Looking for Rehoboth

Nature abhors a vacuum.

So does my calendar.

It seems like every time a space opens up – God bless canceled committee meetings! – something rushes in to fill it. I’d like to blame that on external forces around me beyond my control, which is funny because control is something I normally am not too keen to give up. In reality, I am the gatekeeper for my space, and I decide how it gets filled.

I recently came across a Bible story I had completely forgotten. In between the birth of his rascal-y twins and blessing the wrong son, Isaac has this encounter with Abimelech, the king of the Philistines. Isaac settles in the king’s territory but becomes too powerful, so the king asked Isaac to leave. In his new settlement, Isaac digs wells for water, but out of spite the envious Philistines in the area throw dirt into the wells to stop them up. After a couple of instances of quarreling over the wells, Isaac finally digs one the Philistines leave alone, so he names it “Rehoboth,” saying, “Now the Lord has made room for us.” The Message translates the name of the well as “Wide-Open Spaces.”

Wide open spaces. For me, those words are like smoked brisket to a hungry person. Life feels so crowded. I look at my calendar, which has every available inch covered with ink. I look at my spiritual life, into which I try to cram my to-do lists for God. I look at my typical day, which is overflowing with Facebook posts, podcasts, conversations with church members, activities with my family. Wide open spaces? Nope. Not around these parts.

In fairness, not all the things that fill my well are bad things. Many of them are not only good, they are necessary and life-giving. For example, I’m not going to create space in my life by neglecting my family or not watching “The Walking Dead” (OK, maybe not everything I do is life-giving). But if my wells are too full of mud to produce fresh springs of water, I’ve got no one to blame but myself. I choose what goes into my well, so I shouldn’t be surprised when I dip in my bucket and get a bunch of sludge and soundbites and “epic fail” videos instead of the deeper stuff I was seeking.

This was brought home to me in the book Pray Write Grow by Ed Cyzewski (available March 11). Cyzewski says we can have great intentions about becoming better writers or better prayers or better Christians, but unless we create space in our lives to work on that, those intentions will never move beyond that point. Cyzewski shares the example of giving up podcasts while walking in order to spend more time in prayer, and how that small practice had a seismic effect on his spiritual life and his writing.

But I like those dirt clods in my well! I like checking Facebook, I like getting emails, I like listening to music while I run or iwhile driving. Why? Because it’s easier to fill the well with mud than it is to face what else might come rushing in if I leave the space open for God to fill. It’s easier to deal with space-fillers I can control and that make me feel important (“my latest post has five likes!”) than to give up that space to God’s spirit, which might remind me that I’m not as important as I like to think I am or how I’m using my time isn’t quite in line with how God has called me to use my time.

Each day, each block on the calendar, is a well that has been dug for us. What’s in your well today? Muck and mud? Life-giving water? Is there still room, still some open space for God?

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Body by Jesus sermon series – #1: Big Ears

For Lent, we’re preaching through the letter from James, who gives us a lot of practical advice on how to live out our faith. We’re going to build our body in a way that resembles Jesus. Today, we’re going to work on our ears.

SCRIPTURE – James 1:19-21 – 19 You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. 21 Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.

Body Building: Big Ears
James 1:19-21
February 22, 2015

This is supposed to be the first Sunday of Lent, but that can’t be right because the first Sunday of Lent usually follows Ash Wednesday. But because Central Kentucky suddenly turned into Alaska, we had to postpone and then cancel our Ash Wednesday service, which means that today is really like Ash Wednesday, because it is the first day we’re celebrating Lent. That means that this coming Wednesday will be the first Sunday in Lent. So please mark your calendars to join us on Palm Thursday, Maundy Sunday, Good Tuesday and Easter Friday.

The season of Lent has always been a bit of an enigma to us Disciples. The church I served in Illinois bristled at the idea of celebrating Lent. “Too Catholic,” they said. “Too much of a bummer.” Well…yes. There’s some truth to that. Lent isn’t meant to be a six-week party leading up to Easter. Historically, one of the purposes of Lent was to help potential candidates prepare for their baptism through self-examination and recognition of their need for a savior. You spent six weeks acknowledging your sinfulness and shortcomings and all the ways you have disappointed God. See, Lent isn’t a bummer!

More recently, Lent has become a time of introspection and sacrifice, usually marked by giving up something like chocolate or Starbucks. Originally, this idea of giving up was to remove any barriers between you and God. By fasting from this obstruction, it cleared the pathway for you to connect with God and see more clearly your need for a savior. But that’s flawed thinking. How is chocolate keeping me from connecting with God? This year I’m taking a stand against this hurtful tradition of giving up things; I’m going to eat as much chocolate as possible during Lent. Who’s with me?

Seriously, Lent has become so synonymous with giving up something that we forget the original purpose of the season. It’s a time of learning about ourselves, seeing both the good in us and the places where we have fallen short. It’s about recognizing our human condition and acknowledging the areas in which we should strive to be less like the world and more like Christ. It’s about remaking ourselves, building a spiritual body that reflects the image of God within us by living out Godly characteristics like love, grace, and forgiveness. And each one of us has some work to do.

Our personal trainer for this five-week shape-up program will be James, who tells us that the first part of our body we need to work on is our ears. He says we need to have big ears. Not just slightly-larger-than-average ears, James says. Big ears. You know the way we build our muscles is to use them repeatedly. In that case, we should all have humongous snow-shoveling muscles by now. The more you use a muscle, the stronger it gets and the bigger it grows. So how do we get big ears? James says, “By using them.”

“Let everyone be quick to listen and slow to speak.” It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? How many embarrassing situations could we have saved ourselves from by following this simple rule? I can remember many times where, even as the words are coming out of my mouth, I want to grab them and stuff them back in. But we can’t un-communicate. That’s why we listen first and speak next. As they say, “A closed mouth gathers no foot,” and yet how often do we jump in with our words before hearing the words of others?

The biblical translation The Message says it this way: “Lead with your ears, and follow up with your tongue.” That’s a marriage counseling session in one sentence. Of course, our ability to lead with our ears goes beyond the size of our ears; it centers on the focus of our attention. Research says people only remember 50% of what they hear immediately after hearing it. Therefore, I am going to preach this sermon twice during this service and pray that you’ll remember 50% of it each time. If we really want to hear something, we have to be listening for it, we have to be paying attention. When I taught public speaking, we would talk about the technique of faking attention, where we nod our heads and say our “um-hums” in all the right places, but aren’t really paying attention. We’re faking attention. I see many of you nodding your head and saying “um-hum” in agreement. Or are you faking it? Too many of our conversations lack the rich connectedness of a relationship because we simply don’t listen. Our minds are too preoccupied.

I see this a lot, especially on social media. As more and more of our conversations are virtual rather than face-to-face, we are being conditioned to listen to the other person for the purpose of formulating our response. We listen with an agenda, just waiting for our chance to interject what we have to say, which is obviously more important than what they have to say. We listen for the purpose of trying to change their mind or pointing out what’s wrong with their viewpoint or fixing their problem. And when all that is going through our minds while they’re speaking, are we really listening? Lead with your ears.

This way of listening on social media spills over into our face-to-face conversations. How would the nature and quality of our interactions change if we approached each one with the goal of completely and fully listening to the other person? It’s hard to silence the rebuttal machine in our brains, but it’s important to remember that holding your tongue doesn’t count as listening. Or, as someone else put it, never miss a good opportunity to shut up. As we interact with others, how would the nature of our relationships change if we made a conscious effort, as Henri Nouwen put it, “to withdraw into ourselves out of humility, so that we create the space for the other person to be themselves?” When we talk, we take up a lot of space. What if we listened to others with the same intensity and effort that we usually save for talking? What would we hear that we’re currently missing? If we take the time to truly listen to someone else, we send them the message that they are important to us, that they matter to us. The greatest gift we can give to someone else is the attention of our big ears.

Of course, listening well to others is good practice for our most important listening, which is listening to God. We should take time to listen to God for the simple reason that God takes time to listen to us. The Bible is full of examples of God listening to his people. Psalm 66 says, “God has surely listened and heard my voice in prayer.” As Jesus is about to raise Lazarus from the dead, he looks up and says, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me.” God is always listening. He says through the prophet Isaiah, “Before my people call I will answer; while they are still speaking, I will hear.”

And God call us to listen, as well. One of my favorite Psalm passages says, “Be still and know that I am God.” Sometimes when I read that I hear it as a word of comfort, but most often I hear it as an admonishment to my current behavior. “Be still! I’m trying tell you something. I’m God. You’re not. I have something to say. Be still and listen.”

Relationships grow through the give and take of communication, as we each talk and listen. God listens to us, and God has a word of comfort, a word of hope, a word of good news with which to respond. John Ortberg says that in the Bible Samuel prayed, “Speak, God, for your servant is listening,” but too often we say in prayer, “Listen, God, for your servant is speaking.”

Do we give God the space to speak to us, or is God’s voice crowded out by all the other noise? We are so good at faking attention with God, bowing our heads and saying “Amen” in all the right places, but letting other responsibilities and distractions take priority over our time with God. Our growth as a person of faith depends upon our paying attention to God, our dialogue with our Creator, our ability to listen for what God is saying to us.

God speaks to us through our prayers, through other people, through scripture. I heard God speak to me through Laura Barkhauer, who said, “You should go to seminary.” I heard God speak to me through scripture, when Psalm 121 promised me God would not let my foot stumble.  I heard God speak to me through an email that said, “This is Wayne Shaver and I’d like to talk to you about our senior minister opening at Crestwood Christian Church.” I’ve heard God speak to me through many people, but I’ve probably missed God speaking to me in thousands of other ways because I wasn’t listening. We’ll never hear God if we don’t pay attention and take the time to listen. Our relationship with God will only develop as a dialogue, not a monologue, and Lent is a wonderful time to make the commitment to that.

Lead with your ears. Be quick to listen. There is so much need around us, but I believe the greatest need people have is a need to be heard, a need to be acknowledged and accepted and validated as a valuable human being. To be able to answer that need, we first have to create a space for God’s word in our lives, we have to listen to what God is saying to us. May God give us all big ears for listening, so that we can respond faithfully by saying, “Speak, God, for your servant is listening.”

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Dirty Words sermon series – #5: Salvation

This is the fifth sermon in our series looking at some of the “Dirty Words” of our faith.

SCRIPTURE- Ephesians 2:1-10 –  You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ[a]—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

Christianity’s Dirty Words sermon series
#5 – Salvation
Feb. 8, 2015

We continue our sermon series today in which we are looking at some of the less savory words in our faith vocabulary, words that have been co-opted and redefined by the culture. Our hope is to steal back the words and ground them in their biblical definition so that we can put them to use in our lives.

Today’s sermon is a bookend to last week’s sermon on sin. In that sermon, we said that calling someone a sinner wasn’t a judgment but a statement of fact, because that’s a part – but not all – of each one of us. We also said sin wasn’t something to be punished, but something to be healed. So we have to understand sin before we can understand salvation, because salvation only makes sense if we understand what we’re being saved from.

The traditional meaning of “salvation” is that we are saved from our sin and its consequences. Sounds so simple, right? But that understanding is far from universal, because the word “salvation,” and the idea of “being saved” have taken on a life of their own in our culture, especially within some churches. We’ll work on a new definition later, but for now it’s important to acknowledge that, in popular terms, “being saved” has become something like a check of your spiritual I.D. to make sure you’re worthy of being allowed in the club.

When I was young, I remember visiting a church in my hometown that had a reputation for being extremely fundamentalist. I was playing on the playground before church started when a very serious-looking boy came up to me and asked, “Have you been saved?” Now, I had never heard this question before, so I assumed he was referring to some form of danger that lurked on the playground, maybe a pit of quicksand or a charging rhino or something. So I looked around and said, “Saved from what?” And he paused for a second, and said, “I don’t know. I just know it’s important.” Yes it is important to be saved, but it’s just as important to know what we’re being saved from.

We Disciples shy away from this language. We don’t talk about “being saved,” probably because that is associated with more conservative evangelical churches. But it also paints salvation in a very black-white dichotomy, as in you are either saved or not saved with no grey in between. Many people talk about being saved as if it is a one-time event. You’re unsaved, and then – boom! – you’re saved.

There is an example in the Bible that supports this view of a one-time salvation event. Paul, a persecutor of Christians, is converted in an instant into a follower of Jesus on the road to Damascus. The problem is that Paul’s experience has been lifted up as the norm for conversions. You’re unsaved, you accept Jesus and then – boom! – saved. But that is only one example of salvation in the Bible, and we need to look at the whole body of God’s work before defining what salvation means.

The Bible talks about salvation in three ways. The first way is in the past tense. Paul says in our passage today, “By grace you have been saved.” Through Christ’s death on the cross, all those who believe in him were saved. That one event ensures salvation for believers. The danger of this viewpoint, of course, is that if we view salvation only in the past tense, we may think that everything’s already done and we therefore can live our lives however we want. “If I’m already saved, it doesn’t matter what I do Monday through Saturday, because I know God will forgive me on Sunday.” But we know better than that. Salvation in the past tense doesn’t mean we don’t have present responsibilities as believers. Just because you’re saved doesn’t mean you’re free to check your common sense and good judgment at the door. A person whose heart has been changed by salvation will always reflect that salvation in the way they live their lives and the choices they make.

The Bible also talks about salvation in the future tense, pointing toward that time when Christ will come again. Paul says until that moment, we wait eagerly for our adoption as children of God. The process of salvation has started but won’t come to fruition until Jesus returns.

The problem with this view is that if people believe their ultimate salvation is yet to come, they begin to wonder what they need to do to ensure that. It’s the “Jesus is coming – look busy!” syndrome. So much of this understanding of salvation has been dominated by what Marcus Borg labels the “heaven-hell framework.” In that framework, everything in a believer’s life is judged by whether or not it will help them go to Heaven and stay out of Hell. So, in this perspective, salvation is about being saved from Hell.

There was a man in the Bible who fell prey to this way of thinking. He was a rich man who felt he had done everything Jesus wanted him to do. He was a good man, upstanding citizen, solid believer. To ensure his eternal salvation, he asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life? The downfall of this man was his emphasis is on the word “do.” As soon as we start believing there’s something we can do to earn salvation, we’ve lost sight of Christ’s work on the cross. Salvation is abandoning the misconception that you are rejected because of your bad behavior or accepted because of your goodness. Salvation is a gift. We are saved by grace.

So the Bible talks about salvation in the past tense – it’s something we already have so we don’t have to worry about it – and in the future tense – it’s something we need to keep working for in order to get to Heaven. The third and most intriguing way the Bible talks about salvation is in the present tense. Paul, who talked a lot about salvation, says this to the church in Corinth: “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” “Are being saved,” he says.

This present tense understanding of salvation is most useful, because it helps us better understand the purpose of being saved. The traditional definition of salvation is that we are saved from the penalty of our sins. Jesus died on the cross so that we wouldn’t have to die as punishment for our sinfulness. So, in the past tense, that means we’ve been cleared to do whatever we want, because we already have our Golden Ticket. And in the future tense, it means we have to keep checking things off our spiritual to-do list in order to get to Heaven, which means the good things we do and the people we serve are only means to the end of keeping us out of Hell.

By focusing on the present tense of salvation, the idea of “being saved,” we redefine the purpose of salvation. As Phillip Gulley and James Mulholland say in their book, If Grace Is True, “Salvation is more than a ticket to Heaven. It is more than a Get Out of Hell Free card. It is more than just eternal life. Salvation is being freed of every obstacle to intimacy with God.” That’s the present tense of salvation. It’s not just the one-and-done deal of forgiving our sins; it’s not just the future hope of getting into Heaven. We are being saved day by day so that we can be in relationship with God. And that requires us every day to die to the sin inside of us and rise as a child of God.

We tend to focus so much on what we are saved from that we forget what we are saved for. Although our culture doesn’t use the word “salvation” much, it uses another word with the same root: “Salvage.” Webster’s defines “salvage” as “to save for further use.” There used to be a show on the Discovery Channel called “Dirty Jobs.” The host, Mike Rowe, went around around doing some of the most disgusting jobs imaginable. On one show, he joined a couple of guys whose went around to local golf courses used scuba gear to retrieve golf balls from the water hazards. I noticed quite a few of the balls had the name “Kory Wilcoxson” written on them. They would then clean off the mud and muck from the golf balls and resell them.

I think it’s safe to say that in working with us, God has a dirty job. God’s work is salvage work. God dips God’s hand into the mess and muck of our lives to salvage us from ourselves and the evil that infects us. God dipped Jesus into this world so he could do salvage work on the cross. If we think we are only saved from something, if we think God did all of that just to make sure we go to Heaven, we’re missing the crux of the salvage work of Christ.

We are also saved for something. We are saved to be God’s children on this earth. We are saved to continue God’s salvage work in the lives of others. We are saved to be God’s witnesses, to be the embodiment of God’s love to others. How do you know if you are saved? I’d say you know if you are less concerned about whether or not you are saved and more concerned with doing God’s work. You know you are saved if you spend less time figuring out who else is and isn’t saved and more time making sure your thoughts and actions reflect the love and grace of God.

We have been saved. We will be saved. And every day we are being saved, saved from the destructiveness of sin and saved for God’s salvage work. Does our salvation mean we’ll never sin again? No. We are still human, and we still have the same vulnerabilities and face the same temptations. But every day, when we wake up, we are saved again, given another chance to live lives worthy of our calling as children of God. I don’t believe God is interested in what we’ve done or how many times we’ve done it. What God cares about is that we acknowledge our sinfulness, that we ask for forgiveness, and that we strive to live as a changed person, no longer defined by our sinfulness, but defined by our faith and by God’s grace at work within us. I’ll close with the way the Bible translation The Message renders the last line of today’s passage: “God creates and saves each of us by Christ Jesus to join him in the work he does, the good work he has gotten ready for us to do, work we had better be doing.” This world needs saving, and we can do it, one Christ-like act at a time. So let’s get to work!

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Dirty Words sermon series – #4 – “Sin”

We continue our sermon series look at some of the fundamental words in our faith vocabulary that have been co-opted and redefined by the culture. Our goal in these series is to reclaim these words so that they speak to our faith and how we live it out in our lives. Today’s word…sin!

SCRIPTURE – I John 1:5 – 2:2 – This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true;but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. 

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

Dirty Words sermon series
#4 – Sin
Feb. 1, 2015

We continue our Dirty Words sermon series today, in which we’re looking at some basic Christian words that have been co-opted and negatively redefined by our culture. Our hope is to reclaim and redefine them in a way that makes them useful to us as we try to understand how to live out our faith in our daily lives. And no word has been more distorted than the word “sin.”

This can be an uncomfortable topic, so I thought a good way to start would be to lay everything out on the table. We’re all friends here, right? The Bible talks repeatedly about the cleansing power of confession, so I figure we would start redefining the word “sin” by naming our own to each other. I’d like each person to stand up and share one of their sins. Ushers, please lock the doors. Seriously, I was thinking of using this sermon to model the importance of confession by sharing with you a few of my own sins, but then I realized my dad was going to be here and there are just some things I don’t want him knowing about. Sorry dad!

Sin. Just hearing that word elicits a reaction in us, doesn’t it? Our stomachs tighten a little, we get a bit squirmy, we suddenly feel like we need a shower. Sin. Why is that such a bad word today? The word is all over the Bible, especially in the New Testament, and most especially in Paul’s letters. He uses the concept of sin as a fundamental building block in his exposition of what it means to be a person of faith and a believer in Jesus Christ. So how did “sin” go from building block to bad word?

I blame the church for the way it has handled the concept of sin. For example, at my last church I preached a sermon on sin and salvation, going into great detail to explain the biblical understanding of sin and our need to be saved from it. It wasn’t quite fire and brimstone, but I thought it got the job done with a minimal amount of squirming.

After the worship service, a good friend of mine in the congregation stormed up to me and said, “I just want you to know that I didn’t even listen to your sermon.” Now, I’m used to hearing that often enough, but the anger with which she shared her statement startled me. She said, “As soon as you said the word ‘sin,’ I just stopped listening. I was beaten over the head with that word so much growing up that I just can’t hear it anymore. Every tie you said it I got angrier, and you said it 67 times. Yes, I counted!”

The word “sin” doesn’t really need to be rescued from our culture, because you very rarely hear it spoken anymore, unless you’re talking about a dessert that so good it’s sinful. No, the word “sin” needs to be rescued from the church itself. It has been lifted up as the defining characteristic of the human condition to the point that people have fled the church to get away from the brow-beating they’ve taken because they are sinners. As for my friend, just hearing that word is a huge turn-off.

To compensate, some churches have jettisoned the word “sin” and found more palatable alternatives to it. I was once told by a minister who was reading over one of my sermons that I shouldn’t use the word “sinfulness” because it was too negative. She suggested I used “brokenness” or “shortcomings.” That’s like the doctor who told me he didn’t like to tell family members that a loved one had died; instead, he told them they had “transitioned.” But Paul doesn’t say that all suffer from brokenness and have fallen short of the glory of God; he says all have sinned. In fact, Paul uses the word “sin” 77 times in the book of Romans alone. I’d hate to see what my friend would do to him!

It makes sense that we’d want to distance ourselves from this word because of the extreme negative spin it has. I’d rather be thought of as broken rather than sinful because, to be honest, it’s easier to rationalize the bad behavior. Calling our sins “mistakes” or “imperfections” makes them so much more palatable! One author suggests we change the traditional sinner’s prayer, which says, “Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” to say, “Benevolent and Easy-Going God…oops! I goofed. Sorry about that. I’m still a good person.”

Why are we so afraid to claim the title of “sinner”? What would happen if people found out that we’re not really the perfect person we want people to think we are?  Our reputation would be ruined. We’d be kicked out of church, our picture would go up in the post office, people would talk about us in hushed tones: “Remember Kory? Oh, yeah, can you believe it? I thought he was such a nice guy! Who would have guessed that he was really a sinner!”

Just saying that sounds so horrible, but that also highlights the breakdown in the evolution of the word “sin.” In the Bible, to be called a sinner was not a judgment; it was simply a statement of fact, and assertion about the reality of our human nature and our broken relationship with God. To be a sinner does not necessarily mean you are hypocritical, disgusting or evil. It means you’re human. Some of the nicest people I know are sinners, and most of y’all are sitting in this room right now!

We can start reclaiming this essential word by redefining it and owning up to the fact that sin is a part of the human condition. Yes, we are all sinners. I don’t say that to make you feel bad or beat you down; I simply say it because it’s true, and if we are to understand God’s grace and the power of what Christ did for us on the cross, we first have to acknowledge our separation from God and our need for a Savior.

Part of the reason we resist seeing our sinful nature is that we’ve let sin be defined too narrowly. “To sin” has become synonymous with “breaking the rules.” The Bible says “thou shalt not,” but if you slip up and shalt when you shouldn’t shalt, you’ve sinned. But sin is so much more multi-faceted than that. It’s not just a cosmic demerit system or a divine spreadsheet of wrongdoing. For example, there are sins of commission, which means doing things we shouldn’t do. But there are also sins of omission, which means not doing things we should do. There are sins, the act themselves, but there is also sinfulness, which is a condition in which we live. There are personal sins, but there are also systemic and institutional sins like racism and destruction of God’s creation.

So when we redefine “sin,” we have to do so in a way that encompasses all the different forms of sin, because the Bible doesn’t make a distinction between types of sin. That’s hard for some of us to accept. There’s no list in the Bible that says murder is a really big sin but telling a lie is only a little sin. In God’s eyes, they are all sins, and no sin is more or less sinful than any others. Our human laws make these kinds of distinctions, which is good and necessary, but God doesn’t. The Bible doesn’t focus on how we’ve sinned, but that we have sinned, and that we cannot escape our sinful nature by ourselves. We need God’s help.

In that light, sin is not something to be punished, but something to be healed. Listen to this line, written by someone whose name I’ve forgotten but who is infinitely wiser than me: Sin is not a weapon in the arsenal of condemnation, but a reminder of the expectation of grace. It is through acknowledging that we are sinners that we open ourselves up to receive the lavish, unmerited grace of God, who says, “You’re a sinner, Kory, and I love you, not in spite of who you are, but because of who you are.” If we are willing to claim our sinfulness, we can then claim God’s grace. As Martin Luther said, “The recognition of sin is the beginning of salvation.”

If all this talk of sin is making you feel a little beat up – I’ve said it 63 times so far, if you’re counting – then let’s end on a positive note, shall we? Let’s go back to the beginning in Genesis, when God created man and woman. The Bible tells us we were created in God’s image, we were saturated with God’s nature, and God looked at us and pronounced us – sinners? No. God looked at us and pronounced us good. Then Adam and Eve came along and messed everything up! But before that, we were created and called good.

That’s important to remember when we’re dealing with sin, because sin can be so insidious that we can forget we are more than our sins. As Sister Helen Prejean says in “Dead Man Walking,” “Every person is worth more than their worst act.” Thanks be to God for that, right? Yes, we are sinners, but that is only a small part of who we are. Ultimately, we are children of God, created to be good, loved by God even when we don’t deserve it, forgiven for our shortcomings and brokenness and – yes – our sins. I don’t mean to trivialize sin or make it seem like it’s not as big a deal as it is, because it is. But we are not defined by what we’ve done or left undone; we are defined by the One who made us good.

If you want to read an amazing book on this, Cornelius Plantinga has written, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, and that’s the best explanation of sin I’ve ever read. In it, Plantinga defines the goodness of God’s creation as “shalom,” and then defines sin as “culpable shalom-breaking.” When we do something to disrupt the goodness that is innate within us on in someone else, we commit a sin. When we try to meet legitimate needs in illegitimate ways, we commit a sin. When we love something else so much that it becomes our god instead of God being our God, we commit a sin. The question is not if we sin; the question is when we do, do we run away from God or do we run toward God? Do we run away from God, fearing punishment, or do we run toward God, expecting grace? Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, your child, a sinner.

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Dirty Words sermon series – #3: Suffering

This is the second in a series looking at words associated with Christianity that have taken on a negative meaning in the larger culture.

SCRIPTURE – 1Peter 4:12-19 – Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed. 14 If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory,[e] which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you.[f] 15 But let none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, a criminal, or even as a mischief maker. 16 Yet if any of you suffers as a Christian, do not consider it a disgrace, but glorify God because you bear this name. 17 For the time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God; if it begins with us, what will be the end for those who do not obey the gospel of God? 18 And

“If it is hard for the righteous to be saved,
    what will become of the ungodly and the sinners?”

19 Therefore, let those suffering in accordance with God’s will entrust themselves to a faithful Creator, while continuing to do good.

Christianity’s Dirty Words sermon series
#3 – Suffering
January 25, 2015

I remember the first sermon I preached on the biblical concept of suffering. As the ushers were preparing the sanctuary for worship, I overheard one of them say to the other, “Well, guess we better put out some extra chairs today. This topic should draw a huge crowd.” To his surprise, we did have a few people show up, including a visitor. At the end of the service, as I was greeting people at the door, the visitor vigorously shook my hand and said, “Thank you for that sermon, pastor! I never truly understood suffering until I heard you preach.”

We continue our sermon series today looking at some of the dirty words of the Christian faith. These are words that are essential to our spiritual understanding but have been co-opted and redefined by the larger culture. We’re going to try and ground these words in their biblical meaning and reclaim their power for our lives, and try not to suffer to much as we do so.

So let’s get right to it. Why is suffering a dirty word, something that we’re not comfortable talking about? Maybe we’re embarrassed by the central role it plays in scripture. Maybe we’re embarrassed by how often the Bible calls followers to suffer for their faith. Or maybe we’re embarrassed by the fact that, deep down, we’re ashamed because of how little we suffer in the name of Jesus. The first followers of Christ faced persecution, violence, and death, all because they boldly proclaimed Jesus as Lord. And us?

For most Western Christians, the context for our faith is one of comfort and affluence, not trials and persecutions. We have the freedom to worship in heated sanctuaries where the worst affliction we may face is a long-winded preacher who keeps us from missing tip-off or lukewarm grape juice during communion. Our proclamations aren’t bold because they don’t have to be; there’s nothing we’re proclaiming that threatens our comfort (not to mention our very lives). We can be followers of Jesus without all the life-and-death drama. We may at times have felt awkward because of our faith, but we’ve never been beaten because of our faith, never lost our homes because of our faith, and never been fed to the lions because of our faith. The true meaning of “suffering” is no longer in our faith vocabulary.

That doesn’t mean we don’t talk about suffering, but we do it in a much different context than the biblical use of the word. The dictionary defines “suffering” as “agony” and “torment.” But I wonder if nowadays “suffering” is defined as “anything, either real or perceived, that causes us to not have things our way.” We have come to believe that we are entitled to certain rights that go well beyond our U.S. Constitution, like the right to having our pizza delivered in 30 minutes or less and the right for our stocks to yield favorable earnings. And when we don’t get what we want, we label it “suffering.” “I suffered through a 20-minute wait on the tarmac before my plane took off.” “I suffered through ‘The Lord of the Rings’ after drinking an extra-large diet Coke.” For us, “suffering” is an appropriate description for anything that even slightly threatens our comfortable state of existence.

In fact, you could argue we’ve conditioned ourselves to believe that to suffer is an unnecessary interruption of our normal life. We’ve done our best to insulate ourselves and eliminate any form of suffering. We surround ourselves with conveniences and luxuries that serve to protect our comfort and minimize the amount of suffering we must endure. We buy chairs that massage and cars with heated seats and exotically flavored coffees, each time increasing the baseline of what we consider “comfortable.” As our threshold for comfort rises, our definition of “suffering” changes, as well, morphing from “pain and distress” into “the absence of comfort.” Before we know it, suffering means sitting in a cold car seat drinking black coffee. And we lament, “My chair, my chair, why have you forsaken me?”

That’s a far cry from what the Bible defines as suffering. While there are many different forms suffering takes in the Bible, from exile to prison to being sawed in two, there’s a common thread running through all of them: suffering in the Bible occurred as a result of a person’s faith. Because Christianity was an underground movement with many opponents, believers were often severely persecuted for their faith as they sought to reconcile their Jewish heritage with their new-found belief in Jesus as the Messiah, the son of God. Fellow Jews thought they were blasphemers, betraying the faith of their ancestors. And the Romans treated them as traitors because they pledged allegiance to a God other than the emperor. So the early followers of Jesus were beset on all sides by people seeking to change their minds through coercion, ostracization, or outright violence.

Suffering and persecution were not interruptions in their normal lives; they were the norm for believers. “Suffer” and “suffering” occur 86 times in the New Testament, including in our passage from 1 Peter. Early Christians understood that suffering for their faith was a necessary part of life because it linked them to the suffering of their savior. When Christ tells his disciples to “take up your cross and follow me,” he is inviting them into a life of discipleship that will put them in harm’s way because of their faith. The call to follow is not a call to an easy life; it is a call to faithfulness in the face of forces that threaten our well-being. Like Jesus, his followers will be cursed, spit upon, and killed, simply because of what they believe. We don’t know that kind of suffering.

And yet, we have suffered, haven’t we? It may not have been directly tied to our faith, but we have suffered in the biblical sense. Spiritual writer Joyce Rupp says, “We are finite human beings living on an earth where natural disasters occur, where genetic conditions exist, where we sometimes make poor or sinful choices, where life does not always work out as we had planned and hoped it would.” Not everyone suffers the same amount or in the same way, but no one can go through life without suffering.

When understood in this way, colored by our cultural redefinition, suffering takes on an exclusively negative connotation. Even though suffering is inevitable, no one wants to go through it. And when it happens, which it will, we look for someone to blame. One of the primary questions I deal with from parishioners is, “Why did God let this happen?” usually asked in relation to some tragedy or setback. That question implies that life should be pain-free, devoid of any kind of suffering that keeps us from living the life we want to live. In that context, there is nothing redeeming about suffering.

I wonder how our perspective would change if we reclaimed the transformative qualities of suffering found in scripture. Wait! Transformative properties suffering? Listen to Paul’s words from Romans: “We rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance, character; character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us.” At some point, Paul says, we must move from asking “Why?” to asking “How?” How can God use this experience to strengthen me? How can God work through this suffering to shape my character and fill me with hope? How can I glorify God through this experience of suffering?

Dr. Martin Luther King once said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy.” And French priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said, “Our spiritual character is formed as much by what we endure and what is taken from us as it is by our achievements and conscious choices.” In other words, we are who we are today not in spite of our suffering, but because of it. We are transformed through our suffering.

“I tell you the truth,” Jesus says. “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” Sometimes our suffering can feeling like something inside of us is dying. But death is a prerequisite for resurrection. You can’t have new life without something dying. As we suffer our little deaths, God is at work tending to the seeds of perseverance, character, and hope that have been planted inside of us, bringing about resurrection, calling us forth from the tombs of our despair. It is through suffering that we are most able to experience the restorative power of Jesus.

It’s a human reflex to look for answers when we’re in the midst of suffering. We want to know why we or a loved one is suffering an illness or a divorce or a financial crisis. And we often feel as if God has abandoned us. But scripture promises that God IS there, working to bring about good from even the worst situation. If we can take the focus off our suffering – Why me? – and put it onto God’s presence in the midst of our trials – How is God using me? – we have a renewed reason for hope, even in our darkest valleys

While Webster’s dictionary casts the word “suffering” in a decidedly negative light, Roget gives it a more balanced treatment in his thesaurus. Some of the synonyms for “suffer” include: to endure, undergo, put up with, go through. All those imply forward movement, don’t they? It’s as if suffering is a part of our spiritual journey to something greater, something more redemptive, something like perseverance, character, and ultimately hope. We must remember that when we suffer, we won’t stay there forever, that God is in the midst of our suffering, working to bring about resurrection. We can choose to ask “Why?” to stay stuck in our suffering, blinded to its transformative qualities by the world’s conditioning. Or we can ask “How?” and look for signs that God is at work, hopeful that God is using our suffering to help us persevere, to build our character, to give us hope. And that hope does not disappoint.

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Christianity’s Dirty Words sermon series – #2: Religion

This is the second in a series looking at words associated with Christianity that have taken on a negative meaning in the larger culture.

SCRIPTURE – James 1: 19-27 – My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, 20 because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. 21 Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.

22 Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.23 Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror 24 and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. 25 But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.

26 Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. 27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

Dirty Words sermon series
Sermon #2 – “Religion”
Jan. 11, 2015

Are you religious? If someone were to come up to you on the street and ask you that question, how would you answer it? I bet most of us would shy away from being identified with that label. I probably would. I might substitute other words for it. “Well, I’m a Christian, and I go to church, I’m spiritual, but I don’t know if I would call myself that.”

Why not? As we continue our sermon series on Christianity’s dirty words, we start with the one that is probably most maligned in our culture. Today, it is usually a bad thing to be called religious. But is that fair? Webster’s defines “religious” as “pious or devout; scrupulously faithful; conscientious.” I think we’d all like to be thought of in those ways, right? But when we hear the word “religious” used today, it is rarely said in such noble terms.

So how is “religion” and “religious” used in our larger culture today? When it’s used in casual conversation, it usually means a devoted faithfulness to something.  “I work out religiously.” “I root for my sports team religiously.” Can an atheist be religious in his unbelief? Of course. To do something religiously can have nothing to do with the Christian faith.

A few years ago I had a minor surgical procedure done, and during the pre-op visit the doctor asked me what I did for a living. When I told him, he hemmed and hawed a bit and said that he and his wife didn’t attend church, but they tried to do a lot of good things for people. Then he said, “That’s a kind of religion, isn’t it?” And I wanted to say, “Um, no!” but I didn’t want to contradict the man who would soon be holding a scalpel.

So the word “religion” can be used to mean a devotedness to something, but more often than not, when you tack “religious” onto an activity, it means a level of dedication that borders on extremes. How often do we hear the words “religious” and “fanatic” paired together? To be religious about something means to be so committed to it that it takes over your life. Someone actually said to me once, “I’m a Christian, but I’m not all religious about it.”

Is it wrong for a believer to distance themselves from the people who claim to be religious? Jesus didn’t think so. If you read the gospels, the people of whom Jesus was most critical during his earthly ministry were the Pharisees and the teachers of the law – in other words, the religious leaders. He called them vipers, whitewashed tombs, and sons of the devil. You can imagine how they reacted. After all, they were the authority, the spokespeople for God! If you were on the wrong side of the chief priests, then you were on the wrong side of God. So the religious leaders killed the Son of God, and things only got worse from there.

Down through history, religion has been associated with two concepts that have doomed it. The first is organization or institutionalization. As soon as religion became organized, it began to move away from its biblical meaning. Why? Because it was organized by human beings, and we’re not great at getting along. “Where two or three are gathered, there will be four opinions.” Organized institutions are too susceptible to corruption, power struggles, and physical violence – and that’s just the bridge clubs.

The humor in this story hits a little too close to home. There was a man who was stranded on a desert island for many, many years. One day, while strolling along the beach, he spotted a ship in the distance. He jumped up and down and shouted and was thrilled to see the ship dispatch a small boat that was heading his way. When the boat landed, the sailors assessed the situation and then asked the man on the island how he had survived for so many years. He told them about how he was able to find food and build his own little community. He pointed toward a hill and the men saw three buildings. They asked them what they were and he said, ” That one there is my house. The one next to it is my church – I go there to worship on Sundays.” When asked about the third building, the man replied, “Oh, that’s where I used to go to church.” Like it or not, that’s how organized religion is known, a place of conflict and divisiveness.

Not only do we not get along with ourselves, we also are known for not playing well with others. We need to put on the table that the term “religious” carries with it a lot of negative and hurtful connotations because of what has been perpetrated throughout history in the name of religion. The Christian philosopher Blaise Pascal said, “Humans never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” Wars have been fought, nations have been trampled, tribes have been eliminated, people who are different have been persecuted – all in the name of religion. People not only disassociate themselves from the word “religious” because it is a bit extreme. People disassociate from it because they don’t want to be lumped in with a group of people who have been responsible for some of the greatest atrocities humankind has ever seen.

It was the church – organized religion – that put Muslims to death for not converting, that forced scientists to recant their findings, that named itself the final authority over who God did and didn’t love. No less a Christian icon than C.S. Lewis wrote, “If ever the book which I’m not going to write is written, it must be the full confession by Christendom of Christendom’s specific contribution to the sum of human cruelty and treachery.” These days, the word “religion” leaves a bad taste in the mouths of a lot of people. It’s connected to words like “ rules,” “order,” “dogma,” “structure,” “boundaries,” and “certainty.”

In her book “An Altar in the World,” pastor Barbara Brown Taylor wrote this about her growing disillusionment with the church: “Somewhere along the line we bought – or were sold – the idea that God is chiefly interested in religion. We believed that God’s home was in the church, that God’s people knew who they were, and that the world was a barren place full of lost souls in need of all the help they could get. The problem is, many of the people in need of saving are in the churches, and part of what they need saving from is the idea that God sees the world the same way they do.” In other words, religion has made the mistake of creating God in its own image instead of realizing it’s supposed to be the other way around.

That’s a far, far cry from the definition we read in the Bible, especially in James’ letter. Listen again to his definition: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” What? No mention of Property Committees or pledge cards? What about converting “lost” souls and picketing against heathen groups? Not in there. James says pure religion takes care of those who can’t take care of themselves, and seeks not to conform to the world.

So, do you get the idea that it’s bad to be thought of as religious? It hasn’t always been this way. For centuries, the words “religious” and “spiritual” were used synonymously. It’s only in the last few decades that “religion” has taken on such a negative meaning. But to focus on that is to see only one side of the “religious” coin. Yes, organized religion has done some pretty horrible things, but it’s also done some pretty amazing things, as well. The Harvard psychologist William James wrote, “The best fruits of religious experience are the best things history has to show. The highest flights of charity, devotion, trust, patience, and bravery to which the wings of human nature have spread themselves have been flown for religious ideals.”

Yes, religion can be bad. But it can be so, so good, too. Why? Because at its best, religion is not about an organization or an institution, it’s not about enforcing doctrine or defending dogma. At its best, religion represents a gathering of imperfect people who seek to do the will of God, and in so doing, give this world a glimpse of God’s kingdom here on earth. When we strive to follow James’ definition, we religious folks can truly make a difference in God’s name. In the wake of the Ferguson riots, I remember reading an article written by an atheist that thanked local pastors and churches for their role in attempting to quell the violence. It’s through organized religion that people are fed, clothed, housed, and cared for. At its heart, religion – the church – is an extension of God’s grace and love in this world.

Maybe we need to remember what this word “religion” really means. It’s time to get etymological. The word “religion” comes from the Latin “religio,” which is a direct relative of “religare.” “Religare” can be broken down into “re,” which means “again,” and “ligare,” which means to connect, like a ligament connects bones. So, at its origin, “religion” means to reconnect. To reconnect what? How about Crestwood’s vision statement: To connect people with God and each other. To be religious is to be an agent of reconnection, helping people find themselves as they form and reform a relationship with God and with each other.

We’ve worked so hard to distance ourselves from being thought of as religious that we’ve forgotten that religion isn’t about buildings and budgets and boundaries. To be religious in the best sense of the word is at the heart of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. We need to own up to the abuses of religion in the past, but then move beyond them to show others that religion is not about an institution or exclusion or oppression. Religion isn’t a profession of doctrinal or dogmatic beliefs. Religion is a way of life, a way of living that reconnects us to what really matters in our faith, that seeks to live out imperfectly God’s call to love each other.

I love how the Bible translation The Message renders the last verse of our scripture. It says, “Real religion, the kind that passes muster before God the Father, is this: Reach out to the homeless and loveless in their plight, and guard against corruption from the godless world.” That’s a good place to start, isn’t it? To whom will you reach out today to show God’s love? To whom will you provide shelter or food or clothing or support? And what will you give up that is separating you from God, that is corrupting your commitment to your faith? Being religious is nothing to be ashamed of when we seek to live out God’s ministry of reconnecting and reaching out. My prayer is that we commit to being about God’s work in our lives, and that – in the best sense of the word – we are religious in that commitment.

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Dirty Words sermon series – #1: The Word and the words

SCRIPTURE – Psalm 19

The heavens are telling the glory of God;
    and the firmament[a] proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
    and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
    their voice is not heard;
yet their voice[b] goes out through all the earth,
    and their words to the end of the world.

In the heavens[c] he has set a tent for the sun,
which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy,
    and like a strong man runs its course with joy.
Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
    and its circuit to the end of them;
    and nothing is hid from its heat.

The law of the Lord is perfect,
    reviving the soul;
the decrees of the Lord are sure,
    making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right,
    rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is clear,
    enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the Lord is pure,
    enduring forever;
the ordinances of the Lord are true
    and righteous altogether.
10 More to be desired are they than gold,
    even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey,
    and drippings of the honeycomb.

11 Moreover by them is your servant warned;
    in keeping them there is great reward.
12 But who can detect their errors?
    Clear me from hidden faults.
13 Keep back your servant also from the insolent;[d]
    do not let them have dominion over me.
Then I shall be blameless,
    and innocent of great transgression.

14 Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
    be acceptable to you,
    O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.

Christianity’s Dirty Words sermon series
#1 – The Word and the Words
January 4, 2014

You may know the name Ralph Stanley. Stanley is a legend in the music world. He’s a bluegrass and folk singer with a gravelly, haunting voice, and I hear he plays a decent banjo. One of Stanley’s CDs is a two-volume set. One of the volumes is called “Sunday Morning” and has songs about preaching and praying and God and such. The other volume is called “Saturday Night” and has songs about the “real” stuff of life, like working hard, raising kids, taking care of each other, and facing death.

Stanley isn’t the only one who sees a big difference between what we say on Saturday night and what we say on Sunday morning. Chances are a lot of people come to church on Sunday morning because of what they said on Saturday night! And yet, I would argue that the words we speak in the world should inform the words we speak in church, and the words we speak in church should transform the words we speak in the world. In this sermon series, we’re going to look at some of our “churchy” words to see how the world has co-opted and redefined them, words like “sin” and “salvation” and “religious”. We’re then going to seek to restore their biblical meaning and see how we can still speak these Sunday words with relevance and power on Monday through Saturday.

We all know the power our words carry. How many of us, when we were kids, would have rather gotten a spanking than a lecture? My step-father would say, “Kory Thomas, we need to talk,” and I’d say, “Wouldn’t you rather beat me instead?” At least the pain from a spanking fades, but the pain of hearing “I’m disappointed in you” would last a lot longer. We live in a free country where we are allowed to choose any words we want, and that choice is critical. Take the phrase “God hates…” The next word will have a substantial impact. The spoken word is not inherently good, but it is inherently powerful.

I was part of an informal conversation one day after church in Illinois, and we were discussing the upcoming elections. One of the group members, Henry, was known for his extreme political views and his willingness to share them with anyone in earshot. He unleashed a couple quasi-offensive terms to describe one of the candidates. When I spoke up and said, “Henry, I don’t think we need to use that kind of language.” He responded, “Well, it’s not like I called him the N-word.” But he didn’t say “the N-word,” he said the N word. Everyone just stopped and stared at him, and he said defensively, “What? It’s just a word.” The spoken word is not inherently good, but it is inherently powerful.

But along with the danger of words come their beauty and generative power. Remember in Genesis God said, “Let there be light.” God spoke the world into being. Words are the wombs from which rich symbolism and uplifting humor – and puns! – are born. Words have the power to create as much as they do destroy. Just ask anyone who has said the words, “I do,” or has heard the words, “You’re hired,” or has been told, “I love you.” Words are powerful, so we must be judicious in how we choose to speak them.

I used to teach a public speaking class at a community college, and in each class the students were required to give a speech in which they had to demonstrate something. I called this their deMONstrative speech, but several of my students made fun of me because they said I was pronouncing it wrong. They said it’s actually called a demonSTRATive speech, because they were demonstrating something. I assured them in a very gentle way they were wrong and would fail my class miserably and would probably go to Hell for arguing with a pastor. I told them their problem was they were putting the emPHAsis on the wrong sylLABle.

That’s what has happened with some of the words of the Christian faith. The culture around us has lifted them from the pages of the Bible and redefined them, skewing their meaning and putting the em-PHA-sis in the wrong place. The words, which have traditionally been an important part of understanding our faith, no longer mean what we want them to mean. Their fundamental nature and use has been changed. Words like sacrifice, obedience, sin – words that help us articulate who we are, what we believe, and what we are called do – have taken on predominantly un-Christian meanings.

The precedent for this linguistic misuse isn’t a modern phenomenon; it actually can be traced back to biblical times. Modern-day mis-users of God’s word are in good company. The disciples misunderstood Jesus so often in the gospels that you wonder if they were hard of hearing. Jesus compares the Jewish religious leaders with agitating yeast and the disciples think he’s reprimanding them for forgetting to stop at the store and buy bread. Jesus tells his followers he must die and then three days later be RAISED FROM THE DEAD in the GREATEST MIRACLE in HUMAN HISTORY, and Peter says incredulously, “Wait! You’re going to die?” If Jesus’ words were hard to comprehend when he was within earshot, how can we expect to preserve their meaning 2000 years later?

But the passing of time is no excuse for a lapse in attention to the meaning of our spiritual vocabulary. While the cultural context and methods of interpretation may change, God’s word is timeless and cannot be radically rewritten to suit every generation. A sin is a sin is a sin, whether it was committed in 15 or 1015 or 2015. We can try to dress up these words in pastel-colored adjectives to soften their impact, but at their core, the words of the Bible are still, as Hebrews says, “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides the soul from spirit, joints from marrow.”

That’s why this time together each week is so important for us. Our conversation together in worship, the words we use, are crucial for us as we think about the power of words and the link between Saturday night and Sunday morning. We may not think there’s a connection. Maybe we would rather not let the two intermingle. “I’ll keep my Sunday words like ‘forgiveness’ and ‘sacrifice’ and ‘Thy will be done’ right where they belong.” Let’s keep Saturday night and Sunday morning separate. We may be like comedian Flip Wilson, who said, “I’m a Jehovah’s Bystander. They wanted me to become a Jehovah’s Witness but I didn’t want to get involved.”

But Jesus, the Logos, the Word made flesh, got involved, coming to earth to speak to us words of hope and peace, and so we are called to also get involved by speaking and living the language of faith. We are called to pay attention to the relationship between Saturday night and Sunday morning so that we can bridge the language gap between the two. Preaching professor Thomas Long says that “perceiving the reciprocity between Saturday night and Sunday morning enables us to worship as people who have real lives and to live as people who are in worship relationship to God.” Worship is the language school of God, our dress-rehearsal for the drama of the Monday-to-Saturday world, where we learn to speak words that have the power to transform our lives and the lives of those around us.

That means when we leave this place, the words we speak stay with us and as we speak them, the places we go become holy places. Our homes become sanctuaries, our jobs become places of ministry. For example, when faced with an ecological crisis, we may not recite the psalm that says, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that’s in it,” but we live out that language in our responses and actions. We may not repeat, “This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it,” but we say those words in how we treat the day and each other. We may not quote the prophet Micah, who says, “What does the Lord require of you? To do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God,” but we speak those words when we seek to live them out in our communities. As we let the language of worship saturate us, as we let it permeate our own vocabulary, we offer the world a different language than the one of greed and destruction and violence.

This is not a small issue. We have some work to do to reclaim words like “obedience” and “suffering,” because those words have been real turn-offs in the larger culture when it comes to faith. “Those Christians, always talking about ‘don’t do this’ and ‘don’t do that’.” But these words and many like them are essential to understanding our faith and how to live it out. The Bible is drenched with these words, so we should pay attention to what they originally meant when they were spoken by the biblical authors. We’ll tackle this problem like we’d tackle eating an elephant: one bite, one word, at a time.

When we worship together, we pray and we respond and we read scripture and we hear sermons so that all of us may be inspired by the Spirit of God to go out into the world and do what we talk about. Sometimes it is hard to take those words with us; it would be easier to leave them in the sanctuary. But it is up to us, you and me, to give them life. To make them come alive, to give those words true meaning, we must embody them, we must be doers of the words we speak and hear. When we show what it means to love, to forgive, to be gracious, we move beyond the limits of our language to the infinite reach of God’s love. In a world filled with words that tear down, we need more words that build up, that light up the darkness of our world. We speak and listen to those powerful words each Sunday. This is not the end of the conversation. It should only be the beginning.

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