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Sunday, November 18, 2012

Walking with God (Galatians 5:25)

If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.

There are three essential rules when it comes to real estate: “Location!  Location!  Location!”  When I found out that I would be appointed to St. Paul, I began to ask around, “What do you know about that church?”  One consistent theme emerged: “That church is hidden back in a neighborhood where nobody can find it.”

I choose to see it differently.  Our location isn’t a liability; it’s an asset.  Don’t think of our campus as being “hidden back in a neighborhood,” rather, think of it as “the center of one of the most dynamic, exciting, diverse, thriving, and desirable neighborhoods in Charlotte.”  We are not hidden in this neighborhood, we are the focal point, the hub, the center of this neighborhood.

One of the things I absolutely love about being the pastor of a neighborhood church is standing on the front steps every Sunday and greeting you all as you leave worship, and watching people disperse back into the neighborhood as they walk home.  How cool is that?  Where else do you get to do that?  Our purpose as a church is clear: we have been put here, in this place, to share God’s love with the people who are so close, they could walk.  May we pray.

Think about walking.  Does anyone here have any experience walking?  What are the some of the reasons that people walk?

Who took advantage of our location and walked to church this morning?  Maybe you didn’t realize it, but when you walked, you did a very spiritual thing.  Walking is integral to what it means to be a follower of Jesus.  For today, I’d like to focus on three reasons that people walk that also have profound implications for our spiritual lives.  1. walking gets us somewhere; 2. walking improves our health; and 3. walking nurtures our relationships.

Walking gets us somewhere
Walking gets us somewhere.  It is perhaps the most basic form of transportation.  Parents rejoice at a child’s first steps, and then retract their joy about a week later because now their child is into everything.  If you can walk, you can get places.  There are other ways of getting around, but if you can walk, that’s as basic and reliable as it gets.

Perhaps you’ve heard the story about the father who was driving his teenage son to school one morning, and started to give his son a hard time for the umpteenth time about his long hair and unkempt appearance.  The dad said, “Son, look at that wild hair of yours - you really should go get a haircut.  And why are you wearing those ratty old flip flops?!?  It’s the middle of November!  And would it kill you to shave once in awhile?”  The son had finally had enough, and he said, “You know who else had long hair, Dad?  Jesus!  You know who else had a beard?  Jesus!  You know who else wore sandals all the time?  Jesus!”  They drove on in silence for a few more minutes.  They reached the school, and the car didn’t even slow down.  Instead, the father drove for another mile before finally pulling over.  He opened the door and said, “Have it your way, smart guy - Jesus also walked everywhere he went.  Go, and do thou likewise.”

If you read the Gospels, you’ll notice that Jesus and his disciples did a lot of walking.  It is no coincidence, therefore, that many of the images and metaphors used to describe Christianity suggest movement.  We are followers of Jesus - that means he must be going somewhere and we’re trying to stay up with him.  The very language we use reminds us that Christianity is a faith on the go, and we are a people on the move.

On the Christian journey, where we are going is less important than how we’re getting there.  Jesus doesn’t ask us to have the whole trip mapped out and know each and every stop along the way.  Rather, he calls us to follow him and walk with him one step at a time.  That’s what the life of faith looks like - it’s trusting God enough to simply take the next step.  We walk by faith in the One who knows the way far better than we do.  Praise Team - musical response: “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.”

Walking is good for our health
A second benefit to walking is improving our health.  The benefits of walking are well-known.  According to the Mayo Clinic, moderate walking for as little as 15 minutes 3 times per week has positive health benefits, including weight loss, stress reduction, reducing risk for or better managing type-2 diabetes, lowering total cholesterol, and improvement in mood.

Likewise, walking with God is good for our spiritual health.  Following Jesus and walking according to the leading of the Holy Spirit helps us develop Christlike character, grow in our love of God and neighbor, be quick to listen and slow to speak, forgive others as we ourselves have been forgiven, be generous, positive, and joyful.

Walking with God helps us to become a little more like God each day.  The closer we get, the more of God’s character rubs off on us.  When I was a kid, my mom used to say that she was able to tell how my day had been by doing my laundry.  The grass stains and grease stains on my pants, the things she pulled out of my pockets, the wet paint on the bottom of my shoes - all of that told her where I had walked that day.

When we walk with God, it shows in the same way.  Perhaps you’ve heard it said that someone doesn’t just talk the talk, they walk the walk.  When we say this about someone, it’s a way of saying that person is the real deal.  They are a person of integrity - they way they live is consistent with who they claim to be.

When we walk with God, it shows.  My hope for each of us is that when people look through our pockets and at the bottoms of our shoes and the worn-out places on our knees, the evidence will be written all over us that we have been walking with God.

Walking builds relationship
A third benefit from walking is the building of companionship and relationship between people.  Friends, we live in a very distracted world.  Walking is a way to put all of those distractions aside and give our full attention to the person who is right beside us.  Walking with someone helps me listen more closely and more carefully to them.

When Ashley and I take a walk, I put my cell phone away and don’t look at it - no facebook, no email, no texting - it’s a way to say, “I am fully present with you in this moment.  You are the most important person I have to interact with right now.  Everything else, everyone else can wait.”

Walking with another person is something of a spiritual practice - tuning out all the other distractions and giving each other the gift of being fully and completely present with the other person in that moment.  Even moreso than an ordinary walk, when we are making our journey of faith with others – that is a spiritual practice.  When we are intentionally seeking to follow Jesus, to pattern our lives on his, to be filled with the Holy Spirit, to grow closer to God and trust God - we do all of that keenly aware of others who are also making the same journey with us.

None of us walks the road alone with Jesus.  Looking around opens our eyes to the reality that there are other travelers also on the journey - brothers and sisters making their pilgrimage - ahead of us and behind us, to our left and to our right, a great cloud of witnesses too numerous to count.

What good news it is that we don’t walk alone!  Those fellow travelers are not competition; they’re companions.  Those fellow travelers are a blessing to us as we walk along, and we are called to be a blessing to their walk.  Praise Team - musical response: “The Servant Song (vv. 2,4)

Covered in the dust of your Master
One last thing I want to say about walking and the implications it has for our spiritual lives.  In the time of Jesus, when people walked everywhere on dry and dusty roads, you can imagine the dust that could be kicked up.  It was a mess.  There is an old Jewish blessing often said to the students of a rabbi: “May you follow your Master so closely, you are covered with the dust of his feet.”  In other words, may your life closely and completely follow what your Master teaches you that you walk in the same way, and order your steps according to his.  May you follow your Master so closely, you are covered with the dust of his feet.
Here’s what I want us to consider: when it comes to our Master, how closely and completely are we willing to follow?  When it comes to following the Jesus who walked through the dirty places of a broken world in order to bring it healing and wholeness, are we covered with the dust of those same dirty places, or are our lives still a little too clean?

So, are we following Jesus completely and closely?  Or are we following partially, and at a distance?  Following at a distance is a great rule in traffic; it’s a horrible rule for a disciple.

The Christian life is a journey.  Walk close enough to Jesus to get his beautiful dust on you.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? (Revelation 21:1-6a)

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 I heard a loud voice from the throne say, “ Look! God’s dwelling is here with humankind. He will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples. God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more. There will be no mourning, crying, or pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. ” 5 Then the one seated on the throne said, “ Look! I’m making all things new. ” He also said, “ Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true. ” 6 Then he said to me, “ All is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.

It has been said that we sing our theology.  What we sing with our lips, we believe in our hearts, and what we believe in our hearts, we show forth in our lives.  We just finished singing:

“Yet we on earth have union with God the Three in One,
and mystic sweet communion with those whose rest is won.
O happy ones and holy!  Lord, give us grace that we
like them, the meek and lowly, on high may dwell with thee.”

Friends, we sing it because we believe it, and on this All Saints’ Sunday, our belief in this promise from God is a source of deep hope, peace, and comfort.  Today, we celebrate the lives of the saints, those who have finished their course in faith, and now rest from their labors.  We celebrate their place in the Church Triumphant, among that great cloud of witnesses too great for any of us to number. In just a little bit, we will light these candles you see before you as a way to remember and honor the saints who have gone on ahead of us, a powerful proclamation that the light of those who die in the Lord burns on.  Their light still shines like so many twinkling stars in the heavens, a reminder that their witness still burns bright, and our communion with them is still in tact.

On a day like today, while we look back at their lives and remember what has been, we also look forward to the promise of what will be.  The promise is heaven: the kingdom of God, the holy city, the dwelling place of God, the place of perpetual fellowship with God and one another: described for us in the 21st Chapter of the book of Revelation, beginning with the 1st verse:

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth.  I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.  I heard a loud voice from the throne say, ‘Look! God’s dwelling is here with humankind.  He will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples.  God himself will be with them as their God.  He will wipe away every tear from their eyes.  Death will be no more.  There will be no mourning, crying, or pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’”

What a beautiful vision.  What a hope-filled promise, especially knowing that our loved ones who have died in the Lord are already there, fulfilling the chief end of humankind, to glorify God and enjoy God forever.  A day is coming when we will join them and find our communion with them renewed.  But that reunion is not so far off into the future as we might think.

You see, the highway to heaven doesn’t run in only one direction.  It’s a two-way street.  It’s not only that we go to heaven; as we’ve seen in this vision from Revelation, heaven more often comes to us. 

It has been said that wherever the presence of God is found, that is heaven.  You’ve heard the saying, “Home is where the heart is.”  In the same way, heaven is where God is; and we know that God is anywhere and everywhere.  God - whose grace is boundless, whose mercy is matchless, whose love is from everlasting to everlasting - draws near to us all the time.  “I heard a loud voice from the throne say, ‘Look!  God’s dwelling is here with humankind.’”  That’s what the Scriptures tell us.  Sometimes we go to heaven, and often heaven comes to us.  Heaven is not so much just one place we commune with God, but every place God communes with us.

And not only God, but also those who are already in the nearer presence of God.  Neither the saints we remember nor the God who binds us together are distant, remote, or inaccessible.  They are right here among us.  Heaven isn’t far away; it is right here!  The great cloud of witnesses, all the hosts of heaven are right beside us, closer to us now, even than they’ve ever been before, because heaven has come to us - God’s abiding presence is here with us.

God prefers to be among the people.  Always has, always will.  And it is the presence of God in our lives that makes all the difference.  The vision of heaven continues in verse 5: “Then the one seated on the throne said, ‘Look, I’m making all things new.’”  This is a promise to us.  God is making all things new.  Here’s the key of the whole thing: those whom we celebrate on this day as saints above were first saints on earth, and the thing that made them saints in the first place was the reality that God was making something new within their hearts.

Saints experience the holy presence of God as a transforming influence in their lives.  Saints are those who are being made new - those who are being transformed more into the image of a loving God with each passing day.  Such openness to the transforming grace of God is the only prerequisite for sainthood.  What makes a saint is not some special virtue or accumulated holiness or perfection.  A saint isn’t someone who has arrived, no, a saint is someone who knows that they are a work in progress, but thanks be to God, God isn’t finished with them yet.
Friends, it is this transformation, this being made new that God does within us, that makes a saint.  Today, on this All Saints’ Sunday, God calls us again to be clay in the hands of the potter, to enable God’s holy presence in our midst to continue to shape our lives and our faith as his saints here on earth.

In order to be shaped by that holy presence, we come often to the places where that holy presence is promised and experienced.  We come to the places where grace is made real in our lives, and one of the places where God has explicitly promised to come to us is in the meal of Holy Communion.  In Communion grace is offered, the presence of the risen Christ is experienced, and we look forward to the heavenly banquet that awaits us.  And sure enough, all the company of heaven joins us at the table.  Their presence is as real as the bread in our hands, so when you come to the table today, know that the saints above are having communion with the saints on earth.

Maybe you’re wondering if you’ll get into heaven when you die.  Learn from the saints; let heaven get into you while you live.