What’s in Your Knapsack?

Today was Boy Scout Sunday, so in honor of our wonderful relationship with our Boy Scout troop, I preached a sermon on the Scout Law and the fruits of the Spirit, completely with Paul’s knapsack! At least I think it was his…

SCRIPTURE – Galatians 5:22-26 – 22 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.

“What’s in Your Knapsack?”
February 7, 2-16
Gal. 5:22-24

We open our doors to a lot of groups who use our space for a variety of good purposes, but I believe one of the best things we do here at Crestwood is our work with the Scouts. I can’t think of an organization that has as much of a positive influence on our youth as the Boy Scouts. Young people who participate in this worthy program come out of it more respectful, more self-sufficient, and infinitely smarter.

Which may make it hard to believe that I was a Boy Scout growing up. We were living in Ft. Belvoir, Va., and my stepfather thought it would be good for me to be exposed to all the benefits of scouting. I thought he was crazy. I’d never spent a night outdoors, I could barely tie a knot in my shoelaces, and I looked bad in brown. But he insisted, so gave in and joined the local troop.

As I look back now, it was one of the best things that ever happened to me. Of course, at the time, I thought differently. I remember my first camping trip with the troop. I couldn’t believe we were going to be out in the woods…ALL NIGHT! Don’t people know that there are animals in the woods, like squirrels and snakes and tigers, all of which eat people? As I was setting up my tent, a tent that would later that evening collapse on me while I was sleeping, my scoutmaster came over and said, “Kory, did you forget anything?” I said, “Yeah, my mom!”

But I survived that trip and many more, and came to love my time with the Scouts. And now that I’m a minister, I am even more appreciative of what the Scouts did for me, because I am now able to see how closely connected the scouting experience is to the Christian experience. I can vouch for that first-hand, because my time in the scouts helped me learn the basic skills not only for being a scout, but also for being a person of honor and integrity. At a time in my life when I was struggling with my identity as well as my faith, scouting gave me the confidence to believe in myself – and planted the seeds for my belief in God.

I know the Scouts didn’t exist in biblical times, but I would like to suggest that we make the apostle Paul an honorary Boy Scout, because he understood all the principles put forth in the Scout Oath and Scout Law. And Paul knew that in order to have a successful trip, you had to be prepared by packing the right things in your knapsack.

Would you believe I was rummaging through one of the closets here at church – we have almost as many closets as we do coat hooks – and I actually found the knapsack Paul used on his journeys? You just never know what you’ll find in a church closet! You may think I’m just making this up, but I have verified its authenticity in two ways: first, I did some scientifically integrated carbon-dating, which was inconclusive; and then I smelled it. It smells 2000 years old. You think we should open it up and see what Paul kept in there? He won’t care, he’s been dead a couple of millienia. Let’s see what honorary Boy Scout Paul kept in his knapsack.

The first thing I see in Paul’s knapsack is love. Well, of course, you have to start with love: love of yourself, love of each other, love of God, love of creation, even love of man-eating squirrels. To be loving is to not only say you care about someone, but to also act out those words through your relationships. How do we show God’s love to others? A scout is friendly.

Let’s see what else Paul has in here. Ah yes, joy! No trip is complete without experiences of pure joy, of simply basking in the thrill of being alive. In our hectic lives, do we allow room for joy, the simple appreciation of God’s presence around us? Joy is meant to be contagious, to radiate out from us and infect others. Do you experience joy? Do others around us know when that happens? A scout is cheerful.

This probably the heaviest thing in Paul’s knapsack. It’s peace. Can you imagine carrying around the hope of peace in such a violent, conflicted world? Peace is not the norm anymore, and anyone willing to work for peace must have the courage to say “no” to the violent and chaotic ways of the world. Do we have the courage to make such a stand, to stand for peace in the face of conflict? A scout is brave.

Along with peace, Paul packed patience. I’m not sure there’s a knapsack big enough to carry all the patience we need in our lives. Sometimes being patient means being willing to put someone else’s need ahead of ours, or waiting for God to tell you the right time to act. Patience requires working together and submitting yourself to God’s leading. Are we as patient with God as God is with us? A scout is obedient.

I don’t think any of us are surprised to find kindness in Paul’s knapsack. I think kindness is the difference between doing something to make our lives easier and doing something to make someone else’s life better. My life would be easier if I didn’t shovel my neighbor’s driveway, but their life would be better if I did. That’s kindness. It’s easy to be kind to those we like and those who are like us; the challenge is to be kind to those who need it most, those who rarely, if ever, receive kindness from others. Do people walk away from us feeling as if we truly cared about them? A scout is kind.

Here’s something I almost missed. It’s goodness. Paul didn’t put this on top; he hid it away, because he knows it could be misused. Too many people do good to either get into Heaven or stay out of Hell, when the only real reason to do good is because good needs to be done. We all have goodness in us, don’t we? It’s up to us whether or not we use it. How do people know there’s goodness in us? How do you show goodness? A scout is helpful.

Strapped to Paul’s knapsack is his faithfulness. Faithfulness for Paul was like a sleeping bag; he nestled down into his faithfulness and zipped it all the way up, until you couldn’t tell the different between Paul the individual and Paul the man of faith. The fingerprints of our faith should be on everything we do, so much so that we become known for being people of integrity. Do people know us because of how we live out our faith? A scout is trustworthy, loyal, and reverent.

I have to be careful taking this one out of the knapsack! It’s gentleness. It’s a fragile thing, easily lost amidst the other items. Our world doesn’t really value gentleness, especially in boys. We expect rough and tumble, practical jokes and horseplay. But gentleness is more than how we treat ourselves; as Paul knew, it’s also how we treat others, as if their safety is the most important thing to us. To be gentle is to respect someone for who they are and treat them that way. Have we helped any old ladies across the street lately? A scout is courteous.

Aha! I thought Paul had forgotten to pack this. Self-control is the last thing in his pack, and probably the last thing he wanted to bring, because it’s the hardest to use. When you have resources at your disposal as Paul did, it’s hard to give those up, to make your mouth say “no” when your mind and your hormones and your wallet say “yes.” But Paul knew that self-control not only creates a clean conscience, but also a clean heart. To what have we said “no” lately, even when we’ve wanted to say “yes”? A scout is clean and thrifty.

That’s a lot of stuff in Paul’s knapsack. I know it must have been heavy for him to carry around, just as some of us may feel the burden of trying to live up to these traits. I hope every scout takes each word of their law seriously, just as I hope each person here today takes Paul’s words to heart. Because if we all are able to live our lives in such a way that honors those fruits of the Spirit, what would this world look like? How would it be different?

No one says this is easy to do. I struggle with each of those fruits even more than I struggled to put up a tent. If being this kind of person was easy, then everyone would do it. No, what Paul is calling us to do is to be counter-cultural, to live in a way that bears witness to the image of God inside of us. We are called to be trustworthy when it’s easier to lie. We’re called to be obedient when everyone else wants to do things their way. We are called to be cheerful when it’s tempting to complain. We’re called to be brave when it would be easier to keep our heads down and not take a stand. Why go to all the effort to do these things? Because that’s who we were created to be. To be anything else is disingenuous. The world says it’s OK not to be like this. But God – and the Scout Law – reminds us that we are better than that.

A scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. A Christian strives to live a life filled with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Jesus tells us that whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. So…what’s in your knapsack?






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The Real Social Network sermon series – #3: Liking Each Other

SCRIPTURE – Ephesians 4:1-6 –  I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

The Real Social Network sermon series
#3 – Liking Each Other
Jan. 24, 2016

If you are a Facebook user, you are familiar with the ubiquitous “Like” button. Under each post is the picture of a thumbs up and the option to like that post by clicking the button. If you like it, your name shows up as one of the “likers” of that post. But there’s some tricky etiquette that goes with it. Let’s say a post reads, “Broke my leg in four places but on the mend.” If you like that post, could it be interpreted as liking the fact the person broke their leg in four places? And what if a friend posts a picture of a dinner to which you weren’t invited. Do you like it as a way of supporting your friend or as a way of showing her that you know she went to dinner without inviting you? Remember when the only way to find out if someone liked you was to send them a note and ask them to “check this box”? Not so simple anymore.

In our current sermon series, we’re looking at ways we build community and friendships online, and contrasting that with the kind of relationships to which God calls us in the Bible. Today, we’re going to see if clicking the “Like” button on Facebook lives up to the standard to which we are called. Don’t worry, if you’re not a social media user, you still have to choose whether or not to like someone, so I believe this sermon still applies to you.

Paul’s words in Ephesians are instructive for us as we figure out what it means to like each other in a world that seems to promote animosity and conflict. I struggle to think of any TV reality shows that focus on how well people get along. No, it’s much better if people have to vote each other off the island or compete ruthlessly to win the hunky guy. In a world that peddles division and dislike, Paul calls us to something higher.

He starts the Ephesians passage with the word “therefore,” which means we should pay attention to what has come before it. The first three chapters of Ephesians outline God’s plan to unite all things together under God’s gracious rule. Starting in chapter 4, Paul is telling us what our role is in making this happen. In fact, he does more than tell us. Our Bible translation says he “begs” us or “urges” us. This carries more weight because Paul is writing from a prison cell in Rome, where he has been incarcerated for preaching the Gospel. Paul knows what is at stake for the survival of the early church, and he’s already starting to see cracks in the foundation as churches argue over what it means to live out the good news.

We talked a little about this in the sermon on community, how even the early church struggled to live in harmony with each other. Even with Paul’s admonitions, the church struggled to live in the light of God’s peace. For a while, they figured it out. Once Christianity became the state religion under Constantine, the church didn’t get a lot of opposition. Nothing promotes loyalty like burning your enemies at the stake. Then Martin Luther came along and challenged the church on its carpet color and 94 other things, and the Protestant Reformation is born. And then all Hades broke loose! As soon as people were able to interpret scripture for themselves they found out just how much there was to disagree about. They started reading the Bible together – “In the beginning” – and someone asked, “When was the beginning? What was before the beginning? Was there a God before the beginning?” and it went downhill from there. And that was only the first three words!

Our own denomination was founded in response to this splintering. Thomas Campbell, one of the founders of the Disciples, got fed up pastoring the Old Light Anti-Burgher Seceeder Presbyterian Church, probably because his business cards were the size of spaghetti boxes. Each name in that title represents a split within the church, and Campbell and Barton Stone believed that unity should be the polar star of the church. So they joined together to form the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), a denomination that strives for the unity of all believers – and that has had two groups split off from it in its history. Even we can’t quite get it right. If we’re all followers of Jesus, shouldn’t we be able to at least like each other?

What Paul calls for in Ephesians goes deeper than just clicking a button. He says we have been giving a calling by God, and we are to live our lives in such a way that reflects that call. He also gives the Ephesians some practical advice on how to live that life, and that advice applies just as well when we’re talking about how to conduct ourselves on Facebook. Paul doesn’t come right out and say, “Don’t be a jerk,” but if you read between the lines, that pretty much sums up his instruction.

First, he calls us to live with humility and gentleness. Now there are two qualities you don’t see much on Facebook! How do you practice humility on a social media platform that encourages you to tell everything about yourself? The closest I’ve seen is what’s become known as the “humblebrag,” as when someone says, “I just stepped in gum. Who spits gum on the red carpet at the Oscars?” or “I can never find the bathroom in our new house. It’s too big!” I don’t think that’s quite what Paul had in mind. Instead, he encourages humility, of putting others before ourselves.

The word Paul uses for “humility” is the opposite of another of his favorite terms, “puffed up.” “Humility” comes from the root word “humus,” which means “fertile soil.” In other words, Paul is saying that to be likeable, we have to be down to earth, rooted in our humanity and our God-createdness. One of my favorite quotes is, “Always entertain the possibility that you may be mistaken.” If we adopt that stance of humility, it might change the tenor of many of our conversations, on Facebook and face-to-face.

The other word Paul pairs with humble is “gentle,” also translated sometimes as “meek.” For Paul, it’s the opposite of wrath. He’s basically telling the Ephesians to be meek instead of wrathful, not to be touchy or irritable, not to be prone to flying off the handle or blowing things out of proportion. And yet, I just described about 90% of the posts I read on Facebook, in which people are touchy and irritable, in which they do fly off the handle and blow things out of proportion. Some of the most intolerant people I know are some of my Christian Facebook friends. We’re called to a higher calling, Paul says.

It’s interesting to know that these two terms are the same ones Jesus uses to describe himself in Matthew 11: Matthew 11 – “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Living this kind of life – online and in real life – is not just about liking each other; it’s about being Christ-like to each other.

Paul then calls us to be patient, bearing with one another in love. Biblical scholar William Barclay defines patience as, “The spirit which bears insult and injury without bitterness or complaint, which can suffer fools without irritation.” Is there any better description of what it means to be a Christian on Facebook than the idea of “suffering fools without irritation?” It’s easy for our patience to be tested with much of what we encounter on social media, and yet, to live a life worthy of our calling, that’s what we are to do. Hard to do? Of course. But we are Christ’s followers, and more should be expected of us, which is a great thing to remember before you hit the “Send” button on a particularly snarky or pointed comment. We are called to a higher calling.

Paul then calls us to “make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” Notice, Paul doesn’t say create the unity or forge the unity. The unity is already there through Jesus Christ. Beneath our differences, beneath our divisions, God has already made us one. There is already oneness within us. We don’t’ all agree on everything, but at a deep level, we are kin. It’s up to us whether we choose to live that out.

We are bonded together, Paul tells us. Think of it as the difference between a Post-It Note and Crazy Glue. Liking someone on Facebook is like a Post-It Note. It can easily be added or removed, depending on your mood or their latest comment. Our “likes” on Facebook are transient, temporary. But our relationships built on Paul’s model are like Crazy Glue; they bond us together in a way that you can’t easily pull them apart. And when you’re bonded like that, you treat each other with humility and gentleness, with patience and love.

Finally, Paul reminds us that the oneness we share, the way we like each other, is grounded in our oneness with God. “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” Paul uses the word “one” here seven times, because sometimes the church needs to be reminded that many times – even in one sentence! – that it was created to reflect the oneness of God. That’s hard to do when we’re taking potshots at each other, or arguing over trivialities. One of our denominational statements says, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.” In other words, live the life you have been called to live, liking each other in a way that mirrors the unity we have been given by the one God.

We don’t have to like everything someone says. We don’t have to like everything someone does. But through Christ, we have been made one, so we are called to live like we actually like each other. What a witness that would be to this world, to see the church getting along, posting smiley faces instead of frowny faces, demonstrating what humility and gentleness and patience and love really looks like. We’re forgetting, you know, because we’re seeing those things less and less these days. May people see those qualities in us as we live out our calling online and in real life.




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The Real Social Network sermon series – #2: Finding Real Friends

SCRIPTURE – Mark 2:1-12 – When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them.Then some people[a] came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, “Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’? 10 But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic— 11 “I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.” 12 And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”

The Real Social Network sermon series
#2 – Finding Real Friends
Jan. 17, 2016

A recent statistic I read says that Facebook, the online social network that was born in a college dorm, now has over one billion users worldwide. It would now be the second-largest nation in the world, after China. And that means, if you are a Facebook user, there are over a billion opportunities to make a new friend. But does a Facebook friend count as a real friend?

Last week, we started our sermon series called “The Real Social Network,” in which we are contrasting the communities developed through social media with the community to which God calls us in the Bible. Today, we’re going to look at what it means to have friends. Don’t worry, if you’re not a user of Facebook or Twitter, I assume you still have friends of the old-school variety, so hopefully this sermon will still speak to you.

As a former journalist and word nerd, I love to watch how language changes over time. Take the word “dude.” In the 1880s, it was used to refer to a man who went overboard with his fancy for fashion. Then, in the early 1900s, it changed to mean a city-dweller visiting a ranch. As the century progressed, it slowly morphed to be a term of familiarity, used for either a man (“dude”) or a woman (“dudette”). And today, it can be a greeting (“Dude”), a question (“Dude?”), or an exclamation of excitement (“Dude!”). Words like “cool” and “bad” have gone through similar metamorphoses.

The same thing has happened with the word “friend,” defined as “a person attached to another by feelings of affection or personal regard.” I believe the meaning of the word stayed pretty static until 2005, when Facebook was created. Then, “friend” took on a whole new meaning. In fact, it took on a whole new function: it became a verb! You can now “friend” someone, or participate in the act of “friending.” You can also “unfriend” someone, or be “unfriended” by them. Being a friend suddenly became a lot more complex. But how does a Facebook friend compare to a real-life one?

Granted, there is overlap there. Some of my best real-life friends are also my Facebook friends. But I think the Facebook phenomenon has exacerbated a problem with friendship that has grown increasingly prevalent as we have become busier and more pressed for time. Let me explain it with an illustration. For many years, there was a game you could play on Facebook called “Farmville.” The concept was that the user built a farm with supplies they were given by their online friends. You could make requests of your friends to gift you a bale of hay or a sheep, and your online farm would grow as you got more things from your friends.

And just like that, the wonderful, life-giving, beautiful concept of friendship became quantified. The more Facebook friends you amassed, the more asparagus seeds you could plant, the bigger your farm grew. Friendships became a commodity, and friends were only advantageous to you if they could provide some sort of value.

This wasn’t a new concept; Facebook just made it more explicit. I believe we are conditioned to look for the benefits in all our relationships. It’s called the transactional model of friendship. In this model, each friend adds something of value to the relationship. When one of the friends stops adding value, the friendship ceases. I had one of these friendships. My friend called me up on the phone several nights a week, used warm and caring tones, called me by name, asked how my day was, and then demonstrated genuine concern about my choice of long-distance carrier. When I finally told this new friend that I wasn’t interested in spending money with him, the friendship came to an abrupt end. For many of us, our friendships have come to be defined by what other person can do for me.

Which makes our Bible story all the more remarkable. This paralytic has absolutely nothing to offer. His whole world is a 3×6-foot mat. That’s the size of his world. No surgeries, no rehab, no procedures. The popular wisdom of his day was that he had done something wrong to bring this illness upon himself. There was absolutely no good reason to be this man’s friend. And yet, he had four of them.

These weren’t just Facebook friends. These four were devoted to this man. One psychologist defined a friendship as “two people who demonstrate an irrational commitment to each other’s well-being.” I would say what these four did for their friend would count as irrational. They carry him to Jesus, hoping to get an audience with this miracle-worker, but the place was so packed that they couldn’t even get a foot in the door. Oh well, nice try. But this was their friend, and so one of them said, “Hey, I’ve got an idea,” and the next thing you know, bits of mud and straw are falling on Jesus’ head and the owner of the house has a new skylight. Mark tells us that when Jesus saw their faith, he healed the man.

What Mark provides us here is good criteria for assessing a true friendship. How do you know someone is a real friend? Simple. Would they carry your mat for you? Because we all have a mat, right? We all have something that keeps us down, that we let define us, that holds us back. Maybe it’s a bad temper, or an addictive behavior, or a lack of self-worth, or a prejudice. We all have our mats, and they can be really heavy.

So who would carry your mat? To whom do you show your weaknesses? Who do you ask to pray for you? Who sees your brokenness, your faults, your ugly side, and yet still loves you? For me, one of those people is Kevin.             I remember the moment when I knew we had a true friendship. It was in a Steak-n-Shake. Lots of good things happen in a Steak-n-Shake. We had just seen a band in concert, and were grabbing a bite to eat. I don’t remember the specifics of the conversation, but I do remember during the course of our four hours there feeling like God had brought into my life a true friend. We’ve been carrying each other’s mats ever since.

The challenge with building these kinds of relationships is it takes time, and that’s something we feel like we have so little of. These friendships don’t happen by accident. If you think you can squeeze a friendship into a few quick checks of your computer screen, you can’t. You can’t click the “Like” button on someone’s status a few times and form a real friendship. You can’t listen in a hurry. You can’t empathize in a hurry.

I think what Facebook has done is allowed us to confuse being friends with being friendly. Online, we develop affinities with others, we find common ground, we learn more about them (at least what they are willing to show us). We are friendly. But friendliness has a transient quality to it. You can be friendly with someone, but an edgy comment or controversial political post can quickly turn that friendliness sour. Online, we can begin and end friendships like throwing a light switch. But in real life, friendships endure through all of life’s circumstances. One writer said, “A friendship that ceases to be was never truly a friendship. He said, “To end a friendship, you need to unstitch it little by little.” Yet you can end a friendship with the click of a button.

In Tuesdays with Morrie, author Mitch Albom tells about a former professor of his, Morrie, who was stricken with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, and the lessons Albom learned from spending time with Morrie. In one part, Albom tells about a conversation Morrie had with Ted Koppel for the show “Nightline.” Koppel asked Morrie, who was losing his ability to speak, what it would be like for him to spend time with his good friend Maurie Stein, who was going deaf. Morrie said, “We will hold hands. And there’ll be a lot of love passing between us. Ted, we’ve had 35 years of friendship. You don’t need speech or hearing to feel that.” That’s what it means to carry each other’s mat. That’s real friendship.

How do we move past being Facebook friends to making real friends? It takes intentionality; it takes vulnerability; and it takes time. It takes you being willing to show your mat to someone, and then to allow them to help you carry it. C.S. Lewis had this great line about friendship. He said a friendship is born at the moment when one person says to another, “What? You too? I thought I was the only one!” We have to be willing to be vulnerable with someone in order for a friendship to develop.

I asked the Sermon Talkback group what characteristics made a true friend, and the first response was, “Someone who will actually do something.” I assume she meant something more than clicking the “Like” button or posting a brief platitude. Friends are people who show up, who pick up your mat, who carry you to the place where you can find healing and peace. They have an irrational commitment to your well-being, and you to theirs.

A 12th-century monk said, “The best companion of friendship is reverence,” which means that a characteristic of a true friendship is that each person in it realizes how lucky they are simply to be the other person’s friend. There is an indescribable joy in being with someone with whom you don’t feel compelled to add value. True friends are accepted, not for the value of what they add, but for the value of who they are. After all, that’s how we are accepted by our God.

Who would carry your mat? Who would you call when you didn’t have anyone else to call? Who knows you, I mean really knows you, and still likes you? That’s your friend. Don’t let Facebook fool you; friendship is qualitative, not quantitative. My prayer for us is that we seek to make the same kind of irrational commitment to each other that those four friends made to the paralytic, and that God made to us when God sent his only son to earth so that we would know the true meaning of life. Friendship is not a commodity; it is a blessing. May God give us the friends we need, and give us the courage to be the kind of friend our friends deserve.




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The Real Social Network sermon series – #1: Cultivating Community

SCRIPTURE – Acts 2:42-47 –  They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

The Real Social Network sermon series
#1 – Cultivating Community
Jan. 10, 2016

Today we start a new sermon series in which we’ll seek to juxtapose the virtual communities in which many of us participate with the kind of community that the Bible calls us to nurture and maintain. Don’t worry, you don’t have to be a Facebook user or have a Twitter account in order to understand what I’m talking about. I believe these sermons will have applicability for all the relationships we have in our lives.

The genesis for this sermon series came from the Parents of Youngsters Sunday school class I teach. I asked them last year what kind of topics they would like to see addressed in sermons. One of them spoke up and said, “I’d like to know how to deal with all the jerks I see on Facebook.” Then another spoke up, a little more timidly, and said, “I’d like to know how not to be a jerk on Facebook.” Both are legitimate questions in this day and age. How do we maintain our Christian identity and live out Christ’s example in all our relational spheres, including online?

Today we’re going to talk about the kind of communities in which we participate and to which we contribute. On Facebook, I’m a part of several sub-communities that are focused around specific interests. For example, I’m a part of a Disciples Clergy community. I’m also in a community that is made up solely of owners of Goldendoodles. And I’m also in a group of people that are Cincinnati Reds fans. I was hoping last night to start a new group for people who have won Powerball, but no such luck. Each group is defined by this common interest and our online life together centers around that interest.

Is it a stretch to call those groups “communities”? I don’t think so. The dictionary defines a community as “a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.” That certainly applies to each of those groups. But I have to also be careful not to assume that those communities have the same values and benefits of a real community. It’s one thing to know someone virtually; it’s quite a different thing to know them in real life.

In my Reds group, I got to know a guy named Jason. He is also a pastor, and he and I shared a similar outlook on our beloved team and, much to people’s dismay, a similar affinity for puns. So I invited Jason to lunch so we could get to know each other better. He picked a BBQ joint; this was going to be great!

I quickly learned that I had overestimated the commonalities Jason and I shared. Jason was a Southern Baptist minister, and throughout the lunch I was peppered with questions about my beliefs and our church’s doctrines, and the scent of judgmentalism when my answers didn’t agree with him was stronger than the smell of the smoked brisket. In an effort to get to know him, I asked a couple personal but innocuous questions about his family, to which he immediately got defensive. In my mind, I was secretly ready to trade Jason to the St. Louis Cardinals. It’s one thing to know someone virtually; it’s quite a different thing to know them in real life.

It’s also important for us to realize that our online communities, while having the appearance of being free-flowing and inclusive, allow us to cultivate a collection of cohorts who will only support our current worldview. If someone on Facebook posts something I disagree with, I have the option of blocking them or unfriending them altogether. I can easily choose with whom I do and don’t interact. Our online communities give us control over who we let in and who we keep out.

But that’s not always the case one you leave the chat room. Don’t you wish real life was like Facebook sometimes? Would it be great if everyone walked around with a “Block” button on their forehead, so that as soon as they started to say something you disagree with, you could just hit that button? But being in real community with each other means figuring out how to live together in the midst of our differences, instead of just blocking the people who aren’t like us.

That’s the picture the Acts 2 passage paints for us. This snapshot of the early church doesn’t tell about parking lot conversations and contentious congregational meetings. Instead, it’s a picture of harmony, as early Christians devoted themselves to being the people God called them to be. They learned together, fellowshipped together, shared stuff together, broke bread together, prayed together, praised God together and grew together. Those early believers really knew how to be church, didn’t they?

But don’t be fooled, folks. This was a church, so there’s no way everyone got along. What Acts 2 doesn’t tell you is that the first time the early church held a board meeting, there was a huge argument over what color carpeting to put in the sanctuary and what kind of bread to use at communion, and before you know it Apostle So-and-So moved half the congregation to the next village to start his own flock. The apostle Paul, writing about his disagreement with Peter, says, “When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face.” Can’t you just see Peter and Paul finger-pointing and chest-bumping? “I say the carpet color shall be fusia!” “Well I say God wants it to be aqua!” Can we admit that the church doesn’t always do community well?

When you look at all of the disagreements down through church history, many of them center on one fundamental question, and it’s the same question that is used to define our online communities: who’s in and who’s out? That was at the core of the disagreement between Paul and Peter over circumcision, it was at the core of many of Luther’s charges against the Catholic Church. Who’s in and who’s out?

The problem is the Bible’s not real clear on this. Are divorced people in or out? Are uncircumcised Gentiles in or out? Are gays and lesbians in or out? Are sinners and tax collectors in or out? You could make valid arguments on both sides of the issue based on scripture, and that’s not helpful. We want clarity so we know where to draw the lines. In our communities, we want to know who’s in and who’s out.

When I lived in Indiana, I used to golf at a course that was right next to a farm. I don’t think the farmer was a golf fan, because posted along the fence line separating the course from the farm was a series of signs that simply said, “Private Property” and then showed a picture of a shotgun. Now that’s a clear message. I can’t tell you how many golf balls I hit across that fence line, but I can tell you how many of them I retrieved. Zero! The farmer made it very clear who was allowed in and who wasn’t.

That’s the kind of definitive clarity we seek in the Bible. These people are in and these people are out. Wouldn’t it be easier if Jesus gave us some guidance on this? Instead, Jesus says things like, “Love your enemies” and “Blessed are the peacemakers” and then leaves us to work out the details in community with each other. And we’re not always so good at that. Spend only a few minutes on Facebook and you’ll find plenty of people who hate and exclude. And you’ll probably find some people you want to hate and exclude.

Maybe we’re going about this all wrong. Maybe we’re using the wrong criteria to define who’s in and who’s out of our community. I read a story this week about how ranchers in Australia control their flocks. Because the size of land they own is so huge, building fences is too impractical and costly. So instead of building a fence, they dig down into the earth and build a well, providing precious water in the dusty Outback. Animals won’t stray too far from their water source, so instead of fencing in the borders, the ranchers draw their flocks to the center.

Rather than building fences, maybe we should be digging wells. Instead of trying to decide who’s in and who’s out of our communities, maybe we should dig a well, set a table, extend an invitation, and see who shows up. The early church didn’t draw lines; they shared what they had with each other, and everyone was invited to the fellowship picnics, and everyone was invited to Sunday School, and everyone was invited to the table. The table is our well, drawing people to the center of our faith, which is Jesus Christ. Our community is not centered around a sports team or a breed of dog. Jesus Christ is our center, and everything we say and do should reflect that.

That may be the one thing we’ve continued to get right. Everyone is welcome at the table. No criteria. No entrance exams. No determination of spiritual fitness. It’s a “y’all come” invitation, a lavish extension of radical hospitality where everyone is in and no one is out, like Edwin Markham’s poem, “He drew a circle that shut me out —Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout. But Love and I had the wit to win: We drew a circle that took him in.” Christ has drawn a circle and we are all within it.

That doesn’t mean we have to agree with everyone who comes into our circle. In fact, I think our community is made stronger by the diversity of beliefs contained within it. The beauty of who we are – or at least who we are striving to be – is that there is room for every voice here. We don’t have to all believe the same things or vote the same way to be part of this family. We are included by virtue of the one who drew the circle, the one who’s love, like a circle, has no beginning and no end, our Lord Jesus Christ.

Online, you can choose who’s in and who’s out of your communities. But what about in real life? What about in the communities to which God calls us? Who’s in? Everybody is in. That person who thinks differently than you? In. That person who forwards you every single email with pictures of cute kittens? In. That person whose political perspective is both wrong and obnoxious? In. That jerk on Facebook? In. That person who roots for a team other than your team? Sigh. In.

We may have strong opinions about who we believe should be in and who should be out. And that’s OK. We’re human, so we’re not going to like everybody. In fact, there’s probably one person – maybe more than one – who thinks YOU shouldn’t be in. How about that? It’s a good thing God’s drawing the circle and not them, isn’t it? Because when God draws the circle, there’s room. Room for me. Room for you. Room for everyone. Everyone. How big are the circles we draw? Is there room for everyone? This world has enough people who want to build fences; may God give us the grace to be people who dig wells.






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In the Beginning Sermon Series – The Beginning of John

SCRIPTURE – John 1:1-14 – In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

In the Beginning Sermon Series
#3 – The Beginning of John
Dec. 20, 2015

Merry Christmas! It’s so good to gather as a church family and to welcome our guests this morning as we prepare for Christmas. That preparation has been the driving force behind our sermon series this Advent, in which we’ve looked at how each of the gospels start their story of Jesus. We learned that Mark starts with Jesus as an adult, while Matthew and Luke both give us the birth story of Jesus, but told from different perspectives for different purposes. Today, we conclude with the beginning of the gospel of John.

When I read a book, I like to have some of the backstory to understand a little more about the characters and the plot. A good book provides that for you. When I read “Harry Potter,” it was good to learn about why he lived with his aunt and uncle and what happened to his parents. But I never expected J.K. Rowling to start the book by saying, “Way back at the beginning of time, there were a bunch of rocks floating around in the universe. One of them produced life, plants and animals grew and flourished, civilizations developed, and then God made wizards.” That’s a bit more backstory then I think I would need to understand why Harry had a scar on his forehead.

That’s basically what John does at the start of his gospel. He doesn’t go back to the baptism and the inauguration of Jesus’ ministry, like Mark; he doesn’t go back to the story of when Jesus was born, like Matthew and Luke; he goes ALL the way back to the moment when the world began. “In the beginning,” John’s gospel starts, echoing the words of the first chapter of the first book of the Bible, which starts the same way as it describes how God the creator spoke this world into being.

Why would John start there? Probably because he was providing answers to some questions that had been raised about Jesus. John’s gospel was the last of the four to be written, as much as 20 years after Matthew and Luke, and one of the mysteries it sought to answer was the relationship between God and Jesus. In the other gospels, at times Jesus prays to God, but at other times he acts like God, forgiving sins and doing miracles. So, who is this guy? Is he a relative of God? A special emissary of the divine? Or is there some kind of closer connection?

John clears this up in the first line: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” John’s choice of metaphors here is interesting. His audience would have been new Christians and curious non-Christians, all of whom would have been familiar with the Greco-Roman culture in which they lived. One of the challenges in early Christianity was how to sell the idea of Jesus to a group of people who had no connection to Judaism and were not rooted in that tradition. To the Jews, the concept of a Messiah was powerful. But to the Greeks, it meant little or nothing. So how do you talk about the coming of the Messiah to folks who don’t know what that means?

You put it into their terms. While the Greeks might not understand the Messiah, they do understand the idea of “logos,” which translates into English as “word.” “Logos” in Greek means reason or mind, the intellectual principle that governed the universe. It was a concept that carried a lot of meaning in that rational, intellectual Greek culture. So when John writes that the “logos” was with God and the “logos” was God, he’s making a statement to the Greeks. The “logos,” who he’ll later define as Jesus, WAS God, and all things came into being through him. The mind of God became a person, a real, touchable, knowable person.

I’m not sure there is any way we modern folks can comprehend the magnitude of what John is saying here. Verse 14 says, “The word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Some of the ancient Greeks believe that the spirit was good but the flesh was evil, and sought to draw a distinction between the two. But John tells them that God chose to come to us in the flesh, to get God’s hands calloused and God’s feet dirty and God’s heart broken just like us. The incarnation, Emmanuel, God made flesh, means that God entered into the everydayness of our human existence, transfusing our ordinary with the extraordinary, the mundane with the transcendent, the routine with the eternal. As Eugen Peterson translates this passage, “The word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.”

And what the Word brought with him, John says, is life, which is the light of all the people. The light/darkness dichotomy will be one John uses over and over again in his gospel, and for good reason, because in his day and time, they didn’t have the benefit of electricity or spotlights. Their cellphones didn’t even have flashlights! Even though in the beginning God said, “Let there be light,” darkness was a powerful source of fear.

And it still is, in many forms. How many of our kids’ rooms have nightlights in them? How many of us have complained about how early it gets dark this time of year? One February when we lived in Chicago, I once called the police about a UFO I spotted. Turns out it was the sun. But there are other darknesses that feed our fear, as well. The darkness of being alone. The darkness of the unknown future. The darkness spread by hate, by stereotyping, by fear-mongering. In this political season, everybody seems to be mad at everybody about everything. We live in a dark world.

It’s into this world – this world of terrorism and racism and judgmentalism – that the Word bursts forth each Christmas, moving into our neighborhoods and bringing with him the light. But here’s the problem with that light. It doesn’t just light up the dark places around us. It also illuminates those parts of us that we want to stay dark. Jesus comes and shines a light in the dark corners of our hearts, exposing the parts of us we’d rather not show to others. If we open ourselves to Christ’s incarnation, then that means we have to be willing to be exposed for the ways we have contributed to this world’s darkness. Our greed exposed. Our selfishness exposed. Our love of convenience exposed.

By this light we are exposed, but also by this light we are made clean. John gives us the reassuring word that the light that is coming will shine in the darkness, and that the darkness – the darkness of our deepest fears and prejudices – will not overcome it. If we allow him, Christ can drive back our darknesses. One of my favorite moments of the year is the end of our Christmas Eve service. We light one single candle – the Christ candle – to remind us of Christ’s coming into this world. But we don’t stop there. Then, we take the light from that one candle and we pass it through our midst, illuminating our own candles, until the whole sanctuary is flooded by our individual lights. We are called to stand in that light, to bathe in it, and then to reflect it into the darkness around us, to take the love and grace of Jesus Christ and show to the world – one person at time – how that light can overcome the darkness.

But that only works if we prepare room for Jesus to move into our neighborhood. John starts his gospel with “in the beginning” because he sees the incarnation as a fresh start for us, as a time of new possibilities. God is doing something radically new in this world by becoming one of us, a flesh-and-blood person who knows what it’s like to be us, to deal with our fears, to face our anxieties, to have to love people who do a great job of making themselves unloveable. This Christmas, God is interjecting Emmanuel into our hum-drum existence. In other words, God is interrupting us.

That sounds so negative, doesn’t it? We don’t like interruptions. They mess with our perfectly-laid plans. We like our itineraries, our goals, our routines, our schedules. We like to have control over our circumstances, no matter how imaginary that may be. We don’t like things to get off-track. Even if things aren’t perfect, when they go according to our plans, they are comfortable; they are familiar. And into that comfort and familiarity comes the Word made flesh, disturbing our well-laid plans with this cosmic, spiritual interruption.

The word “interrupt” means “to break into,” like a rupture. This Christmas, God is interrupting us with the good news of great joy that Jesus Christ will be born again. It’s as if God is saying, “Hey you! The one with your nose to the grindstone, going through the motions of living, your face buried in your computer, your list of things to remember and to do always on your mind. Stop a minute, pay attention to this. This isn’t an ordinary interruption. This is God. This is the one who wants to help you find out who you are, why you do what you do, what life is about. He’s coming! Are you paying attention? Are you listening?”

There is a light coming into this world that promises to illuminate our paths, enlighten our minds, bring warmth to our coldness, drive away the darkness. We are called to reflect that light in our conversations and our relationships, because that’s where God is most needed. You can’t plan for this; you can only experience it. Many of the most significant, influential and impacting moments of our lives are not on our appointment calendars. Who could schedule the moment you first fall in love, or your child’s first step, or your grandchild’s first word? Who could plan for the moment when Christ comes to you and dwells in your heart?

This Christmas, we are promised once again that the Word will become flesh, the Word that was with God, the Word that was and is and will always be God. And he is bringing with him the gift of light, the true light, which enlightens everyone. And through him, we can know God. Not some abstract form of God, not some theological concept of the Divine. As we get to know Jesus, we are getting to know God. So how will you get to know Jesus this coming year? What will you do differently in your life in response to this divine interruption? Or will you just keep going, giving the manger a cursory glance and then getting back to your routine? John tells us that Jesus came into this world, but his own people did not accept him. Will we accept him this year?

There is darkness in this world. But we also believe there is light, a light so strong that the darkness cannot overcome it. And that light has been given to us to shine! Christ’s coming reminds us that we already have that light inside of us, and it’s our job to make sure it shines through the bigotry and hate and fear this world throws at us. I know a lot of people who live in darkness and could use that kind of light. I bet you do, too. Reflect God’s love in your life. Live like you believe Christ has come. The Word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood. Amen! Now, let there be light!






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Advent sermon series – The Beginning of Mark

SCRIPTURE – Mark 1:1-8 – The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, 

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
    who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
    ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight,’”

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

In the Beginning Sermon Series
#1 – In the Beginning of Mark
Nov. 29, 2015

In my former life as a journalist at the Courier-Journal in Louisville, one of my jobs was reviewing movies, which I enjoyed, mostly because I got free popcorn. I wasn’t the primary reviewer, so I didn’t get the blockbusters and Academy Award winners. I got movies like Weekend at Bernie’s 2. That was actually one of my first assignments. The first movie in that series was about a pair of young businessmen whose boss – that’s Bernie – gets killed by the mafia. The two men have to act as if Bernie is still alive in order to pull off a big business deal, so they spend the movie doing zany things like propping a corpse up in a chair and putting a cigarette in its mouth. Let the hilarity ensue! Now, realize that someone thought Weekend at Bernie’s was so life-changing that they said, “We should make ANOTHER one of these!”

As you can imagine, I was less than thrilled about reviewing this one, so much so that I showed up about 10 minutes late. I managed to stay awake through it, then went back to the office to write my review. After it ran, I got a call from the head movie reviewer who was not very happy with me. Apparently, there was a major plot point that took place in the first 10 minutes of the movie that I had completely missed. I just assumed the movie was incoherent on its own merits. A reader had called into to point out this fact, probably the only other person in Louisville who actually saw the movie besides me. To punish me, my editor made me go watch it again. But you know what that meant…more free popcorn!

Reading the beginning of the gospel of Mark is like walking into a movie 10 minutes late. You read the opening paragraph expecting angels and mangers and lowing cattle and the like, and instead you get Isaiah and a prophecy and some guy eating locusts. Did we miss something? Why doesn’t Mark begin at the beginning? For our Advent sermon series, we’re going to look at the beginning of each gospel to see what it does or doesn’t tell us about the birth of Jesus Christ.

To understand why Mark’s gospel begins this way, you have to understand the context in which it was written. Mark is most likely the first gospel that was written, but that didn’t happen for a good 20-30 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Up to that point, the stories about Jesus had been passed down orally, as the gospel spread by word of mouth. The first written accounts of Jesus we have are some of Paul’s letters, but he almost never says a word about the circumstances of Jesus’ birth. That has led some folks to question the authenticity of the birth stories. Did they really happen, or did the other gospel writers make them up?

I’m not sure, but there’s no reason to doubt the historical accuracy of the stories. When I reviewed movies, I rarely commented on the musical score or the lighting, but that didn’t mean those things didn’t exist. I just chose not to focus on them. To me, they weren’t important to the story. Likewise, for Mark, the birth narrative wasn’t important to the version of Jesus’ story he was trying to tell. We want to know all that had happened, his birth, his childhood, what kind of grades he got in school, who he hung out with. Not Mark’s point. It was only about 10-20 years later that Matthew and Luke wrote their gospels and decided to add the birth stories.

So what WAS Mark trying to say? That’s an important question to ask about any biblical passage. Mark wasn’t writing an unbiased biography of Jesus; he had an agenda for everything he included and left out. He gives us his thesis statement in the very first line: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God.” Right away, Mark is making a proclamation about who Jesus is that would have caused quite a stir among his readers.

Mark was writing in the time of the Roman Empire to a group of Jews and Gentiles who were fully immersed in that culture. The “Pax Romana” they experienced was forged by the iron first of the Roman emperor, who was so powerful that he was considered divine, sometimes by his own decree. And when the emperor says he’s divine, you’d best not argue with him. But Mark is doing just that by making this claim. He’s saying that the true son of God, the true Messiah, is Jesus Christ, not Caesar, and that Jesus’ arrival is good news.

But before we even meet Jesus, we meet John the Baptist, who has an important message for his listeners and for us today: “Prepare the way of the Lord.” We know all about preparation for Christmas, don’t we? That’s what Advent is about, right? “Let every heart prepare him room.” We decorate our sanctuary. We put up Christmas trees and lights. We buy presents and attend parties. We know how to prepare for Christmas, but do we know how to prepare for Christ? Is that all we need to do to prepare him room in our hearts, John the Baptist asks, or is there something more?

The kind of preparation John is calling for doesn’t ask us to do more during this season, but less. Or maybe it’s a call to do what we do, but with a different focus.  It’s a call to slow down, to pay attention, to take inventory of what in our lives keeps us from preparing room for Christ. It’s a call to not fall into the same holiday routines, which might numb us to the true joy of what’s taking place. Do we get so caught up in mall traffic and wrapping paper and family gatherings that we actually take away from the peace of the season rather than add to it? Are we adding to the hope and joy Christ brings, or are we stumbling blocks? What needs to be cleared out to prepare room?

One year when my family put up our Christmas tree, we decided to put it in a new spot in our family room. Making it fit meant moving some furniture around. When we moved my beloved recliner, I noticed that it was a little dirty under there: candy wrappers, tissues, a coupon that expired six years earlier, a LOT of stale popcorn. So to make room for this new arrangement we had to do a little cleaning.

What do we need to clean out in order to make room? That’s Mark message to us that we so easily miss: slow down, pay attention, look around. What needs around you aren’t being met? What distractions are competing for your focus? I admit to being guilty of this every season. I get caught up in the gift exchanges and the holiday sales that I sometimes take my eye off the ball. I saw a commercial this weekend that talked about this being the season of “Thanks-getting.” Part of me wants to stick my nose in the air and decry the blasphemy of such a statement, but another part of me admits, “I like getting things.” And the more things I get, the less room there is.

Prepare the way of the Lord. Make room. Something is coming! And this something is a game-changer. This one is powerful, holy, the Messiah, the Anointed One. We are about to welcome a special guest into our midst who has the power to baptize us with the Holy Spirit, to ignite a fire in our souls, to fundamentally change our lives, to call us out of our wildernesses of violence and selfishness and divisiveness and greed into a Promised Land of peace and generosity and harmony and service. That’s the kind of life we want to live, right? A life that helps make this world a better place for our kids and grandkids. A world in which we feel safe, a world in which everyone is loved and fed, a world in which there is no fear. We want that world, right? Well, someone is coming who can help us make that world a reality. But there’s still these questions: Are we prepared? Is there room?

To be prepared, John says all Israel has to be baptized. Everyone has to recommit their lives to Jesus. No one is exempt. The 1% and the 99%. Those who believe certain lives matter and those who believe all lives matter. Those who prefer turkey and those who prefer ham. Everyone needs a fresh start, everyone needs to do some cleaning in their souls, everyone needs to make room. The Jews who were baptized by John in the Jordan left the city, left their routines, got out of their daily ruts to experience something new, a cleansing, a purging, a new start.

For us, that starts today. That starts with us saying in our hearts that we will make room.
We experience the anticipation of Advent when we turn around from our routines to pay attention to who’s coming. We may have to give up some things. We may have to pray more and spend less. We may have to slow down and say “No.” These preparations aren’t always easy. But someone is coming – someone is coming! – and I would hate to miss him because we were just too busy, we were unprepared, there wasn’t room.

I’m kind of glad Mark doesn’t start with the birth of an eight-pound, six-ounce newborn baby Jesus. It’s such a familiar story to us that we might miss the deeper message. By starting with John the Baptist, Mark smacks us upside the head and says, “This season isn’t about all the things you think it’s about. It’s about being prepared.” Instead of a manger, Mark gives us the wilderness, reminding us that even when we are in dark and desolate places, there is a chance for a new beginning. Do you need a new beginning? Do you need a message of hope this season? Mark tells us that it’s coming, so we better get ready.

Are you prepared? I’m not asking if you’ve started your Christmas shopping or baked all your cookies. I’m asking if you’re prepared. Christ is coming once again, bringing a message of hope and love and justice. There will be so many other things this holiday season demanding a place in your schedule, in your wallet, in your soul. Will Jesus come to us if we’re not prepared? Will we miss him and the message he brings? Will we wake up on Dec. 25 and feel the same we did on Dec. 24? “Let every heart prepare him room.” Is there room?

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The B-I-B-L-E Sermon Series – How to Read the Bible Today

SCRIPTURE – 2 Timothy 3:14 -17 –  But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, 15 and how from infancyyou have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God[a] may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

The B-I-B-L-E Sermon Series
How to Read the Bible Today
November 15, 2015
At first glance, the Bible looks a lot like a book, doesn’t it? It has a cover, a spine, a table of contents. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think you were supposed to read it like you read any other book. Start at the beginning, read through the middle, if it gets boring, skip to the end. The only problem with the Bible is that if you skip to the end, you’ll be smack dab in the middle of Revelation, which is at times scarier than a Stephen King novel. No, the Bible is not just any old book. So how do we read it?

Today we finish our sermon series on the Bible. We’ve spent a lot of time immersed in the Good Book. We’ve looked at what’s in the Old Testament and the New Testament, as well as who wrote it and how it got into our hands today. We’ve asked tough questions like, “Is the Bible true?” and “What authority should it have?” We’ve looked at the various ways God is portrayed in the Bible and talked about how the Bible is relevant for our lives today. All of those sermons, which you can find on our website, aren’t worth a hill of beans if we’re not willing to actually open the book and read it for ourselves, so that’s what we’ll talk about today.

As I said, the Bible isn’t meant be read from front to back. It’s not just one book; it’s a collection of books, with diverse material ranging from history to poetry and from biography to prophecy. So where do you even start? I’ll give you some suggestions later, but before we talk about how to read it, we need to talk about why to read it. We all know we’re supposed to, but most of us probably don’t as often as we should, if at all. It’s an intimidating book, and if you don’t know where to start, it’s easy to get lost in a whirlpool of begats and Jehosephats. And to be honest, it’s not always a page-turner. So before we read it, we have to be motivated by something other than our grandma’s voice in our heads cajoling us to do it. Why read it?

One reason people read it is for information. After all, the Bible contains the history of the Jewish people, which sets the stage for the arrival of Jesus of Nazareth. If you want to know about who Jesus was, what he taught, how he died, the Bible is a storehouse of great information. The Bible tells us what God wants us to know. But that’s not the only reason to read it.

Some people read the Bible for formation. They want to know what they need to do in order to obtain their “Get into Heaven Free” card or to figure out how to make up for their mistakes. I visited an elderly lady once in the hospital, and when I walked into the room she had the Bible open in front of her. I remarked that scripture must be important to her, and she said, “Not really. I haven’t read it very much.” I asked her why she was reading it now, and she said, “I’m cramming for my final exam!” That’s reading the Bible for formation. It tells us what God wants us to do. But that’s also not the only reason we should read it.

We don’t read it only for information, and we don’t read it only for formation. We read it for transformation. We read it to learn what we should know; we read it to learn what we should do; and, I would say most importantly, we read it to learn who we should be. That’s what I love about the passage we read from I Timothy today. Paul says all these great things about scripture and how we’re supposed to use it, and then he adds a “so that.” It’s as if someone said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, Paul, I get it, reading the Bible is important. So what?” And Paul answers, “So that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”

The Bible has the power to fundamentally change the orientation of our lives away from ourselves and toward God. The story it tells has the power to reorder our priorities and question our assumptions. The words on its pages has the power, as Paul writes, to make us “new creations.” We read the Bible to figure out how to be more like Jesus today than we were yesterday, how to reflect the image of God inside us rather than distort it, how to do the “good work” we’ve been called to do. That, in short, is why we read the Bible.

But the problem is not all of the Bible is transformative in that way. We’ve talked in this series about how the Bible is rooted in a context much different than our own, and not all of what the Bible says applies to us today. We talked about how we pick and choose what we give authority in the Bible, and what we give authority determines how we are transformed. So when we read a passage, we have to discern within it if there’s a message for us about God and about who God is calling us to be. And if there’s not, we don’t give that passage any authority. We choose not to follow it.

Pastor Adam Hamilton offers an instructive metaphor here. He says we all have three buckets we use when it comes to reading scripture, and every passage goes into one of these buckets. In the first bucket are passages that reflect the timeless will of God for human beings, like the command to love God and love our neighbor. The truth in this passage never changes. In the second bucket are passages that reflect God’s will in a particular time but not for all time, like some of the laws in the Old Testament. Those were God’s will for that time and place, but are no longer God’s will for us today. And in the third bucket are passages that reflect the cultural and historical circumstances in which they were written but never reflected God’s timeless will, like Paul’s command for slaves to obey their masters. So a passage is either a timeless truth, a “that was then, this is now” truth, or a statement written by the author that never reflected God’s will. So when we read a passage, we choose which bucket they go in, and which bucket they go in determine what kind of authority those passages have for us.

Women’s role in the church is a great case study. Paul clearly says that women are to be silent in church and not to have authority over men. There are some churches that put that in the first bucket as God’s timeless will. But there are other churches, ours included, who put that in the second or third bucket. I put it in the third. I don’t think God ever wanted women to not play a role in church leadership. Otherwise, why would God gift them with such skills? I think that passage reflects the patriarchal society of that culture, but not God’s timeless truth. When we choose to ordain women, we’re not choosing between the Bible and ordaining women. We’re choosing between a certain view of the Bible and ordaining women.

So, when you read the Bible, you need to figure out for yourself which bucket is best for you. When God calls the Israelites to kill the people in the surrounding nations, which bucket? When Jesus tells the story about the Good Samaritan helping the stranger, which bucket? When Jesus calls the rich young ruler to sell what he had and give it to the poor, which bucket? When Paul writes about issue like keeping the sabbath or slavery or same-sex behavior or the relationship between husbands and wives, which bucket? That’s part of the work we are called to do as Christians who have been given the gift of a brain. Sure, someone else can pick your buckets for you, but then you lose the power of the “so that,” the power to choose for yourself what to believe and how to live out your faith.

I think we have a great example of how to do this, and it comes from the Bible itself. In the book of Acts, Paul is out recruiting new Christians from among the Gentiles, and the Jews are getting upset because these new converts aren’t going through all the membership rituals necessary to join the Jesus as Messiah Club, like being circumcised. The leaders say, “You have to follow God’s rules,” and Paul is like, “Who cares? They believe! That’s what matters!” So the issue is taken to the Jewish Council in Jerusalem, like the Supreme Court of its day, to make a ruling.

The council listens to arguments from both sides, and then hands down a verdict on what new Christians should do to be considered a part of the body of Christ. And they start their decision this way: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond a few requirements.” Notice the amazing humility in that statement. They’re not saying, “God told us to say this.” They’re not claiming to know God’s heart or to speak in God’s voice. They’re not stating, “The Bible says it so that settles it.” They say, “It seemed good.”

It seems good to me to place some biblical passages in the first bucket and some in the second and some in the third. It seems good to me to interpret the Bible in ways that support my image of God as loving, creative, inclusive. I don’t claim to have it right. I might get to Heaven and God will say, “ Dude, totally the wrong bucket on that one.” It seems good to me to believe what I believe and live out my faith the way I choose. Doesn’t mean I’m right. Doesn’t mean someone who believes differently is wrong. I’ve studied the Bible my whole life, I take it very seriously, but I don’t have the presumption to know God’s heart. I learn something new every time I read it. That’s why I read it.

Once you get a grasp on why you read the Bible, then you can move onto the how, which is pretty simple. First, you need a Bible. There are a plethora of versions out there. Some are more readable paraphrases, like the Message. Some are more faithful to the original Greek and Hebrew, like the New King James Version. And some are a balance, like the New International Version or the New Revised Standard Version. Go to a bookstore, browse through some different ones, read the same passage in different versions, and find the one that works best.

Next, I recommend your Bible be a study bible, or that you have a commentary near you. A commentary simply provides historical background, context, and some interpretation of what you’re reading. A good study bible does the same thing. If you want to see samples of either of these, come see Trish or me. We’ve got you covered.

So, where to start? I would start with a gospel. That’s the essence of our story as Christians. I prefer Luke, so I would recommend reading Luke and then Acts, which is the history of the early church. After that, go back and read another gospel, then Paul’s letter to the Romans. And then after that? Well, after that, pick a book and dive in. There’s a lot of good stuff in there. And if you get to a section that bogs you down…skip it. You have my permission. And if that’s the wrong thing to do, then at least we’ll be in trouble with God together. And keep your buckets handy, because you’ll have some decisions to make about what you believe.

We read the Bible to know God; and we read the Bible learn what to do; and we read the Bible to learn who we are called to be. The Bible is a great conversation partner for us on this journey of faith. I believe we should converse with it, complain to it, talk back to it, interrogate it, and disagree with it, not as an act of rebellion, but as an act of faith and trust. And ultimately, I believe we should let it change us, because our faith is called to be in motion, not stagnant. I believe a certain faith is a rigid faith, but an unsettled faith is a growing faith. But none of that can happen if we don’t read it.

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