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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Winter Weather in the South

"What, they cancelled school for that?"

"Why is everyone panicking?"

"It's just a little snow, and not even that much, and you'd think the world was about to end!"

"Once they've bought all the bread and milk, what are they going to DO with it, anyway?"

So goes the litany from my Northern friends when we have a "winter weather event" in the South.  Confession: I used to be one of the people saying those things.  I grew up in Western New York.  You know, the Buffalo area.  Grew up sliding all over town in my Dad's Ford LTD (light blue with the dark blue vinyl top) and my Mom's Olds Delta 88 (black on black with a red velour interior).  Went to college in Rochester.  I know something about cold and snowy weather!

I've been in North Carolina 11 1/2 years now.  Married a native.  Not leaving.

For the first couple years I was here, I, too, laughed at the Southern panic surrounding snow.  If Buffalo shut down every time it snowed, nothing would happen from October to April.

Now I've been here awhile, and I've come to understand a few things, which may help my Northern friends understand the reaction around snow in my new Southern home.

One, winter weather is a rare occurrence, not a recurring one.  It means that a much smaller percentage of our public works budget goes to snow removal down here than yours does.  We don't have fleets of snowplows and salt trucks.  No huge city barns filled with salt.

Two, southern snow is different than northern snow.  A lot of times, our snow events happen somewhere near freezing, meaning that we get a lot of sleet, freezing rain, and ice mixed in.  I can drive in snow with the best of them.  Not much I can do on ice!

Three, and for that matter, though I know what I'm doing on a winter road, I can't guarantee that the person behind, beside, in front of, or in the oncoming lane does.  Remember, it's a rare occurrence - they're not used to it!  I'd rather not share the road with that level of unpredictability in the mix.

Four, many times cold winter weather comes on the heels of warmer weather.  Yesterday, it snowed.  The day before, it was in the 60s.  So, relatively warm road, still. Snow falls on it.  Melts.  Temperatures continue to fall. Melted snow turns to ice.  No salt trucks.  Bad roads.

Five, many of our school systems are county-wide.  There are often very different weather patterns from one side of the county to the other, or conditions that are quite different in remote or outlying areas than "in town."  Sometimes, we call school off for a day when we don't end up having any snow.  Sounds embarrassing, right?  But when it comes to the safety of other people's children, I think it's better to err on the side of caution.

When I lived in Boone, North Carolina, up in the mountains, I asked the superintendent of schools about what it was like to make the call to cancel school a full day ahead of time, and whether it was embarrassing to have a snow day when it ended up being in the 40s and sunny.

The response was telling: "We always err on the side of caution.  Sure that means that sometimes we miss it, and have a snow day on a day we could have still had school.  But, it means we also don't have school on a day when we shouldn't.  Things may be fine in town, but out in the western part of the county - on shaded, windy, mountain roads - who knows?  I would rather be the superintendent who decided to close schools on a day when everything was fine and be ridiculed for that, than the one who decided to keep schools open and have a schoolbus full of other people's kids go careening off the side of a mountain somewhere in the county.  I'll make that call every time."

Six, we have a lot of big cities down here.  That means people.  And traffic.  You saw what happened in Atlanta yesterday - how the whole city shut down - gridlock, abandoned cars, shut down highways, people spending the night in their cars, schools, churches, and the homes of strangers.

Think about that, combined with the other factors we've already mentioned.  Little equipment to remove snow and ice.  Not just snow, but usually ice.  Quick glazing once it hits the road.  Everybody on the road at the same time, trying to get home/pick up the kids/whatever.  What little snow removal equipment there is - stuck in traffic just like everyone else.  The whole place turns into a big skating rink, and no one can go anywhere.

I know, from your vantage point, it looks ridiculous.  An unnecessary panic.  A poorly-managed response. Simply know that the situation is different down here, as are the preparedness and resources of both government and the population.

I know you're driving 70 down the Kensington Expressway in whiteout conditions, a cup of coffee in one hand, while you reach out and slap the windshield wiper with the other, honking for everyone to get out of your way because you're going to be late for the Sabres game, having a good laugh at how 1/4 of snow can bring the south to its knees.

It used to give me a chuckle, as well.

Just know it's different here.

When March gets here and you're still shoveling, come on down for a weeklong visit, and bring your shorts.  We promise not to make fun of your pasty white legs.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Character of Christ: Room for Outsiders (Matthew 9:9-13)

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As Jesus continued on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at a kiosk for collecting taxes. He said to him, “Follow me,” and he got up and followed him. 10 As Jesus sat down to eat in Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners joined Jesus and his disciples at the table.
11 But when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
12 When Jesus heard it, he said, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor, but sick people do. 13 Go and learn what this means: I want mercy and not sacrifice. I didn’t come to call righteous people, but sinners.”

Jesus was sitting in an airport, reading a newspaper waiting for his flight.   From across the terminal, a man had been staring at him for about half an hour, and finally got up and walked over to him, and said, “Excuse me, but you really look like someone famous.”  Jesus, used to getting this question, just smiled, and said, “Who do you think I look like?”  “Well, I’d swear you’re a dead ringer for Jesus Christ.”

Jesus laughed and said, “And what if I told you that I AM Jesus?”  The man was clearly excited, began jumping up and down like a teenage girl at a Justin Beiber concert – before he kept getting arrested – and said, “Oh my goodness, I can’t believe it’s you!  I admire you so much, and your teachings have been such an inspiration to me!”

Jesus said, “Really – which ones?”  The man stared at him blankly for several seconds, and finally said, “Well, you know, ALL of them!  How could I possibly choose a favorite, I mean, they’re ALL GOOD!”

Jesus picked his newspaper back up and said, “Hey, look – it was really nice meeting you.  But I’ve already got more than enough fans; I’m more interested in followers.”

We are in a series of messages on “The Character of Christ.”  We’re taking a good look at who Jesus is and what he is about, studying his character and then living out aspects of his character ourselves, so that we do not simply admire Jesus, but are able to follow him.  May we pray.

There is a line as old as humanity itself.  It is a line of separation, a boundary line, a line that marks the difference between in and out, good and bad, acceptable and non-acceptable.  I’m not sure what it is about human nature that compels us to separate people into categories of greater than and less than, yet we do.  We see the evidence of this line throughout society – the right side of the tracks and the wrong side of the tracks, the right side of town and the wrong side.  The line is a divider, separating communities and splitting families, ultimately placing people on one side or the other – either “in” or “out.”

An interesting phenomenon that I’ve noticed is that the line-drawers of history always draw the line in such a way that they are on the right side of it.  No one ever sets the boundary in such a way that they find themselves on the outside.  Interesting, isn’t it?

Now, somewhere, along comes religion – our systems of belief and of God and how we relate to God – religion should be the great equalizer, the thing that levels the playing field, right?  And yet, religion only seemed to make the problem worse, because not only were people drawing that separating line, but now they felt like they had God on their side!  Who can argue with that?

By the time Jesus came along, the dividing lines were so clearly drawn that they had practically calcified into permanent place.  There was a religious elite, a ruling class of priests and scholars and Pharisees, who drew sharp lines that placed a select few within God’s favor, but pretty much everyone else was left out.

One of these left out people was Matthew, the tax collector, who we’ve read about today.  Tax collectors were some of the most hated people in society then, and I think they still are, today.  We have a rule that, when we’re on vacation, we don’t tell people what we do for a living because it really changes the way they treat us.  One year, we met a nice British couple at our hotel and they asked, “So what do you do for a living, and we gave them our standard response: “We’re sorry, but we don’t talk about our work on vacation,” and they said, “Oh I see – are you a tax man?”  Even now, who wants to hang out with a tax collector?

From an early age, we were told to choose our friends wisely, and warned about falling in with the wrong crowd.  One is known by the company one keeps.  Like it or not, our friendships are a reflection on us, and an indicator of our character. 

Like Jesus.  When it came to selecting his friends, Jesus Christ, the perfect Son of God, fully human, fully divine, the embodiment of God’s love and holiness come to earth – Jesus Christ surrounded himself with perfect, upstanding, respectable, decent, moral people, right?  The upper crust of society, those on the inside track, the movers and shakers of his day – those are the people chose as his friends, right?

No?  Then, who did Jesus hang out with?  According to today’s Scripture from the 9th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus Christ – the perfect, unblemished Son of God – chose to hang out with tax collectors and sinners.  Can you believe it?  A nice boy like Jesus, among the outcast rabble of his day.  The sharp tongues of the religious folks couldn’t wait to spread this juicy piece of gossip –
“Jesus is a friend to sinners.”

That word – “sinner” – can you feel the judgmental sting in that word?  I can’t think of an instance where that word is used and intended as a compliment.  Too often, it’s a word used by religious folks to label those on the wrong side of the line.

The Pharisees fancied themselves the consummate religious insiders.  The Pharisees were the ones with the impressive religious resumes and the ones who should, by all rights, have been on the inside track with God.  Yet Jesus brushes right past all of them and walks up to the tax collector’s booth, and he says to Matthew, the outsider, “How about you – yes, you – come, and follow me.”

And then Jesus invited him to his table, to his companionship, to his friendship -- even to his vocation, to come with him as a disciple. Jesus embraced someone seen as untouchable, and in doing that, he showed that oddly enough, the purity of God's people is best protected not by shunning the unclean, but by embracing them. God's perfection is shown most fully in the extravagant embrace of flawed people and the end of all scorekeeping.

You see, the arms of God’s love are open wide because they are attached to a very specific person – Jesus.  The thing I both love and that drives me nuts about Jesus is that his arms are usually open wider than mine, that his embrace includes more people than I want to.  When I am tempted to draw that line between insiders and outsiders, the inclusive reach of Jesus just won’t let me get away with it.  You gotta watch Jesus, he’s tricky like that.

To those who fancied themselves insiders, Jesus reminded them that the well have no need of a doctor, but the sick.  Yet, when it comes to sinners, Jesus doesn’t offer them treatment or therapy, he offers them friendship and companionship.

The religious folks were so busy casting judgment on outsiders, labeling them as “sinners,” that they didn’t have an opportunity to deal with their own sin.  I’ve often thought that church should be more like an AA meeting – “Hello, my name is so-and-so and I’m a sinner.”  Reality is that we are ALL sinners, each and every one of us, and that’s okay, because Jesus doesn’t call perfect people, he calls sinners.

Jesus even eats with sinners.  What’s the big deal about eating together? Well, let me tell you a story.  Perhaps you’ve seen this famous picture: after several days of negotiations, US President Bill Clinton, Israeli premier Yhitzak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, smiled and shook hands for this photo op.  Many Western journalists lauded this as a breakthrough in Israeli-Palestinian relations, even the look on President Clinton’s face seems to say, “All right, now this is more like it.”

What wasn’t reported was that after this photo op, President Clinton invited both men to lunch, and both politely refused.  Whereas in Western culture a handshake is a big deal signifying agreement, it doesn’t mean that, everywhere.  In Middle Eastern culture, sharing a meal together, now that’s a big deal, signifying unity and togetherness, friendship and deep-meaningful relationship, and neither was ready for that.

Sharing a meal together is a big deal, and Jesus eats with sinners.

The broken dividing lines of the world are what wants to separate the saints from the sinners, to draw a distinction between the insiders and the outsiders, but not Jesus.  Jesus is more interested in where you’re going than where you’ve been.

When it comes to God’s community of redeemed sinners we happen to call church, anything we can do to break down barriers between insiders and outsiders is a good thing to do, because as far as Jesus is concerned, there is no distinction.  There are no insiders and outsiders, there are only children of God.

I do wish more churches would embrace that philosophy.  As a pastor, I have visited a lot of churches, and every church I’ve ever encountered describes themselves as a “friendly church,” – and many of them are not.  They are friendly in the same way your family dog is friendly: they are affectionate toward members of the family, but they tend to bark at strangers.

But I guarantee you, everyone of them says, “We’re such a friendly church.”  I asked one lady, “Tell me about your church,” and she said, “Oh, we’re a very loving and accepting church,” and then I found out that she was that church’s meanest and most hate-filled member and was personally responsible for having run off a dozen families from that church!  Churches will say, “We’re open to new folks,” but the unspoken part of that sentence is, “so long as they are pretty much  like us – as long as they look like us, act like us, talk like us, think like us – but yeah, we’re open to new people!”

I know of one couple in a church, delightful, Christlike people, the kind of people you want in your church.  They had tremendous gifts and evidence of God’s grace in their lives, but when asked why they weren’t more involved in leadership, they said, “Well, we’re new here.”  “Oh, how long have you been members at this church?”  “20 years.”

To me, that sounds like a church that needs to learn something from Jesus about breaking down the barriers between insiders and outsiders.

I hear stories like that, and I say, “Thank God I am the pastor of THIS church!”  I can’t tell you how proud I am of the beautiful patchwork of God’s children called Morehead Church.  I love that our church includes folks who have been here forever and folks who are relatively new, those who grew up down the road and those who “ain’t from around here,” how you embrace and celebrate the wonderfully diverse gifts of so many different people.  Do you know how rare that is?

It’s a gift that comes from spending a lot of time walking close to Jesus.  Jesus makes no distinction between insiders and outsiders, he only sees children of God.

If you’re here this morning and you’ve spent any length of time feeling like an outsider, let me simply say that you are welcome here.  You are not an outsider, you are a precious and beloved child of God.

Take the next few moments to reflect on that, to pray, to give thanks, to jot down a few names of someone on the outside who simply needs to know that they matter to God, and they matter to you.  Use the next few moments for whatever you and God need to do together.  (Show video: )

There are no strangers.  There are no outcasts.  There are no orphans of God.  There are no insiders or outsiders, only precious and beloved children of God.  No matter who you are, no matter what you’ve done, and no matter where you’ve been, know this: you are God’s beloved and precious child.  No one can take that away from you.  Jesus has room for you, and we do too.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Character of Christ: Options for the Oppressed (Luke 4:14-20)

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14 Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and news about him spread throughout the whole countryside.15 He taught in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.
16 Jesus went to Nazareth, where he had been raised. On the Sabbath he went to the synagogue as he normally did and stood up to read. 17 The synagogue assistant gave him the scroll from the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
18 The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,
    to proclaim release to the prisoners
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
    to liberate the oppressed,
19     and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
20 He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the synagogue assistant, and sat down. Every eye in the synagogue was fixed on him.

At the risk of showing my age, when I was 11 years old, this commercial hit the airwaves, and it launched one of the most successful ad campaigns of the decade (Show “Be Like Mike” commercial:

If you’re like me, you’re going to be singing that jingle for the rest of the day – you’re welcome!  This ad campaign worked, in part, because it was so simple.  Who was the celebrity athlete in them?  How can you be like him?  Simple.  Memorable.  Effective.

Now, can drinking Gatorade really make us a great basketball player like Michael Jordan?  Maybe – I suppose anything is possible – but I’ll speak for myself here, anyway, and say probably not.  But, what if you set your sights even higher, on becoming like Jesus?  Being a Christian means becoming like Jesus.  Or, as long as you’re going to be singing the song all afternoon anyway, think, “Like Jesus – if I could be like Jesus.”

With that goal in mind, today’s messages continues looking at “The Character of Christ.”  We are looking at various aspects of the character of Jesus Christ to gain a clearer picture of who Jesus was, and what he’s about, so that we can become like him.  This week’s character trait is that Jesus, and his followers, create options for the oppressed.  May we pray.

In today’s Scripture from the 4th chapter of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has returned to preach in his hometown.  He is just beginning to gain some notoriety and recognition for his teaching and healing, and on the Sabbath day, as was his custom, Jesus goes to worship.

Perhaps it was Homecoming Saturday in the little synagogue at Nazareth, and maybe his name would put their little town on the map.  You see, Nazareth was so small and so isolated that when you mentioned to outsiders, they simply said, “And what’s that near?”  Because of its isolation, there was a certain way things were done in Nazareth.  A common phrase heard around town was, “Because that’s the way we’ve ALWAYS done it!”  To say that the folks in Nazareth were resistant to change or new ideas would be an understatement, because it wasn’t very often that they were even exposed to new ideas!

Meanwhile, Jesus has been away for awhile – down to Judea, baptized in the Jordan River, tempted in the wilderness where he has spent forty days fasting and praying.  Those days of prayer are, for Jesus, a time to prepare and become clear about his life’s mission.  He is learning and experiencing God’s will for his life, and, filled with the Holy Spirit, he returns to Nazareth to share the new and exciting things he’s discovered with the hometown crowd.

You know the saying that you can’t go home again?  That’s especially true if you’ve been filled with the Holy Spirit, and the folks at home haven’t!  Jesus’ sermon starts well and good – a beloved, familiar, passage from the prophet Isaiah – but if you read on beyond what we’ve read for today, you’ll find that hometown crowd turned hostile – driving Jesus to the edge of town with the intent of throwing him over the cliff – that’s the strongest response to a sermon I’ve ever seen!

So what did Jesus say?
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,
    to proclaim release to the prisoners
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
    to liberate the oppressed,
and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

It’s not hard to see that these would be encouraging and comforting words if you are one of the poor, are in prison, blind, or suffering from oppression.  At the same time, these would be very uncomfortable words for those who are wealthy, privileged, and influential, because they suggest that God is on the side of the little guy.  God is found not among the ruling elite, but along the margins of society, among those who suffer injustice and oppression.

Systems of oppression thrive on separating people into categories of greater than and less than, viewing people as right or wrong, good or bad, in or out.  The ugly truth in reaching the top of the pile is that, sometimes, you have to climb over a whole lot of other people to get there.

The Greek word that we translate as “oppressed” means “broken to bits” or “having been crushed.”  Let’s not forget – we’re talking about people here – people who have been broken to bits or crushed by the pressures of society.  I equate it something to like what happens in a cereal box – I grew up in a large family and was often not the first one to breakfast in the morning, and was often greeted with a bowl full of broken, crushed, Cap’n Crunch “grizzle” – that pulverized stuff at the bottom of the box that nobody else wanted.

Think of that cereal box as a representation of society.  At the top of the box – beautiful, whole cereal pieces fit for a commercial, society’s upper echelon – but those pristine pieces were weighing down on the rest, so heavily that the pieces at the bottom couldn’t stand up under all that collective weight and were crushed.

Then, along comes Jesus, with a particular care and concern for the broken and crushed pieces at the bottom of the box.  Who wants all that grizzle?  It’s not good for anything, and so many people don’t even eat it – they actually just throw it away!  Except for Jesus, with his care for the least, last, and lost, and how they ultimately have a place in God’s kingdom.

The kingdom of God has often been called an “upside-down kingdom,” meaning that’s God’s values and priorities are a complete reversal of those of the world.  Jesus’ sermon in his hometown of Nazareth is his first public sermon, in which he proclaims that the time of God's kingdom is now, and announces that his life’s work will be about that kingdom.

Sure enough, as we read through the Gospel of Luke, Jesus lives out this mission, championing the dignity of the least, last, and lost of his society, going to life’s periphery and inviting everyone at the margins into the center of God’s love and God’s plan for humanity.  The rest of Luke’s Gospel is the story of Jesus’ love and compassion for those without power, without status, without dignity, without a voice and without hope, and the extreme lengths to which he would go, ultimately giving his own life, to secure a spot at the table for all God’s children.

Isn't this the simple truth that stands at the heart of the gospel—that God's love is for everyone—not the privileged few?  Yes, Jesus’ central message was about God’s love for everyone, but it’s when he started to speak to the specifics of what that love looks like on the ground – including this social upheaval of the world’s power structures – that got him killed.  The ruling elite of his day were threatened by him; Jesus’ words represented a threat to everything they had worked for, everything they had built their life upon.  What, you don’t think they executed Jesus for saying, “Love one another,” do you?  Jesus was crucified because he spoke God’s truth to people in power.

Like those privileged few in Jesus’ day, we can end up impoverished by our lack of vision, captive to behaviors that demean and devalue other people, and blinded by attitudes that folks of different color or culture or gender or political persuasion are less than children of the living God and don't deserve to be treated as brothers and sisters in Christ.

We must not climb over all of those other people – weigh them down, crush them, or break them to bits, because they, too, are created in God’s image every bit as much as we are, imbued with a certain sacred worth simply as fellow members of the human family.  Other people are never a means to an end, other people are a sacred end in and of themselves. 

Sometimes we find ourselves at the top of the pile simply by circumstance.  For example, I am a white, North American male.  I have had access to education and healthcare my entire life.  I am free to live my life as I please without fear of persecution, punishment, or death.  In our society, I am a person of extensive privilege, and not even because of anything I have done.

The difficulty of this teaching of Jesus is that, especially on a global scale, most of us would fall into that privileged category.  We are the pieces of cereal toward the top of the box, which means there are folks beneath us we may be crushing, without even knowing it.  We’re not bad people, we don’t have an oppressive spirit, it’s simply that every time we go to the store, we make economic choices that, inadvertently add to the burden of people who are already at the bottom.  We purchase that shirt or electronic device without giving any thought to the working conditions of the people who made it, we buy coffee that’s inexpensive rather than paying a little more for the free-trade stuff.  It’s not intentional; we simply don’t realize that every time we do that, it adds a little more weight to an already top-heavy system, and the result is that someone, somewhere, is crushed.

If you listen to enough talk radio or watch enough cable news, you’ll hear a lot of folks who are concerned that “we’ve lost our way as a nation,” or that “we’ve fallen out of God’s favor,” and maybe that’s true – I certainly don’t know, I’m not God, so that’s not my call to make.  What I do know, however, is that for Jesus, upon whom the Spirit of the sovereign Lord rested, there is a direct correlation between “the year of the Lord’s favor” and how we treat the most vulnerable members of our society.  God is very interested in how those at the top of the box are either adding to or lifting the burden on those at the bottom.  Let's not burden and crush and break those who are already the most vulnerable and weakest.

Abraham Lincoln said, “A man never stands as tall as when he stoops to help another.”  As a follower of Jesus, I am reminded that with great privilege comes great responsibility, and that I am called to use what I have in the service of others. 

There is, of course, the temptation to ask, “Why should I?  What have they done to deserve my help?”  Thank God Jesus didn’t ask that question on his way to the cross.  We have all benefited from help we didn’t deserve, a gift we didn’t earn, liberation from the oppressive powers of sin and death.  It’s called grace – and it’s something we have received, and something we can pass on.

Jesus used all the resources of heaven and earth to liberate and reconcile the whole world; is it asking too much for his followers to do the same?  To employ our voice for those forced into silence, to use our power on behalf of the powerless, to work for liberation of those held captive by powers and principalities beyond their control, to hold out a light for those groping in darkness, and to refuse to endorse injustice and oppression – even when we may personally benefit from it?

Jesus returned to his hometown to set out a vision of God’s peaceable upside-down kingdom.  That vision is not out there, off in some distant future somewhere – Jesus said it's fulfilled today.  It’s right here, waiting to be realized within each of us.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Character of Christ: Service Above Self (Romans 12:1-17)

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So, brothers and sisters, because of God’s mercies, I encourage you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice that is holy and pleasing to God. This is your appropriate priestly service. Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is—what is good and pleasing and mature.

Because of the grace that God gave me, I can say to each one of you:
don’t think of yourself more highly than you ought to think. Instead, be reasonable since God has measured out a portion of faith to each one of you. We have many parts in one body, but the parts don’t all have the same function. In the same way, though there are many of us, we are one body in Christ, and individually we belong to each other. We have different gifts that are consistent with God’s grace that has been given to us. If your gift is prophecy, you should prophesy in proportion to your faith. If your gift is service, devote yourself to serving. If your gift is teaching, devote yourself to teaching. If your gift is encouragement, devote yourself to encouraging. The one giving should do it with no strings attached. The leader should lead with passion. The one showing mercy should be cheerful.
Love should be shown without pretending. Hate evil, and hold on to what is good. 10 Love each other like the members of your family. Be the best at showing honor to each other. 11 Don’t hesitate to be enthusiastic—be on fire in the Spirit as you serve the Lord! 12 Be happy in your hope, stand your ground when you’re in trouble, and devote yourselves to prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of God’s people, and welcome strangers into your home. 14 Bless people who harass you—bless and don’t curse them. 15 Be happy with those who are happy, and cry with those who are crying. 16 Consider everyone as equal, and don’t think that you’re better than anyone else. Instead, associate with people who have no status. Don’t think that you’re so smart. 17 Don’t pay back anyone for their evil actions with evil actions, but show respect for what everyone else believes is good.

I grew up in a puzzling family – puzzling in the sense that both my immediate and extended family enjoy putting together a puzzle.  Our game closet at home had several shelves just devoted to puzzles, from the four-piece cutouts with handles we all put together as small children, to 2000 piece monstrosities that had everyone scratching their heads.  There was something of a rite of passage to be invited to sit with the adults and work one of those complicated puzzles.

On its own, each puzzle piece doesn’t look like much, but when it’s put together with the others, a beautiful picture slowly emerges that is both bigger and more comprehensive than any one puzzle piece on its own.

I find that to be true in the life of faith, as well.  Today, we are beginning a series of messages called “The Character of Christ,” and for the next 8 Sundays, we will be looking at various aspects of the character of Jesus Christ – who was he?  What was he about?  What does that mean for us?  Over the next several weeks, as we examine these aspects one-by-one, a comprehensive picture of Jesus will emerge.  May we pray.

Why does our picture of Jesus matter?
The picture we have of Jesus is important for a few reasons.  First – and perhaps this is stating the obvious – we are a church!  One founded on following the teachings and person of Jesus!  This is a place where we are trying to get to know Jesus better ourselves, and introduce those around us to Jesus.  So, it would make sense to me that we have a good idea of who Jesus is!

Now, this would seem to be self-evident, but it bears stating lest we become a church where Jesus is conspicuously absent and no one seems particularly concerned.  We lift up the name of Jesus, we point to Jesus, we do what we do in the name of Jesus to remind ourselves that we are not simply a social club or service organization – we are a group of people whose purpose is to follow Jesus and do what Jesus wants us to do.

Second, we need to be clear about who Jesus is so we can better follow Jesus.  When the Methodist missionary E. Stanley Jones met with Mahatma Gandhi, he asked him, "Mr. Gandhi, though you quote the words of Christ often, why is that you appear to so adamantly reject becoming his follower?"

Gandhi replied, "Oh, I don't reject Christ. I love Christ. It's just that so many of you Christians are so unlike Christ.  If Christians would really live according to the teachings of Christ, as found in the Bible, all of India would be Christian today.”

The goal of every Christian is to become like Jesus.  The very term, “Christian,” means “little Christ;” being a Christian means being like Christ.

There are lots of people who get that, including Pope Francis.  Pope Francis is my kind of pope, but I can’t help but laugh at all the press he’s gotten for, of all things, acting like Jesus.  What does it say about the state of Christianity when the world’s most visible Christian acts like Jesus, and it makes the news?  What if – and I know I’m suggesting something out of the box here – what if Christians were so well-known to act like Jesus that it didn’t make headlines when one of us actually did it?

That’s my hope in spending these weeks looking at aspects of the character of Christ – that we not only study his character, but that we try it on for ourselves, starting with service above self.

The Pattern of this Age - Selfishness
Today’s Scripture from the 12th Chapter of Romans warns us to steer clear of the patterns of this world and the values of this age.  Things haven’t changed that much since the Scripture was written, both then and now, chief among those patterns is the tendency to think more highly of ourselves than we ought.  If you’ve been in traffic on the highway lately, you’ve seen the evidence that our world is filled with people who think more of themselves than is either wise or warranted!

 We are born with the instinct to look out for “me,” to protect and promote what is “mine.”  Selfishness is not something that needs to be taught, because it comes naturally.  Just take a look at babies – they are selfish and unashamed.  Grabbing for this, clutching to that, letting out a loud complaint if they’re hungry or sleepy or gassy or cold or not so fresh.  I’m not saying that’s bad, some of that is simply there for our own survival, but please, recognize the inherent selfishness that is programmed into our instincts.  You don’t have to teach a baby the concept of “mine,” they know that one very well on their own!  What has to be taught are values like sharing and taking turns.

The problem develops when we never grow out of that infantile selfishness, when, in the words of today’s Scripture, our minds are not transformed and renewed and directed toward fulfilling God’s will rather than our own, which is good, and pleasing, and mature.

It is not unique to our age, but an immature society will reward greed and selfishness.  The evidence of an immature society, one that is not good and pleasing to God, is one in which the rich get richer while the poor get poorer.  Climb the ladder, become king of the hill – we can get so busy trying to keep up with the Joneses, so caught up in winning the rat race, that we never have time to realize that whoever wins the race is still, ultimately, a rat.

Even so, “thinking more highly of ourselves than we ought” is part of the fabric of our society – we’re all looking out for “Number One,” and who’s that?  Me!  “Me!  Me!  Me!”  Yes, it sounds like a vocal warmup, and it should, because friends, that’s the song our instincts tell us to sing.

It’s a free country – no one’s gonna tell me what to do!  I do what I want!

Incidentally, that’s the kind of thing I used to say before I got married.  I don’t say that anymore, not because someone put a ball and chain on me, not because someone took away my freedom.  It’s just that my relationships and priorities have shifted.  I can’t claim that it’s all about me anymore, because there’s now this other person whose needs I have vowed to place above my own.  Funny how relationships have a way of changing our tune, isn’t it?  And, if that’s true in our human relationships, isn’t it even moreso in our relationship with God?

The Scriptures are very clear that for those who are in Christ, we no longer belong to ourselves – we belong to Jesus!  He bought us with his own life, and in our baptism, our old self – the one that’s obsessed with looking out for me and mine – is buried, and we are incorporated into the body of Christ.  As a follower of Christ, my energy and effort goes into fulfilling his will rather than my own.  In Galatians, it says, “I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20 CEB).

Responding to Jesus’ invitation to give ourselves in service frees us from continuing to sing, “Me! Me! Me!”  Jesus tells us things like “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15) and “the greatest among you will be servant of all” (Matthew 23:11) and we Christians are just crazy enough to believe Jesus and take him at his word.

Servants in the Body of Christ
Jesus Christ came as a servant – one who gave abundantly and served graciously, and he calls all those who would be his followers to give their lives in service, as well.  The Scripture we read today describes what the church can be at its best – a community of mutual love and support, where the gifts of each person are used for the betterment of the whole, where love of God and neighbor is not just taught but practiced.  We are invited to value the unique contributions of others, and the body of Christ grows and reaches out in loving service as each member does their part.

We are invited, right now, as we are, into something bigger than ourselves, the body of Christ, which is capable of doing much more together in Jesus’ name than any single one of us could accomplish on our own.  The tricky thing is that the body of Christ includes a whole number of people who are every bit as difficult as we are.

Yet, following Jesus invites us into a life of loving service, literally giving ourselves to others in Jesus’ name.  Service above self flows directly out of God’s infinite love for us, and it is the keystone characteristic in the overall character of Christ.  Remove his love, which manifested itself in the service of others, and the whole thing collapses like a house of cards.  Likewise, one who claims to follow Jesus but ignores his invitation to a life of service will have a stunted faith that is but a hollow shell of what God desires.

Inevitably, someone will want to ask, “Am I my brother’s keeper?  That’s in the Bible, too, you know!”  Yes it is, and it’s asked by someone who is trying to dodge their responsibility for caring for and serving others.  God’s answer then and God’s answer now is a resounding “Yes.”  If you are a Christian, then you ARE your brother or sister’s keeper.  You are accountable to them and for them.  What is given to you is not for your use alone, but for the good of all.

An alternate title for this series would have been “Things you can’t do while following Jesus.”  If you don’t remember anything else from today’s message, remember this: “You can’t follow Jesus and be selfish at the same time.”

There’s an old Jewish folktale about a man who wanted to see what heaven and hell were like.  He was taken to hell first, and surprised to see a beautiful banquet hall with tables stretching as far as the eye could see.  The tables were laden with the most delicious food you can imagine, but no one was eating.  As he got closer, he saw that, instead of arms, the diners had two long wooden spoons where their arms should have been.  The spoons were so long and had no elbow joints that no one could get the food from the center of the table back to their mouth, and so they all sat there in tortured, miserable anguish.

He was then taken into heaven, and surprised that it looked very much like hell – same banquet hall, same tables, same food, same long spoons where the diners arms should have been.  Yet here, everyone was laughing and talking and enjoying each other’s company.  As he got closer, he saw that each person was not trying to feed themselves, but that each person’s spoon-arm was just long enough to feed the person across from them, and so they were all feeding each other, and everyone had their fill.

The man went back to hell and went to the nearest table and said, “If you would just feed each other, everyone will get something to eat, and your problem will be solved!”  One of the diners said, “I will never feed someone else until someone feeds me first.”  With that attitude shared throughout the banquet hall, everyone continued to starve.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

2014: The Year of Growing in God's Love (Colossians 2:6-7, John 15:1-8)

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So live in Christ Jesus the Lord in the same way as you received him. Be rooted and built up in him, be established in faith, and overflow with thanksgiving just as you were taught. 

“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. If you don’t remain in me, you will be like a branch that is thrown out and dries up. Those branches are gathered up, thrown into a fire, and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified when you produce much fruit and in this way prove that you are my disciples.

Many people make New Year’s Resolutions – anyone here done that?  We are five days into the new year, have you broken any of those resolutions, yet?  Many people start the new year with good goals, but no plan to bring those goals to fruition.  Someone wants to lose fifteen pounds – a good goal – but doesn’t change anything about their diet and exercise.  It’s vitally important to know where we want to go, but it’s just as important to know how we’re going to get there.  Many goals remain unrealized because no plan was put into place to reach them.  The old saying goes, “A failure to plan is a plan to fail.”

That’s true in the life of faith, too.  The Bible uses a variety of images to describe the Christian journey.  Many of them, like those in today’s Scripture, are agricultural images, and not surprisingly, place a particular emphasis on growing.  Healthy Christians grow.  God wants us to grow, and almost instinctively, we know that’s what we’re supposed to do.  I have never met a Christian who didn’t at least say they wanted to grow in their faith.

I have, however, met plenty who weren’t growing.  Sometimes, we don’t know what it takes to grow in our faith, or we do know, but we don’t actually do those things.  Like New Year’s resolutions, our growth in faith can remain unrealized because we simply don’t have a plan.

Well, not this year.  One of the key components of a pastor’s job description is “Dreamer-in-Chief,” meaning that a significant amount of my time is spent praying, thinking, discerning, and dreaming about where God wants us to go.  Out of hours of this prayer and discernment, our ministry theme for 2014 has emerged: “The Year of Growing in God’s Love.”  My prayerful hope is that a year from now, we look back and celebrate all the ways we have grown in God’s love this year.

Hopefully, you’ll notice that this theme of growing in God’s love is neither radical nor new.  It is something Morehead has been already been doing for the 125 years of our history: numerous times we have been faced with hard decisions, and each time this congregation has responded to do the right thing – not necessarily the easy thing – but the thing that pushed us and stretched our faith, and ultimately, helped Morehead grow in God’s love.

Just look at some of what has taken place in 2013.  You faced a big change when Pastor Bryant retired and I took over.  One of the things I have most appreciated is that you continue to honor and celebrate his ministry, while allowing room for a new chapter to begin.  Your attitude has allowed us to spend significant time together and become good friends.  Now, after six months have passed and we’ve followed proper protocol, I am pleased to officially welcome Bryant and Jackie back into the full life of our congregation.  Now, they have both emphasized to me that they are retired, and I hope you will honor the reality that their ministry will have a different shape than it did before.

In 2013, you made significant progress on paying down the debt was taken out to finish our fellowship hall/classroom addition.  Once that loan is paid off, it will free up about $21,000 a year for additional mission and ministry!  I don’t know about you, but I can definitely think of things we can do in Jesus’ name with that money!  Paying off debt is a good goal, it’s one I personally worked very hard to make happen.  But it’s not our highest goal.  Our highest goal is to continue to provide a place for people to connect to God’s love and grace through Jesus Christ.  If possible, as it is for us right now, it’s good for a church to be out of debt, but friends, ministry comes first, and there are times where a manageable and responsible amount of debt can help us keep ministry a priority, but if we have grown comfortable and complacent, ministry opportunities will pass us by.

In fact, comfort and complacency are the biggest barriers we have to overcome.  When we settle for the status quo, we settle for less than what God desires for us.  It’s not bad, it’s just less.

Further, the only options are either growth or decline.  In the life of faith, whether as individuals or a church, there is no standing still.  Did everyone hear that?  There is no standing still.  What we think is standing still is actually a slow decline.  Think of when you go to the beach and you stand in that spot where the waves are coming in just high enough to cover your feet before retreating.  Try your hardest to stand absolutely still, but you can’t, because the sand under your feet is washing away and you’re slowly sinking.  There is no standing still – we’re either growing or declining.

I name comfort and complacency as our biggest barriers to overcome because of some of the concerns I’ve heard expressed in just six months.  None of these have been brought directly to me, but some of you talk louder in the kitchen, the hallways, and in the parking lot than you realize.

Here’s one concern: haven’t we grown enough?  Let me answer by way of another question: given that God has given the church to the world in order for people to know God, and given that there are thousands of people within spitting distance who are not involved in a church, are we, sitting in this room, right now, all the people God wants to get to know?  We’re done – right here, right now, that’s as many as God wants to know.  But, if you believe, as I do, that God isn’t done getting to know people in our community, then we aren’t done growing.

Here’s another concern: what if we get so big that we don’t know everyone?  Let me answer that in a couple ways.  First, is the purpose of church for us to know everyone, or for everyone to know Jesus?  If you’re thinking it’s for us to know everyone, what you actually have in mind is called a social club, which is something very different from the church of Jesus Christ.

Further, we already don’t know everyone, and that’s okay.  Just knowing someone’s name is not the same as really knowing them.  Put your hand up if you don’t know (I mean truly, deeply, personally know) everybody in this room.  Here’s reality – we could be a small church of 30 people who had been together for decades, and we still wouldn’t know everyone!

The concern about knowing everyone is tied to another myth that gets bandied about in churches – that a church’s friendliness is somehow tied to its size, you know, small churches are friendly, large churches are not.  Not true!  I have been in churches of a dozen people who were unwelcoming and cold as ice, and I have been in churches of several thousand that were the warmest and most hospitable places you could imagine.

What makes a church friendly or unfriendly is not its size, but its heart!  It’s something in the heart and soul of the place, regardless of how many people it has!  Morehead is known as a friendly, warm, inclusive, genuine church – but we’re not that way because we’re a certain size; we’re that way because it’s in our DNA!  Friends, what makes Morehead friendly is not our size, but our heart!

In fact, Morehead is already not a small church.  The average Protestant church in America has 70 people in worship; we have more than twice that!  There’s nothing wrong with being a small-church, but we are not one.  Tell your friends we are a warm, caring, mid-sized church, who loves God and loves other people, and by the grace of God, we are growing in God’s love.

Sometimes we wonder, “Why do some churches grow while others don’t?”  Yes, there are issues of location and leadership, buildings and budgets, plans and programs, ministries and missions – but the real deciding factor in churches that are growing?  An open, receptive spirit among its members to the movements of the Holy Spirit.

One of the common ways the Holy Spirit is represented is as a dove, and I have this picture of that dove circling and circling, just looking for the right place to land. The Holy Spirit is always on the move, always searching out human hearts that are open and ready.  Our responsibility is to be receptive and to welcome the movement of the Holy Spirit when it comes our way.  Make no mistake, if our hearts aren’t open, the Holy Spirit will have no problem passing us by.

But, if we’re open, if we’re willing, if we’re receptive, if we’re on board with the movement of the Holy Spirit, then friends, 2014 is our year.  It is the year of growing in God’s love!

To grow in God’s love as a church, we first need to grow in God’s love as individuals.  We are each responsible!  No relying on “Somebody Else.”  In fact, if you don’t do anything else in 2014, stop relying on “Somebody Else.”  If we need to come back this afternoon and have a funeral for “Somebody Else,” that’s what we’ll do!  “If it is to be, it is up to me.”  Say that with me!

In 2014, I invite you to commit to doing what it takes to grow in God’s love.  There are five components in that, and they’re in the graphic on the front of your bulletin.  I guarantee that if you commit to doing those things this year, you will grow in God’s love.  Put down roots by attending worship, nurture your soil by participating in a smaller group, produce fruit by serving others in the name of Christ, share the harvest by giving 10% of your income to God through this church, and scatter seeds by sharing your faith and inviting someone to join us.  These are the practices that outline the fruitful life cycle of someone who is growing in God’s love.

Nothing new or radical there, folks.  In fact, if you are a member of this church, you have already promised to do these things!  Everyone who joins this church makes a public commitment, a vow, a promise, to support and participate in the ministries of this congregation through their prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness.  Those sound an awful lot like the practices outlined on the front of the bulletin!  Everyone who is a member of this church has already promised to do these things, and my assumption here is that you all are the kinds of people who keep your promises.

Let me be abundantly clear here: I am not inviting you to commit to these practices out a sense of duty or obligation to support the church.  I am asking you to commit to these practices as the joyful expression of a heart that desires to grow in God’s love.  This is NOT about what you need to do for the church; it’s about what you need to do as a follower of Jesus who desires to grow in God’s love.

So let’s look at the practices real quick.  If you want to grow in God’s love this year, I invite you to attend worship every Sunday, unless you are sick, out-of-town, or working.  Yes, I realize I’m saying that to the people who are here, so you all make sure that those who aren’t here today get the invitation.  There’s an old joke among preachers that we expect most of our congregation will show up, most of the time, as long as nothing better is going on, as long as it’s not a holiday weekend, as long as the weather isn’t too bad OR too good, and as long as the senior pastor is preaching.

I want you to be here even when I’m not the one preaching, even when you’ve looked at the preview of your bulletin and realized we’re singing a song that you don’t know or like.  I want you to be here even and especially on Sundays where “you just don’t feel like it.”  If your plans keep you from attending the service you normally come to, come to the other one, even if you won’t know anyone, even if it’s not your style.  Remember that while worship is for you, it isn’t about you, it’s about God, and regularly attending worship is a great way to be reminded of that.

If you want to grow in God’s love this year, I invite you to participate in at least one activity designed to help you grow in your faith beyond worship.  Maybe that’s a Sunday School class, a Bible study, a prayer group, or some other small group designed for Christian formation and fellowship.  Dorothy Klass and Shirley Dean are starting another session of “Experiencing God” next Sunday, a session of Disciple Bible Study is beginning at Flat Rock UMC in Stokesdale, my Wednesday night Bible study will resume when we resume weekly dinners.  We have prayer groups that meet at times throughout the week.  If you’re part of one of those groups, recognize how difficult it can be for a new person to join a group that’s already established.  Invite them in, sit with them, don’t use insider language that a newcomer would find difficult to understand, and maybe even be willing to start a new group, that’s easier for new folks to join. Find a place to grow deeper.

If you want to grow in God’s love this year, I invite you to serve others in the name of Christ though the ministries and missions of this church.  Maybe that involves being willing to start and lead a new Sunday School class, Bible study, prayer group or other group.  Maybe that means teaching children or youth, or working in Vacation Bible School.  Maybe that means joining the choir or praise team.  Maybe it means serving in worship, or volunteering at Weaver House or Out of the Garden.  Maybe it means becoming an usher, or greeter, or parking lot attendant, or prayer partner.  Maybe it means going on a mission trip.  Find a place to serve.

If you want to grow in God’s love this year, generously give a percentage of your income to God through this church, with the goal of tithing, 10%.  The size of your income makes little difference, whether you make $500 this year or $500,000, generously giving a percentage of that to God shows your priorities and where you want your heart to be.  There’s a saying that we are God’s bank account – that God has all sorts of things God wants to accomplish in the world, but the money to accomplish those things is sitting in our wallets. Jesus told us that where our treasure is, there our heart will be too.  Place your treasure in God’s hands, and find your heart in the process.

If you want to grow in God’s love this year, share your faith with those outside our church, and invite someone who doesn’t already have a church home to give Morehead a try.  Many people we know would love to be part of a warm, welcoming family of faith like ours; they’re just waiting for someone to love them enough to invite them inside.  This is the year to do that.  They’re waiting for you.  They’ll thank you.  And you’ll grow closer to God, as God’s family grows.

Friends, welcome to 2014.  It’s the year of growing in God’s love.