maybe a better question would be, “Mary, what did you know, and when did you know it?”

I mean, really: dare we think that Mary could have possibly imagined thinking about Jesus the way we think about Jesus?

When you think about thinking about Jesus this time of year,  you likely think of donkeys and camels and angels blowing horns.  

Have you spent much time thinking about how you think about Jesus?

Please notice: I’m not asking if you think about Jesus. I’m asking if you ever think about how you think about Jesus. Because this 4th Sunday of Advent,which also happens to be Christmas Eve, is a really good time to think about how you think about Jesus.

But asking you to think about how you think about Jesus might get you defensive, so, instead, I’ll tell you a couple of stories. The first one I got from sunday school or confirmation literature at least 20 years ago. The second story is still going on today.

The first story starts with the challenge of explaining the incarnation to a child (or youth – I can’t remember which).  In case you’re not very churched, or just not in the mood, I’ll also give you a heads up on incarnation.

Incarnation is a big word that describes someone who lives in the United States. We love our automobiles. The average American spends 101 minutes per day driving. This means we are an “in car nation.”

Dad Joke for the morning.

Incarnation is actually a word to describe or explain what happened in Jesus/birth. Jesus was, according to Christian understanding, God in human flesh. “Incarnation” is another way to say “in human flesh.”

Sounds way more theological, too, doesn’t it?

So, the first story is this. A person was sitting  at her front window, looking out at the falling snow. In her driveway, she saw a bird. A tiny dove, that she imagined must be feeling awfully cold.

“I wonder if birds enjoy watching the snow fall the way I do,” she thought.

Realizing that snow falling is beautiful – perhaps especially from the warmth of one’s bay window, she suddenly began to wonder if, maybe, the bird was cold. Too cold?

What could she do to help?  If she went outside, no matter how slowly and carefully, the bird would fly off. Maybe if she went around through the kitchen and opened the garage door from inside, then the bird might not get scared away.

But how could she be sure the bird would recognize the safety and relative warmth of the garage?

Then it struck her. If she could become a bird, she could fly out there, and land alongside that little bird, and share the good news of the warmth of the garage.

If she could become a bird, the bird could better understand her efforts to communicate.

We aren’t birds, and God isn’t a person sitting by a window watching snow fall, but I think you get the picture.

Jesus came to us – emmanuel, God with us, God as one of us, to better communicate with us and live among us and show us with more depth than we could have grasped before, the good news of God’s love for us.

Most of us get that aspect of incarnation, I think.

Which brings me to the second story. This one is about a guy named Mark. Well, it’s about me and a guy named Mark.

God’s been on me lately about the incarnation. Trying to help me understand it in a deeper way.

And when I say “God’s been on me,” I don’t mean in a nagging or mean or bullying way. One consequence of trying to follow Jesus a bit better today than yesterday is that God gives you opportunities to put your life where your mouth is.

I can talk a good game about incarnation. But can I live it?

I met Mark a couple months ago. Like many other people, he found our church office looking for help.

Unlike when those other people find our church office, I was really the only one there to help.

I kinda went Peter and John on him. You know, from Acts 3:

Peter and John went to pray, and the met a lame man on the way. He sheld out his palm and asked for some alms, and this is what Peter did say: “Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have give I you: In the name of Jesus Christ of nazareth rise up and walk.”

That’s how I learned the song in youth group, anyway.

So, I told Mark, after listening to a little of his story, that I didn’t have any money, which was kinda true (I rarely have cash on me).

I was a bit thankful he wasn’t lame, because I’m not sure I would have had the courage to dare to tell him to rise up and walk.

But then this is where God and incarnation kick in.

As I said, I’ve never been in such a situation where I was finding church offices in bank buildings because I needed help. So I don’t know how I would present the story. My story.

I’m pretty sure I would tell it in a way that would elicit help. If I need money, or food, or clothing, or shelter, and I think you have these, or the resources to help me get these, then I’m going to tell the story in a way that will, hopefully, get you to want to help me.

But, I don’t know about you, I’m usually a little leery of people telling that kind of story.

I’m one of these, “can we cut to the chase – where you tell me what you want, I tell you ‘no,’ or ‘I’m sorry,’ depending on your presentation, and we move on?”

I get to remain here. Holding all these resources – a pocket full of credit cards,  a house on which I am up-to-date, and even a little ahead, on the payments. I’ve got family who could, if I needed, who have, when I needed, come to the rescue when I had made poor decisions or just wasn’t quite able to make things work on my own. I’ve got a church family – dozens, maybe hundreds of people I could approach, if I needed, to help out in a bind.

Not to toot my own horn, but in this comparison, I’m like a king with a crown and he is subject to my benevolence

Or, to put it differently, I might as well be telling Mark that I’m the girl sitting in the bay window and he’s the bird out in the snow.

Wouldn’t it be kind of me to find a way to help him?!

Wouldn’t I be such an awesome person?! I could really make Mark think I’m an awesome person, too.

But it’s going to cost me. I have to open my Hearts.

Here’s the tricky part of the incarnation: I don’t really want Mark to think I’m an awesome person. I want Mark to believe the things I tell him about Jesus are true.

And I’m going to have a hard time convincing him of that as long as I stay up here, in the place where I’m the one who helps him. If I help him now, he can come back to me again. As long as he knows that how he gets help. He comes to me, and I am the help dispenser.

When I think about how I think about Jesus, I have to admit: sometimes I think about Jesus as the help dispenser.

But that’s not how Jesus came to us. If I want to be part of Mark meeting and knowing Jesus, I have to give up being the help dispenser or the Jesus dispenser and be a friend.

I am going to have to give up my place, my privilege,  my easy access to resources, my presumption that I can or should help him, and be a friend.

God didn’t send the angel Gabriel to a young woman to say, “God would like you to be the help dispenser dispenser.” Mary was more than just the baby mama!

God, through Gabriel, invited Mary into an awesome partnership that would offer us the presence of God in human form.

And this isn’t just God the almighty poured into a human shell; no; this God incarnate came just as he would live – humbly, powerless, at the mercy of others.

This is how God comes to us. It’s God saying “I can’t get close enough.”

This is how Christmas Eve invites us to think about thinking about Jesus.

This is what Mary knew!


I (h)ate Christmas Sermon 3

Empty wishlist for Santa Claus laid on a wooden table
 Advent 2017.3: DesperATE to ImmediATE

I don’t know if this is true, but rumor had it, when I was a college student, federal regulations said you couldn’t call something a hamburger that wasn’t pure beef.

You couldn’t just google it back then.

We began to wonder when the campus dining hall would post the day’s menu with things like “beef patty on bun.”

What’s the difference between a “hamburger” and a “beef patty on bun”?

We weren’t sure, so we figured naming rights were somehow involved. You couldn’t call it a hamburger unless it was all hanburger. Sure, “beef patty on bun” implies some beef, but that word “patty” leaves a lot of wiggle room.

Like, I learned this week, peanut butter has to be a minimum of 90% actual peanuts. That’s why, you’ll notice, there are jars of product on the shelves in the “peanut butter” section of your grocery store that say “peanut butter spread.” “Spread” is the wiggle room.

And, you probably knew this, but Pringles are not actually potato chips. They are less than 50% potato! And I don’t know about you, but I’ll probably go on eating pringles, even though I know this!

I think we’d all agree, wouldn’t we, that transparency is important.

When Jif Peanut butter first entered the market, they didn’t want to have to admit to the public – to peanut butter buyers, that it was 20% crisco, but I’d want to know if what I thought was peanut butter was ⅕ crisco!

Jiff has long since raised their peanut butter content to at least 90% peanuts. So don’t worry.

What’s in a name?

In Bible times, names had significance.”Israel” means “to struggle with God and men and win.” “Jesus” means “Yahweh is salvation,” and is the same name in Hebrew as Joshua – in the bible we get one directly from Hebrew, the other through the Greek.

The name “John” comes from Hebrew for “Yahweh is gracious.”

That wasn’t enough for Jewish leaders in John chapter 1. They wanted to know more because of what John was doing and how many people were seeking him for what he was doing.

John the Baptist had gotten their attention, so they wanted to know more.

John confessed (and didn’t deny) that he was not the Christ. Serious clarification there, huh? That wasn’t enough.

They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?”

John said, “I’m not.”

“Are you the prophet?”

John answered, “No.”

They asked, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”

John replied,
“‘I am a voice crying out in the wilderness,
   Make the Lord’s path straight,’
just as the prophet Isaiah said.”

Sometimes when we want clarification and details and transparency, what we really want is control.

In Genesis 32, when God and Jacob are wrestling, and Jacob won’t give up, God asks for his name. There was an understanding that knowing someone’s name could give you some power over them.

We want to know names, and we want answers – often because we, too, think that knowing gives us control.

In the early days of social media and internet gaming and chat rooms, almost no one used their real name. Many of us still have email addresses that hide our actual identity.

We want to know, and to control, and we don’t want others to know too much, or to control us.

Too much desire for knowledge and control, though, leads to desperation.

Especially in this information age, we can never know enough or control enough to guarantee our own safety or security. Focussing too much doing so leaves one feeling nothing but desperate.

This is not the time of year when anyone wants to feel desperate, but, can we admit, we do?

I tend to feel desperate when, usually on December 23rd or so, I realize that the shopping I have to do isn’t just going to happen. I have to do something!

And, full disclosure, Rachel takes responsibility for almost all of “our” christmas shopping. All that’s left for me to do is “my” christmas shopping.

And I have been slow to learn that it won’t just happen. I have to decide to make it happen, and then I have to act.let

So, I don’t know how desperate you feel right now, but I want to offer you an alternative for the day.

This won’t take care of the shopping you have left to do, but it will help you face it.

For right now, give up a little need for knowledge and control. If you need knowledge, get out your Advent book and open to today’s order. There’s the song order.

That’s all you’ll need. Other than that, receive it. Accept it. Let being here replace your frustration. Let the immediate, the now, the right here, the presence of God, melt your desperation away.

Because what we really want is for you to receive this cantata. Receive it, accept it. Now.

Jesus warned us (in the Sermon on the Mount)  not to borrow worry. Not about tomorrow, our about clothing, or food, or any of the other issues that tempt us to desperation.

Words cannot grasp or define or limit God, though we may try. So let them go.

Trade the desperate for the Immediate. And receive our choir’s cantata. Let it bless you, and bring you into the very presence of God!

AnticipATE to DedicATE

Empty wishlist for Santa Claus laid on a wooden table

Don’t let it escape your notice, dear friends, that with the Lord a single day is like 1000 years and a 1000 years are like a single day. The Lord isn’t slow to keep his promise,a s some think of slowness, but he is patient toward you, not wanting anyone to perish but all to change their hearts and lives.

What does that mean?

If God doesn’t want anyone to perish, can’t God make it so no one will perish?

If God doesn’t want anyone to perish, why do some people persist in making God out to be mean, bloodthirsty, or eager to condemn some people to hell?

If God doesn’t want anyone to perish, Don’t you suppose that guilt you carry around, that voice that whispers to you that you haven’t done enough, or you aren’t good enough, is NOT coming from God?

I hope you’ll listen for the voice of God; especially this time of year. It is hard, because we want to anticipate. What we don’t know we make up and plan accordingly, sometimes with leaving us with deep despair, frustration, and even anger.

Today’s reading in 2 Peter joins Jesus’ teaching in Mark 13 from last week, and fills our over-graphic-induced brains with imaginations based more on Hal Lindsey, Tim Lahaye, and Jerry Jenkins than on scripture.

Sure; there is the fear-invoking, imagination-inducing language of ”But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. On that day the heavens will pass away with a dreadful noise, the elements will be consumed by fire, and the earth and all the works done on it will be exposed.”

But, I hope you noticed, Peter follows immediately with this question: “Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be?

Great question, Peter!

“You must live holy and godly lives, waiting for and hastening the coming day of God. He continues in v. 14: Therefore, dear friends, while you are waiting for these things to happen, make every effort to be found by him in peace – pure and faultless.”

There we go: live holy and godly lives, make every effort to be found by him in peace, pure, and faultless. I think a reasonable shorthand for that is “trying to follow Jesus better today than yesterday.”

As we approached Y2K (remember that?), sales in Christian bookstores (that was, for all practical purposes, before Amazon), sales of books and videos about the end of the world boomed.

They rose precipitously again immediately after 9-11.

Now, here’s an interesting thing I hope you’ll help me figure out. Immediately after 9-11, crime rates and suicide rates plummeted. The number of new prescriptions for antidepressants dropped.

Why? The country pulled together to counteract and resist evil.

And what did Christians do? Well, hopefully most of us joined with everyone else and prayed and worked and hugged a little extra.

But we also suddenly bought more books about prophecy and the end of the world.

Why? I believe because we have an anticipation problem. We passively anticipate what God’s going to do, and sit on our hands.

At the time of Jesus’ birth, God’s people had been anticipating the coming of the Messiah for quite some time. and they did so with varying amounts of energy and intensity. Sime nearly paralyzed by anticipation and expectation, others going on with life almost as if Messiah would never come.

But there was this strong stream in Judaism of the day which taught that God’s people were to practice living as if Messiah was coming tomorrow.

Can you imagine Mary and Joseph trekking to Bethlehem – she very pregnant, he likely uncertain exactly what was going on. Yet they proceeded.

Anticipation can paralyze. If I just sit and wait, and make up stuff in my head about what’s going to happen and what isn’t.  But Anticipation doesn’t have to paralyze. Mary and Joseph responded to the good and great news they had been given with a dedication to do what they needed to do.

Anticipation of Christmas expectations can paralyze us. Or they can send us into a downward,darkward spiral. Or Anticipation can draw us toward the wonderful event that we recognize at Christmas. The event that HAS happened, and that can happen again in us and among us.

Today, we want to make sure that anticipation propels us to action. We don’t want anticipation to paralyze us.

For example, like it did me when I was a teenager. And I presume I’m not the only one this happened to. Working up the courage to ask a girl out. Or even just to call her. I’ve heard that kind of anticipation works both ways – that it isn’t gender specific.

I got to re-live all that about 15 years ago, when I found myself single again at around 40.

To my surprise, it hadn’t changed much. Dial all but the last digit of her phone number, and pace my parsonage. Was  I ready for this? Ok, what would I say? “Hi, it’s Steve.” No, too obvious. Everyone had caller id, she’d know it was me!  How about a joke?  Will she like a joke?  Not too funny. Not too corny, either.

Dial the number. Hang up quickly.

Dial the number, actually listen to it ring. Get voicemail, hang up. Realize 2.3 seconds later that she has caller id. Now she’ll get home, see that you called, and that you hung up on her answering machine!

How does this end well?

I don’t know about for you, but for me all that ended well ‘cause I married Rachel.

But has it really ended?

Sure, the anticipation of will she answer the phone, will she go out with me, will she say yes, etc., may be behind us, but oh, the anticipation doesn’t die so easily.

And you know what I’m talking about, whether or not you are married or ever have been or ever want to be. You know because you also anticipate. Make up scenarios in your mind about how things will or won’t work out. Many of us not only run these scenarios, almost constantly, through our minds, but also bring God into the equation.

We make up what we are going to do, what other people are going to do, and what God is going to do. Or what God will think. Or how God will be disappointed.

I don’t know about you, but I had a much easier time on my wedding day picturing an awesome future with Rachel than I did when I was holding my phone, one number away from dialing, wondering what might happen.

Yet, some of us enter marriage with a very similar plan as when we’re summoning the courage to make that first call. Or text. Or WhatsApp, or whatever.

Some of us enter marriage with an expectation that we’ve done this, now it will just happen. We’ll live “happily ever after.” Everything will be awesome. Maybe we watch videos or read stories about the “perfect” marriages and think that’ll just happen to us.

You don’t have to be married more than maybe a week before you see life doesn’t work that way.

A good life, a good relationship, doesn’t just happen. You can’t anticipate your way into it.

It takes work. It takes effort. It requires patience with yourself and with the other.

You have to dedicate yourself to it, to others.

Let’s walk away from anticipation this morning, and move toward dedication.

You see, while 2 people may actually DECIDE to get married, being married isn’t a decision; it is a commitment. A dedication.

A good, healthy marriage requires numerous decisions – thousands over the years, and multiple decisions a day.

Kinda like baptism.

Which brings us to the Gospel reading for the day. Jesus is baptized. Baptism isn’t a decision to get wet. Baptism is a commitment, a dedication, to a way of life. That’s why when we baptize babies, we all commit to doing all we can to

“Surround that child with a community of love and forgiveness, that they may grow in their trust of God, and be found faithful in their service to others.” We agree – we commit – to “pray for them that they may be true disciples.”

They can’t possibly follow Jesus on their own. Not now, not when they’re grown up, either. Because when they grow up, they start to anticipate, rather than dedicate.

Remember what Peter calls us to do? Live holy and godly lives, make every effort to be found by him in peace, pure, and faultless.

This will take dedication! Which might start with a decision, but one decision is never enough.

John Wesley was challenged by some free-church traditioned people on his support of infant baptism. These were people who practiced “believer’s baptism’ – that people were baptized only after their own profession of faith, not as infants or small children. They asked Wesley: “Do you think they can rely on that experience as a baby so many years later when they are an adult?” they asked.

“No more,” Wesley answered, “than I would say that someone baptized at age 21, who arrives at the age of 30 with no other evidence of God in his or her life, ought to count on that singular experience.”

One decision does not a dedication make. But one decision can be a first step to a commitment, to a dedication. To thousands more decisions along the same way. Eugene Peterson has a magnificent book titled, “A long obedience in the same direction.” The subtitle is “Discipleship in an instant age.” And that was written in 1980.

Instant has only gotten instanter. We need a long obedience in the same direction. We need dedication, not just decision. We need to let go of our anticipation, and follow Jesus.

So I’m going to invite you to do something. Yes, I know, this is just one decision, one action, but it can be the start of a long obedience in the same direction. It can be the start of a dedication replacing a decision. It can be taking up the commitment you made, or that was made for you, at your baptism. It can also be a jump-start. Maybe you’ve been dedicated before, but that’s grown cold. Or distant.

I invite you simply to mark on your connection card that you are interested in moving from anticipATE to dedicATE; from decision to dedication.

We are going to start a process in the new year, an historic, Wesleyan process, that will give everyone who is interested the opportunity to dedicate themselves – their lives – to trying to follow Jesus better today than yesterday.

I hope you’ll consider it.

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.

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….