The sermon this week is where Jesus performs his 3rd “sign” in the gospel of John and first major controversy with Mosaic law by healing a man who had been paralyzed for 38 years. The man is healed and told to “stand up, take your mat, and walk.” Then the man is questioned by the religious authorities about his “work” on the Sabbath of carrying his mat. Everyone knew that this man had been paralyzed, but their work is one of enforcement of Sabbath law and he is condemned by them. The man seeks to avoid blame by essentially saying that he was just doing what he was told. Earlier he laid the responsibility of not being healed on others. Now he lays blame on his healer for breaking the Sabbath. The healed man failed to thank his benefactor or even catch his name! When Jesus encounters the man again, he warns him not to sin again. The man has not actively shown malice toward Jesus, but it appears that his passive attitude of exporting blame is seen by Jesus as irresponsible.
After this encounter, the man takes his own initiative to identify Jesus as the one “responsible” of his violation of Sabbath law. At best this is a thoughtless act of compliance with the powers that be. At worst, it is collusion with Jesus’ enemies. Regardless, it is a disrespectful reaction to Jesus’ gracious gift.
All of this must have been disheartening for Jesus. But perhaps most difficult to take was their insistence on a false understanding of the purpose of the Sabbath. The Sabbath is a gift to humanity, not a further obligation of hardship. Then Jesus really sets them off by saying: “My Father is still working, and I also am working.” (John 5:17) Jesus is saying that he and God are one and like the gracious gift given to the paralyzed man who poorly mannered in the face of the gift he has been given, the religious authorities are also missing the greater point of Sabbath rest by focusing on details of observance.
It brings to my mind Matthew 12:30, where Jesus says, “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” Jesus is doing the work of gathering his people together, but the authorities are using this gracious gift of the Sabbath as a means of scattering the people into further division and shame. God is still working on the Sabbath to gather us into his arms of love and fellowship every day because God does not need a break, but knows that we need a break from the values of Pharaoh as seen today in the nonstop production and consumerism. Let us accept this gracious gift with our whole hearts and thank God that God is still working!
As I struggle to wrap my mind around the horrendous events of Charlottesville this week and the President’s remarkable failure to clearly denounce white supremacy, I am listening to the song – We Are One Tonight by Switchfoot, which has special place in my heart.
Back in 2006, as Doris and I were driving through “The City” to visit her grandparents in Chinatown, we were talking about the very real possibility of our first child coming into this world. As we drove, slowly through the seemingly maddening and chaotic streets, this song played in our CD player and we were transported to another reality! We were One with the world! The Lincoln Tunnel was a giant red carpet ushering us into a glorious palace city, where streets were not obstacles to be avoided or get through as quickly as possible, but to intentionally linger in. Are those car horns joyful trumpet blasts from the beloved community of God? The skyscrapers seemingly reaching up to heaven in praise! The throng of diverse peoples surrounding us was seen as they really were, someone’s beloved child. Love growing in real time, block by block, in unimaginable and powerful ways not containable by my heart for my new found human family. A glimpse of God’s vision for humanity: the possibility of the Kingdom of God among us, The City of God: the fruition of God’s dream for creation since way back at the garden. We were One that night and our “little one” came early the next year. Thanks be to God!
So, as the whole world seems to be going upside down, don’t lose heart. Please remember that God still “dreaming out loud!” God still desires to show us a new world: God’s City where love and hope reign and we can be One Tonight. So no matter your racial, gender, sexual orientation, or socio-economic designation, you have invaluable worth, value, and dignity. Never doubt that Kingdom reality of who you are in the eyes of God. My prayer is that the church might have those eyes as well. “Though the world is flawed – These scars will heal.” One Father, One Son, One Holy Spirit, created One Human Family. Can we be One Tonight? The scripture tells us, Yes We Can:
“I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no person could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb!” – Revelation 7:9-10
Take a moment and hear a song that long ago transported me into a glimpse of God's love. That love remains, "let's scream it out loud!"
We Are One Tonight music video:
This summer we had to cut seven trees: prominent, distinctive, shade makers. This was received with sadness by some in the church, but we knew that it was what had to be done because they had become a danger. Several were dead and the others diseased. One of the trees produced only dry dust as the workers ground it up, yes, it was dead.
Although this has certainly transformed the landscape of our campus, it reminds me of where many churches find themselves facing in the 21st century. The “beautiful trees” of Christendom are diseased and dying. In order to have relevant, authentic relationships where even enemies are loved; the structures of “church as it has been” that do not enhance these values of Christ must be cut down. After all, they're dangerous!
The first Sunday after the huge Cider Birch just to the east of the sanctuary came down; the amount of light that came into the sanctuary was amazing! The challenge and opportunity for the churches today is create spaces that “let the light in.” People are looking for a safe space where they can discover who God has made them to be. For far too long, the institutional church has been throwing shade on people’s lives instead of letting the light in. This is a reminder that it's okay to miss the trees, but God's call to us is to be enablers of light.
"Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” – Matthew 5:16
Father Greg Boyle is simply an amazing man. He is a Jesuit priest whose ministry is in the trenches of gang life in Los Angeles. He, affectionately known as “Father G”, started Homeboy Industries in 1988, by asking one question: “Can we improve the health and safety of our community through jobs and education rather than through suppression and incarceration?” The answer was yes.
In Father G’s book, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, he makes you cry and laugh out loud with his powerful stories. One I love was when he was trying to get to a speaking engagement across town. Often he will take “homies” who are in the program to tell their stories when he travels around. So he tells of one such event where he grabbed a couple of guys to accompany him. Driving down the road, before getting on the infamous LA highway system, he notices that the car is on “E”. He says with exasperation that he’s going to need to get some gas. The young man sitting shot gun leans over to look at his gauge and says, “Oh, you’re okay, Padre.”
In disbelief, Father G says, “Huh? E means empty!” Then his young friend stares at him in utter disbelief and says, “What? I always thought it meant ‘Enough!’” While Father G loses it in laughter and beckons his young friend back to the world we all reside in, he asks the obvious next question: “If E means “enough’, what did you think “F” could possibly stood for?” Suddenly bashful, the young man eventually, meekly shared, “Finished?”
Isn’t that a hilarious reminder to Christians of how strange we truly are? Following Jesus turns our expectations upside down, nearly every time. When the lawyer wanted to justify himself as righteous - he asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” You see, he wanted to know who was outside the covenant and therefore not worthy of his “religiousness”. He was looking at E and expected “Empty” but Jesus gave him an “Enough” by defining neighbor, not by who they are, but by how we act toward them. What we all thought was an impersonal noun becomes a beautiful verb!
“Who is my neighbor?” – a question that echoes throughout history is answered, once and for all, by Jesus that, in fact, everyone is! Even the hated Samaritans as Jesus answers the lawyers question with the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The question then transforms from “who is my neighbor”, to “What is my obligation to them?” Jesus’ answer is to love, love without conditions no matter who the other is for they are God’s child too.
When the world says you have “FULLfilled” your obligations and pats you on the back, Jesus says that without me - you’re “finished”! Instead, “Empty” yourself and find “enough” in Christ.
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but EMPTIED himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.” – Philippians 2:5-8
YouTube celebrity and vlogger, Casey Neistat’s recent Samsung commercial (check it out below) during the Oscars grabbed me with his intro line “Let me introduce … the rest of us”. Armed with phones and social media accounts, people are telling their stories. Being creative, “… not because we have to. We create because we love to.” That, right there, is the divine impulse of creation: love.
God creates because God loves. Period. But that is only the beginning of the story. God’s creative love sparks possibilities of redemption, forgiveness, mercy, and grace that surpass any of our understandings. God has used less that “our phones, duct tape, parking lots, and guts” to share a love story too big for any production company to convey. When the religious elite and the Roman soldiers said that Jesus couldn’t be the Son of God – he revealed God’s greatest act of love - “Watch Me”. As we prepare for the season of Lent, let us keep our eyes on Christ and watch a love story unfold for all of us. Can we do this, model this, become this? No, not by ourselves we can’t. Experiencing the love of Christ means that you can “Do What You Can’t.”
Henry David Thoreau famously observed, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Do we see this at some level every day? Do we feel it from time to time? Desperately seeking fulfillment, yet quietly going about one’s daily life. Keeping your head down, not rocking the boat, or making a fuss. It is a code of silence that has always plagued human hearts.
Advent reminds us that we have a powerful peace in knowing Emmanuel, God is with us! Advent steers us toward our solemn responsibility to break this code of silence and any other codes that signal it is still "business as usual." No, God is doing a new thing in our midst, and we need to live that out in “Loud Exclamation!” Calling people’s attention to the mission of Christ - bringing eternal peace to his creation. Do you know this peace? Do you know only moments of quiet desperation? This Christ child, born into this world in the humble and desperate circumstance of an animal barn hears your quiet plea. He knows you and loves you and wants you to desire his ways for your life because they lead to the abundant life. That starts with the peace of the shared relationship with God.
Thoreau also wrote, “… if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” Imagine how much greater your “success” could be if we adapted this wisdom to include God – advancing in the direction of God’s dreams, living the life which God imagines for us, what might unexpected “success” might we find there? My prayer for you is that you might have a confident peace giving you the courage to live … truly live a life of loud exclamation!
“Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God!’”
The scriptures are full of stories that that made visible, to sensitive observers, the miraculous power of God. Upending the natural order of this world producing decay and leading to death, miracles bring renewal and life. Advent is a time of miracles and during this sacred time we prepare to celebrate again the miracle by which all others are measured: the coming together of divine word and human flesh, the grandest elevation of the human condition imaginable! Perfecting it with possibility and connecting through it to each of us, Jesus of Nazareth is the complete disclosure of God’s heart.
For Christians, this is not hard to acknowledge the unique nature of these events in history. More difficult to grasp is that we are given the power to become miracles ourselves! To make visible, in the life of another, the healing power of God. That is the very definition of miracle. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, we are a people of miracles (bringing renewal and life)! Ponder what great good you can do today and resolve not to wait a moment longer to do it.
Everyone says they want “peace on earth.” But do they? Do we? I shudder as I ask myself, “Do I?” If I do, indeed want there to be peace in our world, then I need to start somewhere. I need to start with me.
In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven”. We are called to create the peace we seek through praying for our enemies, loving even them! Not belittling them or continuing the cycle of hatred that inevitably leads to violence. In the opening of this “Sermon”, in the Beatitudes, Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.” That is the vocation of God’s children, to make peace. And we start by making peace within ourselves (often our greatest enemy).
Recently I came upon this powerfully moving poem by David Whyte, which I feel captures the challenge of beginning the peace making process within ourselves and gives a hopeful reminder that we can begin that work right now … where we are standing (or sitting) … this very moment. Within the ground we occupy. With the questions that inhabit our minds. In the voices we follow. Finding our voice singing in harmony with the Prince of Peace, so we can truly let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me!
START CLOSE IN - David Whyte
Start close in,
don’t take the second step
or the third,
start with the first
you don’t want to take.
the pale ground
beneath your feet,
way to begin
Start with your own
give up on other
don’t let them
your own voice,
Start right now
take a small step
you can call your own
heroics, be humble
start close in,
for your own.
Start close in,
the second step
or the third,
start with the first
you don’t want to take.
We say it every Sunday. I said it today many times during our "Passing of the Peace" portion of the worship service. The initial line is"Peace be with you.." The response is oftern, "and also with you.". If you are enterprising, you might say, "May the peace of Christ be with you ..." (I think you get my drift. Feel free to put your own spin of things!)
I enjoy this part of the becasue we get up and move around and make the effort to greet one another in a very intentional way. Sharing the peace of God. Does that mean we always feel at peace when we do it? No, although I will only speak for myself here. For me, it isn't about speading my peace, bu t that of Christ, the Prince of Peace.
This Sunday, we come to the second week of our Advent journey, waiting with grand expectations for the birth of Christ. This week, we light the Peace Candle. So, what is peace for us? Is peace the abscence of conflict and quiet moments in our busy lives that are seen as refuges? Is it "getting away for it all"? Is it "peace and quiet"? I would like to suggest that the Hebrew understanding of Shalom is most helpful in oour quest to live out the peace that Jesus lived out. Shalm is the peace that results from a right relationship with Yahweh. The confidence and security that we know that God is present with us through all the different times in our lives.
Jesus' peace offered a challenge to the status quo and, as history constantly tells us, the status quo will always put up a fight to maintian it's power and privilege over us. Jesus audaciously offerred an alternative to the status quo of this world. He offers Himself. All of him. And is seeking all of us to respond with our whole being, belonging to God. A relationship. A Shalom that surpasses all our understanding. A deep and abiding peace resonating and growing. Remember john 15:5 - "I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing." My prayer, this week, for you is that this divine relationship impact everything you do in order that 'Peace be with you."
"As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love." - John 15:9
What is the Kingdom of Heaven like? Let me tell you. It's like when you get a text from the babysitter saying that your daughter can't find her retainer anywhere in the house. You get home and search and find nothing. The next morning you realize that the paper bag she took her lunch in the previous day on her field trip does not have her name on it. All is lost. Calls are made to the orthodontist. A budget reassessed. A cloud looms. Then when you get home you discover the retainer in her mouth!!!! How can this be??? It awaited her in her cubby at school. How? Who knows, but the weight is lifted, burden discarded. Rejoicing and celebration commences. That is what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. #TheParableOfTheLostRetainer
I'm a follower of Christ, husband, father, friend, pastor, story teller, asker of questions, inspired by biblical narratives, social justice advocate, sports enthusiast, drinker of over priced coffee and general seeker of God's redemptive possibilities. Yeah, that about covers it. (If you discover something else, let me know!)