Tuesday, August 23, 2016

August 21, 2016 Having A Good Heart

How many gardeners do we have here this morning?  I am so sorry that you can’t find a better hobby.  I am not a gardener.  I think my reticence about gardening came from my early experience at I learned at an early age that I was not much of a farmer.

My family moved to our small farm in West Virginia when I was five years old.  The farm was only a few miles outside of my hometown of Wellsburg, West Virginia.  Previously, our home was on the banks of the Ohio River, where we were flooded on several occasions.  I think that my parents wanted to find higher ground after the floods (it’s not hard to find higher ground in the mountains of West Virginia) but I suspect it was really because my father wanted to farm.  In the mountains, however, it’s hard to find enough level ground to farm, which means there would never be enough farm income to support a family.  My father, then, worked in a steel mill to earn enough to raise a family, while my siblings and I did a lot of the work on the farm.  We grew two large gardens, and I spent many a summer day on the end of a hoe, digging weeds and promising myself that I would never have a garden of my own (a promise I have kept, to this day).  When Tanya and I married I told her I would be happy to do anything she asked, with one exception – I did not want anything to do with a garden. 

Though I was not a very good farmer, or gardener, I did grow to understand farm terminology and, certainly, analogies to farm work.  I’ve always enjoyed the Parable of the Sower, from which our message comes this week.  Anyone who has ever worked the soil will understand the comparisons that Jesus makes.  This morning, we are considering the four types of soil of which Jesus speaks, which are analogies of the different types of the human heart.

Luke 8:4-15 –

While a large crowd was gathering and people were coming to Jesus from town after town, he told this parable:
“A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path; it was trampled on, and the birds ate it up.
Some fell on rocky ground, and when it came up, the plants withered because they had no moisture.
Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up with it and choked the plants.
Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up and yielded a crop, a hundred times more than was sown.”
When he said this, he called out, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”
His disciples asked him what this parable meant.
10 He said, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to others I speak in parables, so that,
“‘though seeing, they may not see;
     though hearing, they may not understand.’
11 “This is the meaning of the parable: The seed is the word of God.
12 Those along the path are the ones who hear, and then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved.
13 Those on the rocky ground are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away.
14 The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature.
15 But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop.

We are people who take very seriously the importance of caring for our hearts.  I have had a few medical issues related to my heart over the years, and when something goes wrong with your heart, let me tell you – it will get your attention in a well, heartbeat.  I’ve carried a copy of my EKG in my wallet for a number of years.  My doctor told me that I have an abnormal EKG – abnormal is normal for me (I tend to hear that a lot).  I can’t help but wonder, though, if I arrive at the emergency room, unconscious, in an ambulance, is anyone really going to go through my wallet to see if I have an abnormal EKG (actually, after one of our worship services, a nurse told me that, yes, the hospital personnel would indeed go through my wallet in such a situation in order to discover whether or not there were any conditions of which they should be aware.  I thought that was nice to know).

While it is important to care for our hearts, it is also important to care for our hearts in a spiritual sense as well.  We don’t, however, have the advantage of connecting a high-tech test to measure the spiritual health of our hearts, but in this parable Jesus describes four types of soil, and compares each type of soil to a condition of the human heart, and he gives us a way to measure the spiritual health of our hear.

1.  The Seed That Fell Beside the Road.
I am not a cynic, but I could be.

When we consider the condition of our world and all of its ills, the struggles of humanity, and the violence and hatred, it is easy to become discouraged to the point of allowing our hearts to grow cynical and hardened. 

When Jesus talks about the first type of soil he refers to the seed that falls beside the road and is trampled under foot.  Between the rows of crops were paths and right of ways where the ground was worn down and hardened by wear and the seed could not manage to penetrate that hard soil.

There are a lot of people who are beaten down by the wear and tear of life.  These are people who have become hardened by life’s difficulties and their hearts have grown cold and bitter.  Just like the hardened pathways, their hearts have become hardened and the good seed of the gospel has a difficult time penetrating their hearts.  They have suffered loss or been through difficulties that cause them to close off their hearts, to become distant to other people, and they make a choice – sometimes consciously, sometimes subconsciously – not to allow themselves to be hurt again, and they close off their heart and it grows hard, callous, and unresponsive.

The difficulties and struggles of life can harden our hearts.  When we’re young we are idealistic and believe we can change the world and we’re ready to take on any challenge and we don’t need faith to move a mountain because we can pick that mountain up by ourselves and move it somewhere else – do you remember feeling this way?  But life’s realities start to settle in on us, and that idealism and hope starts to slip away.  We are hurt by what happens to us as we move through life and we find we can’t solve every problem in the world so we start down the road to disillusionment.  I know ministers who have started out with the intention of changing the world and when realities started to sink in they close off their hearts and it hardens because of the hurt they suffer in dealing with people and the problems of people.  I know people who used to have the most open hearts but now they are closed off because of the wear and tear of life.

There have been times when I have felt myself consciously closing off my heart.  Because of a time of struggle or other difficulty I could feel my heart become like that hard, beaten down path.

2.  The Seed That Fell On Rocky Soil.
Jesus says this is the kind of soil where there is just enough soil to allow something to grow but not enough of a root system to give it adequate nourishment to survive.

There is rocky soil, which doesn’t mean you always see the rocks, as they are just below the surface.  There is a thin layer of soil that is not deep enough to produce any kind of mature or worthwhile crop.  And when you have shallow soil that does not allow for any root system to develop the crop quickly withers because there is no support system, there is no way to get adequate nourishment and sustenance. 

Years ago, at another church, we were preparing to remove some shrubs that grew alongside the sanctuary.  We thought we could just pull them out of the ground with little effort.  They didn’t come out as easily as we had hoped.  We kept increasing the machinery we used to pull them out.  We used a tractor and a chain, but the back wheels of the tractor spun on the blacktop and would not budge those shrubs.  Next, we used a backhoe, hooked up a chain, and then put down the feet of the backhoe in the pavement.  When he drew the bucket back the roots of those shrubs were so deep, even with those feet down, the backhoe was pulled across the pavement.  Those were some deep, tough roots.

It is so important to be rooted – to be connected – to something.  When Jesus talks about a faith that exists for a while but then fades away during a time of testing he is talking about a faith that is not rooted to anything.

We are, in our society, becoming more and more a rootless people.  The old bonds and ties that used to exist are passing away and with their passing there is a loss of a support system that helped people to weather the difficulties and struggles of life.

The church, the body of Christ, provides a rootedness that connects us to something beyond our own life that is absolutely essential to a faith that is growing and alive.

Shallow faith turns people into spiritual consumers rather than servants, it’s a faith that reduces everything down to a few slogans or a few things to be against rather than what we are for.  But a deeply rooted faith is one that blossoms into maturity, it is one that will sustain us through difficulty, and it is one that will keep our hearts open and loving.

3.  The Seed That Fell Among the Weeds.
Some years ago I was working on flower beds around the house and I cleaned them out, sprayed the ground with weed killer, put down a cover to keep any weeds from growing, put some decorative rock down, added clean topsoil, and then sprayed weed killer again.  And guess what I grew?  Weeds!
There is the essence of the problem I have with yard work.  No matter how hard I work I have never been able to grow a good stand of grass.  Lawns need to be fertilized and treated and seed sown every year; there’s a multitude of things we have to do in order to have a nice, healthy lawn.  Isn’t it amazing, though, that nothing is required to grow a nice stand of weeds?  I can grow the best crop of dandelions and weeds by simply doing nothing.

The third condition of the heart that Jesus describes is when we life and love are choked out by what he calls life’s worries, riches and pleasures (verse 14).  Worries will certainly do that.  And riches and pleasures fall under the category of distractions.  But there are a lot of distractions in life, and many of them are very good distractions.  They are good things, worthy of our time and consideration.  But they are not the best things in life and should not crowd out the best things.  The greatest enemy of the best in life, says William Barclay, is not the worse; the greatest enemy of the best in life is often the second best.
(The Gospel of Luke, revised edition, The Daily Study Bible Series, by William Barclay, page 100).

One of the greatest dangers in life is not that we pursue things that are unworthy or bad, but that we allow necessary things in life to rise to the level of the greatest importance.  Everybody needs to earn a living, but is earning a living all there is to life?  No.  Everybody needs recreation and entertainment in life, but is recreation and entertainment all there is to life?  No. There is, unfortunately, a strain of faith in our society that is very puritanical and wants to remove all the pleasures and enjoyments out of life.  They don’t need to be removed; they just need to find their proper place and their proper role in life.

It is very easy for life to rearrange our priorities, even without us noticing.  Have you thought about your priorities lately?  Are they aligned with what matters most to you?  Do they reflect your spiritual priorities?

4.  The Seed That Falls Into the Good Soil.
Jesus said this seed produced a crop a hundred times over.  That’s a pretty good return.  This is an encouragement to remember that the gospel still takes root in lives and when it does it results in an amazing return.  This is an encouragement to not despair.  There are times when we wonder if what we do makes any difference – it does.

I read once of a group of archeologists who discovered some seeds in an ancient Egyptian tomb.  Out of curiosity they planted them to see what would happen.  Guess what happened?  Some of them actually grew.  Isn’t it amazing there was still life in some of those old seeds?

What matters here is not how well the disciples understood the message or how well received it was by the crowds either then or now, but the power of God’s work to bring transformation.

A healthy heart doesn’t just happen.  A healthy heart is, first of all, my responsibility, and I must work at it.  It’s easy to assign blame for things elsewhere, but it is my responsibility to work at growing a healthy heart and spirit.

Do you identify with any of the types of soil of which Jesus speaks?  Do you feel worn down by life?  Do you feel as though you have not put down any permanent roots, especially spiritual roots?  Do you feel as though the many responsibilities and chores of life choke out some of the more important matters of life?  Do you feel as though your life is bearing good fruit?  How healthy is your heart?  Which soil represents your heart?

Having a good, healthy heart is important, but not just in a physical way, but also a heart that is healthy spiritually.  Does your need a check-up?

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

August 14, 2016 Unity

I am continuing to follow what I have referred to as connecting points upon which to build my messages.  This week, my message us titled Unity, which is a word that I have heard so much lately.  Throughout the summer people from around the community and among my network of connections have asked to speak to me about unity and, specifically, finding unity.  A few weeks ago our community held a Unity Rally, which I didn’t get to attend, but I thought it was a good idea.

What an interesting word unity is.  But what an often ill-defined, murky word it is.  What does the word unity mean to you?  If ten people gave an answer to that question we would probably have ten different answers.

And that is the problem with the word unity; as much as we talk about unity, we rarely define what it means.  We say we need more unity in our community, we need more unity in our nation, we need more unity in our world, we need more unity in our politics, we need more unity in our family, and we need more unity in our church.  But what, specifically, do we mean by that word unity, and how do we achieve what we might define as unity?  How can be united if we don’t define what it means to be united?  Don’t you think unity should be, well, unifying?  What an irony that we don’t always find unity on the meaning of the word unity!

I think that the word unity has devolved into what we might call a “catch-phrase” or “slogan,” which are words or phrases that are often used, but without any real understanding of what a person means when they use those words or phrases.  At some point, those words and phrases enter our language in significant ways, but without any kind of agreement on their meaning.

For our Scripture text – or texts – this morning I want to read two passages.  The first comes from John chapter 17, which is part of the prayer of Jesus at the Last Supper.  The second passage comes from Luke’s gospel, where the twelve apostles are listed by name –  

John 17:22-23 –

22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—
23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

Luke 6:12-16 –

12 One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God.
13 When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also designated apostles:
14 Simon (whom he named Peter), his brother Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew,
15 Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Simon who was called the Zealot,
16 Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.

I selected these texts because one of the final desires expressed by Jesus before his crucifixion was that his followers would be one, which means to be united.  The list of the twelve disciples reminds us that, as a group, they were very different people, and yet they were able to find unity because of the mission and purpose to which they were called.

I want to define unity this morning with three words, but first I want to very quickly say a few words about what is not unity.

Unity is not uniformity. 
The twelve disciples were so different from one another.  One worked for Rome (Matthew, as a tax collector) and another was dedicated to the violent overthrow of Rome (Simon, a Zealot).  Peter, Andrew, James, and John were fishermen.  As such, they were small businessmen, and it is highly likely that Matthew was their tax collector.  If so, and considering the level of unfairness that was a part of the Roman-imposed taxation system, there would undoubtedly have been some hard feelings.  Peter, James, and John formed what we might call the “inner circle” of Jesus (they were taken up the mountain with Jesus to witness the Transfiguration – Matthew 17:1-9 – After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.  Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.  As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” and taken further into the Garden of Gethsemane after the Last Supper, as recorded in Mark 14:32-33 – 32 They went to a place called Gethsemane, and Jesus said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” 33 He took Peter, James and John along with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled.) while the others remained more on the fringes, perhaps leading to some measure of jealousy.  And, on at least two occasions, James and John sought to find places of privilege and power by gaining seats to the right and left of Jesus (Matthew 20:20-18 - 20 Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him.  21 “What is it you want?” he asked.  She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.”  22 “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?”  “We can,” they answered.  23 Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.”  24 When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. 25 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.  26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” and Mark 10:35-45 – 35 Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”  36 “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.  37 They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”  38 “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”  39 “We can,” they answered.  Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, 40 but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.” 41 When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. 42 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”)  In spite of these instances, there was a unity among the disciples, proving that unity does not have to come under the guise of uniformity. 

To be united, we do not have to accept a code of uniformity.  People often ask me, for instance, is your church conservative, moderate, or liberal?  My answer is, yes.  We are all three and more.  We don’t all think the same and we don’t all believe the same, and guess what – it’s fine!  We don’t have to be the same.  We can be united in spite of our differences!  Uniformity is not required!

There are such rigid orthodoxies in our society, and it is getting harder and harder to cross the lines of those orthodoxies.  We have our various camps and those camps don’t mingle and mix very well.  It’s as though the ground in between is shrinking and we must constantly choose sides, picking a camp in which we will live and shun the other camps.

Yesterday’s March to Recovery was a marvelous example of unity without uniformity.  Scanning the crowd, it was obvious there was a great deal of diversity among those who attended the March.  It was a common purpose that brought together very diverse people in a sense of unity.

Uniformity is not found in a creed.
I get asked a lot of questions, and they generally fall under one of several categories.
Some people ask, what do I have to believe to be part of your church?  I have to confess, I don’t really understand that question.  That is, I don’t understand why such a question must be asked.  We do not have a creed, we do not have a statement of faith, and we do not require anyone’s ascent to a particular theological doctrine or dogma.  It’s not that beliefs are unimportant, but we do not require anyone to ascent to a creed, because creeds invariably contain human opinions that are imposed upon others and, as a church [that is, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)], we simply don’t believe it is proper to impose one person’s opinion upon another person.

The closest we come is to say that we gather around the confession that Peter made when asked by Jesus who do you say that I am, and Peter answered by saying you are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.  We don’t need anything beyond that confession.

So, the three words I want to use to define unity are these – love, grace, and ministry.  Those three words defined the ministry of Jesus, they defined the ministry of the apostles, they defined the early church, and they should also define our ministry as well.

We talk about love all the time in church.  I have preached several messages on love in recent months.  But we cannot talk too much about love, as it is so badly needed in our world.

But love, and its opposite – hate – are two words tossed around too easily these days.  They are words used so casually that, after a while, they begin to lose impact and meaning.  The word hate, for example, is too often attached to people who disagree with us.  We far too quickly claim some people hate when they simply disagree with us.

To say I love you is a really big deal.  A really, really big deal.  I appreciate that you sometimes tell me you love me, and if you have, you might have noticed that I probably responded with some hesitation.  Perhaps I shuffled my feet, mumbled something, and then changed the subject.  I’ll admit that I’m kind of funny about responding when people tell me they love me – outside of my family – because I don’t know if I will always do what love both asks and requires.  It’s not that I don’t love you – I do! – but I want to be sure that I mean it when I say it in return.  Please don’t misunderstand me; I do not at all doubt you.  It’s just that I want to be sure that when I tell someone I love them I mean something more than simple reciprocity – you love me, so I’ll love you in return.  You’re nice to me so I’ll be nice to you.  Love doesn’t need something in return to be true love.
Jesus was about love, so we must unite around love.

Can we pass a law this morning?  It’s a law that I guarantee will be upheld by every court in the land.  Let’s make a law that says this – don’t take to social media to air your differences, your criticisms, and your grievances.  Don’t go online and criticize your friends, coworkers, spouse, siblings, etc.  When you are tempted to do so call me, and here’s what I’ll do – I’ll bring a hammer and come and beat your phone, computer, or other device into tiny bits and pieces.  And don’t get another one until you promise to keep your disagreements off of social media!  And when I say social media I mean any form of communication that allows us to air our differences or disagreements with someone without speaking to that person.  A plain old landline phone is one of the original forms of social media. 

Don’t feel singled out; we’ve all done it.  Don’t do it because it’s not grace.  In fact, it hinders grace and keeps grace from doing its work.  We need to speak words of grace and we must bathe our actions in grace as well.  Our world needs more grace.

When we read the gospel we find that Jesus demonstrated grace over and over.  One of my favorite stories is the encounter between Jesus and Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10 – Jesus entered Jericho(A) and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.  When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.  All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”  But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.  10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”).  No one in the city of Jericho seemed interested in demonstrating grace to Zacchaeus, but Jesus did.  Zacchaeus had defrauded people in the course of collecting taxes, but the grace he was offered by Jesus changed his life.

In John 8:2-11 we read the story of the woman taken in adultery (At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.  But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.  At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. 10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”  11 “No one, sir,” she said.  “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”).  Talk about grace!  While surrounded with a crowd of angry, judgmental men, ready to stone her death, Jesus stays calm.  He reaches down to write something in the dirt (what it was, I have no idea).  Suddenly, the crowd grew quiet, as I imagine the only sound was that of stones and rocks being dropped to the ground, and of sandal-covered feet walking away.

I also love the story of Jesus and his encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-30 – Now Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that he was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John— although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples. So he left Judea and went back once more to Galilee.  Now he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon. When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)  The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)  10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” 11 “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?” 13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” 15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.” 16 He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.” 17 “I have no husband,” she replied.  Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. 18 The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”  19 “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”  21 “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews.  23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” 25 The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.” 26 Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.”  27 Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?”  28 Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, 29 “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” 30 They came out of the town and made their way toward him.)  It was a well-known practice that the Jews and Samaritans would not have dealings with one another, and even the disciples were surprised that Jesus would speak to the woman.  But this is, again, Jesus demonstrating grace.  He would not allow himself to be bound by the prejudices, boundaries, and limitations of the day, and neither should we.

Jesus was about grace, so we must unite around grace.

I vividly remember two phrases printed on the front of the bulletins in my home church – enter to worship…depart to serve.  The words serve and ministry are synonyms; they mean the same thing.
Service, or ministry, is such an important word in our culture today.  It is a sign, I believe, of how deeply embedded Christian values are in our society that everywhere you turn there is an emphasis on service.  I remember a young man some years ago who was applying to colleges.  His test scores were amazingly high, with an almost perfect score on the SAT and an ACT score well above 30.  He assumed most colleges and universities would be very welcoming to his application, but many of them gave the same response – where are your service hours?  Colleges and universities are looking for applicants with a demonstrated track record of service to others.  Similarly, businesses encourage – and seek – employees to be involved in community service projects.

We often speak of coming to church, and that is accurate.  But we must remember that church is not a destination as much as it is a beginning point.  We come to church, not as an end in itself, but as a place to begin in our ministry and service to others.  The word church is a noun, but it is also a verb.  We come to church, but then we go forth to be the church.

I think it is safe to say that the reason some churches become engulfed in conflict and unhealthy behavior is because they are too inward looking, when they should be looking outward.  If we stay in our buildings, looking at one another rather than at the needs of our surrounding communities, we begin to pick at one another and criticize one another.

Jesus sent his disciples out to do ministry.  Jesus was about ministry, so must unite around ministry.
So this is unity – gathering with purpose around love, grace, and ministry.  Let us go forth in that unity!

Monday, August 08, 2016

August 7, 2016 Following God...

I’ve always enjoyed a road trip.

Whether by air or by car, I love the idea of hitting the road, striking out on a trip, and the sense of being free and anticipating the adventure to come.  Two Sundays ago, I picked Tanya up at the airport in Louisville as she returned home from a work trip.  When I got out of my car I stood in the atrium that leads into the terminal for a few minutes.  I imagined that I was preparing to board a plane and begin a journey.

But maybe I should say I’ve enjoyed road trips – most of the time.  I’ve had a few memorable road trips; sometimes memorable for all the wrong reasons.  Flat tires on the interstate and a flat spare, overheated engines while crossing mountain highways, and any number of engine part failures that left me stranded on the roadside, and almost all of them in the ancient days before cell phones could help me to quickly find help.  But in spite of those misadventures, I still like to get behind the wheel, or on the plane, and go on a journey.

I believe a road trip makes a great analogy for the spiritual journeys of our lives.  We begin at one destination, plan for the place where we will arrive, and find a lot of adventure between the two points. 

As we continue messages based on what I have been referring to as connecting points, this week we’ll talk about Abraham and his journey of faith, or, to stay with our analogy, his road trip.  Our text is a brief passage from the 12th chapter of Genesis, verses 1 through 9 –

1 The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.
“I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”
So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Harran.
He took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all the possessions they had accumulated and the people they had acquired in Harran, and they set out for the land of Canaan, and they arrived there.
Abram traveled through the land as far as the site of the great tree of Moreh at Shechem. At that time the Canaanites were in the land.
The Lord appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built an altar there to the Lord, who had appeared to him.
From there he went on toward the hills east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. There he built an altar to the Lord and called on the name of the Lord.
Then Abram set out and continued toward the Negev.

I want to sum up Abram’s road trip this morning in three words – Go, Do, Be.  Each of those words offer us an insight to the foundational aspects of Abram’s life, the type of person he was, and the role that faith played in his life.  And, certainly, faith played a very large role in Abram’s life, as he set out with very little information to share with is family about the road ahead.

1.  Go.
One of the fascinating aspects of Scripture, I believe, is not just what it tells us, but what it doesn’t.  Our Scripture text from Genesis doesn’t tell us whether or not Abram spent much time thinking about God’s call, but it does seem that he responded rather immediately – so Abram went, as the Lord had told him (verse 4).  I can’t go anywhere quickly.  My family finds it rather ridiculous the way I prepare for a trip.  To go on a week long trip requires me to pack for three months.  If I could, I would take ten suitcases.  One must prepare, after all, for every contingency.  What if something happened that required me to stay longer than I had planned?  If so, it is necessary to have a lot of stuff with me.  And how many guitars can I take with me?  If I take an electric guitar, I must surely take an amp and some effects pedals as well.  I must also long to do lists and, in the days before we leave, I suddenly decide I must finish projects that have been dormant for months.

How likely would it be for us to answer such a dramatic call with such a rapid response?  What would we need, by way of confirmation, before we would pick up our lives and begin a journey while knowing so little about where we were going or what challenges we might encounter along the way?  It is almost inconceivable to me to imagine an instantaneous response to the call of God, but it seems as though that is exactly what Abram does.

Abram is called by God to leave his homeland and to go in search of a land I will show you (verse 1).  Note that God does not provide any details about the land (which is the Promised Land).  And Abram just goes!  Isn’t that amazing that, with so few details, Abram packs up his family and all he has and begins his spiritual road trip.  And, it is worth noting that Abram was 75 years old when he began his journey.  Evidently, retirement wasn’t on his mind!

What hinders us, what holds us back from where God is calling us to go?  Where might God be calling you to go?  Across the street, to minister to a neighbor in need?  Next door?  To someone in the next cubicle at work.  To someone in the next classroom at school  To somewhere different from the places we are used to?  To someone who is different from us or makes us uncomfortable?

2.  Do.
I thought about whether or not to use the word do because, in our culture, we are so obsessed with doing.  We live in a time where action is so important – hurry up and do something!  What are we going to do today?  What are we going to do this weekend?  We are people of action, people who want to do something, people who want to make a plan and then work that plan.  So, the first thought that comes to our mind when it comes to where we will go is the question of what will we do when we get to our destination?  What’s our task?  What’s our plan?

Honestly, Abram didn’t always think clearly about what he was doing.  Sometimes he got in a hurry, unsatisfied with God’s plan and God’s timetable, and out of his impatience, he made mistakes.  And not small, insignificant mistakes.  Abram made some really big mistakes.  In this way, certainly, Abram is a template for all of us, as we can also, out of our impatience, make mistakes.  Abram allowed, for instance, his wife Sarah to be taken into two different harems, and from it he profited handsomely (Genesis 12:10-20 and 20:1-18).  Abram’s name meant father.  Because God promised that he would be the father of a multitude, he changed his name to Abraham, which carries that meaning.  But Abraham grew impatient, and wondered how he could be the father of a multitude when he had no children.  In their impatience, Abram and his wife, Sarai, decided Abram should have a child with her servant Hagar Genesis 16:1-16).  That decision, which brought Ishmael into the world, has altered world politics this day, as the question of the ownership of land is at the root of the contentious politics of the Middle East.  We live with the consequences of our decision for days, months, and sometimes even years.  Imagine knowing that your decision affects human history for thousands of years!  Those were not Abram’s finest moments, and I imagine it caused no shortage of difficulty between himself and Sarah.

Perhaps because of Abram’s decisions, perhaps because of his impetuousness, perhaps because of his need to learn a few lessons, his journey began by traveling to what was known as the Negev (Then Abram set out and continued toward the Negev – verse 9).  The Negev was a desert region that took up just over half of the geography of the land.  Before Abram did anything, besides take his initial steps of the journey, he was led into the desert.  Make no mistake, sometimes we spend time in the desert.  It is not always easy to follow God.  God will lead us to places, people, and tasks that are neither simple nor easy.

3.  Be
But for Abram, the purpose of his journey into the desert, I believe, was to work on our final word – be.  The words go and do are action words.  Be sounds like an action word, because it is a verb, but it really has to do not so much with action as it does with who we are as people.  Be is an existential word, it is a word of character, and it is a word that speaks of how we are shaped and molded into who God wants us to be.

Genesis tells us that Abram’s nephew, Lot, also went along on the journey.  Again, Genesis doesn’t give us any information about why Lot went along for the journey.  Perhaps it was out of a sense of loyalty to his uncle, to help him, and to provide company.  Abram was, after all, 75 years old when he set out on his journey.  Or, perhaps, there was a greater reason at work. 

I believe that people will follow along on a journey because they are interested in where we go.  Perhaps Lot was intrigued by the idea of Abram’s journey and wanted to accompany him for the sense of adventure.  People will also follow because of what we do.  Perhaps Lot believed in what Abram was going to do and he wanted to be part of it.  A good cause, a good calling in which we participate – in which we do something – will attract people.  But I believe the reason Lot went with Abram had to do with the Be.  It was the person Abram was that attracted Lot.  Abram was a man of great faith.  Abram was a flawed man, make no mistake about it (as we are all flawed), but he was a person of faith, character, and dedication and this is what attracted Lot to him, I believe.

I experienced an example of this in the past week.  Ministry requires that I spend a lot of time driving, generally by myself, and I often stop to get something to eat while I am out.  I was across the river one evening early in the past week.  Seated at the next table was a group of five or six people.  It’s not that I was eavesdopping, but I found myself listening to their conversation (to be fair, if you speak loud enough for everyone at the surrounding tables to hear you, it doesn’t qualify as eavesdropping).  It was a rather discouraging conversation, as they were discussing their church, and the discussion was not at all positive.  It was a long litany of the problems with their church, of all the things they didn’t like, and the things that made them unhappy.  I have no idea what church they attend or even what denomination it is, but I had made one decision after hearing their conversation – it wasn’t a place I wanted to attend!  I didn’t want to go along with them.  I wasn’t a bit inspired by what I heard.  To the contrary, I was in Louisville on Friday and encountered a group of young people.  They were wearing matching T-shirts and obviously part of some kind of event.  A man stopped them and asked them what they were doing in Louisville and they gave a very animated and excited answer.  They were part of a church gathering in Louisville, and as they told the man about it, they were all talking at once, with great excitement and enthusiasm.  Their excitement was contagious.  Although I didn’t know the nature of the event, where they were from, or what they were doing, I was ready to go with them!

Ultimately, we will not follow or support another person unless we are convinced of the goodness of their character.  Abram, full of faith, elicited from Lot admiration.  I believe Lot knew his uncle very well, he knew the kind of person he was – in spite of his mistakes – and made the decision of traveling with him because of the person Abram was.

We also have the capacity to take people along with us for the journey.  But ultimately, they do not come just for the journey, for the adventure, or for the companionship.  People will accompany us on the spiritual journey because of who we are.  If we are people of faith, people who are willing to Go, Do, and Be for God, they will journey with us.

So let’s Go, Do, and Be!