Monday, February 27, 2017

More Than Enough

Message         2/26/17        More Than Enough
Scripture: John 6: 1-13

            One of my favorite spiritual disciplines (although I’m not as consistent as I’d like) is to spend a few moments every morning creating journal entries. Sometimes my entries are devotional in nature. I spend some time thinking about God and pondering theology. But more recently, my entries have been mostly about you. One of the coolest things I get to do is think about you and the fact that God has put us together to accomplish some pretty amazing work. What we’re doing together as a parish is pretty phenomenal, although it’s not easy. We’ve had and will have our challenges, hiccups and changes but most importantly, we’ve had and will have our God-given potential. And when we allow God to use our God-given potential, miracles happen. So that’s what we’re going to talk about today, allowing God to do the unthinkable through us.

            I hadn’t been in this world much longer than a decade when I was asked to think about going on my first mission trip.  My parents had been on previous trips, but this time they thought it would be a good experience for the entire family.  Now, I had a profound list of interests as a 10 year old. And suffice to say, helping others wasn’t one of them. I was a backyard kickball star and could outrun anyone in a good game of Capture the Flag, but I didn’t even know what mission was! I had heard of poverty, but had never seen it.  I had heard adults talk about rebuilding homes, though I had barely ever lifted a hammer. Yet somehow my parents convinced me to go.  We pulled up to the church on takeoff day, and I found myself surrounded by men and women three times my age who had “made it” in life. They were full of valuable life experiences and resources. And they came prepared. They loaded up the vans with toolboxes and tool belts, power saws and drills, ready to rebuild homes that had been destroyed over the years.  And I came with nothing… except a sleeping bag, a pillow, some extra clothes…and the awkward feeling that I had nothing substancial to offer.

            That must have been exactly how the disciples felt that day when Jesus asked the question, “So how do you think we can feed this large crowd? You know, they’ve been listening and following all this time, and we can’t let them go home without a bite to eat, so what do you say, guys?  How can we make this happen? “   Well the truth was, they couldn’t.  And Jesus knew it.  Nobody had planned for this crowd to emerge, or else they would’ve been better prepared.  And so they looked around and there were no fast food restaurants in sight, nor was there any way the crowd could make it home before the marketplace shut down for the evening.  Finally, Philip said what was on everybody’s mind:  “Six months wages would not buy enough bread to feed these people even a little bit!”  In other words, “That’s impossible! We simply don’t have the resources to solve a problem like this.” 

            Interestingly enough, we still find ourselves in a world where finding enough for the crowd continues to be a formidable challenge. According to the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, almost 12,000 Indiana County residents are defined as “food insecure.” 3,300 children in our back yards go hungry every day. And over 14,000 of our neighbors live in poverty. That’s a pretty sizable challenge, and they’re not the only ones.  You know that we are involved in various ministries such as GriefShare, which strives to help people grieve, Family Promise, which strives to help families with children find their way out of homelessness, and Connect Church Recovery, which seeks to help people struggling with addiction discover freedom and release.  And there are hundreds of other challenges we could talk about- depression, job loss, marriage problems, poverty, cancer- and they all lead me to the same conclusion: We live in a tremendously broken and hurting world that needs to know the love and grace of God.

            There’s not one person in this service who hasn’t experienced a desire to do something about our world’s brokenness. Desire is never the issue, at least that’s the impression I get. The issue has to do with resources.  Like the disciples, we often examine the problem and we see what we don’t have.  We don’t have enough bread to feed every person.  We don’t have enough money to help every person who lives in poverty.  We don’t have enough time to care for every person who needs our attention.  We don’t have the right tools to get the job done.  We don’t have enough…until Jesus reveals what we do have. And that’s a game changer.

            As the disciples continued to question how they could possibly find enough food to feed the crowd, Andrew came back to the circle and said, “I don’t know what good it is, but there’s a boy here who has five loaves of bread and two fish.”  And that’s all Jesus needed to hear.  It didn’t matter that this boy’s offering wasn’t enough; it didn’t matter that his resources weren’t enough to feed a small family let alone a crowd of thousands; it didn’t matter that Andrew and the others placed little significance in these gifts; what did matter was that the boy had something, and when we place our something into the hands of Jesus, that’s enough. Jesus takes our something and makes it enough.

            Now, one thing we must relentlessly believe is that we do have something to offer.  And what we have to offer is pretty good, but we need to believe it.  There are times that we too easily fall into the trap of what is known as a theology of scarcity, where our minds are focused on the resources we don’t have, as opposed to looking closely at what we do have.  And the most important resource you have stares back at you every time you look into the mirror.  You!  You are an extremely valuable resource (but of course, you are MORE than a resource), and when you allow God to use your life and your story, beautiful things happen.

            Think about this for a moment.  You have a life filled with ups and downs, traumatic experiences and mountaintop joys.  And you’re the only person who has experienced those moments in those ways. And you might be the only person who can get through to your neighbor down the street, or the child next door, or the crusty old man who says, “I’ll never believe.”  Here’s just one example: Over the past year, my mom has signed up to be a volunteer companion for hospice patients. After caring for my father during his hospice season, my mom learned the ins and outs and ups and downs of that journey, and is now taking that journey with other families. And because my mom is sharing her story, these families are not experiencing an often frightening and lonely season by themselves. Like my mom, your story is your biggest asset, and when your story is given over to the hands of God, it will lead to far more blessing than any of us could ever imagine.  The biggest resource you have at your disposal is you.  Don’t ever underestimate the impact of your story.

            On New Year’s Day, I had the opportunity to worship in my hometown church. And every time I worship at Ohl, I’m reminded of the people who shared their lives with me.  There was Lee, who pulls me aside every time he sees me and says, “I hope you know I’m praying for you Dinger boys and your families.” There was Deb, who always (and still does) wants to hear the latest happenings in my life. There was Denny, who routinely gave up a week in the summer to counsel 12-year old boys at church camp.  There was Jean and Peg, who devoted their Sunday mornings to teaching rambunctious children. And I could go on and on an on. 

None of these folks ever made it big time. None of them have a ton of money or lots of shiny toys.  None of them changed the world or eradicated any of the major problems we encounter.  They are farmers and teachers and stay-at-home-moms, and most live within 10 miles of where they grew up. Their names mean nothing to you and probably never will.  But they mean something to the Lord and they mean something to me.  I’m sure they’ve done what they could for their churches and communities.  If I were to ask each of them if they tithed, I’m pretty sure most of them would say they do.  And if I were to ask if they strive to use their spiritual gifts to bring joy to others, I’m guessing they would say yes to that question as well.  Those are resources that God has given us, and expects us, to use liberally.   But the one resource I don’t need to ask about is each one’s life. They might not have had everything, but they had something, like a few loaves of bread and few small fish, and when they willingly placed their something in God’s hands, their faith and inspiration somehow landed in the heart of young man who would end up hearing a new story, a story of Jesus Christ and his love. And that young would one day become your pastor.

I hope you know how important your life is for somebody.  Maybe God has blessed you with tremendous financial resources or strong leadership gifts or keen visionary insight.  Maybe you have time to visit and listen, skills to teach and to share with others or a strong desire to pray. And those are so important, and you should be using them as a means to bring glory to God.  But the one resource you most definitely have is you: you with all your past, your pains, your victories and your lessons. And although it might seem like it’s “just a few loaves of bread,” it’s might just change somebody else’s life. At some point in time you’ll probably forget this sermon and doubt that God could ever use you. Sort of like a small boy on a mission trip who felt just a bit out of place.  But my hope is that Jesus will take that statement and take that doubt and form within you a new, prayerful question that sounds like this:  Lord Jesus, how is it that you plan to use me?  Amen. 





Sunday, February 19, 2017

Losing Our Big Shame

Losing Our Big Shame            Feb. 18/19, 2017
Genesis 3:1-13

Today we are concluding our Biggest Loser Blairsville Style sermon series. We’ve been attempting to lose the hurts, habits and hang-ups that keep us from God’s best, and today we’re going to explore a topic that might be the heaviest burden we carry, the burden of shame.

When I was in high school, I was a big of fan of the Rocky movies. I thought it would be cool to be tough like Rocky Balboa, the Philadelphia born and bred boxer who overcame all obstacles. And like most teenage boys, “The Eye of the Tiger” sort of became my theme song. Rocky was a winner, and I wanted to be a winner. But there’s one scene from Rocky III that began to redefine for me what winning really looked like.  In that scene, it’s clear that Rocky’s motivation had become stagnant. He’s preparing to fight Clubber Lang (Mr. T!), and he can’t seem to get past this big mental wall that’s he built. And finally, his wife Adrian has enough. She follows him out to the beach, chases him down and demand that he tell her the truth. And Rocky finally breaks down and says, “I’m afraid! For the first time in my life, I’m afraid.” And Adrian responds, “I’m afraid, too. And there’s nothing wrong with being afraid.” This is a pivotal moment that begins to change Rocky’s perspective, and it changes the story moving forward. But the story ONLY changes when Rocky confesses what’s really going on.

A young man who came to me several years ago and said, “I need to tell you something, but I’m not sure how you’ll react.” This young man was discerning a call into ministry, and he was someone who had, and still has, the gifts and graces to lead others well. But he had a struggle, a struggle so deep and intense that it caused doubt to creep in. He doubted his faith; he doubted God’s love for him.  And for many years, he hid it, hoping it would go away, hoping that nobody would ever notice, because what would they say? “I’m addicted to pornography,” he told me, “and I’m so ashamed.”

I could tell you dozens of stories of similar conversations I’ve had over the years. Stories of people who were mentally and emotionally beaten down because of struggles, but they came out of hiding and rediscovered the redemptive power of Christ.  They came out of hiding to discover once again a God who was for them and not against them, and a God who wanted nothing more than to give them life and build them back up one day at a time. But they first had to make the decision to confront their shame and come out of hiding.  And it wasn’t easy.  It never is.

Our struggle with hiding isn’t a new development. We all have those family gatherings where we never mention the elephant in the room, and we all have those “dirty little secrets.” It’s a human problem. Our struggle with hiding goes all the way back to the foundational stories of the Bible.  These stories are meant to tell us about ourselves, to reveal the ongoing struggle we have with God and each other.  As we read these stories, we’re meant to see our stories in them, to see our hopes and fears; to see existential truths that cut through the heart of every human being.

One such foundational story comes from Genesis 2 and 3. I want to read one verse from Genesis 2: 24-25. Do you notice in this story that both Adam and Eve are naked? And what’s so profound about this statement is that there is no shame.  Without a doubt, there are some references to sexuality here, but the beauty is that there are no secrets and there is no hiding. Adam and Eve were one, together and before God.  Nothing was hidden from the other and the result is a beautiful relationship between man, woman and God. This is what healthy relationship looks like, bearing it all with no shame. The closer we grow to each other, the closer we grow to God. And vice versa. But then chapter 3 happens. And notice the difference.

The presence of sin doesn’t simply lead to punishment or consequence (if it stopped there, it might not be so bad), but instead sin leads to hiding…hiding our scars, our warts, our nakedness from each other…and what’s more, it leads to hiding our lives from the good presence of God.  What we don’t realize at the time is that hiding takes a lot out of us.  I’ve found that hiding is exhausting work, because it was never meant to be our work. It was never meant to be our mode of operation. It’s exhausting to clean our search histories (or remember to do so!) every day so our spouses don’t find the x-rated websites; it’s exhausting to try to avoid our co-worker with whom we had a major disagreement; it’s exhausting to hide our problems from friends because we don’t know how they’ll react and all we can do is think about their reactions; it’s exhausting to go through life peaking from behind the bush, wondering if God will find us where we don’t want to be found. 

That’s really why we hide our shame.  We hide because we’re scared of the reactions others will have when let down our guard.  We’re scared of being shunned; looked down upon; being judged; losing trust or confidence; being abandoned; disappointing others and God. We hide because we can’t control what the other will do when he or she finds out.  And this hiding feels like a kind of prison.  We don’t want to be there, but at least we can control it, even though our hiding keeps us from the life of freedom and grace that God longs to give. I had a professor who once said, “People prefer the misery of what they know to the mystery of what they don’t.”  (M. Craig Barnes, Pastoral Care) But the story of our faith is a story of grace, the story of a God who doesn’t let us remain in hiding.

In a way, the entire story of our faith can be described as a God who, through the incarnation and life of Jesus, invades a hiding humanity and invites humanity to come out from behind the bush. Whether it’s David who is confronted by Nathan with his sin of adultery, or Saul who is confronted by a blinding light on the road to Damascus, or a man left for dead on the road whose only hope is a Samaritan, the Gospel story is an invitation out of the prison of hiding from God and in to the fullness of life God intends.  But it only happens when we take that vulnerable step out of hiding. 

Let’s go back just for a minute and read another section of this Genesis story.  I want to read for you Genesis 3: 14-19, 20-24. Notice here that God doesn’t remove the consequences. Finding the courage to lose our shame doesn’t do that. We can’t erase the past or dictate the future. Coming out from behind the bush is a signal that we’re tired of hiding and we’re now ready to confront the challenges ahead- the marriage that will take some time to repair, the recovery programs that will need to be attended, the relationship that will need to end, the confession that will need to occur, the conversation that will need to happen. 

But also notice what God doesn’t do.  He doesn’t end life.  He doesn’t put a “period” on the story.  He doesn’t close the book.  He offers grace – garments of skin for Adam and his wife- and although their lives will now be different, they still have life, and they have it with God at their sides. Our natural instinct is to run from God, to hide from him and from others, but that’s not the road that leads to life. 

A pivotal moment in my faith journey was my first year of seminary when a good friend asked me to join him and a few others in a weekly accountability group. We read Scripture, we prayed, we sang a few songs, and then the questions came, questions that dealt with the soul- kind of like Adrian compelling Rocky to admit what was really going on behind that rock-hard outer shell.  I’ll never forget the first meeting and the first question.  How have you sinned this week? And we all kind of looked at each other, wondering if it was safe, wondering if our answers would jeopardize our future careers and callings, wondering what would happen if anyone in the room would run out and share our secrets. 

One by one, we came out of hiding.  Future pastors with sins- some trivial, some grave- speaking aloud what God already knew.  And after feeling demoralized, imperfect, dirty and worthless, our friend invited us to look into each others’ faces and proclaim the following words of freedom:  In the name of Christ, you are forgiven.  And it was the most life-giving moment I’ve ever been apart of.

I don’t know what you’re hiding from God today, and I don’t know the shame that hounds you. But what I do know is that the only way to be everything God made us to be is to lose our shame and embrace God’s gifts of mercy, love and forgiveness. Today I simply want you know that it’s ok to come out from behind the bush because you will find that out here, where God has access to our deepest fears, is so much better than what you’ll leave behind. As we finish, I’d invite you to take a moment to confess that shame before God and let him take it away. Amen.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Losing Our Big Eye(dols): Avoiding Temptation

Biggest Loser, Blairsville Style          Losing Our Big Eye(dols): Avoiding Temptation
Scripture: James 1: 12-18

            Our journey to becoming Biggest Losers continues today. Over these past few weeks, we’ve been attempting to lose the spiritual baggage that keeps us from God, baggage like pride and excuses, discouragement and unhealthy independence. We’ve talked about our big mouths that get us into trouble and our big heads that suggest we are more than we care to admit, and big shoulders that think we can take on the world. In losing these behaviors and characteristics, we find a deeper, fuller life in Jesus. And that’s our goal. So with that goal in mind, we’re going to lose our big “eye-dols” and jump into another topic today: the topic of temptation.

            One of the most difficult tasks I have as a pastor and we have as followers of Jesus, is keeping my head up in times of trouble. And let’s call it like it is: We live in a world that is filled with challenges and struggles, and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon. I know what Jesus said about you and I being the light of the world, but sometimes it’s hard to be light, isn’t it? I wake up some days and find it hard to remain hopeful. I mean there are days I honestly question if things will ever change. The other day I was talking to a professional in our community, a man who walks with people during some vulnerable moments, and he said he couldn’t remember a year that started off with so much loss like this one. The rate of tragedy is certainly alarming, but the troubles of this world are nothing new.

            Much to our dismay, the Bible doesn’t tell us that everything’s good. Instead, the Bible tells us what we don’t want to hear: life has ups and life has downs. Sometimes the ups are beautiful and long lasting; and sometimes the downs are filled with tangible pain and evil that never seem to go away. And the Bible’s answer to this? Perseverance. Faithfulness. Trust. That’s our lot as people who yearn to follow Jesus. We are called to stand firm, to be bold and courageous and strong…But that’s a difficult calling, isn’t it? Since becoming a father, I’ve learned that I’m not as strong as I thought I was. Every time I see my girls break into a sprint, then hear a thump when they turn the corner, my heart skips a beat. I start sweating until I hear them giggle or cry. So much for being a tough guy! But that’s the point. Persevering through tough times is not based on our own strength, but on the strength we receive in relationship with Christ. That’s why you were given a bracelet at the beginning of this sermon series with the words from Philippians 4: 13- I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength. Did you catch that? I can do all things…through the strength of Jesus. We find strength when we lean on Christ. He’s the answer, not the problem. But you see, these trials we experience move swiftly into the realm of temptation when we forget our source of strength and become determined to find another way. And I’m convinced that most of what we call “temptation” is the decision to forgo God’s ways when we’re faced with challenging circumstances. But what we discover is that all those other ways only lead to death.

            I mentioned the story of Adam and Eve a few weeks ago, a story that reads like an attempt to make sense of something gone horribly wrong. You remember the story. Adam and Eve are enjoying a sweet fellowship with their Creator, their source of life. But then desire for more creeps in. And that desire grows more and more powerful (you might call it an idol). Idols are formed when we allow something to grow more influential in our lives than God. And before Adam and Eve know what’s happening, their desire for more has become god-like to them. This desire is consuming, like an uncontrollable urge, and morphs into action. One bite of forbidden fruit, one act they thought would bring a better life actually leads to their demise and their deaths.

Once temptation turns into action, which we also call “sin,” there’s no going back to the way things were. Something always dies and permanently changes with sin. Something always dies when we try to find a way on our own without leaning into the arms of Jesus who is our strength. Relationships are never again the same when you cheat on your spouse. Your integrity is never again unequivocally accepted when you’ve spread a rumor that wasn’t true. Self-control becomes an elusive goal when you reach for another “whatever,” even though you know it’s not good for you. Paradise is lost when you give in to unrestrained desire and abandon God’s good and life-giving way.

You see, temptation is more than simply giving in to consequential behaviors; it’s really more about abandoning God’s good ways. During our staff meeting on Tuesday, we were sharing a bit about God’s patient character. Time and again, we read in Scripture that God’s character is slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, faithful and true. We read that God is patient and kind, an “ever present help in times of trouble.” But our instinct is to find another way. One of the stories I like to share sometimes at funerals comes from Ecclesiastes. When we read Ecclesiastes, it’s as if we’re reading a teacher’s final journal to his students, a journal filled with wisdom gleaned from his life’s experiences. Listen to these words from Chapter 2. Did you catch that? Everything was meaningless. By embracing his way, and not God’s, by searching for his own solution, this writer experienced a death of sorts. Not a physical death, but a death of purpose. And this man literally had everything the world could offer, and it was meaningless. Something always dies when unrestrained temptation moves to action. Maybe this, then, is why Jesus prayed in his great prayer, “Lead me not into temptation, but deliver me from evil…”

So, we know that temptation is a very real problem. As that desire grows within, it lead us down a path that could lead to regretful action and it also leads down a path that veers away from God and God’s goodness. And that’s a recipe for disaster. So how do we lose our idols and avoid temptation?

I don’t think there’s any easy answer to this question, because this answer is about committing to the journey of becoming who God wants us to be. Becoming a disciple, or someone who is fully devoted to following Jesus and his ways, doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a lifelong covenant, or as one pastor says, “It’s a long obedience in the same direction. (Eugene Peterson “A Long Obedience In the Same Direction).  And this is long, hard work, mostly because we’re going to face trials and tribulations. That’s just part of life. And the truth of the matter is that when those moments happen, it’s far easier to throw in the towel than to keep going. It’s easier to take a bite of forbidden fruit than to wait on God to fulfill his promises. It’s easier to give in to our whims than to settle for a relationship or a situation that might not offer us immediate satisfaction. I take some comfort in knowing that Jesus often found himself in situations like we do. There’s one story in the Gospels about Jesus facing all sorts of temptations. He was hungry and could’ve easily turned stone into bread. He was powerful and certainly could’ve snapped his fingers and made the entire universe bow down to him. But instead he locked his eyes on God, and focused on God’s will for his life and he found courage.

Jesus overcame temptation because he never failed to connect with God the Father. That was not the first time Jesus had felt alone in the world. He’d often go way to be alone with God, to let God speak, to let God form and shape him. That’s the first habit we need to establish as a non-negotiable in our lives if we wish to avoid temptation. We need to find habits that compel us to intentionally seek God’s presence. This is why weekly worship is so important to our spiritual lives. We need weekly and daily reminders of God’s goodness, because every time something doesn’t go as planned, we’re tempted to think that God has either forgotten about us, is angry at us and doesn’t care about us. And when we have a wrong understanding of God, such as thinking that God is withholding something from us or is against us, we start to erroneously take matters into our own hands. And that never has a happy ending. I love the wisdom of Psalm 46. As the world is seemingly falling apart, politically, economically, spiritually, the writer quietly reminds us that God is our refuge and our friend. “Be still,” says the author, “and know that I am God.” What you are doing daily and weekly to know God? That’s where you’ll find courage.

Secondly, and I don’t say this lightly or thoughtlessly, we need to invite people into our lives who will graciously and lovingly hold us accountable on this journey. We each need people who will love us enough to tell us when we’re headed down a dangerous road and will put up a proverbial stop sign when all we can see is a green light. Do you have those people in your lives? John Wesley, the founder of Methodism (our theological DNA) would often encourage his churchgoers to be a part of small groups. Those groups would meet on a weekly basis and they would ask a series of tough, but necessary questions for the purpose of mutual accountability. Don’t you just wish Adam would’ve looked at his wife and said, “Honey, do you think God would be ok with this?” Or Eve telling the serpent, “You know, that sounds really good, but I probably need to spend time with God before making a decision?” That’s what spiritual friendships do. They invite us to focus our eyes away from idols and to look more closely to God. They spur us on when we’re ready to give in and they constantly remind us that we have no greater purpose than to love God with everything we have. Do you have those people in your life, people who will tell you the truth, even if it hurts, because they love so much? Or people who will graciously walk with you through the ups and downs of life? Find one or two or three, and my guess is that you’ll find strength and courage that you didn’t know was possible. This, I think, is how you find the courage to say, “I don’t understand God’s ways, but they’re sure better than mine.” This is you lose your big eye-dols and successfully navigate a world full of trials and temptations. Amen.