Easter 2015 – Explaining the Resurrection

SCRIPTURE – Matthew 27:57-28:15

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This Week’s Sermon – A Long Way to Go

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Body by Jesus sermon series – #5: Rough Knees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Body by Jesus sermon series – #4: Pierced Tongue

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

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

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

SERMON

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Body by Jesus sermon series – #3: Greased Elbows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Body by Jesus sermon series – #2: Broken Hearts

This is the second sermon in our series that is using the book of James to help us build our bodies in a way that reflect the image of God and the love of Christ within us. Today, we seek to have Broken Hearts.

SCRIPTURE – James 2:1-8 – My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you? You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

SERMON
Body by Jesus – Broken Hearts
James 2:1-8
March 1, 2015

Do you remember your first love? I do. First grade. Chenoweth Elementary School in Louisville, Ky. Her name was Phoebe and she sat in front of me in class. She had long blond hair that I thought looked like spaghetti. I loved spaghetti, so I would just stare at her hair and imagine adding marinara sauce and parmesan cheese. This was true love. One time, I went to the pencil sharpener, and she came up at the SAME TIME!  I just knew that she was the one for me. Until one day, at recess, she said the two words that I would hear repeated by women over and over again for the rest of my life: “You’re weird!” Pheobe and I were just never the same after that. She stopped sharing her glue during craft time. We drifted apart.

My heart was first broken by Pheobe with the spaghetti hair. I wish that were the last time, but like each one of you, I’ve had my heart broken time and time again. And the pain doesn’t get any easier, does it? It hurts. It’s no fun. To give your heart away to someone, and then to have it given back to you in pieces, is a level of suffering that none of us wants to feel. Life would easier if we could avoid that. But would it be better? We continue our “Body by Jesus” sermon series today as we seek to build our body in a way that reflects the love of Christ within us. Last week be talked about having big ears; today we’ll explore the risks and rewards of broken hearts.

James writes, “If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing right.” The Greek word for “neighbor” here is all-encompassing, it shows no favoritism, as James demonstrates earlier in the passage. If you are willing to let yourself love someone as you would want to be loved, you are living the life God has called you to live. But to do so comes with a risk. Any time we choose to truly love, like I loved Phoebe with the spaghetti hair, we know that our hearts may come out the other side in pieces.

Pet owners understand this very well. When I was in elementary school, my mom got me a dog for my birthday. His name was Rusty and he was a Weimaraner. I loved that dog…for all three days that we had him. What my mom didn’t know was that Weimaraners are very hyper dogs, and when we left Rusty alone for the first time, he tore up our living room. So Mom said Rusty had to go back to the animal shelter. As I walked Rusty back to his cage at the pound, I was devastated. My heart was broken.

Losing a pet can be hard enough, but the pain we feel when we share in another person’s suffering is even greater. Giving our hearts to someone means entering into their lives to such a point that we feel the pain that they feel. Another word for that is compassion, which literally means “to suffer with.” In the training for Stephen Ministry, we spend a lot of time talking about the importance of compassion. We can only be helpful to someone if we do our best to understand what they are going through. And we know the importance of doing that because we all know the pain of having our hearts broken.

Which is a great reason for us NOT to treat others with compassion, for us NOT to enter into their pain. We’ve had our share of broken hearts; why in the world would we want to take on someone else’s pain? We’ve done the hard work of mending and healing and gluing back together our own hearts. Why then would we want to open ourselves up to that same hurt on behalf of someone else? We’ve already been there; let them deal with it themselves.

This is part of what I believe James is addressing in today’s passage. On one level, he’s talking about the dangers of favoritism, only treating with respect those who have something to give us in return. But at a deeper level, he’s talking about not coming eye-to-eye with those who we know are suffering. He warns against giving the rich person a good seat but putting the poor person down – literally – by having them sit on the floor. But it’s safer for me if they are down there, because then I don’t have to look them in them in the eye, I don’t have to treat them as an equal, I don’t have to acknowledge they are a real human being. And if we dehumanize someone, then there’s no need to have compassion for them.

I wonder who in our lives we keep “down there?” I’ll guarantee it’s not the people who are most like us. Those are the ones we want to connect with because it’s safer. It’s much more dangerous to connect with those who don’t think like us or look like us or believe like us, people who are easy to judge or stereotype. And yet, their pain is as real as ours, and their need for compassion is as strong as ours, regardless of where they live or to whom they pray.

If you dare to connect with someone, to keep them on your level, then you open yourself up to sharing in their joy and their pain. In his book The Wounded Healer, Henri Nouwen says, “It seems necessary to re-establish the basic principle that no one can help anyone without becoming involved, without entering with his whole person into the painful situation, without taking the risk of becoming wounded in the process.” The apostle Paul says it even more clearly in Romans 12: “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” In other words, love others as you would want to be loved, treat others as you would want to be treated, take the risk to fully enter into their pain with them.

We can see what this looks like by watching Jesus. He wasn’t afraid to eat with tax collectors and sinners, he didn’t shy away from touching lepers and healing the sick. We see God’s heart through Jesus’ actions in our reading from John’s Gospel. Jesus has heard about the death of his friend Lazarus, and goes to Bethany to visit the tomb. Jesus knows this story is going to have a happy ending, but when he is confronted with the raw pain of Mary and Martha, he his moved to tears. Jesus cries, not so much out of his own pain, but out of the pain he sees in those with whom he is connected. Jesus keeps everyone at eye level.

Jesus loved out of compassion, not out of pity. That’s an important distinction. Connecting with someone out of pity implies looking down on them from where we are. Connecting with someone from our hearts means regarding them as brothers and sisters and helping them out of the compassion, the empathy, we feel for them. Instead of maintaining that buffer zone between us and someone we know is hurting in order to keep our own hearts safe, we open our hearts to the grief of others as though it were our own. The Tibetans call this quality “the inability to bear the sight of another’s sorrow.”

We certainly had the opportunity to put our compassion into action with Robyn and Jordan and Milly. That experience was flooded with so many emotions from the very start, and more than once our hearts broke for the Bles family as they faced their challenges. You know, it would have been a whole lot easier not to have gotten involved. It would have been so much safer for us to say, “You’re on your own.” Why in the world would we get involved? Why would be open ourselves up to the excruciating pain of letting our hearts be broken? Because we were given the capacity to love, and we were called to put that love to real use with others. We let our hearts we broken because that’s who we are created to be, and that’s how God deeply loves us.

Our hearts are still breaking. Our hearts will continue to break. With each goodbye we say, a piece of our heart leaves us and goes with them. But the amazing thing about our heart is that when we give a piece of it away, it grows larger, not smaller. For each person we love, for each time we offer compassion to someone, the capacity of our heart grows and our ability to connect expands, not contracts. We are afraid to show compassion because of what we’ll lose, but we never think about what we’ll gain.

It’s so easy to look at a painful situation and say, “You know, I’m not going to get involved. I’m not going to put myself through that.” But here’s the thing. God’s not standing over here with us, safe from the pain. God is with them, right in the midst of it. God is in the hospital room, God is in the divorce court, God is in the rehab center, God is with our lonely neighbor or our troubled relative or our misbehaving student. God is there.

What makes your heart break? I’m afraid the answer for many of us may be, “Not much.” In our world that is overflowing with heartbreaking stories, it’s easy to grow numb to the need around us for compassion. There are plenty of moving videos online of homeless people getting help, but there are also plenty of people right here in Lexington that need the same kind of compassion. If they walked into church today, would we show to them to a good seat or ignore them and hope they go away?

The challenge for us is to model Jesus’ radical willingness to connect with those whom others had cast out. Our hearts broke for Milly. They should also break when we read about children who’ve been abused, or unarmed people being mistreated by police, or people using violence to solve problems. Any time God’s peace is broken, any time one of God’s children is mistreated, any time a person suffers because they don’t have the basic necessities to survive, we should be unable to bear the sight of their sorrow. Our hearts should break and our compassion should spur us to respond.

Mother Teresa said it this way: “When we ultimately go home to God, we are going to be judged on what we were to each other, what we did for each other, and, especially, how much love we put into that. It’s not how much we give, but how much love we put into doing it.” May we be blessed with the inability to bear the sight of another’s sorrow, and may our hearts be broken again and again and again.

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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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