Monday, January 23, 2017

Biggest Loser, Blairsville Style- Losing Our Big Heads

Message         Jan. 21, 2016             Losing Our Big Heads
Scripture:  James 4: 1-10


      Today we are continuing our Biggest Loser, Blairsville Style sermon series where we are attempting to lose the hurts, habits and hang-ups that keep us from experiencing God’s best for our lives. Last week we looked all the excuses and reasons we give God for not living into his call for our lives (our big buts), but today we’re going look at one the biggest daily struggles we face when trying to be faithful to God: losing our big heads that are often filled with pride.


From the moment we were born, we have struggled with sin, or those behaviors and attitudes that keep us from missing God’s best; we’ve struggled to live lives that reflect God’s glory and character.  And it really shouldn’t surprise us.  It takes only three chapters in the Bible to regress from the goodness of God to the problem of sin. And we could spend some time naming all the sins of the world, and the sins that plague our hearts, but we’re just going to focus on one today: the sin that has often been deemed the “mother” of them all, the one that gives birth to so much painful and hurtful activity and action- and that is pride. The old proverb suggests that pride goes before the fall.  Behind most arguments, discord and evil,(and you didn’t need to look too hard yesterday) you can probably find a heart caught up in a whirlwind of pride. 


In his work entitled, Mere Christianity, author C.S. Lewis (who wrote the Chronicles of Narnia) suggests that pride is battle common to each of us.  We may not all murder or experience greed, but we each probably struggle with pride on some level.  Lewis also suggests that the less we think we have pride, the probability of our guilt skyrockets.  But in order to lose our pride (and discern whether or not it’s a personal struggle), we first need to recognize what it is not.


The sin of pride is not the feeling that rises up when our children do something wonderful.  It really is ok to be a proud parent!  When we say we’re “proud parents,” what we really mean is that we are delighted in our children’s lives. That’s not pride. It’s not the deep emotion you experience on the fourth of July when everyone is singing, “I’m proud to be an American.”  It really is ok to be proud of our nation’s good qualities.  When we sing our patriotic songs, what we’re claiming is gratitude for freedom. That’s not pride. Pride is not the sense of satisfaction you receive when someone offers you a compliment or the feeling you experience after a job well done. That’s joy, friends; that’s contentment; but that’s not pride.  And pride is not the well-deserved recognition that you are worthy when you’ve been told your entire life that you’re not! That’s grace. So what then is pride?  Here’s a quick definition: Pride is the negative characteristic that swells up the moment you begin to elevate yourself over and above God and others. In essence, pride is a “big head” that suggest my feelings, my desires, my needs and my opinions are more important than anything else.

The Christian tradition suggests that the sin of pride began with the character we often refer to as Satan, the personification of evil.  According to some biblical accounts Satan was one of God’s good creations, filled with beauty and light.  In fact, one of the names often use for Satan (Lucifer) literally means “the one who bears light.” But there was a moment when Satan, this “bearer of light,” began to look away from God and towards himself.  And the more he looked towards himself, the more dissatisfied he grew with simply being a light-bearer.  Instead, he wanted to be the light and he wanted the power and the glory that was reserved for God alone. 


It’s no wonder then that the first sin that appears in Scripture, the story of Adam and Eve found in Genesis, begins with the opportunity to become more than what and who they were meant to be. “For God knows that when you eat of it,” says the serpent, “your eyes will be opened and you will be like God.”   And there it is: The opportunity to elevate ourselves over and above someone else. That’s pride. Up to this point, those first humans have been living a very God-centered lives.  They are more like God than they will ever know: created in his image, his very Spirit has breathed into them the breath of life; God’s love has cared for their every need. His love for them is the love of a Father for his children; and he’s never given any reason to doubt his goodness.


You know, what was true of those first humans is also true of us.  We’ve been created to be like God.  God has created us in his image, called us to walk in relationship with him and has empowered us to care for his creation with the same love and integrity with which he cares for us.  But the serpent’s statement, disguised as friendly advice, beckons us to desire the god-like characteristics that we’re better off without.  Instead of being “like God,” pride redefines our identity and suggests we should be “God-like.” Power.  Glory.  Unrivaled status.  Number one!  The need to be right. The need to be heard, no matter who it may hurt…Those are the cravings James talks about, cravings that are at war within us. And before we know it, our cravings begin to pull us from who were meant to be and launch us into people who can’t see beyond the end of our own noses. When those cravings gain a foothold in our hearts, we trade peace for discord and love for power. Where do these problems come from, asks James? They come from pride, from a me-first view of the world.  


In a fascinating passage from Philippians, a passage Joanna and I chose to have read at our wedding, we discover God’s answer to our big heads. (READ HERE) Jesus, who as God’s son, had all the power and qualities of God available to him, didn’t exploit those capabilities. Instead, as is beautifully written, Jesus emptied himself and became obedient to death on a cross. This is fascinating, because it implies that not even Jesus was exempt from the “you can be God-like” enticement. Yet Jesus fully committed to God’s plans, and by doing so, he practiced the opposite of pride. He did nothing out of selfish ambition. He looked not to his own interests, but to the interests of others. He practiced the virtue of humility. That’s what humility looks like. It looks like the decision to do nothing out of selfish ambition. It looks like the unnatural choice to act (or in some cases, to refrain from acting), based on the interest of others. This is what draws us together as a church and what makes the church stand as a significant witness to the world. We have a Savior who could’ve had it all, but instead practiced humility, even to the death.


It is humility, friends, that is our defense against the sin of pride, but humility takes time to develop.  As I watched yesterday’s inauguration, I was reminded of an early RNC debate. During one of his first debates as a hopeful candidate, President Donald Trump  was asked what his Secret Service code name would be if here were to win the election.  Now, it’s no secret that President Trump is a tough cookie. You might say he's a “win at all costs” type of guy and refuses to back down no matter the opponent or situation.  And so when the question was asked, President Trump, not one to miss an opportunity, offered a quick smile and boldly stated the name “HUMBLE,” an answer that solicited laughs all over the world.


How I wish we could so quick to name our struggle, flip an internal switch and become humble…but it doesn’t work that way. Losing our big heads doesn’t happen over night, nor does humility appear because we want humility to appear. Humility is cultivated and lived out when we begin to see the world through the eyes of God and trust God to be God.  Again, in his work Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis suggests that humility is born out of relationship with God. And that’s a relationship that takes time to build. As I thought about how we begin to build up a relationship with God, I was reminded of an old parable of a grandson and grandfather often attributed to the Cherokee Indians. “Grandson,” said the grandfather, there are always two wolves living inside of us. A good wolf and a bad wolf. And they are always at war.” After a few minutes, the grandson asked, “Grandfather, which one will win?” “The one you feed,” replied the grandfather. (www.oneyoufeed.net)



Pride and humility are never too far apart. The one we feed will be the one that defines us, and ultimately, the one that either makes or breaks our relationships with God and with one another. But if humility is a virtue we aspire to, a good place to begin is at the cross. Because it’s the cross that reveals what true power, glory and victory look like.  And it has nothing to do with being first, being right, or being the best. What we see on that cross is the face of Christ, who pushed his own ambitions and desires aside so that we could live fully and freely with God. What we see on the cross is a Savior who fed the good wolf. Oh, I’m sure there were times he wanted to respond with a public rant when angered by others. And I’m sure there were moments when he wanted to say, “You know, this isn’t good for me, so I’m not going to do it.” And I’m sure there were times when he wanted to lose his cool and say, “I’ll show you!”  But he didn’t. He fed the good wolf, the one that invites us to have a heart that is larger than our big heads, the one that leads to life. 


Which one are you feeding? If you find that you’ve been feeding the wrong wolf, I invite you to come to the cross tonight and meet Christ. As James says, “Draw near to God and he will draw near to you.” If you find tonight that you need a cleansing of your heart, a new start, or the strength to repair what your pride has broken…or if you simply find that your pride is just getting in the way of so many relationships….I invite you to the cross to get re-centered, to make the move today from a self-centered life to a Christ-centered one. That’s how we lose our big heads. Amen.

Biggest Loser, Blairsville Style - Losing Our Big Buts

These are my preaching notes for last Sunday's message. I decided against a manuscript, so I hope you can glimpse the thoughts that were rolling around my head!  Be blessed!


Losing Our Big Buts    January 14th, 2017
Exodus 3: 1-15

I.               I attended a “Kick Start” Retreat earlier this week.
a.     Reminded of our collective mission. We have a hurting world that God loves, so much that he sent his Son to die for it. This is our “why.” And sometimes we need to remember “why” we are here in the first place.

b.     On that retreat, I was reminded of my calling. You know, each of us has a calling. Each of us has a role to play in God’s mission. Jeremiah writes, “I know the plans I have for you.” Someone once said that God’s plan A is us, and He has no plan B. We’ve been invited to participate in God’s activity, given a role to play. It’s not that God needs us. No, God could transform the world on his own. But he chooses to do it with us and through us. That’s a pretty humbling idea to wrap my mind around! And as I’ve looked back at my personal calling, I see God’s plan unfolding. I still remember the first time my mom asked me about becoming a pastor. No way! They were fat and weird. And I didn’t want to be anything like them. That’s how God began to help me develop sense my calling. It didn’t begin with my desire; it began with a God who was up to something.


c.      When I talk about calling, the first person I usually think about is Moses. Now, Moses goes down in history as one of the great Israelite leaders. And he lived a phenomenal life. He’s looked upon as a hero who accomplished the unthinkable, a giant of the faith…But that’s not how Moses’ story began. When we begin to read this story, we find Moses simply minding his own business, seemingly content with a quiet life tending sheep. And had it been up to Moses, he would’ve preferred to live a quiet life and stay out of the limelight. He would’ve let all of his “big buts” stall God’s desire for his life. But God had other plans, because God was up to something. Listen to these words: I’ve seen the misery of my people. I’ve heard their cry. I know their sufferings. And I’ve come to deliver them.


d.     Every one of our callings begins with God who is up to something. That’s the nature of calling. We don’t get to choose, but we do get to choose whether or not we live into it. And that calling will always accomplish at least two goals: it will bless others and it will bring God glory. If you’ve ever wondered if you’re on the right path, ask yourself those two questions: Is God glorified by what I do? And Are others being blessed? Sometimes in the midst of that calling there is a deep sense of personal fulfillment, and sometimes in the midst of that calling you want to head back the other way. But if you stay in your calling, one thing is certain: God will grow your faith.

II.             As Moses finally wraps his mind around the task at hand, he immediately recognizes that the biggest obstacle to this vision is himself. And like many of us, whether out of humility, unbelief, or fear, Moses begins to process all the reasons why he can’t possible be the man for the job. And all the big buts start to take over.

A.     Moses’ first big but sounds a little like this: Who am I? That’s an honest question, and it very well could be a question asked out of sincere humility. With all due respect, Moses isn’t much of anybody quite yet. He could name a dozen others who are stronger, healthier, more spiritually mature who are worthier than he. Who am I?  Yet God very gently bypasses Moses’ self-doubts and says matter of factly, “I will be with you.” You see, in the midst of Moses’ doubts, he had forgotten that God was the one authoring this call, and that God would be the one to complete the task through him. Who am I is the question were tempted to ask when God calls us to God-size dream, but the right question to ask is Who is God?

B.     Moses’ second but is one I hear quite frequently. What is your name? In other words, I don’t know enough about you God. I don’t have the knowledge, the training, or the experience. When they ask me these questions, what will I say? How many of us have caught wind of God asking us to take a step of faith but we pull back because we fear we don’t yet know enough? I guess the follow-up to that big but would be to ask how much do I need to know before I know enough? A colleague of mine once recalled a story when several members of his church stated that another Sunday school class was needed. When they got the go-ahead, they asked the pastor if he would teach the class and he said no. “You’ve been coming to church for 40 years. You need to take your next step.” Again, God calls Moses to stop looking at what he can and cannot do and instead place his faith in the One who is calling him.

C.     Moses’ third big but extends outside of his self and lands on the potential reaction of others. What if they don’t believe me, God? What if they don’t listen? He’s worrying about how others will react. And here’s the thing. Sometimes they won’t respond the way we hope. Sometimes they won’t listen. Sometimes they won’t change. I know we’ve all had this conversation in our heads because we know of the possibilities. Even if we are convinced that God has called us to a specific purpose, there will those who don’t believe and don’t respond. Regrettably, there might even be those who try to prevent us from answering God’s call. But that doesn’t make our calling any less genuine or real. And besides, it’s not our job to convince others. It’s God’s. Essentially, that’s how God answers Moses’ questions. It’s not your job to convince them, Moses. It’s mine. I’ll give them something to believe, but I’m still sending you.

D.    Moses makes one final attempt. But God, I’m not good enough. I don’t have what it takes. And the truth is, he doesn’t, and neither do you. He knows that his task will involve public speaking (I’m sending you to Pharaoh), and that’s a problem for Moses because, in his own words, “I’ve never been eloquent and I’m slow in speech.”  This is going to be hard calling for Moses to fulfill, as will ours. When we look at what God has called us to do, we’ll see all sorts of reasons why we can’t possibly be the right person for the job. We’re tempted to say we’re not good enough, we don’t have the right gifts, or we’re simply not ready. But God invites us to lose all those big buts and excuses and doubts and to move forward in our faith, believing the same words God spoke to Moses: “I will help you.”


III.           So as we prepare to wrap up, let me ask you: What’s the biggest but that keeps you from fulfilling God’s call on your life? And I know there are lots of them. I have them too. But here’s the thing. God is bigger than our reasons for not following. God is stronger than all of our perceived weaknesses. And God wouldn’t have called us if he expected us to fail. Our task, then, is keep our eyes on God. He’s the only way to lose our big buts and become what he wants us to become.


IV.            I thought it’d be fitting to end with a quote from one of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s speeches. In his quest for civil rights and equality, Dr. King had his times of doubts and reasons for not moving forward. But convinced that God had called him, and convinced that God would prove faith, he kept marching forward. And this is what he said, “Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” (americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkivebeentothemountaintop.htm. May our eyes see the presence of God in the midst of all our doubts and fears. Amen.

  

Friday, January 13, 2017

Making New Connections

Jan. 8th, 2017             Making New Connections
Matthew 3: 13-17


            Last week around 6:15, I looked at Joanna and said, “It feels strange to be here, doesn’t it?” We were at my mom’s house, the place where I was raised, the place that had always been home to me. But it felt odd not being with you. Connect has become a community that I want to be a part of, and I missed you last week. And so as we watched the ball drop, signaling the beginning of a new year, I was quietly thanking God for you and for the great things that are going to happen this year. It’s good to be back.


            What’s not good, however, is the image I saw when looking into the mirror the other day. Mirrors are funny objects. They show us what we need to see, and sometimes they provide us with the necessary motivation to make significant changes in our lives. I joked around a few weeks ago that I was already at my post-Christmas weight (long before Christmas had arrived), and the mirror confirmed what the scales were trying to tell me. And so I determined that this year was going to be different than every other year. This is the year I’ll get back in shape and make healthy lifestyle changes that will transform my life. And I’m going to invite you to be a part of that. Next week we’re starting a new sermon series called, “Biggest Loser- Blairsville Style.” And we’re going to look at all the barriers that keep us from experiencing the fullness of life God has to offer. Along the way we’re inviting our parish churches to participate in a friendly weight-loss competition. Over the next several weeks, I’m inviting you to drop the pounds with me. We’ll anonymously record the collective pounds we’ve lost, and then at the end of our sermon series, we’ll declare the winner. But even more important than declaring a winner, we’re going to prove that it’s possible to live differently, to live victoriously and to grab ahold of the good life God has in store for us. And what better time to do that than at the start of a new year?


            I’m not much of a winter guy, but when the calendar turns to a new year, I can’t help but to grow a bit excited. I don’t know what it is about the calendar change, but a simple digit swap always brings about the fresh hope that this can be different kind of year. I start to rekindle old dreams and ponder the endless possibilities of what could be. And I know I’m not the only one. Roughly 50% of people make New Year’s resolutions, where they determine that something about their lives will be different this year. It might be a desire to lose weight or read more, to try out a new hobby or to spend less time in front of the computer. But regardless of the resolution, one thing is clear: the new year gives us a fresh start to be the people we’ve always wanted to be and were created to be. The only problem is that we’re not very good at it. Only 8% of people who make new year’s resolutions fulfill their commitment. Think about that for a second. Only 8 out of 100 people who say, “This year is going to be different” actually end up living differently! I have a feeling that’s why the other 50% of people don’t even try to make positive changes. They don’t want to part of the groups that doesn’t make it. And you know what? It’s happens with our spiritual lives as well. 

     We have visions and dreams of the type of people God has called us to be- Fully devoted followers of Jesus- and yet getting there seems to be such a grand challenge. But the good news is that we aren’t the only ones who have these dreams. God has this dream for us as well. More than anything, God wants to see us live into our full spiritual potential. The ancient theologian Irenaeus once said “The glory of God is man fully alive!” God takes glory, God experiences joy, when we are firing on all of our spiritual cylinders. Listen to these words from Jesus in the Gospel of John: “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” That’s the desire God has for each and every one of us. If God had a New Year’s Vision for you, it would be this: To live a full and abundant life! That’s God’s dream for you. But there are barriers, sometimes self-imposed barriers, that need to come crashing down if we want this to be true of us.


            One of the first things we need to do in order to become fully alive is to root our identities in Jesus. And the Scripture we read for today, the story of Jesus’ baptism, tells us at least three truths about who we are (and whose we are) that deserve daily reminders. This story is interesting because Jesus didn’t need to undergo baptism. In baptism, we proclaim a faith that washes away sin and cleanses us from the power of evil, a faith that cries out to God to make us new, none of which were necessary for Jesus. Yet by choosing to undergo baptism, Jesus identifies with our struggles and God responds with proclamations that we need to remember. Otherwise, we’ll begin to believe lies about our worth, our value and our significance.


            The first truth God wants you to remember is this: God loves you. It’s as simple as that, yet is there anything harder to believe? We’re so used to earning favor from others and proving our usefulness that to hear we are loved can be a strange idea. We never know for sure if we’re in someone’s good graces or in their doghouses, but with God, we never have to worry. He loves us. And he loves us before we ever do anything to earn that love. And this is so vitally important to our faith because God’s love doesn’t hinge on our usefulness or desire. There’s nothing we can do to compel God to love us, nor is there anything we can do that would cause God to stop loving us. He just does. But here’s something else: God’s love for us does not mean that our lives will be flawless. In fact, I have to wonder if maybe this is why God speaks this important word to Jesus. As soon as he is baptized, he is launched into a 40-day journey that was filled with trials and temptations. We are bound to experience ups and downs, and in the midst of those downs, we need to remember that we are loved.


            The second truth God wants you to remember, and is just as challenging as the first, is this: God is pleased with you. Did you hear that? God is pleased with you. Let’s take a look at this for a minute. What exactly had Jesus done up to that point that would’ve compelled God to proclaim, “I am well pleased.” Not a whole lot, at least, nothing that the Gospel writers care to tell us. And I think that’s the point. God is certainly pleased when we live in honorable and holy ways, and we should strive to do so, but God’s delight in us is not really about what we’ve done and left undone, but about who we are in God’s eyes. And here is who we are: We are God’s creation, God’s masterpiece, the object of his love. Listen to these words from Romans. God proves his love to us that while we WERE STILL SINNERS, he sent his son to die for us. This is a game-changer. I wonder how many of us keep God at arm’s length away because we’re just not convinced that he’ll like very much? He likes you, brothers and sisters.


The third truth we need to hear from this text today is this: God has and continues to give you power to face and overcome every trial and challenge. God has not left you to face your battles on your own. This is what makes the gift of the Holy Spirit such an important and necessary gift. Soon after his is baptized, Jesus will step foot into a 3 year journey that begins in a wilderness where he is tempted by the devil for 40 days and ends with an ugly death on a cross. And the strength Jesus needs to even START the journey, let alone finish it, comes in the from of God’s Spirit. I’ve heard a lot of people say, “I can’t handle this anymore,” or “I can’t go on.” And I’ve felt the same way. If finding the strength and willpower to continue had been solely up to me, I wouldn’t be here today. But it’s not, and never was. That same power, that same strength, that same gift that was given to Jesus, the gift of the Holy Spirit, is given to you. It is the Spirit of God who is our strength.



So, now that we’ve established and rooted our identity in Christ, and with these self-imposed barriers knocked down, it’s time to think about who God wants us to be in this new year. And it’s as simple as this: God invites us to make new connections. There are three connections we are called to make as individuals and churches. This is our vision for 2017. First, we must find ways to daily connect with God. Whether it’s through a commitment to worship, to read Scripture, or to pray, connecting with God must be a priority. From God we draw our joy, discover our passion and experience peace. Our hearts are home when we are home with God. What will you do this year to better connect with God? Secondly, we must find ways to strengthen our faith by connecting with others. Sometimes it’s hard to admit, but we need each other. Like a quarterback needs a wide receiver or a teacher needs students, we need each other to as we walk faithfully in an up and down world. Spiritual friendships are so important! We offer lots of opportunities, such as Bible studies and small groups, Connect Church Recovery and other special interest groups. What will you do this year to better connect with others? Finally, we must find ways to connect God’s love to a hurting world. This can be as informal as a conversation with someone who just needs to talk or a big vision of reaching a hurting demographic in our community. It might involve making meals for our shut-ins, volunteering through Family Promise, or something else that God places on your heart. What will you do this year to connect God’s love with a hurting world? How will you share with others the same love that you’ve received? This is our challenge for a new year. These are the connections we must make if we want to ignite a movement of fully devoted followers of Jesus and transform our community. And this is what vibrant spiritual life looks like. What new connections will you make this year? Let’s pray.