Jesus brought a revolution in the understanding of God. His life and message made it impossible to overstate the extravagance of God’s compassion and love. You are loved. This God on display in Christ is of a God who loves you no matter what you’ve done, said, or thought in your life. Everything else just falls flat, especially all those idolatrous views of God that see a lurking, menacing “one false move God” ready to pounce on you if you go astray and cast you into hell. Those projections also create a seemingly opposite Santa Claus type god, blessing us with material and spiritual gifts, betraying our idolatry and desires for what the world is selling.
In both of these idolatrous takes on the Divine, our failings are exposed, not God’s. In the first scenario of a lurking God waiting to pounce, this is more akin to the ancient’s view of a chaotic pantheon of gods, who would strike someone down without cause or reason. The only human response was to keep your head down, do your job, maintain the status quo, and make an annual sacrifice every now and then to appease the gods. Interestingly, the first time the word “sin” is in the bible, it doesn’t appear with Adam and Eve, but in a conversation between God and Cain right before he kills his brother, Abel –“If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” (Genesis 4:7) So, not surprisingly, we get who God is completely backwards! God is holy, not sin, but so many Christians hold onto such a mischaracterization of who God is.
The second view of God as a bestower of blessings or the Prosperity Gospel as a sign of faithfulness is equally off base. Especially when we consider the time when Jesus was tired and hungry in the wilderness and tempted by Satan. The three temptations were to make stones into bread, to cast himself down from the top of the temple and rule the nations of the world as a powerful empire. These temptations, lurking around Jesus were to manipulate his material world, create a spectacular sign that would create instant notoriety, and appeal to the desire for power. Jesus rejects all these temptations because they do not display the nature of God or for God’s creation. Jesus came to destroy those old views of what the gods were or represented.
The first Commandment given to Moses was: “You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:3) So the question for us becomes, what are the other gods we put before the God of the Bible in our lives? Do these other gods become our “golden calves” instead of the real thing? Does our pursuit of wealth, the latest gadgets, admiration, being right, being connected to the right people, being entitled to more than others, or holding the right degrees or position, distort our view of God? Perhaps, instead of acknowledging that we are made in the image of God, we are actively making God over into our image? Idolatry is not a new thing, but one of the oldest things. It is a thing we can easily slip into and that’s probably why it is addressed twice in the first two of the Ten Commandments where worship of other gods was forbidden as well as making any images of God.
To pray to any god other than the One who finds sheer delight in reconciliation is an illusion or projection. The life and message of Jesus smashes every idol that we have made for God, for good. God loves you and you can do nothing to make God love you any less. For me, this is true because God’s fullest self-revelation is witnessed in the person of Jesus. So lay down those secret, outdated, menacing/enabling gods without any power or vitality down at the feet of Jesus and see what happens next. I imagine there will be some smashing and hugging!
Why Is Love the Greatest?
“… faith, hope and love abide, but the greatest of these is love.”
This is probably the most famous line written by Paul, found in 1 Corinthians 13:13. It was the source for my sermon on Sunday and has been a source of inspiration for thousands of years. It is probably the most popular scripture read at weddings and although it is not inappropriate to put an emphasis on love at a wedding, Paul is not talking about romantic love. Paul is writing to a church at Corinth that has an “economic problem.” Not only was there discrepancies in the socio-economic status of its fellowship (see the example of the abuses at the Lord’s Supper in 1 Cor. 11:17-22, where the rich got drunk and the poor went away hungry), but there was also discrepancies in their perception of their “spiritual-economic status.” You see, some of them were saying that their having the spiritual gifts of tongues, prophetic insights, strong faith, and acts of piety demonstrated their superiority in Christ. Paul will have none of it and says that he can have all these things, but “do not have love, I am nothing.” (1 Cor. 13:2) or “I gain nothing.” (1Cor. 13:3).
Love is the source because God is love (1 John 4:16 – “So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”) Paul is quick not to dismiss faith and hope, but when compared to love, they pale in comparison because they both simply point to and support the mission and nature of love, God’s self.
Trying to organize my time and priories as a pastor is challenging. Given the ministries and the physical plant of our campus, there is a lot going on in the background that I have to keep an eye on. Faith is like that, in the background of where we are today. It tells the story of where we came from and why God is trustworthy. Faith looks back upon generations of faithful people endeavoring to grow be the salt and light of the world and build upon their faith.
I also need to focus on the foreground of my vocation, the hopes and dreams that I believe God has in store for our congregation and community. I spend a few hours each week, dreaming and re-imaging the possibilities and opportunities that God is setting before us. Hope is also in the foreground of our lives. Hope looks forward to a time of reunion with God. Hope also looks forward to enacting this reality in the here and now as the Kingdom of God on earth, as it is in heaven. Hopeful are the people of faith.
But the most important thing a pastor does is being on the ground, with their congregation, sharing in their joys and sorrows – that’s love. That’s right now. Love is not some romantic or sentimental notion, but grounded in the caring for the needs (physical and spiritual) of my neighbor. Love is, as they say: a verb. Love is in motion. My goal is not for you to remember my sermons word for word for theological nuance, but where you can leave the service feeling encouraged and inspired to step further into a real and ready relationship with the Creator of all things! Messages offered from these ancient texts should come alive and be relevant, awakening us in the midst of our daily routines, life pressures, and COVID fatigue to new possibilities of God’s dreams for us. When we feel like the Valley of Dry Bones, in Ezekiel 37, God’s creative love and compassion can fill us with a new breath and a new life. That is love. That is God. That is the greatest of all things. So remember:
Faith is our background.
Hope is in our foreground
But Love is being on the ground
Check out the sermon here!
You Are Enough
Barbara Cook played the original Marian the Librarian on Broadway in The Music Man. She once said, "Very early in my career I was standing in the wings, waiting to go on and audition, and I was and am a very nervous kind of person. I’m nervous every time I go on. And everybody who sang before me had a better voice, looked prettier, had a better figure. I was always a mess. And for some reason it occurred to me that day that if I could find a way to really learn who I am and put that into my work, then there could be no real competition, because I could only compete with myself, because there’s only one of me."
Cook used to tell her acting students, "It’s hard to believe, whatever you’re doing, that you’re enough. We are all, always enough."
It is hard to believe you are enough in these days of scrambling to make ends meet, balancing your work responsibilities with the kids remote learning, having real concerns over staying healthy - physically, mentally, and spiritually, feeling like it's all too much to handle. And on the days that happen to think you have a handle on things, a comment or a post can break what little confidence you were feeling. As your Pastor, offering worship, pastoral care and programming in ways that both keep you safe and meet your needs in this pandemic is at best challenging. Honestly, it never feels like we can be or do enough.
But you are enough. 1 John 3:1 says, "See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!" You are enough because you are a beautiful child of God, lavishly loved! Know this truth today deep down in your spirit. It is my hope that out of this insight you can then extend some measure of grace to yourself as well as to others. And then, who you are and what God is asking you to do today can come into clearer focus.
What Do You Want Today?
Wow. The news has been intense last week, from the President’s taxes, the crazy presidential debate, to the president’s coronavirus diagnosis, not to mention ongoing protests, Western fires still burning, and Hurricane Delta (we ran out of letters for names of hurricanes this year!) bearing down on the Gulf coast. I’ve been trying to limit myself to five minutes of news per day, and I’ve been more or less sticking to it (OK, honestly, sticking to it less yesterday...)
The intense political season can seem like just ONE MORE THING in a life of endless Zoom meetings, trying to work while also helping to manage children’s or grandchildren’s schooling. Not to mention, caring for and worrying about family elders near and far, and just keeping the house looking in some semblance of order.
What can you do when you feel overwhelmed? Pay attention to today and what you can control. It’s biblical, you know…."So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today." Matthew 6:34 (NRSV)
Here’s what I’ve been working on: I try to pull my busy mind back out of the future or the past into the present (or off the internet) and ask myself, "What do I want today?" It helps.
If you want to try it for yourself, just jot down a quick list to answer that question, "What do I want today?" Then think about a way to get at least one of those things.
Or think what you would say (and maybe have said) to an overwhelmed friend or family member. Remember to be kind to yourself. You and I have never been through anything remotely like this pandemic and we will get through this. Extend yourself some grace. That’s what God does!
I’ve talked with so many of you over these recent months, and I know you are holding up amazingly well. And I also know that you are also under intense stress managing the ongoing responsibilities you have to carry through this time. So, what I want today is for you (and me) to trust that God does not abandon us to struggle in life alone. You are God’s precious creation, one of a kind, extravagantly loved. God will never let you go, as the last words of Matthew’s Gospel remind us – “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Knowing this is enough for today.
That which happens inside a cocoon is miraculous. A caterpillar weaves itself a sleeping bag, but what happens next is nothing like hibernation. The caterpillar liquefies and reconstitutes itself into a new kind of creature. Then it writhes and fights to break free from the cocoon. In doing so, it builds up its strength and is able to fly!
Likewise, we at First Baptist and Misión Bautista have not been hibernating during these past six months of pandemic and social isolation. This has been a time of thoughtful conversations and meaningful relationship building. We are adapting to the changing world we find around us and providing online services, Zoom Bible studies, continuing to disperse food, and worshiping outside during the summer and now in the sanctuary through socially distanced safety measures.
Just like becoming a new Christian, life doesn't suddenly become easy and carefree once you decide to follow Jesus. This pandemic has affected many of us in different and difficult ways, but even in a pandemic (perhaps I should say "especially in a pandemic") God still calls upon us to grow deeper in our faith and in sharing that love with others. I believe that it is most essential that we hear the desperate cries in the night of this long pandemic where people are facing health scares, social upheaval, economic uncertainty, and deep political divisions. It is in the midst of this crisis that we are called to live out an evidence of faith, hope, and love. I believe in God and I believe that God is making us stronger for this moment and for a future where resilient disciples of Christ are forged.
I officially shared a few weeks ago that we are undergoing a Visioning process with Misión Bautista to "join forces" and become one unified, multicultural church. Pastor Abner and I have been praying and talking about this for a couple of years now and when we started the process of telling the church leadership, the pandemic hit. Yet, this does not deter us in this endeavor because through all these challenges, it is becoming clearer that we need each other now more than ever. We live in one of the most diverse counties in America. Reflecting that diversity is reality of the church that was birthed at Pentecost in Acts 2. The Holy Spirit gave the gathered community the gift of speaking different languages in order to equip them to take the message of Jesus to the world. Different cultures were not something to fear, but to embrace. These earliest Christians broke out of their cocoon on that day and were stronger than ever, equipped to share the Gospel in authentic and relevant ways. It's exciting. It's scary. It's the life of Christ in us, challenging us to become who he had in mind for us to become at the beginning of the age. Join us in the emergence from our cocoon.
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!)