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.