This Week’s Sermon – Speaking God’s Language

Happy Pentecost, everyone!

SCRIPTURE – Acts 2:1-12 –  When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place.Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.

Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken.Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans?Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!”12 Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”

Speaking God’s Language
Acts 2:1-12; Gen. 11:1-9
May 24, 2015

George Bernard Shaw once said that England and America are two countries separated by a common language. I can attest to that. In my last congregation we had a wonderful family from Great Britain. They were really neat people, but we sometimes had trouble communicating. Tony would say to me, “I’ve just come from garage and ran into a bobby on the lift as I was heading up to my flat to visit the loo.” And I would say, “You’re in America now, Tony, speak English!”

England and America aren’t the only groups separated by language today. Within our own country, different sectors of the population use the different words to say the same things. Is it a Coke or pop or a soda? Is it a sub or a hero or a hoagie? Or, more seriously, do Black America and White America speak differently? Do Liberal America and Conservative America use the same words to mean different things? Do Christians across the country, supposedly united as the body of Christ, have wildly different vocabularies? We are a nation divided by a common language.

Language plays a prominent part in our scripture reading this morning. In Acts, on the day of Pentecost, we learn that the disciples are all gathered in one place. Hold that thought. Because Pentecost was a major Jewish festival, Jews from all over the Roman Empire would have been gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate. What you need to know is that most of them were at least bi-, if not tri-lingual. They probably would have spoken Greek, the language of the Roman Empire; they would have spoken Hebrew, the language of their religion; and they would have spoken the local dialect, like Egyptian or Phrygian or Cappadocian.

So the linguistic miracle of Pentecost is that when the disciples start their inspired speaking, the people in the crowd hear what they are saying in their own dialect. It’s as if the Holy Spirit is serving as an interpreter for each listener, translating the Spirited speech of the disciples into Egyptian and Phrygian and Cappadocian. In a sense, God was uniting this diverse crowd through the power of speech. God was speaking their language.

To understand the significance of God’s uniting people through language on Pentecost, you have to first understand how God used language to drive people apart. I believe Pentecost makes much more sense in light of Genesis 11 and the story of the tower of Babel, so let me read that to you now.

Gen. 11:1-9 – Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

For many years now I’ve had a fascination with mountains. I just wanted a documentary the other night on K2, the second-highest mountain in the world and much more difficult to climb than Mt. Everest. Now, I have absolutely no desire to climb a mountain. You could put a year’s supply of Reese’s Cups at the top and I won’t budget. But I’m captivated by people who do, who push their bodies to the limit in order to stand on top of the world, to be at the closest point between heaven and earth.

That is part of what motivated the builders of the tower of Babel to do what they did, and what got them in trouble. This story takes place shortly after Noah, when God got fed up with disobeying, greedy, power-hungry people and decided to wipe the earth clean and start fresh. Noah and his family obeyed the command to be fruitful and multiply, filling the earth with offspring who would have shared a common language. But there’s one major problem: all the people were still disobeying, greedy, power-hungry humans. The flood didn’t wash away their sinfulness, and it was only a matter of time before they exhibited the same destructive behaviors as before.

After the people settle in Shinar, they looked around at their neighbors and saw that all of them had big towers that reach high into the sky. And in their desperate desire to keep up with the Jonesites, they decided they needed one, too. So the property committee put together plans and conducted a capital campaign to pay for the bricks and the tar, and they began building a city with a tower that reached to the heavens. Why? Because, scripture tells us, they wanted to make a name for themselves. They wanted other nations to look at them and say, “Oooh, those must be the Israelites, the ones who built that really cool tower!” Why is that a problem? Because when you’re so focused on making a name for yourself, God becomes an afterthought, a means to the end of self-aggrandizement.

The tower they were building was a ziggurat, which was a common structure for pagan religions. Now, the ziggurat itself wasn’t the temple; the temple would be built right next door. On the outside of the ziggurat was a stairway that led all the way to the top, where there would be a room with a small bed. The belief was that the local god would dwell in that little room at the top, and would descend the stairway when folks were worshipping in the temple next door. Time for worship, ring the bells, down comes the god, “Blessings, blessings, blessings,” worship is over, the god climbs back to its little room.

Do you see why the Israelite God wasn’t too keen on the building of this tower? You can’t put our God in a box, not even at the top of a mighty tower. If the people could build a tower like this, then they would think nothing was impossible. So God intervenes. God took away the one common bond they had, the one thing essential to their sense of community: their common language. It’s hard enough to build something together if you speak the same language! Imagine all the finger-wagging and hand-gesturing and general chaos that would ensue. It’s hard to build something together if you don’t speak the same language. So the place was called “Babel,” which means “confused.” No one spoke the same language, so they scattered.

Fast-forward several thousand years to Jerusalem, the day of Pentecost. God comes down, not using the steps of a ziggurat, but using tongues of flame borne of the Holy Spirit. It’s appropriate that it was tongues, because when they are touched the disciples start to speak. But they’re not babbling. No, they begin to proclaim the Good News and the Holy Spirit translates it into Egyptian and Phrygian and Cappadocian for the listeners. You see? This is the tower of Babel reversed. It’s the bookend to the scattering. It’s the reunification of God’s people through language. Remember the first line? “They were all gathered in one place.” The bond of community was broken at the tower, but the Holy Spirit was the epoxy that fastened those believers back together and united them to follow in Christ’s footsteps. Once they started speaking the same language again, they finally built something together: the church.

But Pentecost was about more than restoring language; it essentially accomplished what the builders of the tower of Babel couldn’t. Remember, they were trying to make a name for themselves, trying to reach up high enough to be equal to God. What Pentecost reminds us is that we don’t have to worry about getting to God’s level, because God came down to ours, not using the steps of a ziggurat, but using the beams of a wooden cross. Christ’s Spirit dwells within us, around us, calling us forward to speak God’s language. Instead of trying to build a tower out of bricks and tar, we’re called to be the living stones that build Christ’s church.

Now, fast forward again to the present day. The church has grown, the word of God has spread around the globe, the Bible has been translated into hundreds of languages, the Spirit is still hard at work amongst believers. So why are we still babbling? Christians can’t communicate with each other, much less people different than us. Even though we share a common spiritual language, we still have difficulty communicating in a way that honors God and the God image inside each other. I’ve seen numerous online debates over Christian issues that have devolved into name-calling and using ALL CAPS and condemnation, and I think, “Are we speaking the same language?” How do we know when our words are God’s words? How can we make sure we honor the spirit of Pentecost when we talk to each other?

I can tell you what I believe isn’t the language of God. “Hate” isn’t in God’s vocabulary. If a sentence begins with “God hates…” you can be pretty sure someone other than God is saying it. God’s language also doesn’t delineate between “us” and “them.” I preached once about the difference between slash language, which divides, and hyphen language, which unites. God speaks with a hyphen. God’s language doesn’t lump people into categories, doesn’t apply labels, and doesn’t lift someone up by putting someone else down.

To speak God’s language, first we have to know God’s language. It’s not that difficult to learn; in fact, you probably know most of the words. I’m not talking about words like “predestination” or “eschatological” or “transubstantiation.” If you know what those mean, you probably have either been to seminary or have way too much time on your hands. No, I’m talking about words like “Thank you” and “How can I help?” and “You’re welcome here” and “I’m sorry.” That’s the language of faith that unites us together as believers. When we speak those words, we are allowing God’s Spirit to work through us to connect with another person.

I’m keenly aware of the irony here. The people who tried to building a new building at Babel were scattered, and today we launch a capital campaign to renovate and add on to our own building. How do we avoid the mistakes at Babel? By making sure our space is filled with God’s language, the language of welcome and acceptance and encouragement and education. With our new South Wing our goal must not be to make a name for ourselves, but to glorify God’s name through our children’s ministries and our music.

There is so much that seeks to divide us in this world. We have tried to make a name for ourselves and our souls have been scattered. On this day, the day of Pentecost, we can begin the process of coming back together, of being all in one place, of listening the words God wants us to hear, words like “grace” and “welcome” and “blessing.” And then, we can go and speak those words into a selfish, scattered world. We can say to one another, “I’m sorry” and “You’re forgiven” and “How can I help?” I wonder how this world would be different if people stopped trying to speak for God and instead trying to speak the language God has given us. We have the words. We have the call. What are we missing? Come, Holy Spirit, come.

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This Week’s Sermon – Hugging the Trunk

SCRIPTURE – Matthew 25:14-30 – 14 “For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15 to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17 In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18 But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19 After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20 Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ 21 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 22 And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ 23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 24 Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ 26 But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29 For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 30 As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

Hugging the Trunk
Matthew 25:13-30
May 3, 2015

Hello, I’d like to introduce myself. I’m Kory Wilcoxson and I work here… I can’t believe I haven’t stood in this pulpit to preach since Easter. I know you’re probably wishing it could be longer, but if I don’t preach any more Sundays I’m afraid you all will form a search committee. Seriously, I really appreciate having a few weeks away from the pulpit to recharge. I give thanks to the Elders who led worship and brought the message on April 12 and to Rev. Bruce Barkhauer for preaching both services last week. Thank you, Crestwood, for supporting them and for supporting me.

So let’s jump back in, shall we? And let’s not waste our time with those easy passages like “God is love” or “He is risen!” No, let’s tackle a parable in which God is compared to a harsh master and the one person in the story who does exactly what he’s supposed to do is punished for it. Sounds like a good way to ease back into this preaching thing.

This parable is probably one of the most difficult ones to make sense of because of the shifting shadows of judgment and questionable behavior that serve as its undercurrent. It helps to understand the context and where the parable fits into Matthew’s gospel. Jesus told this parable during Holy Week, after his arrival into Jerusalem and before the events of Maundy Thursday, when Jesus is arrested. This parable is part of a larger set of teachings in which Jesus warns the disciples about how to behave while he is gone.

Our story today is a thinly veiled allegory in which the master going on a journey is Jesus, who’s about to depart from this earth and his disciples. In the story, when the master returns, we’re told that the master returns to “settle accounts” with his slaves. The belief back then was when Jesus came back to earth for the Final Judgment, he would settle accounts with all his believers to see how they lived out their faith in his absence. This parable tells us that those who have been fruitful will be rewarded by “entering the joy” of their master, but those who are not fruitful will be cast into the outer darkness. No pressure here, folks, but just in case, let’s all start looking really busy in case today is THE day.

Let’s look more closely at the challenge placed before the master’s slaves. Before he goes, the master entrusts to each slave a portion of money. There’s no clear definition on the meaning of the word “talent” in this passage. Some commentators say it was a unit of weight for precious metals; others say it was a large sum of money equivalent to fifteen years’ pay for a day laborer. Matthew could have easily said, “To one he gave a bijillion dollars, to one he gave a gadzillion dollars, and to one he gave a blamtillion dollars.” The point that Jesus is making is that the master is entrusting to his slaves something very precious and valuable, more than they could have ever imagined.

While the slaves aren’t given any instructions on what to do with the money, we’re told that the one given five talents and the one given two talents went off “at once,” as if they recognize the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity they had been handed. I remember the first time I saw big money. I was riding in the car with my grandma, and I told her I didn’t believe there was such a thing as a hundred dollar bill, at which point she opened her purse, took out a $100, and let me hold it. I came so close to opening the car door and jumping out with the cash. I don’t care that we were on the highway, for $100 I’ll take my chances!

The first two slaves also take their chances, and they are able to double the money. But not the third slave. Instead of working to increase the amount he was given, he does the prudent thing: he gets a mason jar, stuffs the money inside of it, and buries it in the backyard. And when the master returns, the third slave hands him exactly what he had been given, not a cent less, but also not a cent more. And for that, he is punished. You could easily argue that the third slave didn’t do anything wrong, and you’d be right, I guess. But you could also argue that he did nothing, which in this case is worse than doing something wrong.

Let’s try to translate this parable into our modern context. First of all, when we apply this parable today we’re no longer talking about money. This parable is not an encouragement to make more money, because God knows no one in America needs to be encouraged to do that. Instead, the talents today translate into the gifts we are given by our Master, who is God, and there’s really no limit to what those gifts can be. Painting, administration, nurturing, investing, swinging a hammer, cooking a meal, running a meeting, rocking a crying child – all of these and many, many more are gifts we have been given by God to put to use.

And that’s where the third servant gets himself into trouble. He practices what one commentator called “fearful inactivity.” This is the kind of guy who wears a belt AND suspenders for fear of being exposed. Because of his fear, instead of taking a risk to increase the what he was given, he buries it. Instead of investing it and earning interest, he hoards it. Instead of going out on a limb, he hugs the trunk, because, you know, it’s safer there.  Because he feared the master, he did nothing.

I don’t believe in a God we have to fear. I believe in a God who loves us and wants to see us use our gifts to serve God. So what are we afraid of? What keeps us from using the gifts we’ve been given? Maybe we feel like we don’t have any special gift. Sure, we can do things, but they are just routine, they’re not gifts. Notice in this story there’s a man with five talents, a man with two talents, and a man with one talent. But there are no no-talent people in this story. You may think you skipped class on the day God was handing out gifts, but you have one. What are you passionate about? What fills you with joy? What do other people say you are good at? That’s your gift.

Now, as this story reminds us, not everyone’s gift is the same. Some may be more visible than others. I can stand up in front of people and prattle on, but I can’t draw my way out of a paper bag. I know good folks who can cook delicious meals but make babies cry by just looking at them. Not all gifts are the same, but every gift matters, and every gift is meant to be used. As William Barclay wrote, “We are not all equal in talent, but we can be equal in effort.”

In my last church, we had a sweet old lady named Pat Garlich. Pat was a life-long Disciple and was in church every Sunday if her health allowed. She wasn’t in great shape, had a lot of health issues, and used a walker to get around. But Pat had one very important job – she is the person who brought the bread for communion each Sunday. And she took her job very seriously. If she knew she wasn’t going to be in church, she would tell me a month beforehand and add weekly reminders to ensure there was communion bread on Sunday morning. There wasn’t a lot that Pat could do, but she could purchase a $3 loaf of bread and make sure it was on the communion table on Sunday. That was her gift and she used it.

Maybe we’re afraid of using our gift because we think we’ll use it wrong, or that our gift is so inconsequential that it doesn’t matter, or that it won’t make a difference, or that someone else’s gift is a lot better than ours. To which Jesus says in his most loving, pastoral voice, “Get over it.” At the end of our lives, when we settle our accounts with God, God won’t ask us, “SO, why weren’t you more like Billy Graham? Why weren’t you more like Desmond Tutu?” No, God will ask us, “So, why weren’t you more like you?” God will say to me, “I created you to be Kory Wilcoxson. I gave you gifts to be Kory Wilcoxson. Why weren’t you more like Kory Wilcoxson?”

I understand not wanting to fail or do a bad job. No one likes to try and not succeed. But what this parable tells us is that the worst thing you can do is not try and fail; the worst thing you can do is not try at all. It’s what Max Dupree calls the sin of unrealized potential. God has given you a gift. Your life. Your mind. Your abilities. Your body. Your will. These are your gifts. And you are called to use these gifts to serve God, to provide God a return on the investment. Sure, we can use these gifts to serve ourselves. But that’s not what they are meant for. If you are only building a reputation, or building your retirement portfolio, or building a collection to display, or building an investment account, then you are not building God’s kingdom. You’re only hugging the trunk.

The danger is if you don’t use the gift you’ve been given, it will atrophy, it will lose its value. I like collecting Cincinnati Reds bobble heads, and for a long time I kept them up on a shelf in their original box because they are worth more money that way. But a few months ago I made the decision to open the boxes, take the bobble heads out of their Styrofoam protective cases, and put them on display in my office. Sure, they could fall and break. Someone could accidentally drop one. So why take the risk? Because their significance is not in their monetary worth, but in their sentimental value to me. I’d rather risk displaying the gifts than bury them in a box where no one, including me, can enjoy them.

As we move through our Time and Talent Stewardship Campaign, I encourage you to consider how you have been blessed by God. You have been given a gift worth a bajillion dollars – the gift of your life. You have been entrusted with this gift by God and called to go out on a limb and use it to further God’s kingdom. So what will you do? Bury it because of fear? Not use it because you’re too busy? Hide it away because you feel like it’s not good enough? Our church needs ushers and greeters who can help us welcome people into our midst. Our congregation needs nursery volunteers and people to make meals for the sick and new moms. Our church needs people to lead ministry teams, to serve communion, to fix door handles, to count money. Do you have one of those gifts? Do you have some other gift that needs to be used? Talk to me and we’ll find a way for you to put it to use.

My prayer for each of us is that our lives come as close as possible to realize the potential that God has intended for us. But we’re not going to get there by hugging the trunk. Sure, going out on a limb by using your gifts is a risk. But you’ll never know how much you can accomplish for God until you try.

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Easter 2015 – Explaining the Resurrection

SCRIPTURE – Matthew 27:57-28:15

 When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus. 58 He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. 59 So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth 60 and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock. He then rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away. 61 Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.

62 The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate 63 and said, “Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise again.’64 Therefore command the tomb to be made secure until the third day; otherwise his disciples may go and steal him away, and tell the people, ‘He has been raised from the dead,’ and the last deception would be worse than the first.” 65 Pilate said to them, “You have a guard of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can.” 66 So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone.

After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he[a] lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.”So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

11 While they were going, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests everything that had happened. 12 After the priests had assembled with the elders, they devised a plan to give a large sum of money to the soldiers, 13 telling them, “You must say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ 14 If this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” 15 So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story is still told among the Jews to this day.

Explaining the Resurrection
Matthew 27:57-28:15
April 5, 2015

I learned a new word this week I want to share with you. It’s “ineffable.” Do you know that word? I learned it in a book called “Baseball as A Road to God,” which may be the best book title in the history of Western literature. The word “ineffable” is defined as “that which we know through experience rather than study, that with ultimately is indescribable in words yet is palpable and real.” For example, the beauty of a sunrise or the joy of a baby’s laugh is ineffable. You can’t explain it or describe it; you can only experience it.

That certainly describes the joy of this day. The ineffability of Easter makes it for me both the easiest and hardest day on which to preach. It’s easy to preach on Easter because, well, it’s Easter! Frankly, I’d have to try really hard to mess this one up. And even if I do mess it up…it’s Easter! It’s a day of forgiveness and new life and resurrection.

This is also a hard day to preach. I understand the purpose of preaching to be education and inspiration. But this is Easter! There’s nothing I have to say that can educate you about the mystery of the Resurrection, and no words I offer that can even come close to the inspiration of “He is risen!” What do you say that can capture the ineffability of Easter?

For Christians, this is the greatest day of the year, because this is the day that makes all the other days make sense. Christmas wouldn’t make sense without Easter. Why celebrate the birth of someone who is going to die like everyone else? Maundy Thursday and Good Friday wouldn’t make sense without Easter. Why commemorate his last meal and his death on the cross if that’s where the story ends? But that’s not where it ends. There’s more to this story.

And what a confounding story it is! In the gospels, we have four different accounts of what happened on Easter morning, but they raise more questions than answers. In fact, even the people who experienced it couldn’t explain it. The women are scared out of their wits. The disciples are completely stunned. And the religious leaders are so caught off-guard they concoct a half-cooked cover-up to try and make sense of a rolled-away stone and an empty tomb. They give the soldiers some hush money and tell them to say, “His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.” A stolen body is rational, it’s manageable, it makes sense. But resurrection is ineffable. It defies explanation. Yet, the chief priests need an explanation, they need to make sense of the empty tomb, because the only other alternative is that Jesus really was who he said he was.

Wanting an explanation is human nature. We want answers, we expect them, and mystery is finding less and less of a place in our lives. A few years ago I was showing a four-year-old the old “Remove Your Thumb” trick. Do you know that one? I showed it to him, expecting him to be wowed by this supernatural display of biological transcendence. You know what this four-year-old did? He looked at my hand for a second and then said “Big deal.” Big deal. He was not impressed by mystery.

Few of us are. We want the mystery in our lives confined to Patricia Cornwell books and TV crime dramas. At all other times, we want answers, and we want them now. And in this age of information, when we can carry the Internet in our pockets, we can get them. Our search engines have become action verbs. Need the name of a song or the one actor in that movie? Just Google it. The answers to all our questions are just a few clicks away.

Well, not all the answers. The resurrection? There’s no app for that. It’s ineffable. We believe that if we can explain the resurrection, then maybe we can explain other mysteries about life, like why kids get sick and why good people endure hardships. But life doesn’t make sense. I don’t see how anyone could read the Bible or the Easter story and come away thinking it paints a picture of a world that makes sense. Nothing about Jesus’ life makes sense. The virgin birth, the healing stories, multiplying the loaves and fish, his patience and forgiveness, his willingness to die on the cross.  None of that makes sense. It’s not supposed to make sense. Jesus didn’t come to explain life, he came to show us how to live it, and how deal with it when it doesn’t make sense. If we can’t explain his life and his death, then we certainly can’t explain his resurrection.

I know it would be so much easier to believe if we had concrete evidence to explain what happened on Easter. But the reality is that if we need tangible proof of the resurrection in order for our faith to be meaningful, we’re destined to be disappointed. None of the four gospels describe the resurrection. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John – none of them tell us what happened when Jesus was resurrected. None of them say, “Then Jesus woke up, blinked a few times, stretched his legs, and walked out of the tomb.” All we are told is the after-effects: the empty tomb, the angel, the frightened women, the appearances of a risen Christ. It’s like a Looney Tunes cartoon where Bugs Bunny is staring down the barrel of Elmer Fudd’s gun. One moment Bugs is there, and the next moment he’s gone, with only a few puffs of smoke and squiggly lines where he used to be. We didn’t see him actually leave; we only see the after-effects.

In fact, the only evidence for the resurrection that we DO have is the empty tomb, the ultimate after-effect. Some would say that’s the basis for some faulty logic. We are trying to prove the existence of something by saying what’s not there. We believe if the tomb is empty, then the only explanation is that Christ must be risen. And yet for 2000 years, starting with the chief priests, people have been trying to draw some other conclusion that makes sense, that doesn’t require them to let go of logic and reason and just believe. But we can’t escape the fact that the tomb is empty. Where did he go? We may not know for sure, but we DO know he’s not in there.

Sitting here this Easter morning, we are again confronted with the after-effects of resurrection and like the chief priests, we are given a choice. To believe or not to believe. To accept it or to ignore it or to try and explain it away. And what we choose to believe about the resurrection has real consequences for how we see God at work in our lives. If Christ is really dead in this story 2000 years ago, then Christ is still dead today. But if he was alive then, then he’s still alive now, working all around us to give us a glimpse of God’s kingdom here on earth.

I believe the resurrection not only was real back then, but it is real today, and that reality compels us to live our lives with a resurrection perspective, a perspective that accepts the resurrection cannot be explained. It can only be experienced. Nothing in our lives can help us make sense of the resurrection; instead, it is the resurrection that can help us make sense of our lives. Sometime life is so brutal, so unfair, that it ONLY makes sense when seen through the resurrection and the hope it promises us, that there is life after death, that there is life after pain and suffering and loss. Whether it’s dealing with our aging parents, the loss of our job, or a battle with illness, the empty tell us that because Jesus lives, we are not alone, that there is hope beyond our circumstances. The promises of the resurrection are real and they belong to us when we give up our attempts to understand and simply move forward in faith.

Author John Purdy said, “God is not in the past, shut up in the tomb of our sins, our youthful indiscretions, our wasted opportunities, our shattered hopes and dreams. God is ahead of us – in our future, out there freeing us from our past, easing the pain, feeding the hungry, making for peace, washing the feet, raising the dead. God is gone ahead of us and he is out there waiting for us to get moving.”

We come to church looking for proof of the resurrection, looking for proof of God, and we don’t even realize WE are the proof. In The Color Purple, Alice Walker writes, “…have you ever found God in church? I never did. I just found a bunch of folks hoping for him to show. Any God I ever felt in church I brought in with me. And I think all the other folks did too. They come to church to share God, not find God.” We come looking for evidence the resurrection, but we ARE the evidence of the resurrection, because we experience it all the time in our relationships, in our health, in our jobs. Some resurrections are so big they get written about in the Bible. But other resurrections are small and happen every day in the midst of ordinary lives.

We can stay rooted in the past, fretting over the historical validity of the resurrection. We can stay rooted in our own past, fretting over things we’ve done, beating ourselves or others up for past sins. But Matthew’s account makes one thing very clear without a doubt: Jesus is not back there. Where did he go? He’s in front of us, ahead of us, calling us forward into a future where resurrection can’t be explained; it can only be experienced.

When I was in college, I was struggle with an advanced French class, so I wrote my high school French teacher about my frustration. Her postcard reply contained only one sentence: “Before you can understand, you have to admit you don’t understand.” That’s the paradox of how resurrection works. The more we admit we don’t understand it, the more we see of it. The more I admit I don’t understand how God hears everyone’s prayers, the more answered prayers I hear. The more I admit to not knowing how God can love everybody, the more evidence I see of God’s love around me. The more I confess I don’t understand how God works, the more I see God working in and through this church. The more I surrender myself to a faith in what’s not there, the more I see and experience the One who is there. I can’t explain the resurrection, but I’ve experienced the power and love of the resurrected Savior over and over in my life.

So that’s where we are today. The empty tomb still stands before us. Rationally, we look inside and see nothing. The world is still as it seems. Thumbs cannot be pulled off and put back on. Yet what we can’t see is positively radiant with the glory of the resurrection. There will always be more power – and more hope – in what we can’t know than in what we know for sure. The tomb is empty. Christ has risen. How? I don’t know and I don’t care! All I know is that Christ isn’t back there! He’s out there, waiting for us to see him in our jobs, in our schools, in our homes, in the streets! So are we just going to sit here? Or are we going to get moving?


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This Week’s Sermon – A Long Way to Go

SCRIPTURE – Mark 1:1-11 – When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields.Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,

    Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
10     Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

11 Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

A Long Way to Go
Mark 11:1-11
March 29, 2015

One of my fondest memories growing up in the Louisville area was the Derby Festival. Now, if I were still serving in Chicago, I’d have to take about 10 minutes to explain what that is and why we made such a big deal over a two-minute horse race. But here in Lexington, I can just say “Derby Festival” and you all know what I’m talking about. My favorite event of that festival was the Pegasus Parade. My family would arrive downtown hours before the start time to make sure we got a good seat. We set up our camp along Broadway and I would look down the street, imagining what it would be like when I heard the first faint notes of the marching bands or saw the first flashes of color from the floats. I remember one year the Grand Marshal was William Shatner. I remember thinking, “Wow, William Shatner! Who’s that?” I can remember my little-kid excitement as I watched it pass by, and the disappointment I felt when the last of the trailing police cars left and we packed up our lawn chairs and headed back to the car.

What we have in our Mark passage today is a parade. There aren’t any marching bands, but there is singing and shouts from the crowd. There may not be any beautiful floats, but we have laid-out coats and palm branches. And, of course, we have a grand marshal, somewhat of a celebrity of his time, riding not in a convertible but on a donkey.

This story is overflowing with symbolism and meaning that would have been apparent to the first-hand onlookers but might slip by those of us witnessing this parade from 2000 years of distance. For example the prophecies about the coming of the Messiah are invoked when Jesus requests a colt, a young donkey, be brought to him. The prophet Zechariah says, “Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Jesus’ entry into David’s royal city in this manner sends the message that the successor of David has arrived, the long-awaited king is leading this parade.

Riding on a donkey carried even further significance for the statement being made here by Jesus. Our image of a donkey may be Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh or some lowly beast of burden, but donkeys once carried a special meaning. In those days, kings rode horses in times of war; in times of peace, they rode donkeys. Obviously, Luke is making a statement about the nature of Jesus’ kingship and if the people had been paying attention, they would have sensed that this king is going to be different than the one they are expecting.

But no one is thinking about this on Palm Sunday. No one is even questioning that Jesus will vanquish the Romans and free the Jews from their oppression. Of course he will! Have you see what this guy has done? He’s healed lepers, made the blind see, made the lame walk. He’s even gone so far as to forgive sins and confront the Pharisees. This is the kind of messiah we’ve been waiting for, and we know he’s really going to give it to those Romans. How ironic that the crowd is shouting the equivalent of “Long live the king!” when you consider what this week will bring.

So Jesus gets the red-carpet treatment as he makes his way into Jerusalem. No crown of thorns or angry mobs or frightened followers. Just Jesus on a cuddly donkey, cheered by the crowd on a sunny day. There were probably butterflies floating around, maybe a rainbow in the sky, even a bluebird on his shoulder singing a happy tune.

Have you ever had a day like that? Those are good days, aren’t they! Days when your knees don’t creak when you get out of bed, the coffee tastes just right, gas has dropped a few cents a gallon and you catch all the green lights. Days when people have nothing to offer but compliments, well-wishes, and likes on your Facebook page. Days when we feel like we’ve got this all figured out.

Those days don’t happen enough, do they? Ask anyone who’s enjoyed a taste of fame or prestige or even a run of good luck and they will all tell you it is fleeting. Good times don’t last forever, nor do the good things people say about us. In the span of one week Jesus will move from famous to infamous, from the red carpet to the cross, and our lives can turn that quickly, as well. Days that started out healthy and ended with a bad diagnosis. Days where we started with a job and ended unemployed. Days that started filled with love but ended filled with grief. We all have had those days.

And when life takes that turn, we wonder why. What did we do to deserve this? What happened to the good times? Why is my parade being rained on? In my last church there was an 82-year-old man named Tom. I got a called one day that Tom was in the hospital, so I went to visit him. While we talked I learned that this was the first time in 82 years that Tom had been hospitalized. What a good life! I said to Tom, “I can’t believe this is the first time you’ve been hospitalized.” He said with a sigh, “I know, I’m stunned, too. I knew this would happen someday, I just didn’t think it would happen this soon!”

While I can relate to Tom’s disillusionment, I have to wonder why we think that way sometimes. I can’t ever remember being promised life would be good or easy or pain-free, but at some point I came to expect that, so bad times were the exception to the rule. And when they would come, I would say to God, “What happened to my red carpet? Where are the cheering crowds? Things were going so good. I liked life that way. Why me?”

Well, why not me? Jesus says in John’s gospel, “In this world you will have trouble.” Not, “You may have trouble” or “Every once in a while, something not so good could happen.” He says, “You will have trouble.” The truth we learn from scripture and from Jesus’ triumphal entry is that in this life good times are to be savored because they are fleeting. We have this dream that we’d like to live a perfectly normal life, but can any of us even say what a perfectly normal life looks like? None of our lives are perfect or normal and that shouldn’t surprise us. The followers of Jesus were surprised when he didn’t turn out to be the king they wanted them to be. Their cries of “Long live the king!” quickly turned to “Crucify him!” and the crown they were ready to place on his head became a crown of thorns.

How do we react when our red carpets get pulled out from under us? How do we react when God doesn’t deliver the high life we asked for? Do we accept Jesus as the kind of Savior he presents himself to be or do we get angry because he doesn’t make things the way we think they should be? It’s easy to grin when we are at the front of the parade. It’s easy to praise God when life is good and all our fears seem small and manageable. But can we still praise God when the cheering crowd turns to an angry mob? Can we still shout “Hosanna” when pain or grief or fear of the future threatens to overwhelm us? Can we still speak Jesus’ name when it would be easier or safer or more prudent to just stay quiet? Sometimes life can turn from good to bad to worse in such a devastating way that our faith is called into question and we’re not so sure God is on our side anymore.

If you’ve felt that way, or if you feel that way, let me finish Jesus’ quote in John: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” If we have the courage to speak Jesus’ name, even in the midst of our most difficult times, we are testifying to the power of God in our lives. If we only have good days, we’ll never be able to tell how God saw us through the bad times, we’ll never be able to bear witness to others about how Jesus walked through our dark valley with us.

One of the things that you almost miss in this parade story is the very last verse: “Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple.” Jesus has just come from this mountain-top moment where he’s been cheered and adored by the crowd. And he knows in a few days that same crowd will call for his death. So where does he go in between? He goes to church. He goes to the one place where he knows he is accepted for who he is, not who people think he should be. He anchors himself in his identity as God’s son, which gives him the grounding to handle all the shouts of “Hosanna” and “Crucify him!” that he’ll hear this week.

My dogs love me. They think I’m great. I know this because every time I come home, they get so excited. I could rob three liquor stores and run a few stop signs and they would greet me the same way. But here’s the thing: We’re never as good as our dogs think we are, and we’re never as bad as our enemies think we are. If we’re not careful, we’ll let the voices of others drown out the voice of God and we’ll start thinking too much or too little of ourselves. We’ll start feeling like someone should throw us a parade, or like someone is trying to crucify us. But what God’s voice reminds us is that we are who we were created to be, no more and no less. Even when we stray from that fact, it doesn’t mean it stops being true.

After a week full of love and hate, after a week full of exultations and inquisitions, after a week full of kudos and criticisms, we come to church, because church is the place where we can re-ground ourselves in God’s love and forgiveness, and be reminded that God walks with us every step of our journey, whether on the parade route or into the fiery furnace. God is there.

The Palm Sunday crowd thought they knew who Jesus was. But he was so much more than that. If we are willing to walk with him through his arrest, his trial, his betrayal, his crucifixion, we testify to our belief that he walks with us through our own trials and betrayals. But in order to claim that power in our lives, we can’t just pack up our lawn chairs and go home as soon as the parade is finished.

Palm Sunday is not the end of the story. And it doesn’t end on Maundy Thursday. And it doesn’t even end on Good Friday. If we accept Jesus as a humble and lowly king who doesn’t rescue us from trouble but who walks with us through it, then we’ve got another surprise waiting for us. Stick with him, worship with us on Maundy Thursday, spend time in prayer on Good Friday, stagger with Jesus to Golgotha, let your heart be sealed up in that dark tomb. Then be sure to come back next Sunday, when the real parade begins. There may not be palm branches or Hosannas, but there’s going to be one divine Grand Marshal. Thanks be to God.

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Body by Jesus sermon series – #5: Rough Knees

This is the last in our sermon series, “Body by Jesus,” in which we are seeking to build our bodies in a way that reflects the light of Christ in us and follows his example. So far, we’ve talked about Big Ears, Broken Hearts, Greased Elbows, and Pierced Tongues. I hope this sermon is a blessing to you!

SCRIPTURE – James 5:13-16 – Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. 14 Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.16 Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.

Body Building: Rough Knees
James 5:13-16
March 22, 2015

For this Lenten season, we’ve been using James to help us do some body-building. I’m not talking about rock-hard abs or buns of steel. Instead, we’ve been learning to have big ears for listening, broken hearts filled with compassion, greased elbows that do God’s work, and pierced tongues that only say good and Godly things. Today, we’ll get our last workout as we learn to have knees worn rough through time spent in prayer.

Now, the image of rough knees is a metaphor. We don’t have to pray on our knees with our eyes closed and heads bowed. We can pray in all different kinds of ways: we can be standing, sitting, or driving the car; we can have our eyes opened or closed, but if you’re driving the car please pray with eyes opened; we can have our hands folded, hands raised, hands by our side. The goal is not a flawless technique; the goal is the act of praying. But in order to reach that goal, you have to actually pray. And yet, so many of us give lip service to prayer but never really commit to it.

It seems quite appropriate to talk about prayer in the midst of the NCAA basketball tournament, because faith plays a big role in our favorite sports. Players pray when they score a touchdown or point to the sky when they hit a homerun, and let’s not forget the sport of football features the most holy and reverent of plays: the Hail Mary. In this year’s tournament, Two Godly teams, St. John’s and Providence, are already out of the tournament, so I guess that means you could make the case that God is rooting for Notre Dame…although I think we all know who God really wants to win. I think it’s humorous that an announcer will describe a last-second desperation shot by saying, “He throws up a prayer!” because that’s often how real prayer is viewed. Prayer is seen only as a last resort, the last-ditch effort when everything else has failed, instead of something we should do on a regular basis.

On one of our mission trips with my former church, a youth fell and seriously hurt her tailbone. While we waited for an ambulance, the host minister gathered us around the girl and said, “C’mon, let’s be about doing what we’re supposed to do.” And we prayed for her. We didn’t do it because there was nothing else to do. We did it because, as Christians, that should be our first response, not our last one. When we only turn to prayer when there’s nothing left, we seriously underestimate the power that is at our disposal through prayer.

Notice how James weaves prayer into the rhythm of everyday life. He says if you are you suffering, you should pray. He says if you are cheerful, you should sing, which is simply prayer set to music. Are you sick? Are you celebrating? Are you angry? Are you just blah? You should pray. Rather than seeing prayer as a lifeline only to be used in emergencies, James says prayer should be a natural part of our everyday life. Henri Nouwen calls prayer “the breath of Christian existence.”

And yet, we have trouble committing to such regularity in prayer. Why is that? Maybe it’s because prayer feels like – can I say this? – a waste of time. We have to-do lists and emails to answer, so how can we justify spending precious time in which nothing is accomplished? We are a results-oriented society, and too often our time spent in prayer yields no tangible benefit. And, really, is anyone really listening? We don’t know for sure, do we? So why pray?

I think we sometimes focus too much on the results and not enough on the process and the presence. Our prayer time is not about sitting on God’s knee and giving God our spiritual wish list. Prayer is about developing a relationship with God. Phillip Yancey wrote, “Prayer includes moments of ecstasy and dullness, mindless distraction and acute concentration, flashes of joy and bouts of irritation. In other words, it’s like all our other relationships.” We pray and pray and pray until our knees are rough because that’s how we build our relationship with God. .

But that takes time, doesn’t it, just like building any kind of relationship takes time. Prayer is simply a relationship between two people, one of whom happens to be God. And without a flesh-and-blood conversation partner, that relationship can often feel one-sided. A tourist bus visiting Jerusalem makes a stop at the Wailing Wall, one of the world’s most famous sites for prayer. One of the tourists sees a devout Jew on his knees in front of the site, rocking back and forth, beating his chest, raising his hands. When he finishes, the tourist asks him, “What were you praying for?” The Jew answers, “I pray for righteousness. I pray for the health of my family. I pray for peace in the world.” The tourist asks, “Are these prayers effective?” The Jew responds, “It’s like talking to a wall.”

Yeah, it is. Sometimes during my prayer time I get a sense of peace, other times I get impatient. Sometimes I get clarity on a decision, and other times I get bored. Sometimes I’m reminded of God’s love for me, and other times I wonder if God is even listening. Yancey said, “We wonder when we pray if God is really present. It might be fair for God to ask, when we pray, if WE are really present.”

I believe we seriously undersell the magnitude of what can happen when we pray. We are tempted to easily dismiss it as a fruitless exercise or to mentally check out and we forget that when we pray we are doing nothing less than talking directly with the Creator of the universe. Karl Barth wrote, “To clasp hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.”          Prayer is a spiritual power tool. Jesus says in Mark’s gospel that if we have faith, we can pray that a mountain be thrown into the sea and it will happen. So why do we often treat it as if it’s simply something to check off our spiritual to-do list, a perfunctory, watered-down response to the challenges of life?

I was having lunch with someone the other day and when our food arrived, we kind of did that dance of shuffling our silverware and moving things around on our plates, waiting to see if one of us was going to offer a blessing. Finally, he looked at me and said, “OK, preacher, do your thing so we can get to eating.” We are talking to God, yet how many times do we mumble a half-hearted blessing with a forkful of food already on its way to our mouths?

In contrast, James reminds us of what our prayers can accomplish. He says that a prayer said in faith will save the sick and bring healing. Notice James doesn’t say these prayers will cure the sick person. James says they will save, and there are a lot of ways to be made well other than physically. Even as our bodies deteriorate, our faith can be healed, our relationships can be healed, our souls can be healed. James is not advocating prayer for the removal of trouble as much as he is for the strength to endure our circumstances and to connect with God. James says, “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another so that you may be healed.” That implies that our healing comes through praying for someone else. God created us to be in relationship with others, and we live out that calling when we include others in our prayers.

James concludes our workout session by reminding us that the prayers of a righteous person are powerful and effective. That word “righteous” may sound intimidating – “Well, that’s certainly not me!”  – but it simply means anyone who professes faith in God. Our faith should lead us to seek God, to learn about God, to spend time with God, to grow closer in our connection with God. And prayers that are offered out of that connection are powerful, because they are built on the relationship we’ve developed with God. If a stranger asks to talk with me, I’ll listen, but I’m not invested in that conversation. But if my wife wants to talk with me, I’ll listen differently because of the relationship we have built between us. I believe God hears all prayers, but the prayers offered out of a close relationship with God draw upon the full power of God’s healing and presence. We neglect our relationship with God, we neglect our prayer life, and then we wonder where God is during tough times. God is right there, but we haven’t conditioned ourselves to hear God’s voice. That’s only done through consistent prayer.

The only way we can become more effective prayers is to pray. We don’t have to pray eloquently; we only have to pray faithfully. We have to rough up our knees in prayer on a regular basis. During the course of our day, we have the opportunity to turn the focus from ourselves and our lives to God, to put God at the center of what we say and do. This can be a simple pause in the midst of the day to give a word of thanks. James says to pray when we’re in trouble, when we’re happy, when we’re sick. It doesn’t matter the situation, there’s always a reason to pray. To give thanks for making it home safely. To ask God to comfort a loved one who is struggling. To lift up people in other countries. To praise God for our families. Or, simply to say thank you for God’s continuing presence.

To have rough knees, we simply should see each day as an opportunity to tell God something we want God to know, and to listen for what God wants us to know. Theologian Soren Kirkgaard wrote, “The true relation in prayer is not when God hears what is prayed for, but when the person praying continues to pray until they are the one who hears what God says.” Through our daily exchanges, a relationship is nurtured that will bless our lives in unexpected ways. We have the power of God at our disposal; we have the ear of our Creator anytime we want it. Why would we only make use of that when it’s a last resort?

Big ears, pierced tongues, greased elbows, broken hearts, and rough knees. Our Body Building regimen is now complete. From where I stand, I have to say that you look a lot like Jesus. Now, go show the world.

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Body by Jesus sermon series – #4: Pierced Tongue

For Lent this year, our sermon series, based on the book of James, is helping us build our bodies to reflect the light of Christ within us. So far we’ve talked about having Big Ears, Broken Hearts, and Greased Elbows. Here’s today’s sermon:

SCRIPTURE – James 3:1-12 – Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs.So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.

How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.


Body by Jesus: Pierced Tongue
James 3:1-12
March 15, 2015

I’ve never been able to roll my tongue. You know, when you curl the sides of it up and stick it out? Never could do that. Leigh can. Sydney can. Molly can. I think even our dogs can do it. But I can’t. Can you all do it? Let me see…I actually asked you to try that so I could see how many people would stick their tongue out at the preacher during his sermon.

I’m very impressed with all of your tongue-rolling abilities. Wouldn’t it be great if our tongue were that easy to control ALL of the time? And yet, as we know, that little bugger can get us into a lot of trouble. James is helping us build our bodies to be more like Christ. So far we’ve talked about having big ears, broken hearts, and greased elbows. Today, we’re going to focus on the benefit of a pierced tongue and the danger of an uncontrolled one.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” I used to repeat this saying over and over again as a kid when I would get teased. And yet we know that it’s not really true. Words have incredible power to do harm and what makes it worse is that it’s so easy to do. A lot of bad things we do take some premeditation and planning, but it only takes a split-second lapse of judgment to do damage with the tongue. Our words may not break bones, but they can break hearts and shatter egos. They may not leave visible bruises, but they can bruise a person’s self-esteem or their faith in God. All with the flick of the tongue.

I remember reading about the famous singer, Karen Carpenter. She and her brother Richard were very popular in the 1970s. When they first started singing, one of the critics reviewing the band referred to Karen as “Richard’s chubby little sister.” From that moment on, every time she looked in the mirror, she said to herself, “I’m Richard’s chubby little sister.” And she started taking drugs to lose weight. And she became bulemic. And anorexic. Those simple words destroyed her. She died of heart failure at the age of 32, killed as much by someone’s words as by her own health. Our words have that kind of power.

But they not only have the power to destroy. Our words also have the power to create. In the creation story in Genesis, God spoke the world into being. And God said, “Let there be light.” And there was light. One of the first duties God gives to Adam is the power to name. Genesis 2:19 says, “Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the beasts of the field and all the birds of the air. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name.” The power to name, to give something or someone an identity, to speak their existence into being.

There is so much power in what we say. Think about it: if you ask someone to pass the mashed potatoes, they do it, even if they don’t want to. If you call someone’s name, you can make them turn around, change their whole perspective. Two people come before a minister and they say two little words and they are bound together for life. Think about the power of the words “I hate you” or the words “I love you.” Such little words, so much power.

Part of the reason our words have so much power is because of our inability to undo them. Once they’re out there, you can’t take them back, any more than you can put toothpaste back in a tube. Jesus certainly knew about this. He was criticized by the Pharisees because his disciples didn’t wash their hands before they ate, which would have made their food ceremonially unclean, a violation of the dietary laws. But these same Pharisees were saying harmful and destructive things. So Jesus told them, “What goes into a person’s mouth does not make them unclean, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what makes their unclean.”  He tells them that the things that come out of the mouth originate in the heart, so that what we say is a reflection of who we are.

That’s why James is so vehement in his argument about controlling the tongue. He personifies it, gives it a life of its own: the tongue makes great boasts, it is a fire, it corrupts the whole person, it is a restless evil. The comparison to fire is a particularly powerful one. Back in those days, fire was one of the most feared emergencies because they simply didn’t have the means to stop it once it started. Without fire trucks or hydrants, all they could do was let it spread and run its course, and then assess the damage it left behind. That’s not unlike our response to a rumor or piece of gossip. All we can do is let it run its course and then assess the damage.

James knows about this damage, and he knows that negative words are evidence of a much greater concern. “With the tongue we praise our Lord, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be.” I remember once on the bus in elementary school I was showing off to my friends by using some off-color words I heard, and I saw the bus driving in the mirror watching me. As I was leaving the bus, he gently grabbed my arm and said, “Son, I heard those words you were using. Do you kiss your momma with that mouth?” That statement was the best punishment he could have given me.

James says there should be consistency between what we say to others and what we say to God. He knows that we shouldn’t be opening our mouths just to take out the right foot and put in the left one. Our speech is revelatory of our character. Things that come out of the mouth originate from the heart. A gossipy mouth is a sign of a gossipy heart. An insincere mouth is a sign of an insincere heart. A boastful mouth is a sign of a boastful heart.

The number one reason God gave us a tongue was so that we could express our praise, our gratitude, and our worship to God. And the second reason we have tongues is so that we can use them to encourage, to build up one another. And yet, how often do we use our words to build ourselves up, usually at the expense of someone else? It’s like the Pharisee in scripture who in prayer thanked God that he wasn’t like the lowly tax collector. Just because invoke God’s name doesn’t mean your words are a blessing. It’s like the axiom that you can say anything you want about someone, as long as you end with, “God bless his little heart.” “That boy of hers is the lyingest, cheatingest, rottenest good-for-nothing slacker who deserves to rot in the pit of Hell for all eternity…God bless his little heart.” It’s bad enough to speak poorly of someone, don’t bring God into it!

James calls this duality our “double-mindedness,” our tendency to be divided between God and our own selfish desires.  William Barclay says, “In humans there is something of the ape and something of the angel, something of the hero and something of the villain, something of the saint and much of the sinner.” None of us are either one of the other; all of us are a little bit of both. We all have the potential for double-mindedness. When we use our tongue to praise God on Sunday, but then use it to lash out at someone or talk behind someone’s back or pass judgment on someone, that’s double-mindedness.

What makes this so dangerous is that it can happen so quickly. Even when we think we have our tongue under control, it’s so easy to slip back into old habits. There was a little boy selling a push lawnmower in his front yard. A preacher wanted to buy it and asked if it worked.

“Yes sir”, said the boy. The preacher pulled and pulled on the rope and said, “Son, this thing won’t start.”

The boy said, “That’s ‘cause you ‘gotta’ cuss at it first.”

The preacher said, “Son, I’m a preacher, and I haven’t cussed in 18 years.”

They boy said, “Keep pulling; it’ll come back to you.”

We can be having the best day of our lives, and then someone gives us a dirty look, or someone cuts us off in traffic, or a loved one gives us a verbal jab, and all of the sudden we’re spewing fire. No matter how hard we work at it, it’s so easy to unroll our tongues and say the wrong thing without even thinking about it.

If you could hear a tape recording of everything you said last week, what would you want to edit out? How would your words change if you realized that every word you spoke to someone was being spoken to a child of God? Ask yourself, “How would I feel if what I’m about to say was said to me? Would I be angry? Would I be hurt?”

Better yet, how can you use your words this week to build up? What good thing needs to be named in a friend or a family member or a coworker? What words can you speak to someone this week that will be an overflow of the love of Christ that’s in your heart? Every person has something about them that can be complimented. Find it and name it. Remember we have been give the power to name, and we can choose names that tear down, like “the chubby little sister,” or we can choose names for people that build them up, that remind them of God’s love for them and honor God in the process.

And don’t forget the importance of not using your words at all, but being silent and putting on your big ears so that God can speak to you. You have such power, the power to name, the power to create, the power to build up. And you have the power to tear down and the power to destroy. Which power will you use today?

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Body by Jesus sermon series – #3: Greased Elbows

This is the third sermon in our Lenten series “Body by Jesus,” in which we are using the book of James to learn how we can conform our bodies to the body of Christ. So far we’ve talked about having Big Ears and Broken Hearts. Today, we’ll learn about Greased Elbows.

SCRIPTURE – James 2:14-18 – 14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. 18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.

Body by Jesus: Greased Elbows
James 2:14-18
March 8, 2015

When I lived in the Washington, D.C. area right after high school, I worked afternoons at a doctor’s office in Springfield, Va. This was the height of my pre-Christian days, so I didn’t have much use in my life for religion. There was a group of nurses who worked there I called “The God Squad” because they were all so religious and not afraid to tell you so. There was Burma and Regina, but Janice, she was the ringleader. At least once a week she would ask me, “Kory, do you know Jesus Christ?” And I’d fumble around for some deflective answer like, “No, is he a patient here?”

I had a lot of fun teasing them about their faith, but there was a part of me that admired them, because they were able to believe in something I couldn’t. They had this thing, this faith, that seemed wonderful, that really made a difference in their lives, and I secretly longed for the same thing. I often thought about asking Janice more seriously about her faith.

Until one day on the drive home from work. In the D.C. area, because of the high volume of traffic, they have special lanes called High Occupancy Vehicle Lanes, or HOV lanes. They were like express lanes, but they were right next to the regular lanes without any barrier separating them. You had to have at least three people in your car to use the HOV lanes. This was supposed to promote carpooling, instead it made it very tempting for people to sneak into the HOV lanes. These lanes were so coveted that people would put blow-up dolls in their car to make it look like they had three people in there. The fines for illegally using the HOV lanes were steep; I couldn’t believe I had to pay $75! The policeman who pulled me over asked me why there weren’t three people in my car, and I told him my blow-up dolls had sprung a leak. He didn’t appreciate my comedic sensibilities.

Anyway, I was on the way home one night – in the regular lanes – when I saw a car with one person in it come flying up the HOV lane. And I thought to myself, “Who would have the nerve to use the HOV lane illegally?” This was after my ticket, by the way. And I couldn’t believe it when I saw the driver of the car was Janice! She zoomed by me, smiling, probably singing along to some Bill Gaither song. As she passed me and I caught a glimpse of her “Honk if you love Jesus” bumper sticker, I was infuriated! Here’s a lady who claimed to be a Christian, who wasn’t afraid to confront me about my lack of belief, and she was blatantly breaking the law! Christians weren’t supposed to break the law. They were supposed to use the regular lanes and always say “thank you” and return the $20 bill that fell out of your pocket. After that I had no desire to talk to Janice about God.

You know, that’s the number one complaint I hear about Christians. We’re hypocrites. I had someone once tell me, “The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, then walk out the door and deny him with their lifestyle.” That’s what I saw in Janice’s actions. Now, granted, in hindsight I was probably too judgmental of Janice. We all make mistakes, don’t we? And forgiveness is a crucial part of our belief. But Janice made me wonder: Aren’t Christians called to a higher standard? Does our belief have any consequences for our actions?

That’s the question James encourages us to ponder as we seek during Lent to rebuild our bodies in a way that honors God and emulates the example of Jesus. So far James has told us we need to have big ears to listen better and broken hearts that enter into another person’s pain. Today, James says we need to get our hands dirty, to put our elbow grease to work in living out our faith.

Work, or deeds, is an important concept to James. He preaches against the person who professes belief in Christ but then avoids situations where they might get their hands dirty serving him. According to James, true faith is something we show with our hands, not our mouths. This idea got James into trouble down through the centuries. In fact, the great reformer Martin Luther wanted to cut James right out of the Bible. He said it was a “right strawy epistle” because it seemed to contradict Paul’s teaching that we are saved through our faith alone. Paul taught that there’s nothing we can do to earn our salvation. That is a gift God has given to us. Luther charged that James drives us back to the law, that he claims we have to perform certain actions in order to be called righteous before God. Paul says faith, James says works.

So who’s right? Well, they both are. Paul and James are arguing two sides of the same coin. Paul is arguing against the belief that we can somehow earn our way into Heaven. I once knew a contractor back in Indiana who was notorious for dumping waste into the local stream that ran by his housing development. Years later, he opened up a small golf course next to the subdivision, and he let local pastors play for free. Do you think he was trying to make good with the Creator for polluting the creation? I don’t know if it worked, but I played a lot of free golf…to help this man absolve himself, of course. That’s what Paul is warning about, trying to buy our way into Heaven through good deeds.

But James makes an important point about the danger of the flipside of that equation: a faith without works. Call it head faith. Head faith is an intellectual assent to a certain set of doctrines and Christian teachings without any corresponding change in one’s actions. Head faith leads us to presume that simply knowing the right truth or holding the right position is enough to make us righteous, even if those beliefs are not lived out by our hands. James calls head faith a dead faith. The Greek word he uses for “dead” is “nekros,” the same word used to describe a corpse. James is saying you can dress head faith up, put it in fancy clothes, make it look alive, but inside it’s still dead. It may look and sound like true faith, but inside there is no life.

What James is arguing for here is not that we are saved by deeds. We are saved by our faith in Christ. But a true faith, a faith that has been received as a gift from God, can never be kept silent. That kind of faith is so life-changing that it compels us to respond out of gratitude with elbow grease. Billy Graham says it this way: “There is no conflict between faith and works. In the Christian life they go together like inhaling and exhaling. Faith is taking the gospel in; works is taking the gospel out. Or, as Jesus said in Matthew 7, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”

You probably know people who can do a good job of faking a live faith. I was waiting to get my hair cut one day and struck up a conversation with another person waiting. When people find out I’m a pastor they usually react in one of two ways. They either suddenly find the tops of their shoes incredibly interesting, or they do their Clark-Kent-in-a-phone-booth routine and turn into…Super Religious Person! “Let me tell you how faithful I am!” This lady responded that way. She was flipping through a travel magazine and she turned to me and said, “You know, Pastor, God spoke to me and told me my fiancé and I should go to Hawaii for our honeymoon.” And I thought, “Really? What if God told you to go to Buffalo?” I know what she was trying to do; she was trying to show me how faithful she was. But I wanted to say to her, “Look, Lady, my vote on your salvation doesn’t count, but do you want to impress me? Go to church every Sunday. Say ‘hello’ to the grocery store clerk with the tattoos and the piercings, and tell her to ‘have a nice day’ when you leave. You want to impress me? Teach your children to respect people who are different from them. Go out of your way to do something nice for someone you don’t like. Give up something you want so someone else can have something they need. Don’t tell me how faithful you are; show me.”

That’s what James calls us to do: Get in there and get our hands dirty. Don’t set your faith up on a shelf, taking it down only on Sunday morning and the occasional crisis. Put it on and put it to use. God’s gift to us is the knowledge that we have been reconciled to him through Jesus Christ, that we have been saved from our sins. That gift is so exhilarating, so liberating, that it should fill us to overflowing with gratitude, and that gratitude should spill out from us toward others.

Living out your faith means being willing to do the dirty work of service. As always, Jesus leads the way for us here. In John’s gospel, as the disciples are gathering in the upper room for the Last Supper, Jesus wanted to leave them one lasting lesson about the importance of living out their faith. Did he preach a sermon to them? Did he give them a theological lecture? No. Instead, he bends down and, one by one, takes their feet, dirty and smelly from the day’s walk, and he washes them clean. He doesn’t just tell them what they need to do. They have asked him repeatedly what it means to follow him. He says, “As I have done for you, so you must do for others.”

What has Jesus done for us? He hasn’t washed our feet; he’s washed our souls. He’s given us the gift of forgiveness and mercy and eternal life. When we serve others, when we get our hands dirty, we’re not only providing a service, we’re providing a glimpse of the kingdom of God, where everyone’s hands are dirty from helping others. We can’t all do everything, but each of us can do something. If you don’t know where to start, let me know. We’ll find someplace you can put your elbow grease to work. James says, “I will show you my faith by what I do.”

What are you going to do this week to make a difference in someone’s life? What are you going to do to show them that the kingdom of God looks different – more loving, more hopeful, more generous – than this world? The next person you meet may be the one person who needs to see faith in action the most. So what do you do? Use your elbow grease. I recommend following the advice of St. Francis of Assisi, who said, “Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.”

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