It’s a Miracle! Sermon Series – #6: The Cross-Eyed Miracle

SCRIPTURE – Mark 8:22-26 -

22 They came to Bethsaida, and some people brought a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him. 23 He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. When he had spit on the man’s eyes and put his hands on him, Jesus asked, “Do you see anything?”

24 He looked up and said, “I see people; they look like trees walking around.”

25 Once more Jesus put his hands on the man’s eyes. Then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. 26 Jesus sent him home, saying, “Don’t even go into the village.”

The Cross-Eyed Miracle
Mark 8:22-26
Nov. 23, 2014

We conclude our sermon series on miracles today. We’ve seen Jesus do a lot of amazing things these past few weeks. He’s provided two miraculous catches of fish, healed a man’s withered hand, cast out demons, and even raised a girl from the dead, all for the purpose of helping us get a glimpse of what God’s kingdom is like. For just a moment, he’s shown us a world with no pain, no death, where everyone has enough to eat. In other words, he’s helped us see that there’s more to see than just this world around us. So it’s only appropriate that the last miracle we look at is healing a blind man. It’s a peculiar story, only found in Mark’s gospel. The other three gospel writers may have left it out because, on first reading, it sounds like Jesus botches the healing. But, as usual, there’s more at play here than meets the eye.

This story comes at an important time in Mark’s text. For a while now Jesus has been dealing with two groups of people who have caused him constant consternation: the Pharisees and the disciples. The Pharisees have been a thorn in his side because they have steadfastly and stubbornly opposed Jesus’ teachings, unwilling to see things from his kingdom-of-God point of view. They are blinded to who he really is.

On the other hand, the disciples have been eagerly following Jesus, but have also failed to recognize the true identity of the man in front of them. Despite Jesus’ patience, they can’t seem to grasp that he is revealing to them a greater truth than what they have experienced. In the first part of chapter 8, Jesus feeds 4000 people with baskets of food left over. After the feeding, he sternly warns the disciples about the Pharisees, but as usual they completely miss the point. And Jesus says, “Do you still not understand who I am? Do you have eyes but fail to see?”

With both groups, Jesus is dealing with a case of spiritual blindness, people who have eyes, but fail to see. So with that setup, we get this story of the healing of the blind man. The blind man is brought to Jesus, but instead of Jesus healing him, he takes him outside the village. The village of Bethsaida had been the site of several of Jesus’ miracles, but in Matthew 11 Jesus curses the town because they had seen all these signs of who he really is and they still didn’t get it. They were probably looking for Jesus to wow them by pulling another rabbit out of his hat, but he wasn’t in the entertainment business. So he leads the man out of town, away from the distractions and clutter.

I took a youth group on a weekend team-building retreat once, and one of our activities was to partner up and lead each other through the woods with one of us blind-folded. I earnestly prayed to God not to let me get paired with Craig, the group’s biggest show-off and troublemaker. He was about as sharp as a bowling ball, so I wasn’t ready to put my life in his hands. Of course, I was partnered with Craig. He led me down paths, over fallen trees, under drooping branches. When he said to step over a log, I had to trust we weren’t on the edge of a cliff. And he never misled me. Likewise, Jesus leads this man away from a place of disease to a place of healing. But it’s really, really hard to trust Jesus to do these things because we aren’t aware of our own blindness. Sometimes we live with blinders on, not seeing what Jesus can do for us and where he can lead us.

They arrive outside the village and Jesus performs the healing by spitting in the man’s eyes. That may seem a little rude to us, but the general understanding in Jesus’ time was that there was healing power in saliva. Think about it: when you burn your finger, what’s the first thing you do? You put it in your mouth. Which makes me glad that we don’t believe there’s healing power in earwax, because we’d look pretty silly. So Jesus spits in this man’s eyes and puts his hand on him and asks, “Do you see anything?” And the man responds that he sees people, but they look like trees walking around. Jesus then touches him a second time, and the man’s sight is fully restored.

I wore glasses or contact lenses from seventh grade until 2001, when I was lucky enough to have Lasik eye surgery. I got a discount because my aunt worked for the doctor, but I don’t like to tell people that, because it sounds a bit sketchy. Discount muffler service? Yes. Discount eye surgery? Not so good. And it came with a free set of knives! My vision before the surgery was horrible. After the surgery, as I laid in the recovery room, I opened my eyes and could already tell a difference. The trees I saw walking around had facial features. By the next day, there was a noticeable improvement. Within weeks I had 20/20 vision.

In our story, this man doesn’t see clearly right away, either, but I don’t think that has anything to do with Jesus’ power to heal or the man’s ability to see. Instead, what’s going on here is directly related to the blindness of the disciples and the Pharisees and the Bethsaida crowds. Jesus had become known, against his will, for his signs and wonders. The crowds loved him for it, the Pharisees hated him for it, and the disciples were confused by it. Jesus was known as a miracle worker.

But there’s way more to Jesus than that. With his first touch, he helped the man see. With his second touch, he helped the man understand what he saw. The Pharisees, the disciples, the crowds, they all saw Jesus. But they didn’t know him; they didn’t understand him. “Do you have eyes but fail to see?” What we choose to look at becomes our focus. They were so focused on Jesus’ ability to heal that they were blinded to the meaning of Jesus’ healings; they failed to see the glimpse of God’s kingdom that Jesus was showing them.

Developing that kind of vision takes time, just as it took time for my eyes to completely heal from the surgery. But often our prayers reflect a desire for Jesus to act now. John Calvin called it instantaneous grace: heal me now, forgive me now, give me stronger faith now. Calvin says on rare occasions the grace of Christ is poured out all at once, but most of the time it flows to us drop by drop. We think God should act on our timetable, but then it wouldn’t be grace, it would be God acting as our spiritual vending machine. Receiving Christ’s grace gradually, drop by drop, may actually be the best way, because when we experience God’s grace one drop at a time, one moment at a time, we savor it more and don’t come to think we deserve it.

The key is opening our eyes to see the drops of grace all around us. We’re human, so naturally we don’t get it the first time. We need a second touch, or a third, or a fourth. Or a thousandth. We need constant spiritual eye surgery, we need Christ’s repeated touches to help us see with our hearts the work of God in our lives. That’s how my faith has developed. I didn’t have instant faith. Instead, my faith has grown, drop by drop, as I’ve seen God’s presence in my life. Each day, I pray to wake up with a little more clarity, with my ability to see God at work a little closer to 20/20 than it was yesterday.

I remember early in my ministry I was driving back from a regional meeting with several older, more experienced pastors. I was intimidated by their wisdom and their poise and starting to doubt whether this whole ministry thing was really for me. God had shown me my call to serve, but I was focused on all the reasons I wasn’t good enough. I was choosing to look at all the reasons I thought I shouldn’t be a minister.

As I was driving, I passed an exit signed I’d never noticed before. It said, “Paw Paw, 1 mile.” I guess there’s a town in Illinois called Paw Paw. That’s also what I called my grandfather who had passed away a little over a year ago. Paw Paw was always my biggest supporter and was so proud of me for becoming a minister. When I got to the exit, the sign said, “Paw Paw” and had an arrow pointing up the ramp. Only, to me, it looked like it was pointing up to somewhere else. Ok, God, I get it. I get it. Drop, drop, drop. And there was God’s grace. Just when I needed it, there was another touch from Christ, helping me to see a little more clearly the kingdom of God around me.

We are the constant recipients of God’s miraculous grace, if we have the eyes to see it. When someone says, “I’m praying for you,” that’s grace. When a child says, “I love you,” that’s grace. When someone takes a moment to smile at you, even if you don’t deserve a smile at that particular moment, that’s grace.  If we only look for the signs and wonders, if we only look for what Jesus can do for us, if we only look for God when we’re in trouble, we will probably be disappointed. We may think we can see just fine, but if that’s all we are looking for, we are really blind to how God is at work in our lives. A great way to end each day is to take a moment and reflect on this question: Where did I experience God’s grace today? If you can’t answer that, maybe you’re looking for the wrong things.

Helen Keller said, “It’s a terrible thing not to be able to see. But it’s even more terrible to be able to see but to not have vision.” What we choose look at becomes our focus. So I wonder, as we approach Advent this year, where will our focus be? Will the image of baby Jesus be blurry, crowded out by all the other distractions of the season? Will we set our eyes on the things we buy, the things we get? Or will we look at the baby lying in the manger and what his birth means for us this year? What we look at becomes our focus. Each time God touches our lives, we can see a little better his kingdom all around us. How many times will God touch us? As many as it takes. But the real question is: Will we have the eyes to see it, to take in and savor the drops of grace all around us? Where is our focus? We have eyes; may God grant us the ability to see.

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It’s a Miracle! Sermon Series – #5: Go Fish!

SCRIPTURE – John 21:1-14 -  After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards[b] off.

When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread.10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11 So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

It’s a Miracle! Sermon Series
#5 – Go Fish!
John 21:1-14
Nov. 16, 2014

Does this miracle story sound a bit familiar? If you were with us when this series started a few weeks ago, you may recognize some similarities to the story we look at in Luke 5, where the disciples, after a long night of fruitless fishing, are encouraged by Jesus to try again, and end up hauling in a catch of fish so big that their boat couldn’t hold them all. Jesus calls them to follow him, promising they will become fishers of people. It must have been so exciting at the beginning of their time with Jesus, setting sail on a journey with this rabbi from Nazareth who just might be something more than just a rabbi from Nazareth.

So you see why the disciples may have had déjà vu in this story: the boats, the nets, the sound of the waves, a stranger calling out to them. Only this time, the circumstances couldn’t be more different. The first time, they were fresh, rugged, ready to drop their nets and follow Jesus. Now they are tired, emotionally raw, ready to drop their nets and just give up.

Two fish stories with many similarities, but canyons apart in the emotional state of Peter and the other disciples. They’ve just been through the most incredible three years of their lives: following Jesus, witnessing his miracles, listening to his teachings. They loved him beyond measure and had given up all they had to be with him. They just knew he was the Messiah. And then…he was arrested. And beaten. And brutally murdered. This was not supposed to happen! It was such traumatic experience for many of them that they ran away. Even Peter, the leader of the disciples, actually denied even knowing Jesus three times. They had all abandoned Jesus when he needed them most.

Then, John tells us, while the disciples are huddled together in a locked room, afraid that they might be the next ones on the cross, a resurrected Jesus appears to them and tells them not to be afraid. He tells them the Holy Spirit will be with them, and he even shows Thomas his wounds so that he would believe. Maybe the dream didn’t have to end. Maybe life would be different, even without Jesus.

And then, it was over. Jesus was gone. No more resurrection appearances, no idea of when the Holy Spirit was coming, no instructions on what to do next. Jesus simply says, “As the father has sent me, so I send you.” To do what? “Wait, Jesus…that’s it? We need a little bit more detail in our marching orders.” What do they do now? They couldn’t stay in Jerusalem. The authorities knew they were friends with Jesus; the disciples might suffer the same punishment. But up until this point, they’ve only been followers of Jesus. Where do you go when you don’t have anyone to follow?

So they go home. What do you do after such a life-changing experience? Have you ever had some mountain-top moment, and then thought, “Wow, I’ve done it. Now what?” We look so forward to the accomplishment that we don’t even think about the letdown. I can remember going to a lot concerts while I was in college. The lights would dim, the band would start playing, we’d rock out for two hours, then they would leave the stage and the lights would come on and we’d all go, “Hmm. Oh well.” The very moment you say, “I doesn’t get any better than this,” that means it can only get worse from there.

The disciples had just lived three years of, “It can’t get any better than this.” And now it was over. What do you do after spending three years with Jesus? How in the world do you follow that? The disciples had no idea. So, with fear and sorrow still in their hearts, with their faces sagging, they simply go back to doing what they did before Christ filled their nets and called them out. “I’m going fishing,” said Peter, but it wasn’t really about fishing. You can almost hear the sigh of resignation in his voice. “I’m going fishing.” What else is there to do?

Remember, fishing for the disciples was more than just a diversion; it was how they made a living before Jesus came along. For many of them, it was the only thing they knew how to do without him. Jesus’ life on earth had ended, but theirs hadn’t, and they still had to put food on the table and a roof over their heads. So they go fishing. And even that is a letdown! The spend all night fishing and don’t catch a single fish, the feelings of failure as fishermen piled on top of their feelings of failure as disciples. Can you picture their mood when, in the morning, a stranger appears and says, “So fellas, catch any fish last night?” I have a feeling the disciples said a few choice words that didn’t make it into the Bible.

Then the stranger (we know who it is) invites them to do something quite peculiar. The disciples had spent the night fishing off one side of the boat. That was probably the way they had always done it. But the stranger says, “Throw your nets on the other side.” But what he was saying wasn’t really about fishing. He invites them to change their methodology, to see things from a different perspective. Do you know the definition of insanity? It’s doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. And a night of fishing without catching anything would surely drive someone insane. But this stranger told them to try something new, to see things from a new perspective.

When I was in college I took a photojournalism class. We were given these primitive 35-millimeter cameras to use, a Pentax K-1000. I was used to the cheap point-and-shoot cameras, so this was a learning experience for me. I shot my first roll of film and developed it in the darkroom. But when the images appeared on the paper, they were all blurry. I took them to my professor and said, “Look at these pictures. Something’s wrong with my camera.” And he said, “Did you adjust the focus?” And I said, “What’s the focus?” So I took the camera and held it up to my eye, and he turned the lens, and everything that was blurry came into focus. And I said, “Can I take those pictures again before you give me a grade?”

Sometimes, when seen through human eyes, life seems blurry, the path forward is out of focus. We can’t quite see things clear in our mind; we lack the clarity to understand why something is happening and where God is in the picture. Then Jesus invites us to turns the lens a bit, to see things, not through our own eyes, but through God’s eyes. And suddenly, things change. One moment things seem hopeless, the next you see possibilities you never saw before. One moment your problems seem too big to be budged and the next you discover handles on them you didn’t know were there. One moment the net is empty, the next it is full of fish. There’s something alive in there, where before there was nothing but emptiness and darkness.

But we can’t see these things if we keep doing the same things we were doing before Jesus turned the lens for us. I know of many people who had mountain-top experiences at church camp, who welcomed Jesus into their heart, and then went back to being the same jerks they were before church camp. I firmly believe that if we’re the same person after we meet Jesus as we were before we met Jesus, then we didn’t really meet Jesus. Because meeting Jesus changes you. It fundamentally turns the lens on life. Sorry turns to joy. Cynicism turns to optimism. Despair turns to hope. But if we go back to doing the same things we were doing, being the same people we were, we’re going to miss this whole catch of fish Jesus has waiting for us.

I don’t know that this story is an actual supernatural miracle. It could be, for sure. But the miracle of the fish in this story might be secondary to the miracle of the disciples not doing things the way they had always done them. You know how hard it can be to get church people to change? Lord have mercy! “We’ve been fishing all night! What’s different about the other side of the boat?” The difference is that’s where Jesus called them to be. What we have here, folks, is a call story, just like the first catch of fish. Because sometimes – like every day – we need to be reminded that Jesus has called us, and because of that, we can’t go back to doing the same old things. What is the other side of the boat for you? What’s a source of frustration or hopelessness for you that Christ can turn into an abundance of blessing?

The story ends with a meal of fish and bread, surely calling to the disciples’ mind another time by the seashore when Jesus took fish and bread and fed multitudes. In that story, when the disciples complained about the lack of food for the crowd, Jesus said, “You feed them.” Just after our story today, Jesus will tell Peter three times, “Feed my sheep.” For three years the disciples had been nourished by Jesus’ teachings and his presence with them. He had filled their spiritual nets to overflowing with his abundance love, and grace. How could they go back to they way things used to be? How could they just go fishing for fish? There were so many people who needed to be fed.

I believe we are here this morning because, somehow, Christ has touched our lives. Maybe we’ve had a relationship with Christ since before we can remember. Maybe we’re searching for the “after” story that goes with our painful “before” story. Maybe we’re not even sure if Jesus is real. But we’re here, to be among God’s people, to hear God’s call to us, to share a meal that reminds us of Christ’s presence.  After this, how can we go back to doing the same old things? What will you do differently after you leave this place? Christ has come into our lives and changed things at the deepest levels. There’s light where there use to be darkness; there’s fish where there used to be empty nets. We have been fed, and we’ll never go hungry.

Now, Christ says, there are a lot of other hungry people out there just waiting to be offered nourishment. It’s as simple as a friendly smile, or a compassionate ear, or a show of patience, or an invitation to church. Isn’t it amazing what we can see when once Christ turns the lens on our lives? Can you imagine what difference that could make in the life of someone else? Jesus has supplied you with the abundant catch. You’re not the person you were before. You are a walking miracle, the embodiment of Christ’s love and grace in this hurting world. So now what? Are you just gonna go fishing? You feed them.

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It’s a Miracle! sermon series – #3: Girl, Get Up!

SCRIPTURE – Luke 8:40-42, 49-56

40 Now when Jesus returned, the crowd welcomed him, for they were all waiting for him.41 Just then there came a man named Jairus, a leader of the synagogue. He fell at Jesus’ feet and begged him to come to his house, 42 for he had an only daughter, about twelve years old, who was dying.

49 While he was still speaking, someone came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead; do not trouble the teacher any longer.” 50 When Jesus heard this, he replied, “Do not fear. Only believe, and she will be saved.” 51 When he came to the house, he did not allow anyone to enter with him, except Peter, John, and James, and the child’s father and mother. 52 They were all weeping and wailing for her; but he said, “Do not weep; for she is not dead but sleeping.” 53 And they laughed at him, knowing that she was dead. 54 But he took her by the hand and called out, “Child, get up!” 55 Her spirit returned, and she got up at once. Then he directed them to give her something to eat.56 Her parents were astounded; but he ordered them to tell no one what had happened.

It’s a Miracle! Sermon Series
#3 – Raising Jairus’ Daughter
Luke 8:40-42, 49-56
Nov. 2, 2014

We continue our sermon series on the miracles of Jesus this morning by looking at one of his resurrections, which I think are the biggest challenges to our rational minds. You might be able to explain away a miraculous feeding or the healing of someone’s hand. But unless you believe in zombies, there’s simply no explaining a person being brought back from the dead. And the person who is resurrected, unless it’s Jesus himself, is still going to die in the future. So what’s the point?

By this juncture in Luke’s gospel, Jesus’ popularity is reaching rock-star levels. Everywhere he goes people are waiting for him, crowds are forming to see him. He’s becoming known, against his will, as the man who can work miracles. He’s already raised one person from the dead, lifted him right out of the casket. It appears as if he can do anything. That belief is what drives Jairus to seek out Jesus. As the president of the local synagogue, Jairus would have heard about Jesus. In fact, he probably would have been warned by the Pharisees to keep a close eye on Jesus. “Watch this guy, Jairus; if he does anything suspicious, call us.” As a Jewish religious leader, he was expected to help out in the plot against Jesus.

As important as Jairus’ role was as a Jewish leader, he had an even more important part to play in his life: he was a father, and that trumped everything else. We fathers are very protective of our little girls. One time, when Sydney was in first grade, she was punched in the nose by another kid while riding the school bus home. When Leigh called me and told me, I admit that I stopped thinking like a pastor for a moment when I thought about what I wanted to do the kid who punched her. The father instinct kicked in. That’s why when I say my daughters won’t date until they’re 30, everyone else laughs, but I don’t. We fathers are a protective bunch.

Jairus has that same protective instinct. His only daughter, just  a year away from being a teenager, is dying. So when he sees a chance to restore her to health through this man Jesus, he acts on it, regardless of what his bosses might think, throwing himself at Jesus’ feet. This must have been a strange sight. Jairus the ruler of the synagogue, in his flowing robes and religious garb, on his face in the dust before this itinerant preacher and miracle worker.

But Jairus had been driven far beyond the point of caring about appearances. His daughter was dying. At this time, there was no Jewish belief in eternal life. The prevailing understanding of the day was that the souls of people who died went to Sheol, a murky, mysterious underworld that offered a kind of shadowy, purgatory-like existence. With no expectation of life after death, the death of a young person was considered especially tragic. Their time on earth was all they had. That’s why Jairus is so desperate.

On the way to Jairus’ house, Jesus gets sidetracked by another person looking for healing and that interruption was the girl’s death sentence. A messenger comes to Jairus and delivers the final verdict. Save your breath, don’t waste your time, give up your hope in Jesus. There’s nothing left to do but make funeral arrangements.

The wording of the message that is delivered is a peculiar one. “Your daughter is dead; do not trouble the teacher any longer.” At first that sounds like a brusque brush-off of Jairus’ request. “She’s gone. There’s nothing he can do here.” But I read it as a brush-off of Jesus. “She’s gone. There’s nothing you can do here.” Do we place those same kinds of limits on what Jesus can do in our lives, in our world? Had Jairus believed the message, his daughter would have stayed dead. I wonder what hope is squelched in our lives because we believe there’s nothing Jesus can do here.

Jesus here’s the grim report and says to Jairus, “Don’t be afraid, just believe and she will be saved.” They continue on to Jairus’ house, where they find a crowd already gathering to mourn the girl’s death. Jesus takes a few disciples and the girl’s parents into the house, takes a look at the girl, and pronounces, “She is not dead, she’s sleeping.”

Now, did you hear the reaction? Luke says, “And they laughed at him.” Laughed! At Jesus! “They laughed at him.” Who is “they?” I can’t believe it was the parents who laughed. They’re the ones who had faith in Jesus in the first place. And his disciples knew better than to laugh; they’d seen what he can do. Maybe it was the servants or the mourners outside the house who laughed. Would you have laughed? I probably would have. Sleeping? We saw her chest stop moving. We can’t feel a pulse. We know this guy has touched a few lepers and calmed a storm, but this girl is dead. No one has that kind of power. There’s nothing he can do here. Would you have laughed?

Sarah did. When a visitor told her and Abraham that she was going to have a baby at age 90, she laughed. When we’re faced with impossible circumstances, the only thing we see in front of us is a brick wall. And then God shows up and said, “That’s not a wall, that’s a door,” and we say, “Are you blind? That’s bricks and mortar! There’s no getting past that diagnosis, no finding another job, no chance for love.” Do we laugh? Do we make light of the promises Jesus has made to us?

When Jesus goes into the house, he sees the girl lying there on the bed. Is there any worse feeling than that? At Crestwood, we know something about sick children, don’t we? Two of our own, Milly Bles and Holly Schoeder, have recently been the little girls lying on the bed. And we’ve probably experienced similar things in our families. I remember when our daughter Molly was about seven months old, she had to get tubes put in her ears. That’s probably the simplest surgery in the history of surgeries, but when they wheeled her back on the gurney through the surgery doors, Leigh and I just dissolved into tears. And then five seconds later they wheeled her out. “We’re done!” But when it’s your child, there’s such thing as a minor surgery. It is soul-level painful to see a child lying there.

Jairus is not the only one who feels that pain when he sees his daughter lying there. I believe God also felt that pain. We use many different terms to describe God. Some are nice. God is our Creator of the universe, God is a Shepherd, God is almighty and holy and loving. Some are not so nice. God is a vengeful judge. God is a critical punisher of sins. But I believe this story gives us the term that trumps all terms. Pardon the gender exclusivity here, but it fits our story. First and foremost, God is our Father.

When we hurt, God hurts with us like a father does a child. When we accomplish something, God celebrates with us like a mother does a child. And when we fall ill or make bad decisions or are the victims of cruel circumstances, God grieves for us like a parent does a child. I believe God’s parental love for us is a constant presence for us, even in situations that don’t work out the way we had planned. I’m really glad for Jairus that this story has a happy ending, but we have to acknowledge the painful reality that not all stories end the same way. On this All Saints’ Day, I’m aware that we remember a number of kind, loving people who weren’t healed, who died despite our prayers. Sometimes the girl doesn’t get up off the table, so we have to be careful about telling people that if they just have enough faith, God will fix everything.

This story leads us down that road, doesn’t it? Jesus says to Jairus, “Do not fear, only believe and she will be saved.” Notice he doesn’t say she will be alive again. It doesn’t say she will be resurrected. In the translation the Message, Jesus says, “Trust in me and everything will be all right.” Can everything be all right even if the girl still dies? Yes it can. Maybe not “all right” in the way we want it to be all right. But all right in the sense that we have put our trust in the one Who promises life in the face of death, the One who doesn’t stop working when we think there’s nothing he can do here.

For us today, to have faith in Christ doesn’t mean we believe we’ll always experience a physical miracle. Christ calls not to fear, but to trust. Preacher Barbara Brown Taylor says that if Jairus was able to do that, to trust in Jesus’ power and presence, then he would have survived whatever happened next, even if Jesus had walked into the room, closed his daughter’s eyes with his fingertips, and pulled the sheet over her head. Her father’s belief would have become the miracle at that point, his willingness to believe that she was still in God’s good hands even though she had slipped out of his.

Our faith is not grounded in the fact that Jairus’ daughter was brought back to life. If that’s the basis for our belief, if our faith is predicated on the certainty that Jesus can rescue us from every illness and even physical death, then we’ve set our sights way too low, because at some point, we’re still going to die. Instead, our faith is grounded in the fact that the one who had the power to bring her back from the dead has himself defeated death forever, for all of us. The miracle is not that he can perform resurrections; the miracles is that for all of us, and for all of those who didn’t get up off the operating table or get out of the hospice bed, Christ is the resurrection, that there is something more to our life than our time here on earth. Trusting in that, claiming that promise, even in the face of death, is the  miracle.

By raising Jairus’ daughter, Jesus gives us a glimpse of the kingdom of God, where there is no illness or mourning or death. But not everyone who calls on Jesus’ name receives the same kind of miracle. And yet, we still believe. Faith means refusing to focus on the circumstances and the uncertainties. Faith means taking seriously the promises of God’s presence, the promises of God’s goodness, the promises of God’s faithfulness to us. Faith means believing that God loves us like a father. Even when death seems to have won, through pain and anxiety and grief, when the love of a parent isn’t strong enough to save, we trust. We are in God’s good hands, regardless of what life brings or what life takes away. Thanks be to God.

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It’s A Miracle! Sermon Series – #2: Lending A Hand

SCRIPTURE – Luke 6:6-11 - On another sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught, and there was a man there whose right hand was withered. The scribes and the Pharisees watched him to see whether he would cure on the sabbath, so that they might find an accusation against him.Even though he knew what they were thinking, he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come and stand here.” He got up and stood there. Then Jesus said to them, “I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?” 10 After looking around at all of them, he said to him, “Stretch out your hand.” He did so, and his hand was restored. 11 But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.

It’s a Miracle! Sermon Series
#2 – Lending a Hand
Luke 6:6-11

We continue our sermon series this morning look at the miracles of Jesus. We laid some groundwork last week that will be important for us to remember moving forward. First, we learned that in most of these stories, the miracle itself is only of secondary importance to the larger context of what’s going on. And second, we learned that the purpose of Jesus’ miracles was not to entertain or even to provide healing. The primary purpose of the miracles was to give those who witnessed them a glimpse of what God’s kingdom is like, where there is no more death, everyone is feed, etc. So hold onto those two thoughts as we move into our miracle today about the healing of a man with a withered hand.

But first, a confession. Not mine, yours! I want you to think about the 10 commandments, or at least the ones you can remember, and then decide which one of them you are most likely to break. Is it “thou shalt not steal?” Then you and I need to talk. Is it “thou shalt not commit murder?” Then you and I need to talk in a very public place. Which commandment are you most likely to violate?

I believe that there is one commandment that 99% of the people in this room will break before the day is even over. That’s the commandment to honor the Sabbath and keep it holy, to give the whole day to God and to rest from our labors. At some point today, we will do some kind of work – answering an email, cooking a meal, going shopping, pumping gas. Of all the commandments, this is the one that probably gets broken on a regular basis most often, and without even a second thought.

That’s a far cry from how the Pharisees observed this law. They were the Jewish religious leaders, and one of their jobs was to make sure God’s law was followed to the letter. They were fundamentalists when it came to the law, making sure that God’s commands were properly honored and followed, especially the Ten Commandments. So in our passage today, when they see Jesus not honoring the Sabbath, he was committing one of the most serious offenses in their eyes. It’s not like he’s breaking law #312. He’s breaking one of the Top Ten! We read at the end of this passage that this incident was the nudge that pushed the Pharisees over the cliff and made them actively start to plot against Jesus. But were they in the wrong here?  If Jesus knew this law was so important, and if Jesus was a Jew himself, why didn’t he observe it?

I don’t believe this was because Jesus didn’t think that idea of Sabbath was important. We have several examples of him pulling off by himself to rest and pray. But in this instance, Jesus saw that the Pharisees were giving more importance to keeping this commandment than to doing God’s work. The Pharisees thought they had an understanding of the right way to do things, and they tried to enforced that, to the extent that the lost sight of the bigger picture.

Earlier I called the Pharisees fundamentalists. That’s a harsh term in today’s world because of the baggage it carries with it. Fundamentalism is defined as “a strict adherence to basic ideas or principles.” In that case, I will admit to being a fundamentalist. I strictly adhere to the idea that you do NOT leave a baseball game before the last pitch is thrown. If you do, you’ve broken one of my commandments.

Fundamentalists are everywhere these days! People are fundamentalists about things like no spaghetti in their chili or not wearing white after Labor Day. Some people are toilet-paper-from under fundamentalists; others are toilet-paper-from-over fundamentalists. Some people are fundamentalists about no nuts in their fudge; others are fundamentalist about opening one present on Christmas Eve. If you look into you heart of hearts, I bet there’s something about which you are a fundamentalist.

So before we dismiss the fundamentalism of the Pharisees, we have to be willing to admit our similarities. The problem Jesus had was not with their fundamentalism; it was the way their fundamentalism blinded them from seeing the situation in front of them. It’s fine to believe you should stay to the end of a baseball game. It’s not fine to strictly adhere to that principle if the stadium catches fire. There has to be a balance between believing our way is the right way, and being open to a better way.

The Pharisees just knew that their way of observing the Sabbath was the right way, so they were determined to catch Jesus breaking the commandment so they could punish him. Jesus was never one to hide from a challenge, so on the Sabbath, while teaching in the synagogue, he gives them their smoking gun. It’s interesting to note that Luke says the Pharisees were “watching him closely,” which can also be translated as “spying.” On the day they were supposed to be observing the Sabbath by not working, instead they were working by observing Jesus!

Jesus sees a man with a withered hand and calls him forward so everyone could see him. Now, this man’s condition, while unfortunate, was not life-threatening. Sabbath law actually allows for doing work if it involves a life-threatening situation. But this man wasn’t about to die. Jesus could have waited a day and performed the same healing action with no consequence. But to do so would have been saying that the Pharisees’ law of strict adherence to the Sabbath trumped God’s law of doing the right thing.

Now notice that Jesus didn’t actually do anything in this story. All he did was say something, which hardly counts as work, unless you’re a preacher! But the Pharisees didn’t care; they knew the right way to observe the Sabbath, and whatever Jesus was doing, that wasn’t it. Luke, who was a doctor by trade, gives us the details. He tells us it was the man’s right hand. The right hand was the one used for work, for gesturing, even for greeting someone. To be without the use of the right hand was not only physically debilitating, but would have hurt this man’s ability to make a living and a life. Without his right hand, he was cut off from society.

Jesus says to the man, “Stretch out your hand,” something that, with a shriveled hand, would have been impossible.  At the call of Jesus this man does what he otherwise couldn’t do, and Luke tells us that his hand is completely healed, restored to his former good health. But that physical healing that the Pharisees witnessed, the healing that made them so mad, was only a small part of the real healing in this story. The spiritual healing of this man has longer lasting effects.            This man had once had a full life. Then, because of his hand, he lost it: his self-esteem, his sense of worth, his livelihood, his ability to provide for his family. All gone. Now, thanks to Christ, he found it again. His sense of dignity restored. His ability to work restored. His life restored.

And it never would have happened had the Pharisees had their way. Their understanding of God was cemented in the law of the Old Testament. They weren’t open to this new way God’s kingdom was present among them. They were open to the idea that God was still working. You see what Jesus did, right? He took a scripture passage about the Sabbath and reinterpreted it for his current context. You mean it’s OK to interpret the Bible, not to be restricted to reading it literally? That’s a miracle right there! The Bible, which looks like a static book, is actually a living document if we let it speak to us. But we have to be willing to interpret it for our current context.

Jesus does that here, and in doing so he displays his own form of fundamentalism. His strict adherence is to the principle that God is love, and that showing God’s love should trump anything else. In fact, Jesus goes further. He says that inactivity before human need is not an option. He says that if you have a chance to show God’s love and you don’t do it, you’re not just abstaining from giving a glimpse of God’s kingdom. You’re doing evil.

Ouch. That one stings. There have been plenty of times in my life when I could have shown God’s love but didn’t for selfish reasons. Not stopping to help a car on the side of the road because I was in a hurry. Not sharing my money with someone because I’d have to go to the ATM to get more. Not helping to serve at church because I was afraid I wouldn’t do it the right way. What keeps us from being love fundamentalists, from giving a glimpse of the kingdom by showing God’s love?

This is no law greater than the law of Christ. There is no purpose that trumps our call to love one another. There is never a wrong day or wrong time to help someone in need. We have a role to play in restoring this world, in making people whole. We can speak a kind word of encouragement to a disheartened coworker. We can offer a smile to a weary store clerk. We can give someone else our time and attention to let them know that they matter to God and to us. We have the power to restore life, to offer spiritual healing, to participate in making a miracle happen.

Jesus is not devaluing the role of taking a Sabbath. It’s still important for all of us to find time to rest. What Jesus is saying is that doing God’s will – whether that means resting, worshipping, or helping – shouldn’t be confined to a certain day or time. Every day is holy. Every day has the potential for being a time of Sabbath or a time of serving. Every day holds the potential for a miracle, the potential for being restored, the potential to provide a glimpse of God’s kingdom. If we are open to a better way. If we are fundamentalists about sharing God’s love.

We’ll never be perfect at this; we still suffer from Pharisee syndrome of thinking our way is the right way. We will still think we know what is best. There’s our way, and then there’s God’s way, and our goal each and every day should be to make our way look more like God’s way, because that’s when we become miracle-workers in Christ’s name. What do we say in that prayer? My will be done? No, we say, thy will be done, Lord. Thy will be done.

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It’s A Miracle! Sermon Series – #1: A Fish Story

SCRIPTURE – Luke 5:1-11 - Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; 10 and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” 11 When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

It’s A Miracle!
#1 - A Fish Story
Luke 5:1-11
Oct. 19, 2014

We begin our sermon series today on the miracles of Jesus. Through the course of the next several weeks we’ll be looking at a number of Jesus’ miracles as recorded in the gospels. Our goal is to try to make sense of them, which I can tell you right now is impossible. The dictionary defines a miracle as an effect or extraordinary event in the physical world that surpasses all known human or natural powers and is ascribed to a supernatural cause.” If we could make sense of them, they wouldn’t be miracles. But, because you’re curious and I’m stubborn, that won’t stop us from trying, so I pray that along the way God will grant us new insight and understanding to these supernatural stories and what they have to say to us.

One biblical scholar said that without the miracles the New Testament would be a lot easier to believe, and that’s exactly right. The things in scripture that most challenge our reasoned intellect, that most bewilder our rational minds, are the irrational acts. I believe the miracles are one of reasons some people reject Christianity. How do you explain them? Five loaves of bread and two fish turned into a feast for 5,000. A raging storm calmed by a few words. Scores of sick and lame people healed at the touch of a hand. A man hung on a cross to die lives again in three days. These things just don’t happen in our everyday life.

So the New Testament would be easier to believe without the miracles. And yet, if the New Testament didn’t have the miracles, it wouldn’t be worth believing. Without the miracles, all we have is the account of a righteous prophet who was put to death for his teachings. Without the miracles, we have a wise dead man; with them, we have a Savior.

So if the miracles have the potential of driving people away from faith, why are they in there? What is the purpose of miracles in the gospel stories? I don’t believe Jesus was trying to show off or entertain the crowds. I don’t even think the ultimate purpose was to heal or to feed or to make life better for someone, although that was a beneficial outcome. I believe the true purpose of Jesus’ miracles was to give us a glimpse of God’s kingdom. For just a moment, Jesus says, take a look. See what is coming. There will be no illness. There will be no pain. There will be enough food for everyone. Miracles were windows into God’s future plans. Through them, Jesus was reminding his followers that God’s kingdom was present among them.

If that’s the purpose, then you have look at each miracle through that lens. Jesus not only performed the miracles to prove this point, but to encourage people to join in the miracle and work to make that kingdom real on earth. In a sense, the miracles were a means to an end, the end being the call to faith and action, and the people who experienced the miracle were not just observers but participants. That’s evident in the first miracle we’re witnessing.

Jesus was in the midst of his teaching ministry, and he was gaining some popularity. On this particular occasion, so many people came to hear him that there wasn’t enough room on the shore for all of them. Luke says: “The crowd was pushing in on him to better hear the Word of God.” I love that image. When we hear the word of God, are we reclining back, or are we pushing in to hear it?

To get some personal space, Jesus asks to use Simon the fisherman’s boat. Jesus had probably observed Simon earlier on the shore, who was cleaning up after a long night of fruitless fishing. After Jesus finishes speaking, he says to Simon, “Put out into deep water, and let down your nets for a catch.” Now, if I’m Peter, I’m looking at this stranger, this carpenter from Nazareth, and I’m telling him exactly where he can put his nets. “Look, Jesus, you stick to building cabinets and leave the fishing to the experts.”

After some mild balking, Peter obeys Jesus and heads out to the deep water. Now we need to pause here to recognize the significance of Jesus’ command. Back in those days, people didn’t know what was under the water. They didn’t have sonar and submarines and snorkels. In fact, they believed that water was the residence of evil. The monster Leviathan, mentioned several times in the Bible, lived under the water. In the beginning, God’s spirit hovers over the chaotic waters and brings order. In the book of Revelation, the evil beast rises from the deep. Fishermen tended to hug the shoreline because it was safer. If a storm came, you didn’t want to be caught out in the deep water. It wasn’t safe. It was evil.

How would you respond to Jesus’ command to go deeper, to leave the safety of the sand and head out into the deep water? For me, I really, really like staying close to the shore. I prefer not to get over my head. It’s tempting, isn’t, to stay in the shallow waters? Shallow water is pleasant. It tickles our ankles when we walk in it. The minnows and the little fishies gather there. In the shallow water, you can see the bottom. You know where you’re stepping. The shallow water is safe.

But, as Jesus shows Peter, the shoreline is not where you’re going to catch the big fish. When I was little, my PawPaw used to take me fishing at a local pay lake He’d get my pole all ready, bait my hook with a worm, and then show me how to cast out into the middle of the lake. But every time, I would only cast the line about 10 feet in front of me so I could watch the bobber. He’d say, “You’re not going to catch any fish there.” Well, one day, that bobber dove under water and I pulled in a nice sized bluegill. “See?” I told him, as if to say, “Leave the fishing to the experts.” About a half hour later, as we were getting ready to go home, he reeled in his line from the middle of the lake and hauled in a catfish about twice as big as me. The deep water is where you catch the big fish.

If the story ended with the miraculous catch of fish, what we’d have would be an amazing tale of Jesus making life better for someone. But remember, the purpose of the miracles wasn’t simply to make life better for people, it was to give people a glimpse of God’s kingdom, so we know there must be more going on here. Jesus has just dumped this miracle flipping and flopping at Simon’s feet, enough fish to provide for his family for months. Then Jesus says, “You think that’s something? Come with me and I’ll teach you catch more than fish.” And Simon leaves behind the biggest haul of fish he’d ever seen and becomes a disciple.

My question to you is this: what is the greater miracle in this story? The catch of fish, or Simon’s decision to leave it lying on the shore? In both cases, the miracle is predicated on Simon’s participation, his willingness to let go of what is safe and comfortable. First he lets go of the shoreline, then he lets go of the catch of fish. In both cases, his trust in Jesus trumps his fear and his sense of security.

For me, the real miracle in this story is the power of faith to see beyond what appears to be. Look at our world. Look at the needs on our prayer list. Look at what’s happening to our baby Milly. Look at all the violence and hatred and negativity on TV, and that’s just the political ads.  Is there anything there that justifies faith in God?  We may feel like we’ve fished all day and our nets are empty. Tired. Frustrated. At a dead end. Is there anything there that tells you God is at work in this world?

Yes, there is. There is the faith those who pray, who cry, who send cards and care packages, who work for fairness and justice. Every believer is a participant in God’s miracle, because it is through us, the hands and feet of Christ, that God’s kingdom is made known on this earth. That doesn’t mean if we have enough faith everything will work out the way we think it should, but it does mean that our faith will help us see God at work in the midst of the challenges in our lives. And it means we can be participants in helping others glimpse the kingdom of God, as well.

Here’s what this story tells me: If we want to participate in a miracle, if we want to help show this world what God’s kingdom looks like, we can’t do it by hugging the shoreline. We are called into the deep water, the place beyond safety and control, the place where we turn our boat over to Jesus and let him guide us. We each have a next step to take in order to grow in our faith, and I’m pretty sure that step is not back toward shore. You don’t get many glimpses of God’s kingdom while standing on the dock. So what is the deep water for you? What is the miracle in which God is inviting you to participate? Is it reminding a shut-in they are not alone? Is it a step up in your giving to make more ministries possible? Is it lending your voice to the church leadership or the choir or a Sunday School class? Where is God calling you into the deep water? And what is keeping you from going there?

Patrick Henry once wrote, “I’ve never been party to a clear-cut miracle, but I do know the precondition for recognizing one if it happens is the openness to surprise.” If we stay where it’s safe, we only see and experience what is safe. But if we put out into the deep water, if we dare to go where God calls us, we open ourselves up to the surprising presence of Christ, who fills our souls to overflowing and then calls us to follow him.

And then, we have the indescribable opportunity of becoming the miracle. Every believer is God’s miracle. Every person who steps out on faith and gives Jesus command of their boat becomes a living testimony to the power of faith in Jesus Christ. And then, maybe when we least expect it, while we’re out there serving, suddenly our boats are overflowing with fish, a child’s eyes are opened to a Bible story, a new relationship is made, a person grows in their knowledge and love of Christ because of your relationship with them. When we open ourselves to God’s capacity to surprise, miracles happen. The shallow water is safe. But the deep water is where miracles happen.

I’ll close with this poem credited to Sir Francis Drake: “Disturb us, Lord, when we are too well pleased with ourselves. When our dreams have come true because we have dreamed too little. When we arrived safely because we sailed too close to shore.”

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Mission Possible sermon series – #6: Serving God through Serving Others

This is the final sermon in my sermon series on Crestwood’s new vision and mission statements.

SCRIPTURE – Mark 10:41-45 - 41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42 So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Mission Possible Sermon Series
#6 – Serves God Through Serving Others
Oct. 12, 2014

We finish our sermon series today on our new vision and mission statements, found on the front of your bulletin. During these last five weeks, we’ve been taking a closer look at these statements, figuring out how we can turn them from words on a page into real-life actions that help us grow in our faithfulness to God and live out our call to by the body of Jesus Christ. Along the way, I hope you’ve been encouraged and challenged by these statements, and I hope at least once you’ve said, “There’s no way we can do that!” That’s how you know it’s from God and not something of our own creation.

I mentioned last week how there is a natural progression to the points of the mission statement. We bring people in by welcoming and accepting them; we grow them up by inviting their questions and encouraging them; we care for them through that process; and then we send them out to put into action what they have seen and learned here. Sending them out is the focus of our sermon today as we talk about the last part of the mission statement, that we connect people to God and each other by serving God through serving others.

There were several different theologians I considered referencing for this sermon to help undergird the main points. I considered Paul Tillich, since I studied him in seminary, but then I realized I didn’t remember anything I studied about him. I considered Freidrich Schleiermacher, but I think it’s wise to never quote someone whose name you can’t spell. So instead, I settled on one of my old reliables, that famous theologian Sylvester McMonkey McBean.

Surely you’ve read some of his work, haven’t you? McBean is the main character in the Dr. Seuss Book The Sneetches. McBean shows up with his Star-On Machine, which will turn plain-bellied Sneetches into star-bellied Sneetches, thus upping their status in the Sneetch community. The way it worked was you walked in to the machine, got your star, and then walked out a new Sneetch – all for a price, of course. That, in the theological world, is what’s known as the McBean Cycle of Transformation.

That’s what the church is called to do. We bring them in, we help them transform, we send them out. When the Sneetches left the Star-On Machine, they did so with stars on their bellies and noses in the air. But we are called to leave this church very differently, with our eyes open and our hands ready to work. In other words, we are called to go from this place different than when we came it, to go out with a purpose, to take what we’ve learned and experienced and share it. This is not a side-effect of being in church; it is the primary purpose for it. As Jesus says, we are called not to be served, but to serve, to give our lives for others.

This last part of our mission statement is incredibly important to our future as a church, because it is the one that calls us beyond ourselves out into the world. We can do the other four things and never leave this building. But the church doesn’t exist for the church’s sake. It exists for the sake of the world and is called to take what we learn and experience here out into the schools, shops, and neighborhoods around us. Every gift we’re given – including the gift of our money – is not meant for us to hold onto but for us to share for the greater good of God’s kingdom. If we keep our gifts to ourselves, hiding them away so that no one else will get them, hoarding them to make sure we have enough, we’re perverting the reason we were given the gifts in the first place.

Our service is one of the ways we use our gifts, and it’s one thing Crestwood does incredibly well. If there were any part of the mission statement we could go ahead and check off our list, it would be this one. “Serves God through serving others.” Let’s see: Serving the homeless? Check. Community garden that supplies fresh produce to shelters? Check. Partnership with the local elementary school? Check. Thousands of dollars given away each month, both locally and globally? Check. Building Habitat Houses, going on Mission Trips, opening our building free-of-charge to non-profit groups? Check, check, and check!

But hold on a second. Let’s not break our arms patting ourselves on the back. It might help us to go deeper by asking the question “Why do we serve?” It’s easy for churches to get caught up serving others for reasons other than serving God. For example, have you ever heard the term “altruistic egoism?” Altruistic egoism is the belief that by helping others, we can make ourselves feel better. And there is an element of truth to that. I do feel better about myself when I help someone else. But if that’s my main motivation, I’m engaging in self-service. If I’m serving someone else in order to check something off my mental feel-good list or to pad my spiritual resume or to wedge my foot in the front door of Heaven, I’m actually doing a disservice.

Let me explain that with an analogy. While we lived in Chicago, I came to have a deep, soul-level hatred of traffic. And I had plenty of opportunities to cultivate that hatred. That’s why I loved the concept of open-road toll plazas. When you came to a toll booth, if you had a nifty little device attached to your windshield, you could zoom right on through without stopping to pay the toll, allowing the government to take your money without you even realizing it. But if for some reason you didn’t have that nifty little device, when you came to a toll plaza you had to take this little exit and sit in the line waiting to go through the toll booth, while all the people with the nifty little devices were zooming by and pointing their fingers at you and laughing.

I wonder if sometimes we don’t look at serving others as detours in our lives. We’d much rather keep zooming ahead on our own path, but because we know it’s the “Christian” thing to do, we take that little exit from our full-speed schedules and help someone else out, all the while thinking consciously or subconsciously, “I can’t wait until I can get back to doing what I want to do.” When we do that, the person we are serving is no longer a person in our eyes; they are simply a means to an end, a by-product in our desire to “do the right thing.” Altruistic egoism.

So maybe we serve others because of altruistic egoism, because it makes us feel better. Or maybe we serve because it reflects well on us to do so. That doesn’t mean we serve to get fame or publicity but it is human nature to want to be appreciated for our efforts. After all, how can our lives make a difference if no one sees us making a difference? Jesus warned about people who use faith to make a spectacle of themselves. There are so many things God calls us to do of which we will never see the benefits, things that feel so small or insignificant. That meal at the soup kitchen may not change a person’s life; that dollar in the beggar’s cup isn’t going to rescue her from poverty. Why make the effort if we’re not going to see a return on our investment? Let’s face it: serving others has very little upside for us.

So if we don’t get results and we don’t get recognition and we don’t get to pad our spiritual resume, why should we serve? What does our mission statement say? “Serve God through serving others.” We serve others, our mission statement says, as a way to be obedient to the call to serve God. Through Jesus Christ, God poured out love on us in the most extravagant, lavish way. It’s like trying to pour the ocean into a coffee mug. When you have that much love given to you, you can’t help but let it overflow in your life, and one of the ways we do that is to turn that love into action through our service to others.

What’s important to note is the relationship in this statement between God and other people. We are called to serve each other, not out of pity, but out of compassion. The word “compassion” literally means “to suffer with.” To have pity on someone is to look down on them from a position of power. To have compassion for someone is to look at them as equals, from a position of solidarity and kindness. We all are made in the image of God, and therefore when we serve someone else, no matter how destitute or unclean or different they are, we are serving God.

Thankfully, we’re not called to do it perfectly. At a Habitat workdays a few years ago, I was put in charge of placing stakes in the ground so we could rope off some newly cemented driveways. Rather than asking me to paint or measure and cut wood, those in charge were able to pick up on my incredible stake-placing gifts. So I set about my task with much diligence, placing the stakes at just the right depth and distance from each other. I mean, it was a work of art! Of course, what didn’t realize was that the crew had already poured the concrete for the driveway next door, so as I was placing stakes for one driveway, I was leaving foot prints in the wet cement of the neighboring one. I was not invited back to place more stakes the next year.

God does not call us to serve perfectly; God only calls us to serve. If God only used perfect people, nothing would ever get done at this church. We’re all imperfect. But guess what? God still loves us and still wants to use us. A Bengali poet once wrote, “I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.” When we give, when we care, when we serve, we do so with the joy of knowing God loves us and God is using us – us! – to make a difference for someone.

For me, the ultimate reason we are called to serve is that we live in a world that needs serving, a world that needs to see tangible reminders that God hasn’t given up on us yet. The need around us is so overwhelming that it can paralyze us from doing anything. But every small act of service we do makes a difference far beyond our effort. We may not see the difference, but we trust God is working through us. During our Stewardship Campaign, as we consider what monetary gift to give to God’s work through Crestwood, it’s important we remember that our gifts will have a positive impact far beyond our imagining. The church needs you to be a part of fulfilling our vision and mission. More importantly, the world needs you.

Our General Minister and President, Sharon Watkins, was a World Council of Churches convention in Brazil. She was talking with Pastor Clement Mputu, Vice President of the Disciples of Christ in the Congo. She said he looked straight into her eyes and told her about the six million people who have died in the Congo war. Six million. “Doesn’t anybody even care?” And then he stopped and waited for an answer.

There is a world out there that needs to know God is real. There are people out there who have given up hope that God cares about them. As Gandhi said, there are people who are so poor they only see God in a piece of bread. Do we have any bread to give? Do we have any hope to give? Our mission statement says we serve God through serving others. The world is waiting to see if those are just words on a page or if we really mean it. They are waiting for answer.

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Mission Possible sermon series – #5 Caring for Each Other and the Stranger

We continue our sermon series looking at Crestwood’s new Vision and Mission Statements. Here they are:

Our Vision

Connecting People to God And Each Other

Our Mission

Crestwood Christian Church connects people to God and each other by being a community that welcomes and accepts all people; invites questions about how faith and life intersect; encourages people to take the next step in their spiritual journey; cares for each other and the stranger; and serves God through serving others.

SCRIPTURE – I John 4:7-21 - Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

13 By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. 15 God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. 16 So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. 17 Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. 21 The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

Mission Possible sermon series
#5 – Cares for Each Other and the Stranger
Oct. 5, 2014

We continue our sermon series today looking at our new vision and mission statements, found on the front of your bulletin. Our vision is “Connecting People to God and Each Other.” The mission statement spells out how we will do that by giving us five statements for applying our faith to real life. So far we’ve talked about the importance of welcoming and accepting all people, inviting questions about where faith and life intersect, and encouraging people to take the next step in their faith journey. Along the way, we need to make sure we are caring for each other and the stranger. Interestingly, this was to be our sermon topic long before all that happened this week. I love the way God works.

Paul writes in Galatians about the importance of caring for each other when he says, “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you fulfill the law of Christ.” We are not supposed to focus solely on our needs and challenges, as tempting as that can be. Living this life is about more than ourselves, so we are supposed to be mindful of those around us and stay open to the ways we can extend God’s care and comfort to them. Sometimes life gives us more than we can handle, and our burdens are too heavy for one person to carry.

I love my dad. I need to say that up front, because after I tell this story you may think otherwise. I really do love my dad. But there was one year when I almost gave him up for adoption. It was the year I helped him move three times. I didn’t mind helping him the first time. Or the second time. But I knew I was in trouble the third time when didn’t start the conversation with his usual, “Hey boy! What’s up?”, but with, “Greetings, my beloved offspring….”

This third move was to a second floor apartment that required negotiating a narrow, twisting set of steps. That would be OK if Dad didn’t have a treadmill, a waterbed, and one of those old console TVs, the kind that came in the heavy wooden cabinet. We managed to get everything up there, but along the way I had an insightful revelation. I used to think I got my bad back from my dad, but now I realize it wasn’t inherited, he voluntarily gave it to me. A body is not meant to carry that kind of load alone.

The burdens we carry can have the same kinds of debilitating effects on us. We try to shoulder the weight, thinking that it’s up to us to carry around this troublesome diagnosis or this dark depression or this work-related stress. And it’s usually only after we’ve passed the breaking point that we finally reach out for help. That’s one of difficult realities of being human: we can only be cared for if we allow others to care for us.

That’s where the church comes in. A church community is meant to be a place where people can come and unload their burdens without fear of judgment or criticism. No matter what our baggage looks like, no matter the size or shape of the skeletons in our closet, the church should be a sanctuary, a safe place to receive welcome, acceptance, and care, the same things God has graciously given to us in abundance.

That’s what John talks about in our reading for today. He’s telling his congregation that no matter how different people are, no matter whether their colors are red or blue (for their politics or their sports affiliation), no matter how much the other person acts like a self-righteous jerk, the foundation of their relationship with each other should be love, the love that comes from God. He says if you claim to have love but you don’t care for each other, then you’re just fooling yourself, because God is love.

The Greek word for love here is agape. The Greeks actually had several words they used to describe love, which makes sense when you think of all the different kinds of love that exists. There was eros, which was the romantic, sensual kind of love, best demonstrated by Joey from the show “Friends,” when he would greet an attractive female with the words, “How you doing?” There was philia, a love between friends, from which we get the name for the City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia. There was storge, a kind of family love, like the love siblings would have for each other.

But none of those describe the kind of love John is talking about here. He is talking about agape, a selfless, other-focused love that knows no boundaries. Agape is a deep soul love, a love that is not dampened by what a person does because it is focused on who a person is. Agape love is the kind of love God has for us and the kind of love we are called to show as we care for one another.

This understanding of God’s agape love brings with it some major implications for how we offer care. It means that, if we’re loving with God’s love, there’s no criteria someone has to meet in order to receive it. We don’t care for them because we like them; we care for them because they need caring. That’s a big relief to me, because I have to admit I’ve said and thought and done some things in my life that at times make me pretty unloveable. My guess is you have, as well. If we were to share these things in a room full of people and asked everyone who thought less of us to leave, when we finished only our mothers would still be there.

Caring for others with agape love also means we are willing to enter into their situation, to help bear the pain and sadness and anxiety they are carrying while helping them stay grounded in Jesus’ love for them. We have to be careful, because we can err too far one way or the other. We can stand too far back, observing a person’s pain from afar but not walking alongside them. Or we can get so enmeshed in their situation that we end up needing more care than they do. The balance is best illustrated in a drawing from Stephen Minister training. It shows a person down in a pit, the one who is in need of care. Then it shows a person with one foot in the pit and one foot on solid ground, holding onto a tree limb as they help pull the other person up. The tree is Jesus Christ, who provides strength and grounding and safety as we care for one another. We care for others by putting one foot in the pit with them and keeping one foot grounded in reality, all the while connecting them to God’s healing power and love.

Ultimately, the best way to care for someone is not to do for them what we think they need; it’s to do for them what they need done. I may think someone needs a meal when what they really need is a listening ear or a hug. I may think, “If I were them, I would really like someone with me” when what they really want is a quick phone and then to be left alone.

In my previous church, we used to put together Thanksgiving boxes that went to a local Hispanic ministry. We filled the boxes with all the goodies we enjoy on that holiday: mashed potatoes and gravy, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, and a big juicy turkey waiting to be cooked. But we found out in most cases, the turkey stayed raw and the pumpkin pie went uneaten because that’s not what Hispanic families traditionally eat at Thanksgiving. Instead of asking them what they wanted, we assumed they wanted to be cared for the same way we would. Agape love is other-focused; it asks the other what they most need.

Sometimes offering this kind of care means putting ourselves in uncomfortable situations for the sake of caring for another. When I was in seminary the pastor of the church where I was working asked me to visit one of the shut-ins. He said Florence could be a bit cantankerous at times, but that she would probably welcome a visit. “It will be good experience for you,” he said. When I got to her house, I noticed the lights were off and the blinds drawn. I peered in through the door and saw Florence sitting in her darkened living room. I knocked on the door. “Who is it?” she shouted. I hollered through the door who I was, but she said, “Don’t bother yelling, I can’t hear!” So I held up the Bible in my hand to show her I was from her church. She shouted, “Oh my God! You’re one of those! Don’t come in!” Finally, I nudged open the door and said, “I’m from St. Peter’s United Church of Christ.” “Oh, well in that case, come on in!” I spend a lovely hour with Florence, learning about her life and the sadness in which she lived after her husband died. It was time well spent.

The care we’re called to offer is about writing cards and making casseroles, but it’s about more than that. It’s about phone calls in which we listen to the other person. It’s about not only delivering the casserole, but staying a few minutes to ask the other person how they’re doing. Caring for someone can be time-consuming, it can be messy, it can really throw off our schedules. And yet, I believe caring for each other is the primary reason God calls us into relationships. No one can carry their burdens alone.

Caring is something we do well here at Crestwood. Several of our ministries are designed to extend Christ’s compassion to our fellow church members. Our Stephen Ministry program, our Heart-to-Heart shut-in ministry, and our Caregivers Ministry Team all live out this statement. Certainly Robyn and Jordan and their family have been the recipients of the kind of genuine care we are able to offer. I believe we are committed to taking care of our own..

The challenge our mission statement gives us to is to care for those unlike us with the same agape love as those who are like us. There will be people passing through the doors of this church that we don’t know, that we don’t care about, that we may not even like. As our congregation continues to grow, you will begin to see names on the prayer list and in the Crest that you aren’t familiar with, and you may be hesitant to help care for them, to provide meals for them, to reach out to them. And yet, God calls us to care for them as a brother or sister in Christ. Our care for them is not dependent upon our approval; it’s driven solely by the fact that the other person bears the image of God in them.

In Hebrews, the writer urges his readers to provide hospitality to those who pass through, because by doing so, they may be entertaining angels without even knowing it. We have angels among us, even now, and a kind word, a smile, or a handshake of welcome may be the offering of care that person needs. If we only care for ourselves, we’re not being ambassadors of Christ; we’re a country club, attending to the comfort of its members. And I for one believe we are called to so much more than that.

The wonderful thing about this part of our mission statement is that we don’t have to do anything special to fulfill it. We simply have to take the agape love that has been poured out on us and share from our abundance with others, both those we know and like and those we don’t know and don’t like. We are the body of Christ, and each of us needs each other to live out our faith in this world. May the care we extend to each other and the stranger reflect the care we’ve been given by our Creator God.

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