Thursday, April 25, 2019

Easter- When Jesus Changes the Story

Easter 2019 When Jesus Changes the Story 

For ten years I’ve had the privilege of worshipping with you on Easter and proclaiming this story of Resurrection. And it’s as powerful today as it was when we were first invited to do life together. We need this story, because this story changes the world. And if we let it, this story will also change us. Let’s read. 

In 1999, just eight years after the death of his father, Bart Millard penned a song that would go on to inspire millions. Recently made into a movie, “I Can Only Imagine” was written as a tribute to the amazing power of God, who took an abusive drunk of a father and completely reshaped his life in a way that stunned all who knew him. God had done a resurrection work in his life and changed this man’s story! But in an article published in People magazine, Bart Millard confessed that he wasn’t quite sure God could change his story.  Acknowledging the deep wounds that persisted from years of his father’s abuse, Millard feared he would never heal. “I never in a million years thought it would actually happen,” he said. (People Magazine online) 

Never in a million years. You could probably fill in the blank with almost any type of challenge or problem and confess the same doubt-filled sentiment expressed by Millard that day. That’s just how the world works. When you’re so used to having the same old ending, it’s hard to imagine anything different occurring in your life, let alone something good! And when the disciples first hear the news, their reaction says it all, “But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” In other words, “Good try. That’s now things are done around here.” Never in a million years did those early tomb travelers believe that Jesus would be resurrected from the grave. 

Three days earlier, the disciples’ world had been shattered. When Jesus came calling three years ago, they lowered the drawbridge of their hearts, thinking and hoping that this time would be different. But now it seemed like the same old story was playing out again. The Jewish people had been down this road before, and it never ended the way they thought it would. A hero would rise up, talk a good game, grab some followers, make a ruckus, instill some hope, then the weight of the government would crush their dreams and snuff out whatever hope remained. But Jesus seemed different. His teachings, his approach, his love, his power. It all seemed different this time. But like so many stories before his, Jesus’ story ended the same way-  the hero dead and buried in a grave. And with this death came losses too painful to address.

Mary Magdalene was one of the first at the tomb, and she was beside herself. Several years earlier, she had been freed from her demons…whatever they were. In Jesus, they were wiped away, commanded to leave her alone and now she was free. But now Jesus was gone. I wonder if there was a lurking fear that she would return to her old life…Peter. Peter had grown so much! This former fisherman turned disciple had been part of miracles, had witnessed powerful moments and had gained a trusted friend. But now Jesus was no more. Not knowing what to do, Peter went into hiding, then went back to fishing. Andrew was so certain that this was the One who would change everything! When he first heard Jesus speak, he ran as fast as he could to his brother and said, “Come!” We’ve found him! He’s here! But now he wasn’t. What did this mean? And James and John. They had left everything to follow this hero. They walked away from the family business. Left their father Zebedee behind because they were so convinced that Jesus was the Savior they’d been waiting for. But they must’ve felt so swindled as they watched him hanging limp on a cross. It must’ve been like a bad dream. We left everything for this? It wasn’t supposed to end this way! We thought this time would be different!

I meet so many people who are tired of their stories and just want things to be different. Tired of the monotony, tired of the same old, tired of simply spinning wheels and never getting ahead. And so at times we grab ahold of anything that will move us out of that restlessness and we’ll look around for signs -any sign- that will take us from where we are to where we’d like to be. It might be the constant searching for a new job, or the thrill of a new relationship, or the excitement of a new adventure. But more often than not, the newness wears off faster than we expect and we end up right back at square one. 

When I was growing up, I knew a man who was always trying to change his story. Every three or four years, he’d grow restless. So he’d go searching for a new job, convinced that this time things would be different. This time he’d find something to fill that hole in his heart. This time he would finally be content. And his constant searching took a terrible toll on his family and his health. I’ve met others who are simply tired of trying to change their story and they’ve given up, convinced that their stories will always play out the same way. A few years ago I was counseling a young man who was desperately trying to seek God’s will for his life. He sensed God was calling him to ministry..and then something happened. He drifted. He stopped yearning, stopped searching and eventually gave up. The last time we talked, which was over three years ago, he was no longer attending church, no longer reading his bible, no longer paying attention to God. I got the sense from our conversations that he was resigned to believe that his story would play out like it always has. You see, that’s why we need this Resurrection story. Sometimes we feel stuck. Sometimes we feel like there’s no way out. Sometimes we feel that our stories will never get any better. But Jesus is in the business of doing what we can’t do on our own. And Jesus is in the business of doing what we think cannot be done. That’s because Jesus in the business of bringing new life to old, familiar stories

On that first Easter morning, while it was still dark, the women made their way to the tomb. They expected to find things the way they usually were at a cemetery- quiet and dreary. They carried with them the tools of the day- spices for the body- to cover up the sting of death, the reality of washed away hope, the stench of defeat. Never in a million years did they anticipate anything different. But that’s when resurrection is at its best. In this dark place, the story was changing. Jesus was doing something new. Their first sign that something wasn’t quite right was the absence of a body. It left them perplexed. There’s usually a body in a tomb. But where was it? Their second was a dazzling sight and two voices, calling them to remember what Jesus said would happen. Handed over to sinners. Crucifixion. Resurrection. Don’t you remember? And the truth is, they didn’t. Certainly they had heard Jesus speak those words. Certainly they had listened to him teach and preach. But not in a million years did they think those words would actually come to pass. Yet this time they did! This time, the grave was not the end. This time, death did not have the final say. This time, evil had finally met its match. And this time, the ending, which had always been the ending, was now the birthplace of a new beginning. He silenced the boast of sin and grave. Jesus had changed the story once and for all! And he’s waiting to change yours. 

In this beautiful story of resurrection, we find eternal hope. Through Jesus, God is reconciling the world to Himself and bridging the deep chasm between us. The great biblical narrative is unfolding in this story- creation and fall, redemption and restoration. And that’s good news for a creation that groans out for God’s new life possibilities. But there’s something else we find in this Resurrection account, something else I don’t want us to miss: the possibility of a transformed now for each of us, a resurrection story. 

Year after year we gather in this spot to hear and sing and experience the ancient Resurrection story, but maybe this is the year we become part of it. Maybe you find yourself today like Bart Millard, or my two friends, who were about ready to throw in the towel of faith and give up hope that things could be different. If that’s you, I want you to know that Jesus can change your story. Maybe you’ve tried every trick in the book, but you still can’t overcome that nagging sin. Or maybe there’s a habit or addiction that continues to weigh you down and you don’t know where else to turn. Or maybe you’re just lost, weary from trying so hard, and your hope is all but gone. If Easter tells us anything, it’s that Jesus can can change the story. And He can certainly change yours. Jesus can take what is dead and bring it back to life. Jesus can take what is lost and cause it to be found again. Jesus can take what is broken and make it beautiful. But before Jesus can change your story, He has to enter into it. 

Resurrection begins when Jesus enters the story. Eternally speaking, resurrection began the moment God’s Son made His home in the womb of a woman named Mary. And personally speaking, resurrection begins the moment God’s Son makes His home in your heart. That’s how resurrection starts. When invited, Jesus roots himself in our lives and begins to change us from the inside-out. But we have to invite him. And when that happens, Jesus will slowly give birth a new you. This is hard work. Much like the birth pangs women feel at childbirth, Jesus authors new life for us by challenging us, wrestling us and compelling us to let go of our old ways of life. Because to experience true resurrection, for Jesus to truly change our story, something must come to an end. 

Earlier this week the world watched in horror as the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris went up in flames. For 800 years people flocked to Notre Dame to study its architecture, take in its art, ponder its history and gaze at its beauty. News reports mourned the loss of an iconic building and major tourist attraction. But lost in the midst of much of the coverage was the original purpose for the building. I have a feeling this was divinely orchestrated, but standing over the charred remains of the cathedral was a beautiful, light-filled cross. Maybe you saw the picture. (Show picture) For me, that picture was a prophetic reminder that Notre Dame Cathedral was meant to be sacred space where people could meet Jesus. It was meant to be a place where Jesus would resurrect people from the ashes of their lives. And maybe it will be that again. Maybe out of those smoldering ashes, an old story will give birth to a new one. And maybe it this tragedy will revive people will once again to be drawn to the resurrecting love of Jesus Christ. 

In essence, that’s what this whole week proclaims. That’s what the empty tomb points to! The worst of the worst is not the end of the story. In Jesus, there really is the possibility of a new life (not a rebuilt old life, but a NEW one) and new chance and a new story. This is what Jesus does! So let me ask you- are you ready for Jesus to change your story? Are you ready to let the old you die and let Jesus resurrect you to newness? You were meant to live a victorious life. You were meant to have all the fullness of Jesus Christ dwell in you. Today might be your Resurrection moment. Today might be your new chance at new life. If you let him, Jesus will enter your story, wrestle with your heart, and give you the gift of life. And nothing, nothing can take that away. Let’s pray. 

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Table Talk: Your Grief Will Turn To Joy

Your Grief Will Turn to Joy April 6 and 7, 2019
John 16: 16-33

Today we’re continuing our Lenten journey with our Table Talk sermon series. We’ve been sitting in the Upper Room with Jesus and the disciples, listening to and reflecting on these intimate teachings recorded in John’s Gospel, the last teachings Jesus will offer before he heads to the cross. We’ve learned about servanthood and friendship; we’ve learned about the power Jesus shares with us and how He expects us to continue His work through the presence of the Holy Spirit. And today we turn our attention to the topic of joy. Would you read with me? 

You might’ve heard in the news that a cyclone has recently ripped through several African countries, especially Mozambique and Zimbabwe, which were hit pretty hard. I’ve spent some time praying for the safety of my friends and colleagues, and as I’ve been praying, I’ve been recalling some of the wonderful moments and conversations during my time in Zimbabwe in the summer of 2016. It’s been three years, and I’ve probably forgotten more than I remember, but one conversation I’ll never forget was with my new friend Amos. Amos and his wife were some of our first hosts in Zimbabwe.They lived in a remote area with no electricity or running water, but they did not lack in the area of faith. When we arrived, Amos’ greeted us with a big smile, then quickly took us on a grand tour of his homestead. There was one building in particular that I found intriguing, only because it wasn’t a building; it was the remains of a building. Amos started to tell us that this used to be his pride and joy- his store, where he would bottle and sell honey- but it had been destroyed during a political firestorm. Amos went on to tell us that he had been part of a group hoping to bring change and renewal to his beloved country, but instead, political corruption won the day, and with their victory, came destruction, fear and physical violence. And as I listened to Amos tell his story with passion and hope, the question I could not stop wrestling with was this: How did this man live with so much joy in the midst of so much pain? 

Joy is at the heart of today’s passage, but it’s not the first theme that pops up. Quite frankly, the entire conversation leading up to this moment feels like someone just emptied a thousand-piece puzzle on the floor and asked, “What do you think this means? Because after listening to Jesus talk, the disciples were confused. Loving and serving each other was one thing, but this notion of seeing Jesus, then not seeing Jesus, was pretty confusing. What does this mean the disciples asked. Where’s He going? Why is He going? And what’s Jesus trying to say? All those questions are understandable. You know, I’m not sure any of us would’ve gotten the picture Jesus was trying paint. But then the conversation takes an unexpected turn that brings the confusion into focus: Jesus begins to talk about grief. 

We don’t typically expect Jesus to talk so bluntly about the things we’d rather avoid. I’m pretty sure you didn’t come here today to hear about suffering or pain or loss. Those just aren’t the topics we expect to hear at church. But that’s probably more to do with our expectations than anything. We can’t read the Bible without reading of crosses and death and pain. And we can’t make it through this broken world without much of the same. Pain is a normal part of life, and grief often comes with it. I’m guessing that you could name at least handful of times when you’ve experienced those trying moments in your life. Trevor Hudson, a retired South African Methodist minister, would often remind himself before stepping on stage to speak that almost everyone in his congregation was sitting by his or her own pool of tears. Maybe that’s your reality right now. Maybe a loved one passed away, or a friendship ended too soon or a dream disappeared or an opportunity was taken off the table. And those moments cut deep. 

When I think back to my own moments of grief and despair, I can almost feel those old emotions building back up. Yet at the same time, I recognize that those moments are part of my story. We probably don’t spend enough time acknowledging that grief and loss have a place in our story. For many of us, we need to give ourselves permission to grieve. When we experience loss, we need to know that it’s ok to be sad. When his good friend Lazarus died, Jesus wept like any of us would weep. He grieved. There are entire books of the Bible dedicated to prayers known as laments, which read just like they sound: painful prayers and groans uttered from the hearts of people who are desperate and broken. Just listen to some of these. “Be gracious to me, O God, for people trample on me; all day long foes oppress me” (Psalm 56:1). “My heart is in anguish within me, the terrors of death have fallen upon me” (Psalm 55: 4). “I say to God, my rock, ‘Why have you forgotten me”’ (Psalm 42:9). Sometimes we just need to cry out to God from the depths. But more often than not, our approaches to grief, loss and pain just aren’t healthy. Like Peter, who took out his sword in the garden to defend Jesus (and himself) from the fear of loss, our responses look a lot like swords that try to take out the pain. We write a scathing Facebook post. We spread gossip about the one who hurt us. We hold grudges and try to get even. Those are all “swords” that we wave around, hoping they’ll be the sort of coping mechanism that will dull the pain. But Jesus invites us to put the swords down… because grief is not the end. Somehow, Jesus promises, our grief will give way to joy. 

There have been some wonderful moments around this table between Jesus and the disciples. He’s called them friends. He’s washed their feet. He’s promised them the gift of the Holy Spirit. He’s even stated that together they’ll do even greater things than He has done! But now he cuts to the chase. There are some really bad things that are about to happen. And when they do, the world will rejoice. Everyone around you will think they’ve done something truly good for the world. By getting rid of me, they’ll think they’ve done God’s will. And you’ll feel terrible about it. You’ll grieve, you’ll cry, you’ll mourn for what was. But hold on. Stay the course. Because joy will come again and it will be complete.

In the Fall of 2010, I was approached by a friend who recommended I try a 13-week program called GriefShare. After the death of my father, my friend noticed that I was quick to get back to work- my substitute for the joy I sought. In his book, “Surprised By Joy,” author C.S. Lewis suggests that most of our pleasure-seeking and pain-numbing adventures are substitutes for joy. He especially calls out sex and says that sex is no substitute for what only Christ can give. And for me, neither was work. I hadn’t taken the appropriate time to grieve, and my friend noticed. So I did. For 13 weeks, we tackled what I thought was an unbearable existence- the pain of death. And it was hard. We just sat with our pain, knowing we could do nothing to change what had happened. For many, including me, it was really the first time we opened up our broken hearts. And little by little, as we kept on coming back to those sessions, the pain became a bit more manageable. Soon I discovered that I was able to wake up one day and get out of bed; then I was able to put one foot in front of the other; then I was able to smile again. And somewhere toward the end of our journey, I felt joy slowly returning to my soul. There was a day when I wondered if I’d ever experience joy again. But it came. And it came not because life suddenly got easier or better; it came because of Jesus. I used to think that joy was an emotion I felt, or the butterflies that tickled my stomach or the sheer happiness that I experienced when my plans worked out just the way I imagined. But through this 13 week journey, I discovered that joy was none of these. Joy was Jesus. And He can never be taken away. 

Joy is knowing that Jesus will be present when it all falls apart. And take my word: it will eventually all fall apart. Everything we work so hard for will one day come to an end. But Jesus will remain. Even this merry band of disciples is about to be shattered and scattered, but it is not the end. One of the Bible verses I’ve committed to memory is Romans 8: 38-39, which says this: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Nothing can separate us from God’s love. That’s the rock on which we stand when it all comes crashing down. It was out of this confidence, a confidence in God’s love, that Jesus was able to look at his friends and say, “Your grief will turn to joy.” It was out of this confidence that Jesus was able to face His own dire straits and believe that a cross and a grave were only the ends of a chapter, and not the end of the story. Our times of grief and pain are real, but they aren’t the entirety of who we are. They play a role in our makeup, but they are not our identity. And in good time, as we keep seeking Jesus, those reservoirs of joy that feel so empty now will be made whole again. 

Maybe this is why the author of Hebrews writes this: (12:1-2) “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” I think this is what my friend Amos practiced in his life. I think this is his answer to the question I posed at the beginning. He lived with joy in the midst of pain because he clung to a truth that could not be shaken. No matter what others had done to him, they could not undo what Jesus had done in him. No matter how much of his property they destroyed, they could not touch his eternity. And no matter how many times they beat him, Amos held fast to the promise that Jesus had already won the war. And in a way, you could say that his passion for Christ grew even stronger as he shed his tears of suffering. Amos fixed his eyes on Jesus, and in so doing, discovered a joy that not even Satan could steal. 

Joy is renewed when we fix our eyes on Christ. When we fix our eyes on Christ, we see the big picture. And what’s the big picture? It’s this: John 16: 33- “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” Take heart, brothers and sisters. Jesus has already overcome the world. And that is why we joy can be ours today. Amen. 

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Table Talk: You Are My Friends

March 23/24, 2019 Table Talk: You Are My Friends
John 15: 1-17

Today we continue our Table Talk sermon series, looking at the conversations Jesus holds with his disciples in the Upper Room. As Jesus prepares for his arrest and crucifixion, he has some important words to leave with those who will pick up the mantle of His ministry and continue the work of calling forth the Kingdom of God. Today we turn to John 15. Would you read with me? 

You ever have one of those moments where you discover something you never knew you were missing? The old adage says, “You never know what you have until it’s gone.” But for me, it was more like, “I never knew what I didn’t have until I found it.” That moment for me was a Bible study during my sophomore year of college. I walked in with a lot of hesitation, mind you, because who wants to attend a Bible study in college? That wasn’t quite the way to find a girlfriend or live the life of a college kid. But that night was pivotal for me. When we first arrived, there was an awkward silence that filled the room, but soon I struck up a conversation with another guy and BOOM! Just like that, I had a friend. Now, I had all sorts of friendly relationships in high school, but when I met J, this relationship felt different. For the first time in my life, I had what kids call today a bff- a best friend forever. And I can’t tell you how that made me feel. I came alive when I was around J. He pulled the best out me. We shared everything together- stories, memories, hopes, dreams, secret crushes and sports and similar interests. It was almost as if we were brothers separated at birth. It felt like we were cut from the same cloth. That’s how close we became. And it was one of the happiest times of my life because I had a friend. 

Friendship is very much a part of John 15, but I used to gloss over this part of John’s Gospel, in part because the passage about the Vine and the Branches is so important. I’ve preached on this passage numerous times, and for good reason. If we want to be spiritually fruitful and spiritually alive, we have to be connected to the Source- and the Source is Jesus. There’s no other way around it. The source of abundant life is Jesus. Nothing else and no one else can provide eternally good life inside of us. But this little insertion at the end, when Jesus looks into the faces of his disciples and says, “I no longer call you servants; I now call you friends,” has becoming more than meaningful to me. What used to be an afterthought in my faith is now how a vital part of how I understand life with Jesus. And if you’ve never taken the time to consider faith as friendship with God- maybe all you’ve ever heard about is religion or rules or going to church- I’m glad you’re here, because that’s what we’re going to explore together. 

I sat in my office Monday morning with a couple preparing to join their lives together in marriage. During the course of our conversation, I reminded them that what they believe about God matters. What we believe about God impacts every decision we make. It impacts how we spend our money, how we raise our children, how we treat our neighbor…But what’s equally important - and we don’t talk about this enough- is what God believes about us. Earlier in John, you might recall a famous conversation Jesus had with Nicodemus. Nicodemus, as a religious scholar, would’ve believed certain things about God. And Jesus blows his mind when he shares with him for God so loves the world. But here, around this table, Jesus goes a step further. He calls this ragtag group of imperfect people his friends

For three years, these disciples have traveled with Jesus and learned from him. But this was a stunning development. They were just beginning to understand that God’s plan for the world was unfolding before their eyes, but this was an invitation that precious few had every received. In their Jewish upbringing, they would’ve known the stories about Adam, and how God walked with him in the cool of the day, and the stories of Abraham and Moses, who the Bible calls “friends of God.” That was a special relationship with God that not everyone had. Abraham and Moses were heroes of the faith, their stories passed down from generation to generation. And now Jesus, around a common table, has opened up that same door of friendship to these fishermen and tax collectors and ordinary Joe’s and Jane’s. These people, who know more about sinning than sainthood- Peter, James, John, even Judas and the others- are called friends of the one, true Living God., 

You know, the more I try to wrap my head around this, the more absurd it seems. The ancient writer puts it this way from Psalm 8: When I consider your heavens and the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?” In other words, why would the Creator of the Universe pay any attention to human beings? Jesus is holy, gentle and good- it doesn’t seem right that He is here with the disciples. But He is. And he doesn’t simply put up with these disciples or tolerate them; He genuinely likes them. These are not just sinners in need of saving or lost souls who need to be found. These are his friends. When Joanna and I were completing our pre-marriage counseling requirements, our pastor asked us if we loved each other. We kind of raised our eyebrows and said “Of course.” And I’m sure we held hands and looked into each other’s eyes and confirmed that we were definitely in love. But then our pastor asked a question that surprised us. Do you like each other? I hadn’t thought much about that. His point was that over time the lovey-dovey, gooey feelings we experienced in our engagement would fade away. It happens in all relationships, even the strongest ones, which is why it was important we liked each other. And when I look at Jesus sitting around this table with a group of people he’s prepared to die for, it’s clear that He genuinely likes them. Imperfections and all- He likes them. He knows what they’ve done and what they will do, and yet Jesus opens up his table and says “Come and eat with me and drink from the same cup.” We call that grace. It’s grace when Jesus sees us and doesn’t avoid us. It’s grace when Jesus knows us and doesn’t hide from us. It’s grace when Jesus acknowledges the fullness of who we are - warts and all- and yet refuses to abandon us. It’s grace when Jesus inexplicably moves toward us and invites us to experience the tender, healing heart of God. 

This grace is really good news for us today. I don’t have any hard and fast facts about this, but I have to believe there are millions of people in our world who walk around wondering if they’re likable. And I don’t think age has anything to do with it. They aren’t sure they’re the type of people others like. They aren’t even quite sure they like themselves. And this is a problem in our image-saturated world with all sorts convoluted ideas of what it means to be accepted and successful. We look in the mirror and don’t like what we see. We have thoughts that would embarrass us if anyone found out. We buy into all the lies and half-truths that dominate our social media fees and magazine covers. You’ve got to look a certain way, dress a certain way, talk a certain way…if you want to be noticed and liked. And it’s tiring. You remember the old flower game where you pick off one petal, then another, and another and utter the cadence, “She likes me, she likes me not?” There’s no such guessing when it comes to Jesus. He likes you. There’s no question about it. And he wants to be your friend. And there’s no catch. Jesus wants to use you for his purposes, but you are not just an instrument in his hand. Jesus wants you to be part of His Kingdom-building revolution…but you are more than a tool for this divine construction project. Jesus wants you as a friend, and wants to be for you a companion who walks with you through all of your ups and downs. And that’s a tremendous gift. 

I became friends with Jesus during my late high school years, what some people call a conversion. It happened one night in my bedroom, when I sensed God knocking on the door of my heart. So I slipped to my knees and opened that spiritual door and let him in. And it’s been the best decision of my life. But like any friendship, it’s taken some work. And I haven’t always held up my end of the bargain. High school and college were challenging seasons, and there were times I didn’t foster our relationship in a healthy way. There were even moments when I thought about walking away, especially when obedience to his way of life conflicted with my own youthful passions. But Jesus never wavered. When I questioned the goodness of his rules and commands, He continued to love me. When I tried to ignore His call on my life to serve as a pastor, He lovingly pursued me. When I thought that He was trying to limit my fun and take all the joy out of my poor choices, Jesus gave me space to figure it out. He stayed with me through the good and the bad. And over time I discovered that life with Jesus by my side was far better than any other type of existence. Researchers from Michigan State University recently conducted a study that suggests friendships might even be more important than family relationships when it comes to overall health and well-being. And I think Jesus proves this. At least he has proved this in my life. Whether it was navigating a personal storm, enduring a family struggle or saying goodbye to a loved one, Jesus has filled me and ministered to me and provided for me in a way no one else ever could. 

This is what the Prodigal Son learned when he returned home from a lifetime of disobedient living. This is what Nicodemus learned when Jesus invited him to be “born again.” This is what the woman at the well learned when she discovered that Jesus would be her “living water.” And this is what the disciples learn when Jesus says, “I no longer call you servants, but now I call you friends.” In Jesus, we have one who invites us to come and be filled, to come and be his friends, to come and enter into a sacred intimacy with God, who gives us all we need. Revelation puts it this way: Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice, and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me. (Rev. 3: 20). That’s the invitation offered to each of us. 

I want to circle back around real quick to my college friend. Those three years of friendship were some of the best, most joy-filled times of my life. But unfortunately, my friend and I have drifted away. It’s been over ten years since we last had a conversation, and when I try to understand what happened, I’m a little dumbfounded. There was never any animosity or struggle or disagreement. It was just a slow drift. We took our friendship for granted and stopped working at it. We stopped cultivating our friendship, stopped putting in the time to make it work and allowed other parts of our lives to take priority. And I haven’t been the friend I’ve wanted to be. And I mourn that. I mourn what I’ve lost with my friend. 

If we’re not careful, the same reality can happen with our friend Jesus. Maybe for you it’s already happening. Maybe you once had a vibrant relationship with Jesus, but over time, there’s been a slow drift. It might have started out innocently, then became a habit. Maybe you’ve stopped putting in the time and energy that Jesus deserves. Maybe it’s been awhile since you’ve opened your Bible, or took time to pray, or maybe other priorities just got in the way. Or maybe it’s an issue of obedience. Friendship with God is a great gift, but it does require us to live our lives differently. And so there could be all sorts of reasons you’ve drifted from God, but you can change that. Jesus is ready to be your friend again, if that’s what you want. And all you need to do is say yes. As we prepare to come to the table, just like those first disciples, what is being offered to us is nothing less than friendship with God. The Creator of the Universe wants to be your friend; He wants to be the source of your life’s deepest desires. If there’s a hole in your heart, Jesus wants to fill it. If there’s a longing in your soul, Jesus wants to offer you his joy. If you want a Savior who will be a trustworthy friend, Jesus is your guy. If that’s something you want, I invite you to close your eyes and pray with me. Amen. 

Monday, March 4, 2019

Overshadowed by Christ

Overshadowed By Christ
March 2, 2019 Luke 9: 28-43

I’m truly grateful to be in worship with you all this weekend. And especially to return to this story in particular. Saturday nights have become an important part of my weekly rhythm, and as sleep experts and doctors have told us for years, rhythm is important to our overall well-being. Yet even as I say that I acknowledge that rhythm has been hard to find these past few weeks. 

I’ve found it extraordinarily hard to focus these last 15 days or do. Like the wind that whipped through our community last week leaving behind debris and fallen tree limbs, life has recently felt as if a strong current has moved through and disturbed, shaken and reshaped our realities. For me, it started with a phone call from our district superintendent that radically changed the direction of my life and our parish. I wasn’t shocked to get the news about a new appointment, but I wasn’t nearly as prepared as I thought. And then it was another phone call, just a few days later, that my successor was ready to meet with our Parish Lead Team, then announced to the churches. And then last week happened, the Special General Conference of the United Methodist Church, to discuss a way forward regarding human sexuality. All of these occurrences and announcements and decisions have messed with our realities, and they’ve left many of us confused, frustrated, wounded, surprised, anxious and asking the question, “What happens now?” Yet here in the midst of our uncertainty is this wonderful story we call the Transfiguration, a story where Jesus invites three of his closest friends us to travel outside of their realties and instead to experience His. And I think this is a timely passage for us to look at today.  

For the disciples who are invited up the mountain with Jesus (Peter, James and John), it had been eight days since they experienced their own roller coaster of emotions. You know, I never understood why it was only these three who received that invitation, but God certainly had a purpose and a reason. I think this is a good reminder that God meets each of us in different ways. We’ll all experience powerful moments of God’s presence, moments in which we feel that God is more than real, but the ways in which you and I experience God won’t be identical. Some people have a Damascus road story, where they are “blinded by the light,” but others don’t. And that’s ok. We can’t manufacture those experiences, but we can receive them when God invites us in God’s timing. And for Peter, James and John, that invitation comes after an interesting eight days. 

Eight days before this moment, their realities had been shaken. At one point, they had been on a hillside, watching Jesus miraculously feed 5,000 people with only five loaves of bread and two small fish. The next day? They’re hearing sermons about suffering and crosses. That’s quite the internal tug-of-war, isn’t it? The thrill of watching a miracle unfold before your eyes, and then a gut-wrenching lesson on how Jesus intends to save the world through his death? And by the way, if you want to truly find life, you’ll need to look in the aisle labeled “self-denial.” Wow. That’s some serious stuff! It would take at least eight days for the dust to settle on that one! I can’t be certain of what happened over those eight days, but I’m guessing there was a lot of confusion and frustration, a lot of anxieties and concerns, a lot of soul-searching, and of course, the question “What happens now?” When I first started to follow Jesus, I don’t think I really understood that there was another side of the gospel that didn’t include miracles and healing and power. I didn’t realize I was also signing up for “carrying my cross” and denying myself. But that’s the truth, isn’t it? There is no resurrection without crucifixion. There is no Easter without Good Friday. There is no new life without the death on an old one. And I wonder if the disciples were just as surprised to discover this as I was? So in the midst of trying to travel this topsy-turvy spiritual terrain, Jesus invites Peter, James and John to go up a mountain and to step in to sacred space

With so much good that needed to be done in his world, and so much good activity we read about in the Gospels, it can be easy to overlook these get-aways that very much were a part of Jesus’ regular rhythm. They weren’t vacations so much as they were sabbaticals, and from time to time, Jesus knew his primary task was to cultivate space for God to create, restore, and empower. Even for Jesus, the demands of life in general and his ministry in particular could be draining, and so turning to sacred space where he could be with God was vital. And if that’s true for Jesus, then it’s doubly true for us. That’s one of the reasons why the church has traditionally worked a day of worship into our weekly calendars. We need time to step away from life as we know it, to clear the clutter of all that is good and not good and uncertain, all that distracts and grabs for our attention, to simply be with God. And after eight days of questioning and trying to come to grips with what they’ve just heard, the disciples need God more than ever. 

I don’t know if you’ve discovered this yet, but life is hard. And life doesn’t get any easier because of faith. Faith gives us a solid approach to navigate the challenges of a world that sometimes leaves us filled with energy and joy and sometimes leaves us drained and wiped out, but faith doesn’t magically transform the world from bad to good. In fact, Jesus lets us in on a secret when he prays his high priestly prayer in John: “Father, my prayer is not that you take them out of the world, but that you protect them from the evil one” (John 17: 15). Jesus doesn’t hide the fact that our world is fractured and in need of redemption, but that work of redemption is nothing short of life-giving. Last week, four of our young Parish disciples took their first steps toward confirmation, where they will publicly own a faith in Christ that their parents have modeled for them. The height of their confirmation will be the moment when they proclaim, “I believe Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior,” which is our way of saying we’ve invited Jesus into our realities to change the direction and shape of our lives. But there will be moments when that confident, beautiful faith is shaken. A diagnosis. An unexpected phone call. A deflated dream. A broken relationship. A challenging General Conference. A wounded reality. And it’s those moments that call for a story like the Transfiguration, a story that invites us up the mountain, with all our hopes and dreams, to experience the surprising, overshadowing, and yet glorious presence of God. 

The first surprise of this wonderful moment is that Jesus is more than what or who the disciples initially thought. They knew he was messiah, a healer, a teacher and genuine good guy. But now they saw Jesus for who Jesus truly was- the Son of God. Jesus was transfigured before them, his beauty and glory revealed in a much needed way. And it couldn’t have come at a better time. Their confidence was a bit shaken. Watching Jesus feed 5,000 was a boost. They could’ve stayed there forever! But self-denial and crosses? They weren’t sure this was the same guy! We’ve had those questions, haven’t we? I know I have- plenty of times. I remember a conversation I once had with my dad, when I was really struggling with his cancer journey. I felt betrayed by God, let down by the One whom I knew could do anything, confused as to why this was happening to man who loved the Lord. And when I asked that very question out loud, my dad redirected me back to Jesus when he responded, “Why not?” Jesus is who Jesus is. And nothing can change that. Not even a cross. He’s not who I always want him to be, not who I always demand him to be, not who I always hope him to be. He is the Son of God who is reconciling this broken world to the Father, and nothing about my life or reality can alter who Jesus is! If you’re in a season of confusion and bewilderment, and it’s caused you to question whether Jesus is who Jesus says he is, it might be a good idea to set aside some sacred space, enter a time of prayer and let God cover you with his presence. Travel up the proverbial mountain and let God help you see again. 

The second surprise the disciples experience is a heavenly voice (God’s voice) that compels them to listen to Jesus. I find this interesting, because this implies that maybe they weren’t always listening to Jesus before. Have you ever been there? They were following, believing, ministering, worshipping…but that doesn’t mean they were truly listening. And I get it. Sometimes Jesus says some really hard stuff. Sometimes Jesus has some really difficult teachings. And if I’m honest with myself, there are times I’ve selectively heard Jesus and cherry-picked what he’s said. I know Jesus says I should love my enemy, and even though I acknowledge that his type of love produces peace, I don’t always want to hear it. There are times I’m so gung-ho about being right that I forget to actually love others, even if it causes them harm. And there are times I value my voice above all others, even though my voice is human and severely prone to misjudgment. 

On this mountain, the disciples are invited to block out all that noise…all that noise that distracts and clamors for their attention; All that noise that tries to tickle their ears and fills them with half-truths; all that noise that sounds good but leaves them unfulfilled. On that mountain, God invites the disciples to return to the only one who can rightly claim to be the voice of Truth. And not only do they see Jesus in a new light, they also begin to listen to what the man is saying. And what he says is life-giving and good. It might mean a cross; it might mean suffering; it might mean self-denial. But Jesus will take these negative ideas and redeem them for abundant good. How do you set aside time to listen for God’s voice? Finding space to return to the voice of Jesus in a world filled with a million voices that will tell us anything we want to hear needs to be part of our regular rhythm of faith. There are no secret formulas for how this is done, just desire mixed with some intentionality. One of our bishops during last week’s General Conference gathering, was asked to pray before a particular vote, and her opening plea set the tone: Come Holy Spirit, come. Come, Holy Spirit, come. Come Holy Spirit, come. 

This story, of course, does not end on the mountain. No, Jesus doesn’t let the disciples linger in that sacred space; he beckons them back into the messy existence of life that will lead to a cross. But that transfigured moment will go with them. And when they walk back down into a reality that sometimes feels like despair and looks hopelessly lost and utterly confusing, they’ll have new tools with which to navigate. A vision of Christ who is God’s own Son…with them, leading them, urging them on. A voice of truth that cuts through chaos…calling to trust and obey. A reason to press forward…because the Kingdom of God is closer now than it ever has been. I don’t know what that looks like, but brothers and sisters, I know it’s happening. There are some great days ahead. There are some difficult days ahead. There are some crosses to bear and some resurrections to encounter. And Jesus will be in the midst of all. So let us find those sacred spaces to know Christ for who Christ is, and then find the courage to follow him wherever he leads. Amen. 

Monday, February 4, 2019

Unafraid: Fear of Failure

Unafraid: Fear of Failure
Matthew 14: 22-33

We’ve looked at all sorts of fears over the past few weeks- anxieties and loneliness, people of different backgrounds and persuasions, and the fear that everything we know is falling apart. Today as we continue to build a faith that can face the future unafraid, we’re going to tackle another common fear- the fear of failure. Let’s read. 

Fixer Upper star Joanna Gaines recently revealed her battle with perfection in a convicting article posted by numerous sites. ( As a skilled house flipper, Grimes knows a thing or two about taking imperfect houses and turning them into somebody’s dream home. But lately, Grimes has started to notice that the pressure to appear perfect had taken an unhealthy turn. She began to critique every every post on her Instagram. She would change the lighting just so, make her kids put on nicer clothes, or alter the position of flower vases. The reason? She didn’t want to fall short of anyone’s expectations.

Although Joanna Grimes didn’t admit this in her article, what she experienced is common for most of us: the fear of failing. Although there aren’t any hard and fast facts about failure that I could easily find, I believe it’s true to say we all wrestle with the thought failure from time to time. Whether it’s wanting to impress a person, achieve our self-imposed goals or establish a new habit, the common denominator that often lurks in the background is the possibility of failure. And the truth is? We need it. Failure is a powerful tool God uses to shape, form and teach us. And we aren’t getting out of this world without some type of failure. I don’t know whether that surprises you or makes you cringe, but failure is very much a normal part of our human experience. 

One of the first steps we can take to conquer fear of failure is to talk about it. Sometimes the best solution is just to announce the elephant in the room, but failure is one elephant our culture would rather keep ignoring. Somehow, over time, the American Dream has devolved from life, liberty and pursuit of happiness to the unreasonable pursuit of perfection. And since perfection is such a passion in our world,  I picked a few big names to see how they stack up. My first choice was Lebron James, one of the greatest basketball players of all time, who is inching closer is to setting the all time points scored record. Most prognosticators suggest that he’ll claim that title around the year 2022, when he’ll be 38. So far, Lebron James has successfully made about 11,600 of his shot attempts. That’s phenomenal! But do you know how many he’s missed? About 11,400. On his quest to become arguably the greatest basketball player of all-time, Lebron James has failed to make almost half of his shots, but no one sees Lebron James as a failure. The same could be said for practically every great leader of all time. 

Martin Luther King Jr. was my second choice, and King is widely regarded as a champion and pioneer of Civil Rights. But it almost didn’t happen. His first attempt to cultivate desegregation in Albany ,Georgia was met with a loud thud and failed. Yet we recently celebrated King’s legacy- not as a failure, but as leader. And how many fans of Harry Potter would be so disappointed if author J.K. Rowling had allowed discouragement to undo her passion and perseverance? Her first book was rejected 12 times- 12 times!!!- before she finally caught a small break. None of these success stories happen without failure. None of these lives and legacies were forged outside of disappointment and letdowns and imperfections. And that’s because failure isn’t an option for us. If you are human, (or a groundhog that lives up north) you will fail at something and probably many times over. And that’s ok, because Jesus is in the business of redeeming failure!

I’ve never noticed this before, but I’m super grateful for the way Matthew records this amazing story of Jesus and Peter walking on the water. That’s why reading Scripture is so important. When we read Scripture, God meets us in new and unexpected ways that we can use to challenge our fears and misconceptions! There’s a word that begins this passage that invites us to dig a little deeper, and that word is immediately. Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat. I don’t want to miss this opportunity to point this out, because I think it’s important. What’s just happened has probably been one of the most exciting things the disciples have ever seen- the feeding of the 5,000. You might remember that story, where Jesus takes five loaves of bread and two small fish and miraculously multiplies them? I can’t even begin to think how our Twitter feeds and Facebook pages would blow up if this happened today. It was an absolutely smashing success. But immediately, Jesus made the disciples get into the boat. Doesn’t that strike you as a bit odd? There are no trophy presentations or awards banquets, no celebration, no post-feeding press conferences, no championship parades. Just get in the boat. And then Jesus leaves them. 

I won’t pretend to know Jesus’ motivations, but I have a few guesses. My first guess is that Jesus didn’t want his disciples to grow comfortable. It would’ve been very easy to say, “You know what? That was hard work. Let’s just stay right here and enjoy what is.” That’s not the way Jesus builds His kingdom. My second guess is that he didn’t want the disciples to believe that feeding large crowds of people was the norm. And it wasn’t. Most of Jesus’ ministry happened with very small groups of people, so this story, as successful as it was, was an outlier. There’s even a moment in the Gospel of John when most of the crowd goes away from Jesus, disgruntled with his teachings. And its important for the disciples, and for us, to understand this other side. 

This teaching moment is set on stormy sea. Isn’t that a great way to define what life often feels like, stuck in a mess with Jesus no where to be found? The disciples are alone, with visions of multiplied food stuck in their head, thinking this is the way it will always be. And then they see him- Jesus- doing another remarkable deed, doing what nobody thought could be done. He was walking on water! They could get used to this. Leave it to Jesus and he’ll feed 5,000. Leave it to Jesus and he’ll walk on water. Leave it to Jesus to do all the risky things required to make this world more like heaven. And then he changes the narrative once and for all, “Come.” With that one word, the disciples are invited to do the miracle instead of observe. And Peter takes a step out of the boat.

Have you ever been asked to step out of the boat? Maybe talk to a co-worker about salvation or start a new ministry? Maybe offer forgiveness to one who has hurt you or give up some of your time to help others? Those Holy Spirit nudges can feel threatening. Watching Jesus take risks is one thing, but stepping up to the plate to take your own swing at it is a different story. But that’s what Peter chooses to do. I love that moment when Peter throws off his “right mind” and jumps overboard. He’s the only  one, by the way. That’s one of the challenges with a fear of failure. It often prevents us from taking risks. But success in anything doesn’t happen because of luck; it happens when we take risks. Think about your life for a second. Where would you be if you hadn’t applied to your college? Or said yes to your spouse? Or took the new joy?Risk is a natural part of life! Maybe if he had taken the time to think about it, he wouldn’t have done it. Maybe he would’ve thought, “I’m not Jesus; I can’t do that.” Or “I don’t have the right training or education.” Or “I’m not called.” All of which are skilled risk-avoidance techniques. But Peter jumps in. You can’t be a disciple without taking risk. 

At first, Peter experiences a glimpse of success, a few positive steps on the water…but ultimately, Peter’s moment of glory ends in a big, wet, embarrassing failure. He sinks. There’s really no other way to write the story. When the winds whip up and the waves get stronger and the challenges get bigger, Peter’s world begins to cave in. Had that been me, I would’ve been thinking, “I should’ve just stayed on the boat with the others! What was I thinking? I shouldn’t even have made the attempt.” And that’s the type of thinking that plagues us, isn’t it? Those are the thoughts that keep us from taking risks. But just as Peter’s vision of becoming a water-walker begins to sink, Jesus plunges his hand into the water, pulls up his friend, and asks, “Why did you doubt?

Overcoming our failure is not about sizing up our risks or abilities, it’s about sizing up the One who call us. You see, that’s why Peter initially stepped out of the boat. The wind and the waves had always been there, but so had Jesus. And Peter believed that Jesus was stronger than the storm. But when Peter found himself personally impacted by the storm, doubt began to creep in. Talking about the storm and viewing the storm from a distance are not the same as leading in the midst of it. Peter began to transfer his focus away from the power and presence of Jesus…and that always leads to failure. But Peter also learned something else that day. Even when he’s sinking, Jesus is there. This is an important moment for Peter. It’s a moment when he learns that Jesus isn’t about to give up on him and a moment when he learns to trust in the power and presence of Christ, even when it’s tough. And this story of failure and trust will serve him well, because just two chapters later, Jesus will look into the eye of this risk-taking failure and utter words that have gone down in history, “And I tell you, that you are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not prevail.”

The biggest non-profit, world-changing, history-altering group of people was built on an epic failure and 11 friends who stayed in the boat. I wonder what that means for us? Well, I think it means at least three things: First, God isn’t nearly as scared as failure as we are. We must learn to trust God and refuse to define our worth by our “wins.” Secondly, God works in the area of miracles and expects us to play a part. There are times we have to get out of the boat and join the party. If you haven’t experienced God’s thrilling ability to do the miraculous, you haven’t stepped out far enough. Thirdly, God’s expertise lies in the area of redemption. Our rock bottoms, our failures, are God’s new beginnings for us. So the next time you feel like you’re slipping, you probably are. But that’s nothing to fear. Look up for a hand reaching down…and let God write the next chapter of your story. Amen.