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Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Spirit Made Me Do It (Acts 2:1-21) Pentecost Sunday


When Pentecost Day arrived, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak.

There were pious Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. When they heard this sound, a crowd gathered. They were mystified because everyone heard them speaking in their native languages. They were surprised and amazed, saying, “Look, aren’t all the people who are speaking Galileans, every one of them? How then can each of us hear them speaking in our native language? Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; as well as residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the regions of Libya bordering Cyrene; and visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism), 11 Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages!” 12 They were all surprised and bewildered. Some asked each other, “What does this mean?” 13 Others jeered at them, saying, “They’re full of new wine!”

14 Peter stood with the other eleven apostles. He raised his voice and declared, “Judeans and everyone living in Jerusalem! Know this! Listen carefully to my words! 15 These people aren’t drunk, as you suspect; after all, it’s only nine o’clock in the morning! 16 Rather, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

17 In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
    Your sons and daughters will prophesy.
    Your young will see visions.
    Your elders will dream dreams.
18     Even upon my servants, men and women,
        I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
        and they will prophesy.
19 I will cause wonders to occur in the heavens above
    and signs on the earth below,
        blood and fire and a cloud of smoke.
20 The sun will be changed into darkness,
    and the moon will be changed into blood,
        before the great and spectacular day of the Lord comes.
21 And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

 

 

Today is Pentecost Sunday, sort of the third leg in the Church’s triple crown of major festivals, Christmas and Easter being the other two.  Christmas and Easter seem to get all the attention, while Pentecost gets forgotten in the shuffle, but on Pentecost Sunday we focus on biblical stories in which God's Spirit—God’s presence with us—encounters ordinary humans and wonderful and unexpected things begin to happen.

 

Pentecost is, in a sense, the birthday of the church, which is why after worship today we will have a birthday party for the Church, complete with cake and whatever delicious food you all have brought, and you’re all invited to stay.  Even if you didn’t bring anything, don’t worry about it, there is plenty there for all!

 

In the familiar Pentecost story we’ve just read from Acts 2, the symbols of wind and fire represent God's presence given in powerful and dramatic ways to the disciples of Jesus, who experience the Spirit as mighty and powerful, moving them to do for God things that are far beyond what they could do themselves.

 

Pentecost, the outpouring of the Spirit, is the beginning of the mending, healing, getting over and moving past every division that exists between people.  The Holy Spirit blows through, and a timid, frightened, and discouraged group of Jesus' followers become forceful, confident, and unified advocates for their experience of the risen Christ.

 

Pentecost is a day to celebrate not only the initial outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the first followers of Jesus, it’s a day to welcome the Holy Spirit upon ourselves, to believe that’s God’s Spirit could even be poured out in this place, upon people like us.

 

In many ways, Pentecost feels like the pep rallies we used to have in high school, as the cheerleaders would shout out, “We’ve got spirit, yes, we do, we’ve got spirit, how about you?”

 

But then, as we wave our little flames around we realize the only flames in here are dancing politely upon the table, and the only wind we’ve felt was cranking out of the air conditioning vent, and we wonder if there should be a more powerful experience of the Spirit among us.

 

A friend of mine, also a Methodist pastor, jokes that when the Holy Spirit shows up at the Methodist Church, he knows to mind his manners.  Take a look at our cross-and-flame logo, the symbol of the United Methodist Church recognized the world over.  You see that squiggly red thing on the side of the cross?  That’s supposed to be a flame, representing the fire of the Holy Spirit.  Look at that flame – a controlled burn, if ever there was one, more like a flicker on top of a BIC lighter than the holy, chaotic wildfire described in Acts 2.

 

We prefer that little flicker because it gives us the illusion that we are in control.  Tongues of fire?  Mighty rushing wind?  That scares the hell out of us – better to have a little candle flame and watch it flicker when we blow, a Holy Spirit we can control, turning on or off at a whim.  But the Spirit will not be controlled.  It blows and burns wherever it will.

 

I may like my life just the way it is, and inviting the Holy Spirit into our lives opens us to the possibility that God might transform us with his love and grace!  Open up to the Holy Spirit, why, God might CHANGE me!  I don’t want God to CHANGE me!  What a dirty word!  And so people remain spiritual infants, not growing in God’s love, not maturing in faith, not becoming the people God created us to be.  It’s amazing how many people will give lip service to God, but not offer their lives for God to actually do what God does best – namely, transform and warm our hearts with his love.

 

One Pentecost Sunday, after worship, the meanest, most judgmental, critical, hateful, negative person in the congregation marched up to me and proudly announced, “I don’t believe in that Holy Spirit business,” and I was thinking, “Lady, that’s not a secret – everybody knows!”

 

Perhaps I should have quoted to her this pearl of wisdom from Charles Spurgeon: “A Christian without the Spirit is rather a curse than a blessing.  If you have not the Spirit of God, remember that you stand in somebody else’s way.  You are a fruitless tree, standing where a fruitful tree might grow.”

 

She wasn’t open to the Holy Spirit, and she was done growing spiritually, and despite the fact that she was 84 years old and had been a church member for 72 years, her life produced no fruit.  She had cut herself off from the Holy Spirit, the source that could refresh and renew her life, and without it, she dried into a hard, bitter prune of a soul.

 

I want better than that for myself.  I want better than that for you.  May we be open to the Holy Spirit.

 

Just know that opening up to the Holy Spirit is inviting some major renovation in your life.  The Holy Spirit can be meddlesome, poking and prodding around in the dark parts of ourselves we try to keep hidden or manage ourselves.  Inviting the Holy Spirit into your life opens the possibility that God will ignite something within you you’d rather not have sparked, or blow into rooms you weren’t ready to open just yet.

 

The Holy Spirit will make a mess of your agenda, your preferences, your plans, your prejudices, and set your heart on fire with a burning zeal to share God’s love in every way possible with everyone you possibly can.  The Holy Spirit will blow you right out of your comfort zone to share that love, equipping and empowering you to do so more boldly and with greater passion than you could ever muster on your own.

 

The most mature Christians are the ones who can readily admit that they haven’t yet arrived, that, thanks be to God, God isn’t finished working on them, yet.  We are all beautiful works in progress, because wherever we are on our spiritual journey, there is still more that God can do within us and through us.  And the Holy Spirit is the one who does that work – cleansing us, convicting us, changing us, consecrating us, to God’s purpose and for God’s glory.

 

Friends, none of us has arrived to a place where we no longer need the fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit.  The biggest mistake we can make is to believe that we’re done growing in faith, that we are a finished product.  God’s mercies are new every morning.  Every day is an opportunity for us to be changed from glory into glory.

 

That is daily, constant work.  Does anyone here have a clean house?  Does anyone here have a not-so-clean house?  For those with a clean house, did you clean it once and then it stayed clean, or did you have to clean it again to keep it clean?  It’s a constant process, isn’t it?  Ashley has a magnet on our fridge, a Joan Rivers quote, that says, “I hate housework.  You make the beds, you do the dishes – and six months later you have to start all over again!”

 

I wish you could clean the house once and it would magically stay clean forever, but we all know it doesn’t work that way.  It’s no different for our spirit, either.  We need constant cleaning, a fresh anointing, a willingness to press ahead because none of us is yet who God dreams we can be.

 

On Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came as fire and as wind.  They say that the occasional forest fire is actually good for the health of the forest.  It clears away the undergrowth and leaves and dead growth that accumulate on the forest floor and suffocate new life from being able to spring up.  The occasional fire clears all that away, and the forest matures and grows healthier as a result.

 

If you are sick, your body will develop a fever – a little fire inside of you to burn off whatever is making you so sick.

 

So think of the Holy Spirit like a forest fire.  Think of the Holy Spirit like a divine fever.  Think of the Holy Spirit as a cleansing, refiner’s fire, burning away the dross so the image of God within us can be revealed and restored.

 

Right now, if each of us were to take stock of our lives, would we be able to identify things that need to be burned away?  Things that are keeping us from being spiritually healthy, things that are preventing God’s love from being seen and experienced through us?  An attitude?  A behavior?  A grudge?  An agenda?

 

Whatever that thing is, it’s keeping you from growing and maturing in your faith.  It’s keeping the love of God from taking root in your life, and growing you into the person God dreams you can be, so today I’m just asking you to let go of it, and let the Holy Spirit do the rest.

 

Would it be that the Holy Spirit came to us as a cleansing fire, burning up whatever needs to be cleared away.  This day, would it be that the Holy Spirit came to us as a mighty rushing wind, clearing out whatever of that rubbish remains, that God’s love and grace might find a home in our hearts.

 

So today, we wave our flame, and we say, “Come, Holy Spirit.”  Come as fire, and cleanse whatever doesn’t belong within us.  Ignite and warm our hearts with a steady, loving glow.  “Come, Holy Spirit.”  Come as wind, and fan the flame of your love within us.

 

Friends, God’s holy presence will not be contained.  It will not be controlled.  Fire is meant to burn. Wind is meant to blow.  When God’s Spirit comes to town, it will be loud.  It will be unruly.  It will be chaotic.  It will be filled with the warm winds of love.

 

When God’s Spirit comes blowing into town, he’ll be looking for hearts that are open to receive.  May our hearts be the Spirit’s home.  May the Spirit not pass us by.  God’s holy fuse is lit – his presence is among us, stirring through this very room – may we be carriers of his heart-warming flame.

 

“Come, Holy Spirit!”  Come claim us.  Cleanse us.  Convict us.  Convert Us.  Consecrate us. Change us with your heart-warming loving presence, so we can change the world, to the glory of God.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

What Does 'Made in the Image of God' Mean? (Genesis 1:26-27)


26 Then God said, “Let us make humanity in our image to resemble us so that they may take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the earth, and all the crawling things on earth.”

27 God created humanity in God’s own image,
        in the divine image God created them,
            male and female God created them.

 

It is Mother’s Day today, and I welcome the moms who have joined their children and or grandchildren in worship today.  I welcome children and grandchildren who have joined mom or grandma today, because one of the things she wanted today was for the whole family to come to church together.  So, whether you are here today because it’s what you wanted to do, or because Mom guilt-tripped you into coming, which, as a mother, is her right to do, either way, I’m glad you’re here today.

 

One of the tricky things about Mother’s Day is the honest recognition that while it is a happy day for many, it’s a painful day for many others, for a whole variety of reasons.  As a church, we walk a fine line on Mother’s Day between celebrating with those who celebrate today, but not adding additional hurt to those for whom today is already difficult enough.  That’s what the church does – we simultaneously rejoice with those who rejoice, while we weep with those who weep.  So whether today is a joyful or a difficult day for you, thank you for giving us all a chance to be the church today.

 

Mother’s Day was started by Anna Jarvis, a Methodist from West Virginia, who wanted to honor all women and the influence they have in raising us, pouring themselves into us, shaping us, forming us, making us the people we have turned out to be.  She was thinking of both actual mothers, but also spiritual mothers who, whether or not they have children of their own, have left an impression on us.

 

I think of some of the church mothers, like Mrs. Marshall, who always wore a hat every Sunday, and whose *snap* in the sanctuary could freeze a misbehaving child at 20 paces.  That sound was so familiar and long-established in the church in which I grew up that there were adults who still tensed up when they heard it.  I think of Mrs. Kellogg, who kept the nursery, even though her own grandchildren lived hundreds of miles away.  I think of Mrs. Jasper, who tried to instill something of the Christian faith into us rowdy, smart-mouthed middle school boys, and who, despite our best efforts and appearance of total disinterest in each week’s lesson, was more successful than we would have ever let on.

 

I think of extended family, too – second cousins and my grandmothers and my aunts – my mom’s sisters who all look and sound so much alike, that my cousins and I, as toddlers, were known to walk into the kitchen where the sisters were working together and grab Mom’s pant leg, only to look up and realize that we’d gotten the wrong one.

 

Something of each of these women is part of who I am, indeed, it does take a village to raise a child, and today I celebrate these who were part of the village that raised me, and as I look back over this list, I can’t help but think, “God bless them, because these women sure must have loved me an awful lot to put up with what they did.”

 

You can so often see the influence and family resemblance from one generation to the next.  You could put a picture of me and my Dad taken at the same ages next to each other, and you’d think we were twins.  We are often a chip off the old block, or the apple don’t fall too far from the tree, as it were.  Ashley was looking at a recent photo of herself yesterday and she said, “I am so turning into my mother,” which I could have told her a long time was already happening, but I’m smarter than that, but I will tell you a I got a good, hard look at my mother-in-law before we got married just to make sure I was good with how everything was going to turn out in the long run.

 

Family resemblances are hard to deny – and they’re not just physical.  Something of those who raise us rubs off on us, makes us who we are.  No doubt, many of you have found yourselves in the same situation, realizing you are looking more and more like one of your parents, or finding yourself doing or saying certain things, perhaps things you swore you would never do, as you think, “I am so turning into my father or into my mother.”

 

Likewise, our family resemblance to our Heavenly Father is hard to deny.  The Scriptures tell us today that we are made in God’s image.  Think about that.  Something of God’s character is imprinted upon us, makes us who we are, undeniably, unmistakably identifying us as having something of God within us.  But what?

 

In ancient near Eastern culture, an image carried the essence of the thing it represented.  It’s why world leaders would have statues of themselves placed in far corners of their empires, ego not withstanding, it was a way to take their authority and presence into distance lands.  It’s why the Hebrew people were warned against having idols or false gods or making graven images, lest the essence of those things infect their devotion to God, which it often did.

 

Images are not merely symbolic, they powerfully carry the essence of the thing they represent in real and tangible ways.  We are no different.  When the Biblical writers chose the words “made in God’s image” to describe humanity, those were powerful and intentionally-chosen words, meant to convey in no uncertain terms that we, humanity, the pinnacle of God’s whole creation, have been created with something of God’s essence and character within us.

 

What we mean when we say that we are created in the image of God will largely depend on who we understand God to be.  Last week, we spent some time getting clear on our basic, fundamental understanding of who God is – establishing a picture in our minds of God’s character, what makes God, God.  We turned, as always, to the Scriptures, which told us plainly and clearly that “God is Love.”  That’s our starting point, our foundation, the root from which the whole rest of it grows – God is Love.

 

Tina Turner rightfully asked, “What’s love got to do with it?”, and the Christian faith responds that Love has EVERYTHING to do with it because Love is who God is, plain and simple.  And we, all of humanity, is made in God’s image, so it naturally follows that since God is Love, we are made in the image of Love.

 

Wow.  God is Love.  And God’s love for us is so great that when God makes us, God fashions us in God’s own image – the image of love.  Every man, woman, and child, everyone who has ever lived, everyone who will ever live, is made in the image of God, which is Love, and has the capacity to become like God, namely, to be perfected in love.  Over time, by God’s grace, we find the family resemblance becoming more pronounced as we grow in love, to become like God.

 

And here’s the thing about what happens when God creates – every time God creates, God says, “It is good.”  Read through the creation accounts in Genesis: God creates, God stands back and surveys what God has just made, and declares, “It is good.”

 

Theologians have said, “Creation, as it leaves the hand of God, is good.”  How do we know?  Because God has declared it so!  Creation, as it leaves the hand of God, is good.  In fact, God says humanity is “very good,” and it stands to good reason that, having been made in God’s image, imbued with something of God’s character, filled with God’s essence, which is Love, we would be.  We are made in the image of God, and creation, as it leaves the hand of God, is good.

 

That, of course, is only part of the story.  It’s the first part of the story, the foundational part of the story, but the other part of the story is that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, as Romans 3:23 tells us.  We fall short of the glory of God, the image of God, the Love of God.  Every day we do this.  The word, “sin” means both “a condition of separation,” and “the act of missing the mark.”  Every day we do things that separate us from God and others, every day we miss the mark by sometimes painfully wide margins.

 

Even as people of faith, every day we fall short of loving God and our neighbor fully and completely, every day we fail to glorify God in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.

 

Some would start the story of faith there – with a sinful humanity.  And that’s part of the story, but it’s not the start of the story.  There are a few chapters in the story that come first.  Remember, our starting point is with God, and creation, of which humanity is a part, as it leaves the hand of God, is good.

 

And so, before we sinned, before you and I were separated and distanced from God, we were made in God’s image.  Even when we fall into sin, that image is still there, for God has placed it permanently and indelibly upon each of us.  The image of God may be tarnished, it may be bent, it may be obscured, or hidden, or almost unrecognizable.  It may be covered over by layers of selfishness and willfulness and pride – but it’s still there.

 

Just as we at times may distance ourselves from our parents, turn our backs on them, disobey them, resent them, rebel against them, yet, be unable to deny that whatever they have done to shape our character is still a part of us, even when we make it hard to see, so too does that image of God remain upon us, waiting to be restored to its original glory, shone and polished back into beauty and brilliance.

 

My sister and her husband own a sprawling house built in 1878 that is a total heap – but they love it.  It sat on the market for years, until they came along, and could envision what it would look like to restore that home to its former glory.  And that’s what they’re doing – slowly, carefully, pain-stakingly restoring what has been there all along, just waiting to be revealed.

 

And that’s how God deals with us.  God sees the brilliance, the beauty, the reality of what how we were originally made, for it was God who fashioned us in the first place, and the story of salvation is one of God slowly, carefully, painstakingly restoring the image of God that’s been there all along, just waiting to be revealed – and thank God, God loves us enough to restore us and reveal who we were created to be all along.

 

It all starts with God’s Love.  We find our value, our dignity, our worth, not in ourselves, but in God.  For the person who is struggling with feelings of inadequacy or self-doubt, know that you are valuable simply because you are made in God’s image, and as such, you are a person of sacred and inestimable worth.

 

Friends, God doesn’t love us because we are lovable.  God loves us because God is Love.  God doesn’t love us because we are good; God loves us because God is good.  God is Love and we are made in God’s image – we are imbued with God’s attributes of love and creativity, and we most fully live into our purpose when we use that love and creativity to restore others as God has restored us.

 

After all, the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree.  We are made in God’s image; may the family resemblance be unmistakable.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

If God Had a Name, What Would It Be? (1 John 4:7-8)


Dear friends, let’s love each other, because love is from God, and everyone who loves is born from God and knows God. The person who doesn’t love does not know God, because God is love.

 

This afternoon at 3 pm, a worship service will be held in First United Methodist Church in Newton, just this side of Hickory.  It will be the service to celebrate the life of my father, who joined the Church Triumphant on April 15.  In planning the service with Dad’s pastors, as I have done with many of you, there is a challenge in that – to adequately sum up and capture somebody’s life in scripture and song and the few words that will be spoken.  I had the same challenge in writing his obituary, as well as selecting the picture that would accompany his obituary, and the one to be displayed next to his ashes at today’s service.

 

It’s a challenge, but it’s not impossible.  It’s said “a picture is worth a thousand words;” get the picture right, and the whole story will unfold from it.

 

That’s true in the life of faith, as well.  With the right picture constantly in front of us, the rest falls into place. Today, we are beginning a series of messages designed to help us get the picture of God right.  Throughout the month of May, we’ll be focusing on the right picture, and what that picture means as we live out our faith.  The right picture serves as the starting point for our understanding of who God is and how we relate to God, which is why it’s important to take the time to get the picture right.

 

Last week, we set this series up by talking about how the root of a plant determines its fruit.  Remember, we said, Root determines fruit, and using today’s analogy of finding the right picture, the root and the picture both refer to the same thing.  They are both the foundation from which the rest of it stems and grows.

 

So, what’s the root?  What’s the picture?  What’s the foundation? If you remember nothing else from today’s sermon, if you remember nothing else about the Christian faith, remember this: God is Love. 1 John 4:8.  That’s the picture, the foundation, the root, the starting point: God is Love.  Everything else is rooted in that, stems from that, grows from that.  Friends, start with the understanding that God is Love – that’s the picture from which the whole rest of the story unfolds.

 

Why does this matter?  Because there are other images of God that would paint themselves, other roots that would try to take hold.  Some start with an understanding of God as angry, or wrathful.  Some see God as a power-hungry tyrant, an arbitrary despot, a strict judge.  Some view God as an absentee landlord, distant, mysterious, and unapproachable.

 

These pictures of God are like propaganda pieces or political advertisements.  Have you ever noticed, in political attack ads, that they find the worst, most awful picture of the candidate they are attacking?  Weird facial expression, maybe looking tired, grumpy, or aloof. It’s a picture all right, but one intended to cast a person in a less-than-favorable light.

 

We all know what that feels like.  Ever have someone say things about you that weren’t true?  Or misconstrue or misrepresent something you did or said?  Know what that feels like – how frustrating it is?  Imagine how that must be to God, when pictures of God are put forth that make God out to be arbitrary, sadistic, and angry.

 

Indeed, these pictures of God are fairly well-rooted in some places in our culture, and even among some in the Church.  But, they are less-than truthful statements about who God is, and they do more harm in God’s name than they do good.  They are like a smear campaign against God, and they serve to drive people away from God.

 

They’ll say things like, “I just can’t believe in a God who gives people cancer or kills people by causing accidents and natural disasters.  They see a picture of God being painted by self-aggrandizing “Christians” whose message emblazoned on their signs is that God hates this or God hates that.  They say, “I just can’t believe in that.”

 

And neither can I.  Neither should you.  I refuse to believe that God is a jerk: a sadistic, power-hungry, tyrannical, self-aggrandizing monster.  The Bible tells me, Christian tradition tells me, my experience in faith tells me, my intellect tells me that God is Love.  And so, all of the arbitrary, hurtful, awful things just described, I have to ask myself, ‘Does that sound like Love?’ and I answer with a resounding ‘No.’  No, no, a thousand times, NO!

 

God is Love.  John Wesley, in his commentary on this 4th Chapter of 1 John, said, “Love is God’s reigning attribute.”  That means Love is primary.  Love dominates the picture.  With all these false images of God out there vying for primary place, even being rooted and nurtured and cultivated by people of faith, sometimes; friends, we are called to witness to the reality and primacy of God’s love, and to double down our efforts in doing so.

 

Remember, if you get the picture right, then the rest of the story will flow from that.  Our picture is that God is Love.  This is the root from which the rest of it stems and grows.  Remember, root determines fruit.  And if the root is love, the fruit is love.

 

But, perhaps you ask, “What about God’s holiness?  Isn’t God also holy?”, and that’s a great question.  Of course, God is holy, but do we understand what the word, “holy” means?

 

“Holy” is a word that simply means “other.”  “Set apart.”  “Distinct.”  And so, when people of faith have used the term “holy” to describe God, that’s simply a way of saying that God is “other” than human, “distinct” from humanity.  It’s a way to say that God is not exactly the same kind of being as we are, and can you guess what sets God apart from humanity?  It’s Love.  God is “other” because God has the inherent capacity for love in a way we don’t – on our own, we just don’t have that kind of Love within us. 

 

Another way to think of the word “holy” is “perfect.”  And you can think of the word “perfect” in one of two ways, either: 1.) “without flaw” or 2.) “complete.”  The first definition suggest an emptiness, while the second suggests a fullness.  When the Bible talks about perfection, particularly in the New Testament, it’s not talking about flawless purity.  It’s talking about fullness and completeness and wholeness.  Yet, some still want it to mean flawless.  A flawless, picky God is attractive to picky people.  Picky people want a picky God who makes them feel holy to be picky about other people’s shortcomings.  You know, like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, from whom Jesus came to save us from becoming.  Friends, a picky and flawless God is an empty God, and any faith built around notions of flawlessness is just as hollow.

 

God is holy, not because God is flawless, but because God is complete.  Completely full.  Perfectly full. Filled to overflowing with perfect Love, and the Bible says perfect Love casts out fear, and we’ll come back to that before this series is over.

 

But it all starts in Love.  Love is the root from which the rest grows.  Love is the foundation upon which the rest is built.  Love is the primary picture.  There are other pictures available about who God is and how God relates to the world, but they’re distorted images, and they take us to radically distorted places.  That’s why it’s so important to get the picture right.  Get the picture right, and the whole story will unfold from it.

 

Starting with God’s Love doesn’t lessen the reality of human sin and the presence of evil in the world, but it does give us the confidence that God’s primary interest in us is not to fix us, but to relate to us in a loving way.

 

God’s holiness is his perfect love, a love that welcomes sinners rather than shuns them, a love that is sacrificial rather than self-serving, a love that pursues us in order to transform us in, by, and through that same love.  Perfect love is our assurance that God wants the best for us and calls us to treat others with the same benevolence regardless of how flawed they are, which is what the Scripture is getting at when it says, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God.”

 

The way to heaven isn’t about doing right or being right.  Not about doing good and being good.  No, the path to salvation begins in the realization that God is Love, and loves us with an unquenchable love, and that the way to eternal life is to bask in that love, be filled with that love, and radiate that love so it’s shining out of us in every direction.

 

It’s a matter of getting the picture right.  With the right picture constantly in front of us, the rest falls into place.  So, picture this: God is Love.  Full, complete, perfect Love.

 
Friends, if God had a name, that name would be, “Love.”

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Root Determines Fruit (John 15:1-5,9-11)


“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vineyard keeper. He removes any of my branches that don’t produce fruit, and he trims any branch that produces fruit so that it will produce even more fruit. You are already trimmed because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. A branch can’t produce fruit by itself, but must remain in the vine. Likewise, you can’t produce fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, then you will produce much fruit. Without me, you can’t do anything.

 

“As the Father loved me, I too have loved you. Remain in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy will be in you and your joy will be complete.

 

Spring has officially sprung here across the Piedmont of North Carolina.  I don’t know what that means around your house, but around ours, it means the start of garden season.  It’s all about the flowers at our house – a non-stop show of changing color from spring through fall.

 

Now, I enjoy working in the garden, but Ashley, she is the avid gardener in the house.  When we moved here two years ago, we did so in two trips.  The first trip was the furniture and boxes and all that.  The second trip was odds and ends and clothes – and the garden.  We literally moved Ashley’s garden from our home in Davidson – 37 choice and favorite plants to be transplanted to our new digs here – in the middle of summer, mind you!  37 plants in pots lined up in the back of a moving truck – people sometimes ask why we don’t have kids, and I respond, “Do you know how many we already have?”

 

I won’t say we spend a lot at the garden center, but when they see us coming, the manager calls home and tells her husband, “Call the orthodontist – we can afford braces for the kids.”

 

There is something incredibly rewarding about getting your hands in the dirt, planting, watering, feeding, nurturing, and growing.  Indeed, there’s something Biblical about it, too.  The Bible begins in a garden.  It ends in paradise, and the word “paradise” literally translates as “the king’s garden.”  After the crucifixion, Jesus is laid in a garden tomb, and on Easter morning, Mary mistakes him for the gardener, a delightful play-on-words to identify Jesus with “THE gardener,” or “the vineyard keeper,” as Jesus refers to him in today’s reading from the 15th Chapter of John’s Gospel.

 

Every person who works with plants is interested in healthy growth, are they not?  Farmer, gardener, vineyard keeper – all want their plants to flourish and be as healthy as possible.  Right now, Ashley is checking her irises every morning to see how many buds are forming and getting ready to bloom.  She did that on her Lenten roses earlier, next it will be daylilies and roses.  There is a correlation between health and growth – parents look for growth as evidence of the health of their children, and our Heavenly Parent looks for growth as the evidence of our spiritual health.

 

The analogy Jesus uses is about branches connected to a vine – he is the vine and we are the branches – we grow healthy and strong and produce Godly fruit insofar as we are connected to him.  The branch is only as healthy and strong as the vine to which it is connected; likewise, any vine is only as good as the soil it’s planted in.  Before transplanting our garden here, one of the first things we had to do was bring in truckloads of new dirt – rich, black, organic, living dirt.  We’ve discovered that’s the secret to good gardening – good dirt.  Good dirt is foundational; it’s where the plant draws its nourishment and energy, where it derives the essential things it needs to grow and be healthy.

 

It all starts in the soil, because the soil is where the roots are, and root determines fruit.  Say that with me: Root determines fruit.

 

Friends, the soil is so important.  Is the foundation from which the fruit grows.  And if Jesus is the vine and we are the branches, then we are rooted in whatever Jesus is rooted in, his soil is our soil, and his soil is nothing other than the love and grace of God.  Root determines fruit, right?  Say that with me: Root determines fruit.  And if the root is love, then the fruit is love.  Say that with me: If the root is love, then the fruit is love.

 

Friends, the life of faith starts in God’s love and grace.  It doesn’t start with me or you, it doesn’t start with humanity, it starts with God’s love and grace.  Jesus is rooted in that love and grace, he and his teachings are the very embodiment of God’s love and grace, and we who are his followers are branches connected to him, which means God’s love and grace courses within us, until finally, our lives produce the Godly fruit of love and grace, and it all starts at the root, because root determines fruit, and if the root is love, then the fruit is love.

 

You can have the fanciest, most expensive plants in the world, but if you root them in lousy soil, you’ve wasted your time and money.  You’ve heard that saying, “You are what you eat;” true for plants, true for us, both physically and spiritually.  And, lives of faith are to be rooted in the soil of God’s love and grace.  Without that love, Jesus says we can do nothing.  We can have all kinds of fancy church clothes and know a lot of Bible verses and go to Sunday School and serve on committees and sing in the choir and the praise team, but unless we are connected to Christ and rooted in God’s love, then all of that amounts to nothing.

 

1 Corinthians 13 says it this way: If I speak in tongues of human beings and of angels but I don’t have love, I’m a clanging gong or a clashing cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and I know all the mysteries and everything else, and if I have such complete faith that I can move mountains but I don’t have love, I’m nothing. If I give away everything that I have and hand over my own body to feel good about what I’ve done but I don’t have love, I receive no benefit whatsoever.

 

That’s why when you come to church here, the sermon is probably going to tie in God’s love and grace.  That’s the foundation upon which this whole thing is built, the soil in which this whole thing is rooted, because root determines fruit, and in the life of faith, the root and the fruit are always love.  The great theologians, John Lennon and Paul McCartney said, “All you need is love,” and I’d wholeheartedly agree, as would Jesus, as would St. Paul, that love is always primary, and without it, there’s little we can do that’s worth anything.

 

Love is all you need, or at least, it’s the first thing you need.  It’s why every sermon, every Bible study, every Sunday School lesson, even every committee meeting should have God’s love as its focus.  Is that redundant?  Maybe.  But let me ask you this: is it redundant to tell your spouse you love them every time they leave the house?  How about your children or grandchildren when they come to visit or they call you on the phone?  I don’t think so.  The important things, the foundational things in life bear repeating.

 

Ashley has a friend who teaches Kindergarten Sunday School at their church.  Nicole has just started the Sunday School lesson and is reading the Bible story.  And you know, there’s always that kid that like 30 seconds into the story raises his hand.  You know, it’s the kid who already knows everything.  You sorta shush him, like, “C’mon, I’ve got more of the story to tell.”  Another minute in, and his hand shoots up again, and you shush him again, and say, “Not yet.”

 

About the third time he puts his hand up, he’s just beside himself and he’s gonna explode if you don’t call on him.  And so you finally go, “What, Tyler?”  “Uh, Miss Nicole - you’ve already told us this story.”  “Well Tyler, come up here.  Do you know why Miss Nicole tells you this story again and again?” to which Tyler at this point is going, “Mmmm-mmmm.”  “Because, I want it to get from your ears to your head.  And do you know what happens after that, Tyler?”  “Mmmm-mmmm.”  “Cause if it gets to your head, then it can travel to your heart.  And do you know what happens after that, after it gets to your heart?”  “Mmmm-mmmm.”  “Once it gets to your heart, it can move into your gut, and you know what your gut is, Tyler?”  “Mmmm-mmmm.”  “Your gut is your soul, and you know what happens after it travels from your ears to your head to your heart to your soul?  It’ll start shootin’ out your fingers!  And you’ll live the story, not just hear it!  You got that?”  “Mmmm-hmmm.”  “And THAT’s why Miss Nicole tells you the same stories over and over and over again - so it’ll move from your ears to your head to your heart to your gut and start shooting out your fingers, and you’ll live the story and not just hear it.”

 

John Wesley said the character of a Methodist is “one who has the love of God shed abroad in his [or her] heart.”  The love of God shed abroad – sounds like another way of saying, “Shootin’ out your fingers.”  They both sound like a branch connected to the living vine of Christ, rooted in the soil of God’s love.  They both sound like a life rooted in love, whose fruit is love, and God’s story becomes our story.

 

Now, I realize that none of us can make that happen for anyone else.  I can’t make you embrace and live into God’s story.  I can’t change your life and make God’s love start shooting out your fingers.  I can’t make you do anything, but I can encourage you to inspect your fruit, because Jesus said a tree would be known by its fruit.  So, take a look at the fruit your life is producing – your own, not your neighbor’s – and see if looks anything like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  I can point you toward the good soil, again and again, in the hopes that God’s love will be your root, in the hopes that God’s love will be your fruit.

 

So, bear with us if we’ve told you about God’s love before.  Maybe I’m sort of like Miss Nicole - I hope that by telling you again and again about God’s love that it will get in your ears, and into your head, and into your heart, and into your gut, and start shooting out your fingers.  Or, maybe I’m sort of like Tyler - I hope that by hearing it again and again myself, it will get in my ears, and into my head, and into my heart, and into my gut, and start shooting out my fingers.  Bear with us if we’ve told you about God’s love before.  Bear with us as tell it again and again.

 

A life rooted in God’s love will grow the fruit of God’s love, because root determines fruit.  And if the root is love, then the fruit is love.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Easter Sunday: He is Ahead of You! (Mark 16:1-8)


When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they could go and anoint Jesus’ dead body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they came to the tomb. They were saying to each other, “Who’s going to roll the stone away from the entrance for us?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone had been rolled away. (And it was a very large stone!) Going into the tomb, they saw a young man in a white robe seated on the right side; and they were startled. But he said to them, “Don’t be alarmed! You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised. He isn’t here. Look, here’s the place where they laid him. Go, tell his disciples, especially Peter, that he is going ahead of you into Galilee. You will see him there, just as he told you.” Overcome with terror and dread, they fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

 

Did you notice me in that Bible story you all just read a minute ago?  I’m the angel, “the young man in a white robe” who was seated inside the tomb.  I know what you’re thinking – “Hey buddy, you’re not as young as you used to be,” and trust me, I am already well aware of that, thank you.  Or maybe, “You don’t look like an angel to me!” but you’d be surprised how often we’re among you and go unnoticed.  Maybe you’re expecting to see me in a white robe, like in the story, but I’ll bet you don’t wear the same thing every day, do you?  Neither do I.

 

Whatever you think you know about angels, you really don’t know the half of it, until you’ve flown a mile in my wings.  For one thing, the commute is a killer.  You think you rack up the frequent flier miles in your job; I was a million mile member just in my first month, and yet, I never get upgraded to first class!  And then, the clientele I’ve been assigned – people – are just so frustrating to work with.  I’ll tell you, for a species created in the image of God, you humans can be awfully thick-headed and unimaginative, sometimes.  But for some unknown reason to me, God just loves the socks off you people!

 

You see, as an angel, I’ve delivered more messages to humanity that are too numerous to count.  Those messages have all been different variations on the same theme: namely, how much God loves you.  Not just you as individuals, but collectively, all of you, the whole human race, the whole world, in fact.

 

God has been clear about this.  From the very beginning, everything God has done has been motivated by God’s love for all of you.  And each heart-breaking act of humanity only seems to increase God’s resolution to show you the full extent of his love, the wideness of his mercy, the depth of his grace.  Granted, God is the only boss I’ve ever worked for, but I continue to be surprised that no matter what you do, God just keeps right on loving you.  Boy, if that doesn’t tell us who God is!  That sort of unconditional love – well, I guess that’s why God is God and we’re not.  That holy, divine, perfect love – that perfect love that casts out fear and sin and all manner of darkness – has been the driving force behind everything God has ever done, is doing, and will do.

 

Today is Easter Sunday, the day when we remember and celebrate God’s greatest and most complete act of love toward humanity.  I’m talking about Jesus, of course!  The whole story is about Jesus the Christ, isn’t it?  Jesus is the clearest and fullest expression of God’s love for humanity.  At his birth, Jesus was God-in-the-flesh, the love of God with a human face, God’s very presence come to earth.  His life and teaching witnessed to God’s love, as he taught how to grow in love toward God and one’s neighbor, that the kingdom of God might be realized on earth as it is in heaven.

 

In hindsight, I think it’s all that talk about “the kingdom of God” that got him into trouble.  Existing kings didn’t like talk about a new king or a new kingdom.  Existing religious leaders didn’t like talk about a God who was more loving and inclusive than they were.  And so the religious and government leaders formed an alliance against Jesus’ message of God’s radical love and grace for all, and all humanity had Jesus, God’s love with a human face, put to death on a cross.

 

And really, that’s what broke God’s heart more than anything.  Around the office, we thought that might have been the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.  Talk about tension at work!   God didn’t come into the office for three days, and it seemed he had gone silent.  We thought you all had pushed it too far this time – beyond the bounds of God’s love, outside the scope of God’s forgiveness, further than the wideness of God’s mercy, untouchable by the reach of God’s grace.  Humanity killed God’s own Son, for goodness’ sake; no one, not even a God named Love could overlook that, or so we thought.  We sort of thought that was the place God was going to leave you to your own devices – you’d made your bed and God was content to let you lie in it.

 

But, Lord love you and bless your hearts – I mean that literally, by the way – you all are pretty special to God.  All I can say is he must love you an awful lot to put up with the things you do to him, to each other, and even to his Son, because he turned that cross – an emblem of suffering and shame, what should have been an instrument of defeat – into the victory of love and grace over sin and death.  How like God to turn darkness into light, to bring life out of death, to turn mourning into dancing, to transform a symbol of the world’s hate into one of the power of his love.  How like God to take what should be an ending and turn it into a brand new beginning, and to snatch victory out of the jaws of defeat.

 

That first Easter morning, all the company of heaven got the news that Jesus was risen, and I got the assignment to go and wait in the empty tomb for the women to arrive.  I had hoped to maybe run into Jesus as he was leaving, a sort of tag-out at the tomb, but I was too late.  The risen Lord apparently had better things to do than hang around an empty tomb.

 

Now, I’m aware that I have a little bit of a celebrity status with some of my co-workers because of this particular assignment, “wow, you got assigned to the empty tomb!” Yes, it was an important assignment in a crucial and well-publicized part of the story, but truth be told, my role really wasn’t as glamorous as some of them want to believe.  I was basically tomb-sitting, waiting like some sort of executive assistant for the women to arrive so I could say, “Were you looking for Jesus?  Oh, I’m sorry – you just missed him!”

 

The women approached, a set of expectations in their minds about they would find.  They carried exotic spices and oils and perfumes because they expected to find the decaying body of an innocent man, sealed behind a stone.  They were pretty startled to see the stone rolled away, and me sitting there.  Standard reaction, by the way, when you humans see one of us – some combination of surprise and fear.  Angel training 101 is to tell people not to be afraid, which I did.

 

I knew why they were there, and what they expected.  “You’re looking for Jesus of Nazareth, aren’t you?”  They nodded.  “Well, as you can see, he isn’t here.  He’s been raised from the dead.”

 

In hindsight, I probably should have given that a minute or two to sink in.  That’s not really the kind of news people hear every day.  And so, I admit I panicked a bit, and started filling the silence with my own rambling.  “Uhhhh, first time here, is it?  Well then, let me show you around a bit.  You saw the stone on your way in – wasn’t it a big one?  This tomb was originally owned by Joseph of Arimethea, but up until recently, it was occupied by, you guessed it, Jesus of Nazareth.  And right over here, this is where the body was laid.”

 

The women said nothing, and I realized I needed to get back on message.  “Ahem,” I continued.  “Well, again, Jesus isn’t here.  But he asked me to leave word for you that he is going on ahead of you.  I think he mentioned that to you previously, but he’s asked me to remind you of that appointment.  So, bottom line.  Jesus: not here.  Risen from the dead.  Gone on ahead.  Meet him there.”

 

They didn’t say anything.  They didn’t confirm what I had said, didn’t make any indication that they even understood.  In fact, during our entire one-sided conversation, the expressions of fright on their faces never changed as I shared the message.  When I was done talking, they simply fled from the tomb, and I was left wondering if my message had fallen on deaf ears, and if their lack of understanding was somehow going to become a negative mark on my performance evaluation that year.

 

Well, it didn’t.  I still have my job.  Got promoted to middle management, last quarter.  One of the things I’ve come to understand and appreciate about working for God is that when God gives us a message to share, we’re responsible to share it, but don’t have any control over what people do when they receive it.  I can’t make anyone believe anything, and I can’t make anyone do anything.  Thank God, I don’t have to.  Thank God he doesn’t work that way.  God just has us put the good news out there – again, and again, and again – sometimes to the point where we feel like a broken record, but that’s what God wants, so that’s what we do.

 

I didn’t have a lot of luck with the women at the tomb on that first Easter Sunday.  I proclaimed the good news, but they weren’t ready to hear it yet.  They didn’t grasp it.  They didn’t understand it.  No transformation happened – they showed up at the tomb in fear and they left in fear.

 

Now, thankfully, I understand that they did meet up with the risen Christ a little later on – just exactly where he promised he would be.  Thank God Jesus has a way of finding us even when we don’t know where to look for him.  And of course, an encounter with me doesn’t hold a candle to the radiance of actually meeting the resurrected and living Lord, and nor should it, because, this story isn’t really about me – it’s about Jesus.  Thank God that new life can be ours, even when our first encounter with it causes us to run away.

 

I didn’t have a whole lot of luck with the women on that day, so I’m hoping I have better luck with you, today.  You see, I’ve been sent to give you a message.  Now, I hope it doesn’t fall on deaf ears or hard hearts, and I hope you don’t run away screaming.  I hope that the message I share kindles something of faith within you, leading you to trust God more than your own expectations.  I hope all of that happens for you today, but again, I also know I can’t make you experience Easter or believe in the resurrection or embrace the promise of new life in Christ.

 

The message I have for you is the same message I gave to the women, so here goes: the tomb is empty, and Jesus is alive.  He’s got better things to do than hang around an empty tomb.  He’s gone on, he’s out there ahead of you, and if you’ll step out in faith, he’ll be waiting for you, and he’ll meet you there.

 

It’s the same message I’ve been delivering to humanity since my first assignment, the message I’ll continue to deliver until God’s kingdom comes and his will is done on earth as it is in heaven.  It’s a message that God still loves the socks off of you – always has, always will, and nothing you do can change that.  Through the risen Lord, he has opened a way for you to experience new life in him.

 

Friends, don’t take as long as all those Marys – however many of them there actually were, even I don’t have the exact figure – to find your way to the presence of the risen Lord.  Jesus is risen and he’s out there ahead of you.  Live as Easter people.  You’ve got better things to do than to hang around an empty tomb.