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Practicing Our Faith sermon series – #6: Practicing Dying Well

SCRIPTURE – Romans 14:5-9 – Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God.

We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.

Practicing Our Faith Sermon Series
#6 – Dying Well
March 25, 2018

I’ve preached a lot of funeral sermons in my career so far. Some of them have been incredibly difficult, like the funeral sermon for the little Emma, a two-year-old who died of a brain tumor. Others have been moments of celebration, like the funeral sermon for Jeanne, a pillar in a previous church I served. But the most challenging funeral sermon I ever preached was for a man named Stan.

Stan’s funeral sermon was challenging for two reasons. First, Stan was an ornery son-of-a-gun, bless his little heart. It was hard to find a lot of people who had something nice to say about Stan, and I’d had my own run-ins with him. Many people who knew Stan echoed Mark Twain, who said, “I didn’t attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it.” As I started to write about Stan, I realized that I may just have to make stuff up. The second reason that Stan’s funeral sermon was so tough was that Stan wasn’t dead yet. This was an assignment in my seminary preaching class, to preach a funeral sermon on someone that we would have trouble eulogizing.

As I was working on this assignment, a thought struck me that still nags at me to this day. What if this assignment is given 50 years from now to a seminary student? The student is told to write a funeral sermon about a person for whom it would be difficult to come up with five minutes of positive material, and the person the student chooses to kill is…me? What if I’m Stan for someone else? Am I living my life and following my Savior in such a way that when I die, the preacher won’t have to make stuff up?

Today we conclude our sermon series called “Practicing Our Faith.” We embarked on this journey with the understanding that faith is not something we have, it’s something we do, and in order for us to get better at it, we have to practice. We’ve looked at several different aspects of faith – like honoring our bodies and offering forgiveness and healing – to see how practicing these things will make us better followers of Christ. You can find those sermons on our website if you missed them.

Our last practice is dying well. I have to admit I’m a bit disappointed that the sanctuary isn’t filled to overflowing with such a sexy sermon topic. I mean, really, who doesn’t want to talk about dying? Well, if we’re honest, none of us do. The topic of death is a real conversation-killer, so to speak. We don’t like to hear about it, we don’t like to talk about it, and we sure don’t like to be reminded that it’s going to happen, either to us or our loved ones. So, thanks for showing up today.

Of course, the irony about our reluctance to talk about death is it’s the one thing we all have in common. Unless you were born in a manger and crucified on a cross, I’m pretty sure that you are doing to die. So am I. The last time I check the polls, the mortality rate of Americans still stood at 100%. Same for Iranians and Nepalese and everyone else on the planet. It happens every day. Since I’ve started preaching this sermon, dozens of people have died, hopefully not from listening to me preach this sermon.

It’s almost comical what we’ll do to avoid talking about death. I once called on a person who was very sick in the hospital to see how they were doing. When I got to their room, it was empty, so I asked a nurse where the patient was. She paused and looked down and said, “He’s moved on.” I said, “Oh, OK. What’s his new room number?” She shuffled her feet and said, “No, that’s not it. He’s transitioned.” I said, “You means he’s a woman?!?” No, she said, obviously not getting the joke, “He’s no longer with us.” I so wanted to say, “So, he’s in another hospital?” But I got what she said, so I simply said, “Oh, he died.” She nodded, her eyes on the floor, and quickly walked away.

I have a theory on why we don’t like to talk about death. It’s because we’ve made it so hard to accept that it’s going to happen. Back in Jesus’ day, when life expectancy was about half what it is now, death was more of a natural part of life because it happened sooner. Fewer babies survived infancy, fewer adults made it to old age, and so death was more accepted. But these days, we have all kinds of means at our disposal to prolong our life. When you can replace joints and take multi-vitamins and eat healthier, death seems like something to avoid, not something to accept. Like Woody Allen said, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it by not dying.”

Another reason we’re not comfortable with death is that we’ve removed the role of the church from helping us process death. In biblical times, a person’s death was a sacred time, seen as a time to both mourn and celebrate, and Jews set aside a 30-day period for mourning the dead. In modern times, death has been relegated to two institutions: the hospital and the funeral home. One treats death scientifically, the other treats it as a business. And, the cultural expectation is that once the funeral is over, life should return to normal.

But it never returns to normal, does it? Life is never the same after a person dies. So, part of the practice of dying well is reclaiming the church’s role in helping people deal with death, either their own or that of a loved one. And that means helping them move through all the emotions that come with death, especially the move from lament to hope.

Lament is a passionate expression of grief or sorrow and it has deep roots in the Bible. Many of the psalms are psalms of lament, expressing despair or sadness and asking for God’s comfort and assurance. Lament is such a universal human condition that even Jesus experienced it. We all know the shortest verse in the Bible is, “Jesus wept,” but do you know why he did? While out of town, Jesus learns that his good friend Lazarus has died. Even though Jesus knew he was going to bring him back to life, when Jesus arrived on the scene and saw the intense sadness of Lazarus’s friends and family, the Bible tells us, “Jesus wept.” As Christians, we can only acknowledge the good news of Easter if we walk through the anguish of Good Friday.

But, as followers of Christ, we can’t stop at lament, because belief in Christ is our source of hope, even and especially in the face of death. Easter is coming, and it brings with it the promise that death is not a period for us, but a comma, as we move from the old way of living to the new one. When I do a funeral, I try to set the stage at the beginning by acknowledging that we gather to both mourn and celebrate, to look backward in remembrance and forward in hope. Funerals don’t erase the fact that the person has died, but they remind us that death isn’t all there is.

This is where we as a community of faith can practice and participate in the art of dying well, because dying well is less about the person dying than it is about the people who surround that person in those last sacred moments. Because we all know that not every death is a good death. Not everyone dies peacefully in their sleep at a ripe old age. Too many lives are ended too soon, too violently. This practice doesn’t hold a magic formula for transforming premature, tragic or unjust deaths into good deaths. I fully acknowledge the fact that not every death is a good death, but I believe God can work through every death to bring about good. If the church has nothing to say to the grieving parent or family of the slain soldier, then it has nothing to say.

So for us, the practice of dying well speaks to the way we talk about death and caring for the person before and after their life ends. I was at Temple Adath Israel recently, one of our local Jewish synagogues. They have a huge wall that has on it a plaque for each person in their congregation who has died. Each plaque has a lightbulb attached that is lit during the month of the person’s birth. It was powerful to stand in front of that wall and read the names of those whose lights were shining, as if to say, “Don’t forget me. I’m still here.”

That’s really at the heart of the practice of dying well. When we do this as a faith community, we ensure that a person’s spirit lives on within and around us, even though their body has given out. We promise to each other that, when we die, the church will gather to celebrate our life and mourn our death, and we are confident that the community will care for our family through prayers and visits and casseroles, that we will be remembered with white roses on the altar and having our names read on All Saints Day.

I mentioned Jeanne earlier in my sermon. During her last days, she laid unconscious in a hospital bed in her home, cared for by Hospice nurses and surrounded by her husband, Tom, and their two daughters. I was over at their house one afternoon, the four of us sitting around Jeanne’s bed, each person holding her hand or stroking her hair. We sat around for a couple hours, telling stories, sharing memories, laughing about Jeanne’s stubborn personality or crying over special memories. The Hospice nurse arrived, took Jeanne’s pulse, and said quietly, “She’s died.” None of us knew. But I found comfort in the fact that the last thing Jeanne heard was the laughter and the tears and the stories told by her family, a beautiful and holy litany that helped carry Jean to her home with God. It made me think of the quote from writer Annie Dillard, who said, “I think the dying pray at the last not ‘please’ but ‘thank you,’ as a guest thanks his host at the door.”

Not all deaths are as peaceful. In fact, most aren’t. Dying for most of us will be a messy, painful business. We cannot expect to die well in the biological sense. I’m with Woody Allen, who said, “I’m not afraid of dying, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” But through the love of our family, through the care of our church, through the promises of our savior, we can trust that what awaits us is nothing short of the resurrection shown to us through the empty tomb.

We can start practicing this today by how we choose to live, because dying well starts by choosing to live well, to live out all the practices we have talked about. You realize that we’ve already died, at least in a spiritual sense, right? When we were baptized, we were counted as dead to sin and alive to Christ. Each day, we are called to die to the things the separate us from God and to live into the promise of new life received at our baptism. Each day is a day to die well in order to live well, so that when we come to the end of our earthly life, our pastor doesn’t have to make stuff up about us for the funeral.

In the story of Lazarus, Mary says to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”


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Practicing Our Faith Sermon Series – #5: Practicing Healing

SCRIPTURE – James 5:13-16 – 13 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.

Practicing Our Faith Sermon Series
#5 – Practicing Healing
March 18, 2018
Rev. Kory Wilcoxson

I’ve never told you this before, but I was once on the receiving end of a miraculous, super-natural healing. No, a TV evangelist didn’t smack me on my forehead or slay me in the Spirit. I was miraculously healed by a chicken poppyseed casserole. This happened right after our first child was born. We were living several hours away from our family, we had virtually no support system, and we were beyond exhausted. And then a little old lady from the church I was serving as a youth pastor showed up at our apartment door with a steaming hot pan of chicken poppyseed casserole. And the Lord said, “It was very good.” It was absolutely the cure we needed for what ailed us at that moment. Does that count as a healing?

For our Lenten sermon series, we’ve been looking at how to grow in our faith through the ways we practice living it out. We’ve learned that practicing things like saying yes and no, honoring our bodies, and offering forgiveness help us take the next step on our faith journey. We never expect to master these disciplines, but by practicing them, we can hope to gradually get better at them and honor God in the process.

Today, we are talking about practicing healing. The first challenge we have to overcome is trying to come to a common understanding of what it means to heal, because that concept means different things to different people. For a lot of folks, healing means a physical cure from some malady or illness. That’s certainly one aspect of healing, but it in no way defines its totality. What does it mean to heal or to be healed? And does healing have anything to do with our faith?

Early believers thought so. Healing was very much a part of the early Christian understanding of a life of faith. We know that Jesus healed many people during his time on earth, including the 10 lepers we read about earlier. When Jesus sent his disciples out into the neighboring towns, one of their marching orders was to heal every sickness and disease. The early church picked up on that, making rites like anointing the sick with oil and the laying on of hands an integral part of their wholistic ministry. To this day, the Catholic Church has as one of its seven sacraments the anointing with oil for the purpose of healing.

But somewhere along the line, the sacrament of healing lost its cultural value. It was most likely around the time of the Enlightenment, when spiritual reality and material reality were separated, and the role of human knowledge took precedence over the role of faith. You no longer needed to be anointed with oil when you were sick, because new discoveries were providing scientific cures for diseases. That has proliferated down through the centuries, to the point where the concept of healing is relegated almost exclusively to the world of medicine.

Of course, healing does still exist in religion, but only as a caricature. You probably know of folks like Benny Hinn, who’ve made a fortune off of performing theatrical “cures.” You’ve probably also heard about the dog who was sent to Christian obedience school. On graduation day, he was asked to sit, and he sat. He was asked to speak, and he barked. He was asked to heal, and he raise his paw and said, “Lord Jesus, I command you to remove the squeaky demon from this chew toy.” There’s a good reason we Christians are skeptical about healing as a spiritual practice.

So, healing is either something done with medicine or something to be made fun of in religion. And yet, healing has so many more layers and dimensions to it than a physical cure. As John Koenig says in the book Practicing Our Faith, “Healing events are daily signs of the divine mercy that is surging through our world and guiding it toward its final perfection. This is true whether they take place by the sharing of chicken soup, the performance of delicate surgery, or the laying on of hands in a service of worship.” All these acts, and many more, are ways of practicing healing.

In our passage, James tells us praying is one of those ways. He says, “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. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.” One of the most effective ways we can practice healing is through intercessory prayer, praying for someone who is sick to be made well (which may be different than being physically cured).

Right after I was diagnosed with MS, a staff member at my seminary came to me and said, “Kory, a group of us have a prayer meeting every Wednesday morning, and we’d like to invite you to attend so that we can lay hands on you and pray for you.” I liked this guy, but I was still coming to terms with my this next chapter in my life and skeptical of what sounded like evangelical revival tactic, so I didn’t go, because that’s not how healing happens. I had just learned I had multiple sclerosis; what good could they do for me?

I have since learned two things about that invitation. First, what he was offering was solidly grounded in scripture. And, second, healing absolutely does happen that way, but maybe not the kind of healing I was looking for. If we think of healing only as a physical cure, then we are limiting our understanding of how God works in our lives, and we’re setting ourselves up with unreachable expectations. If our only form of practicing healing is an intercessory prayer that says, “Lord, take away my grandma’s terminal cancer or else,” then we’re missing the ways God can bring about healing that transcends the physical realm.

Healing, in its most divine form, is not about curing. It’s about restoration. It’s about restoring wholeness to what is broken. That can be a broken bone, or a broken heart, or a broken society. Theologian Paul Tillich said that, “Healing is an element in the work of salvation.” Often, Jesus combined a physical healing with a spiritual one, telling the person who had been physically cured that their sins were forgiven. And remember, James says the prayer of faith will save the sick. Salvation, not curing. So, to practice healing is to practice restoring something to its original, God-ordained state.

Because of this more holistic way of seeing this practice, I believe healing is making a comeback, returning from its banishment to the outskirts of religion to take a central role in the restorative process. I believe, after centuries of thinking religion didn’t have anything to offer in the way of healing, people are coming to see the power of prayer in a different light. When I started in ministry, whenever I was visiting someone in the hospital, I would have to wait until the doctors and nurses and staff were done before I could spend any time with them, and my visits were frequently interrupted for the more important work of attending to the patient’s physical needs. But several times in the past few year, I’ve been visiting with a patient when the doctor has come in the room. I have introduced myself as the person’s pastor, and the doctor has said, “Oh, don’t me interrupt. I’ll wait until you are finished.” The power of prayer is being accepted as part of the healing process for a patient.

So how do we practice this? First, we have to expand our understanding of healing. Trust that God can bring about healing in all situations, even if a physical cure doesn’t take place. Wounds can be healed and wholeness can happen even as bodies give way to sickness and death. Practice having the eyes to see the healing power of God that goes beyond our limited expectations of a person receiving a super-natural cure.

A second way to practice healing is to trust that your prayers for healing make a difference. It can feel helpless to see a friend or loved one suffer, and sometimes prayer can feel like busy work or last-ditch effort to do something, although we don’t always believe it matters. But James tells us the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. When I laid in the hospital bed with my new diagnosis of MS, I could feel the power of people praying for me, and that brought me a sense of peace, that God could work through this curve ball my body had thrown me.

So, who can you pray for today? Who needs healing? Who needs peace, assurance, guidance, a cure? How about praying for our country to be healed from violence and division? We can pray for all of those things, and then trust that God hears those prayers. I believe healing is happening all around us, in some of the most unorthodox and unexpected ways, through whispered words of forgiveness and steaming hot chicken poppy seed casseroles.

I want to close with this story, my most memorable experience of the power of healing. I was once asked to come see a man in a coma so that I could anoint him with oil. Now, you may not know this, but I’m not Catholic, so this was something new to me. Thankfully, I had some oil in my office we use on Ash Wednesday, so I grabbed it and headed to the ICU unit at UK hospital.

The scene when I arrived was tense. The man in question, an athlete in his 40s, had fallen and hit his head and was not expected to survive. The family included a 10-year-old son and the man’s ex-wife and his current girlfriend and his parents and his ex-in-laws and his current girlfriend’s parents. The mood was chaotic and turbulent and contentious. So I gathered the family in the room, and I anointed the man’s head with oil and said a prayer. Then, I invited each family member to anoint his head with oil and speak a word of love to him. And then, completely by the Holy Spirit’s leading, I asked if any of the family members would like to be anointed with oil. Almost all of them stepped forward. Instead of doing all the anointing myself, I anointed the first person, then handed them the oil and said, “Now, anoint the person behind you.” I watched as the son anoint his mother, the ex-wife, who then turned and anointed the current girlfriend as all the various in-laws looked on. The best way I can described what happened was that air in the room softened. Although the man died the next week, I know healing took place in that room, thanks be to God.

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Practicing Our Faith sermon series – #4: Practicing Forgiveness

SCRIPTURE – Matthew 18:21-22 – 21 Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

Practicing Our Faith sermon series
#4 – Practicing Forgiveness
March 11, 2017
Rev. Kory Wilcoxson

Jesus had a lot to say about forgiveness, didn’t he? You know why he spent so much time talking about it? Because he knew we’re not very good at it.  He knows we are more inclined to follow the Law of Lamech. Ever heard of that one? Way back in Genesis  4, right after Cain and Abel, we learn about a man named Lamech, who was wronged by one of his neighbors. Probably put out the wrong candidate’s campaign sign. So Lamech says, “Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say: I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.” Yes, Jesus knew what we humans were capable of when it came to a lack of forgiveness.

So notice how Jesus reverses the Law of Lamech when Peter asks about forgiveness. Mr. Brown-Noser tries to show Jesus just how merciful he is by suggesting a number of times to forgive someone that only a saint would consider. Seven! Whoa now, Peter, let’s not overdo it. But Jesus has something better in mind. Some translations of this passage have Jesus responding, “Not seven times, but I tell you, seventy times seven times.” That’s 490 times, if you’re keeping score. Which you shouldn’t be doing, which is the whole point of this scripture. Jesus isn’t giving us permission to get to our 491st moment of forgiveness and go, “Aha! Not THIS time!” Jesus is telling Peter that any number he thinks of is too low. Forgiveness is not a one-time event; it’s a way of life that must be practiced.

Forget about the 491st time, or the seventh time. For some of us, it’s hard to forgive the first time. That’s why we have to practice it. During our Lenten sermon series, we’re looking at disciplines of faith which take practice in order for us to grow in them. If we want our faith to continue evolving, we have to work at getting better at living it out. That’s not so easy with forgiveness. We can’t say to someone, “Pretend to insult me so I can practice forgiving you.” We can only practice forgiveness by actually forgiving someone, and most of us have a little bit too much of Lamech in us. It’s a lot easier to know that forgiveness is the right response than it is to actually forgive. On razor-thin gilt-edged paper, forgiveness sounds great. But to live it out in real life?

One of the reasons forgiveness may be difficult for us is that we don’t fully understand what we’re called to do when we forgive. Forgiveness is not condoning the behavior of the other person. It doesn’t mean excusing the action or pretending it wasn’t bad. If someone wrongs you, it’s still wrong, even if you forgive them. We are called to be forgiving, not to be doormats.

Forgiving is also not forgetting. In some instances, that would be irresponsible. A lot of times we can’t forget what someone has done to us. We forgive because we can’t forget. Forgiveness also doesn’t mean reconciliation. Yes, we are called to love, but that doesn’t always have to be at close range. It’s great if forgiveness does lead to reconciliation, but sometimes the person we need to forgive is dead, or moved away, or no longer in our lives. Or maybe they’re not interested in reconciliation.

Those are some things forgiveness isn’t; but what IS it? Forgiveness is essentially about letting go. It’s about letting go of my right to hurt you back for what you’ve done to me. It’s about letting go of our desire for vengeance. That’s different than our desire for justice. I think I’ve told you before that in college, I worked for the school newspaper and once wrote an editorial questioning the need for our small school to have a baseball team when that funding could be used elsewhere, like for the school newspaper. The week that article came out, I was playing in an intramural basketball game, and the referee was one of the baseball players. The first time I contested a shot, I got called for a foul. The second time I contested a shot, I got called for a foul. The third time, I just stood there and let the other person shoot, and got called for a foul. When I protested, I got a technical foul. Finally, I said to the guy, “OK, you’re obviously going to call a foul on me no matter what I do or say. In that case, is it OK if I just think something?” He said, “Sure.” I said, “Good, because I think you stink!” I got a second technical foul, but at least I earned that one. At some point in that game, the referee moved from seeking justice to vengeance.

So forgiveness is letting go of our desire to see the other person suffer as much as they made us suffer. We might say that’s unfair, that they deserve to feel what we felt, but that’s the Law of Lamech talking, that’s exactly what we have to let go of. That’s the kind of “eye for an eye” thinking that Jesus reinterprets when he calls us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. He didn’t say we should pray for them to only get phone calls from telemarketers or gain 50 pounds. We can’t let go if we’re still holding onto a desire for payback.

There’s something else forgiveness is – forgiveness is costly. It’s scary to lay down your grudges, to trade in your pride and your power. After all, one of the great benefits of having an enemy is that you get to look good by comparison, right? Mary Gordon wrote, ““To forgive is to give up the exhilaration of one’s own assailable rightness.” In other words, to forgive is to admit that not all the mistakes that were made were by the other person. It means seeing the other person as more than their errors. Sure, they make mistakes, at times they are weak, insensitive, confused, and in pain. They’re faulty, fragile, lonely, needy, and emotionally imperfect. In other words, it means admitting they’re just like us.

That assailable rightness can feel exhilarating, right? One writer said, “Of all the deadly sins, resentment is the most fun.” But the consequences of not forgiving can be self-inflicted wounds. Writer Anne Lamott said, “I went around saying for a long time that I am not one of the Christians who is heavily into forgiveness – that I’m one of the other kind. But even though it was funny, and actually true, it started to be too painful to stay that way. In fact, not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and waiting for the rat to die.”

In practicing forgiveness, we willingly risk letting go of who a person was in order to envision a new future for who that person may be. It’s allowing for the grace of God to flow through us, saying to the other person, “I’ve made mistakes. You’ve made mistakes. I believe we’re both more than our mistakes.” And we do this, let’s remember, because God did it for us. God got so tired of forgiving us for each transgression, that God forgave us once and for all through Jesus Christ. Lewis Smedes wrote, “God invented forgiveness as the only way to keep his romance with the human race alive.” If God can forgive us for what we’ve done, is there a chance we can forgive each other?

Of course, we all know the hardest person to forgive is the one we see in the mirror. We can be our own worst critic, setting expectations unreachably high, then beating ourselves up when we don’t attain them. We create voices that remind us of all the things we have done wrong, replaying them over and over again on a masochistic loop in our brains. One of the greatest fears we have is the fear of not being good enough. If we feel we’re not good enough, we also can feel that don’t deserve forgiveness.

When we do that, we are usurping God’s role as merciful judge and putting ourselves in God’s place. We are taking a gift we have been given – God’s unmerited, unlimited grace – and rationing it out only when we feel as if we deserve it. We are forgetting the message we receive each week at this table that we are more than our mistakes, more than our bad decisions, more than our lapses in judgment. We can be so hard on ourselves, can’t we? Sometimes we need to forgive ourselves because we’ve done the best we can. Other times we need to forgive ourselves because we haven’t done the best we can. And all the time, we need to remember that we serve a forgiving God, who even forgives our failure to forgive, and encourages us to keep practicing.

We have to remember that Jesus talks a lot about forgiveness, not only because he knows it’s hard for us, but also because he knows it’s the only hope we have for finding peace in this world. As long as we hold grudges and wish ill will, we stifle the beloved community of God we are called to model. That’s why true forgiveness is not just about looking backward to the exoneration of guilt; it’s about looking forward to the restoration of community. It’s not forgetting the past; it’s making the bold statement that our future does not have to be defined by our past. It’s saying to the other person, “I love you more than this moment. You are more than this wrong. There is more to our story than this hurt.”

We are God’s child, loved and forgiven. No matter what you’ve done, if you sincerely ask, God will forgive you. Not just once or twice or seven times or seventy times seven times. We are so imperfect that God stopped keeping score a long time ago. So maybe we should do the same for ourselves and for each other. Maybe we should put down the score sheets and just take a walk, or make a phone call, or say a prayer.

Doing this well takes practice. We may try to forgive a few times, only to find ourselves smiling in delight when we see the other person getting a parking ticket or sporting a bad haircut. That’s OK. We all know that this life will give us plenty of more opportunities to practice forgiveness. But we have to work on it, or else the only person we’re hurting is ourselves. As one writer said, “Forgiveness is setting a captive free, and realizing the captive was you.”

There’s one more place in the Bible where Jesus talks about forgiveness. We say it every week. “And forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against.” Each week, when we say those words, we have a chance to practice forgiveness. And then each week, we have a chance to come to this table to be reminded that we have already received that which we have asked for. May God grant us the grace and courage to offer to others that which has been so freely, so graciously offered to us.



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Practicing Our Faith Sermon Series – #2: Honoring the Body

SCRIPTURE – Psalm 139:7-18

Where can I go from your spirit?
    Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
    if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
    and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
    and your right hand shall hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
    and the light around me become night,”
12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
    the night is as bright as the day,
    for darkness is as light to you.

13 For it was you who formed my inward parts;
    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
    Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
15     My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
    intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
    all the days that were formed for me,
    when none of them as yet existed.
17 How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
    How vast is the sum of them!
18 I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
    I come to the end—I am still with you.


Practicing Our Faith Sermon Series
#2 – Honoring the Body
Feb. 25, 2018
Rev. Kory Wilcoxson

Today, we’re continuing our Lenten sermon series on “Practicing Our Faith,” in which we’re learning about different ways we can grow in our faithfulness and service to God and to each other through practicing aspects of what it means to be a follower of Christ. Today, we’re talking about the practice of honoring the body.

Does that make you feel a little nervous? “We’re talking about the body in worship? What if there’s a wardrobe malfunction? What if Kory says the word ‘uvula’?” When we start talking about our bodies, there’s a physical reaction of curling up and covering up, as if we are somehow ashamed of our bodies. And we most likely are, because our culture has taught us to be ashamed of them, especially if they are less than perfect.

That’s a far cry from what we read about bodies in scripture. You may think the Bible is only a spiritual, sacred text, too sophisticated and ethereal to talk about the body, but to be honest, the Bible is an earthy, fleshy text, and the role of the body is prevalent throughout it.

It starts in the first chapters of Genesis, where God scoops up a handful of clay, breathes life into it, and makes the first human. The story says God makes humankind in God’s image, meaning we are God-bearers, and we’re told that Adam and Eve were naked, but were not ashamed. Historically, the church has put so much emphasis on the original sin of Adam and Eve, which occurs in chapter 3, that we forget the original glory of God’s creation, including the human body, in chapters 1 and 2. From the beginning, the body was a part of creation that God called “very good.”

After God tried all kinds of ways to get us stubborn, stiff-necked people to pay attention and embody God’s love and grace, and after we continually let God down, God finally took the drastic measure of becoming a body in the form of Jesus. Jesus was God incarnate, a word which literally means “into flesh.” As the human embodiment of God, Jesus built his ministry on his relationship to other bodies – healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, releasing demons, raising the dead, feeding the hungry, blessing the children. Jesus’ lived a body-to-body ministry.

And we can’t forget the powerful symbolism of Jesus’ own body. On a tense night in an upper room, Jesus took an ordinary loaf of bread, tore it in half, and said, “This is my body,” transforming our understanding of what it means to break bread together. That body was then beaten, bruised, broken, pierced, and ultimately crucified, enduring more than any human body can take.

But we know that’s not the end of the story. Just as the bread was broken in order to make us whole, God took Jesus’ broken body and breathed life back into it, and Jesus came back to life, in spirit and in body. This is important to our understanding of the value of bodies. Jesus wasn’t a ghost; he had Thomas touch his pierced hands, he ate fish sticks with the disciples on the beach. Jesus was resurrected in the body because our bodies matter. They are who we are.

Paul interprets the value of the body when he tells the Corinthians, who are abusing their bodies with too much food and sex, that their bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. That really changes the way we think about ourselves, doesn’t it? Doesn’t matter if we’re shaped like the spire of a church or the Taj Mahal, our bodies are nothing less than temples where God’s Holy Spirit resides. Try using that next time you’re going through airport security. “Careful with that wand! This is a temple you’re dealing with.”

Somewhere along the line, the human body, a creation of God, lost its inherent value, becoming something to cover up and hide. The early Greco-Roman culture believed that the flesh was all bad and the spirit was all good, and so anything that brought pleasure to the body was meant to be strictly avoided. We became ashamed of ourselves, so much so that some folks go to great lengths to nip, tuck, trim down and puff up themselves to achieve the ideal body, as if such a thing even exists. We forget that we are made in God’s image and, instead of looking at ourselves in all our nakedness and vulnerability and seeing God, we see wrinkles, blemishes, too much here, not enough here. We see a reason to be ashamed.

An example of this comes from my favorite all-time comedy show, “Arrested Development.” There’s a character on that show named Dr. Tobias Funke who suffers from a crippling psychological disorder that affects every aspect of his life. Tobias is what is called a never-nude, meaning that he is never, ever naked. He’s shown taking a shower and lying in bed with his wife wearing his always-present cut-off denim shorts. It’s a funny way of making a serious point – we are ashamed of ourselves.

In modern times, the body has been more seriously devalued. The prevalence of sexual harassment charges and human trafficking show that we see bodies as commodities to be used, abused, traded, and discarded. We see bodies of immigrant children washed up on foreign shores and the bodies of high school students gunned down in schools. We look at bodies of different colors and hear voices with different accents and forget that they are made in God’s image, just as we are. We have become experts at dishonoring our bodies, which means we are dishonoring God’s body, too.

Church is one of the few places where we can come to hear a different story and experience a different understanding of the body. Think about all the ways our bodies are involved in worship. We stand and sit, we sing and pray, we shake hands and hug and pass trays to each other. I love watching the choir embody the anthem, or people smile when they sing the familiar line of a hymn, or the care with which the deacons pass the trays. And, of course, we break bread and pour a cup and take it into our bodies, transforming us into the body of Christ once again. That powerful act not only re-enlivens our bodies, it reminds us we are connected to every body, those sitting beside us, those sleeping under bridges, and those being tortured in refugee camps. In worship we aren’t just any body; we’re Jesus’ body. We’re God incarnate, called to take care of the body, ours and Christ’s.

So how can we reclaim the value of our bodies in a world and culture that sends us the contradictory message that we should be trying to achieve the ideal body while completely discarding the value of real flesh-and-blood bodies? It starts by regrounding ourselves in scripture, reciting to ourselves the words of Psalm 139, that we are fearfully and wonderfully made by our God, and that, where we see imperfection, God sees infinite value.

This point is made beautifully by Stephanie Paulsell in her writings about honoring the body. She tells the story of Kate, who had a face full of acne a horribly embarrassing condition for a teenager. One day, Kate’s anguish over her appearance made her not even want to leave the house. Seeing how distressed she was, Kate’s father asked if he could teach her a new way to wash her face that might help her condition. Leading her to the bathroom, he leaned over the sink and splashed water over his face, telling her “On the first splash, say, ‘In the name of the Father.’ On the second splash, say, ‘In the name of the Son.’ And on the third splash, say, ‘In the name of the Holy Spirit.’ Then look in the mirror and remember that you are a child of God, full of grace and beauty.”

Bathing is one of the primary ways we can recapture the value of our bodies. It is in our nakedness where our sacredness and vulnerability meet. Stripped of all pretenses and coverings, we appear to ourselves just as God made us, even if it’s with a few more pounds or wrinkles. One of the most powerful moments of scripture is when Jesus bends his knee to wash the disciples’ feet, an act of radical humility and extreme servitude that evokes the cleansing power of baptism. Each time we bathe ourselves, we are rebaptized into the inescapable truth that we are loved just as we are.

Another way we can honor our bodies is through the power of touch. We know from scripture that touch was a powerful healing agent for Jesus. It still is today, because a timely hug or pat on the shoulder can remind us we’re not alone, even during the most difficult time. Not everyone likes to hug, and I certainly respect that, but I also know that a hug on Sunday morning may be the only meaningful touch some people get all week. I always make sure to hold someone’s hand when I’m praying for them in the hospital. At a time when their bodies are being poked and prodded against their wills, the power of skin-to-skin contact cannot be put into words.

I experienced this myself in a completely unexpected way. On occasion, I like to walk down to my local Catholic church on Friday to worship at the 5:30 p.m. mass. Since I work on Sunday mornings, I need my own worship time, and I’ve found it there. When it comes time for communion, I don’t partake of the bread and the cup. First of all, I’m not Catholic, and I want to honor their tradition. But more importantly to me, I’d rather share that sacred meal with my own church family. Instead, when the time comes, I go forward, cross my arms over my chest, and received a blessing from Father Danny, the priest. And I get something no one else in that church gets – he touches his thumb to my forehead, makes the sign of the cross, and pronounces a blessing. And each time, I can feel the divine electricity when that happens. That touch is a blessing to me far beyond what any words can convey.

This body is what we’ve got. We can try to change it, manipulate it, put in bionic knees or take out annoying cataracts, but this is it. It’s easy for us to take it for granted. After all, we’ve been looking at it our whole lives. But what would it mean for us to really honor it? Instead of hurrying through our bodily tasks for the day – bathing, dressing, brushing, freshening, tending, touching – what if we prayed through each one, giving thanks to God for what our bodies have done and for what our bodies can still do? God said, “Let us make humankind in our own image.” We have been created in nothing less than the image of God. Never take for granted that you were fearfully and wonderfully made. Thanks be to God.

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Practicing Our Faith Sermon Series – #1: Saying Yes and No

Oops! In the busyness of Lent beginning, I forgot to post my last sermon. Sorry about that! Here it is, and today’s will follow shortly. Be blessed!

SCRIPTURE – I Cor. 1:18-22 – As surely as God is faithful, our word to you has not been “Yes and No.” 19 For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we proclaimed among you, Silvanus and Timothy and I, was not “Yes and No”; but in him it is always “Yes.” 20 For in him every one of God’s promises is a “Yes.” For this reason it is through him that we say the “Amen,” to the glory of God. 21 But it is God who establishes us with you in Christ and has anointed us, 22 by putting his seal on us and giving us his Spirit in our hearts as a first installment.

Practicing Our Faith sermon series
#1 – Practicing Yes and No
Feb. 18, 2018
Rev. Kory Wilcoxson

When I was in high school, I had a friend who played the drums. I never really thought that was a big deal. How hard could it be to hit something with a stick? Anytime a song came on the radio that I liked, I would tap on the steering wheel to the rhythm. Drumming was easy! I told my friend that, so he invited me to sit behind his drum kit and play a beat. I sat down, grabbed the sticks, and then pounded on the drums like I was playing Whack-A-Mole. Why didn’t it sound like the songs I heard on the radio? My friend then sat down and kicked out an awesome beat. “How did you get so good?” I asked. He smiled and said, “Practice.”

Isn’t that how we get good at anything? No one is born a great three-point shooter or opera singer. I don’t know many two-year-olds who can build a deck or paint a still-life. The only way we get good at doing anything is to practice and practice and practice until we learn the skills necessary to thrive in a particular activity. We know this is true in so many aspects of life, but when it comes to having faith, we think you either have it or you don’t. Maybe faith is something we have to practice, as well.

At the beginning of the year, we preached a sermon series called, “Becoming,” in which we looked at the ways we are growing in our faith, moving from previously held beliefs to new understandings of what it means to be a person of faith in today’s world. Starting this morning, we’re going to be talking more practically about how we can put this evolving faith into action, how we can practice what it means to be a follower of Christ for the purpose of growing in our faithfulness and service to Christ and God’s kingdom.

Practicing our faith is important for several reasons. First, our faith is not meant to be static. The implication in the title “Follower of Christ” is that we are on the move. No one is going to do that for us; in fact, you could argue that the busyness of our world and the distractions of our culture work against us trying to practice our faith. Who has time to read the Bible? In our noise-filled world, it seems like there’s no such thing as a “quiet” place to pray. So we have to be intentional about making time to practice what it means to be faithful. We can’t pause life to work on these things. I know that’s tough. It’s like working on a car’s engine while it’s still running. But the only other option is not to grow stronger in our faith, and where does that leave us?

Another more pressing reason we need to be practicing our faith is that this world desperately needs more faithful people who are putting their compassion into action. The shooting in Florida is a sobering example of that, but so are all the polarizing conversations that have happened in the wake of that tragedy. We’re not going to solve this problem by shouting at and demonizing each other, but that seems to be the main way it’s being addressed. Instead of taking that approach, we Christians may be better served in finding ways to make our faith a more prevalent and influential part of our lives. Author Richard Rohr writes, “The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better.” We need to be practicing.

The last reason why practicing our faith is important is because it can have a transformative effect on who we are as human beings. If we take our faith seriously, working to improve the ways we live it out can have a ripple effect on us and those around us. Barbara Bass calls this “rehearsing a way of life.” In other words, what you practice today is who you become tomorrow. So what are you practicing? Who do you hope to become?

During this sermon series, we’ll be looking at six different practices, and in our Sunday School time, we’ll be looking at six more. You can see all those listed in your bulletin. Today, we start with the practice of saying yes and saying no. We thought that was appropriate considering we’re at the beginning of Lent, and one of the traditions that marks this time of year is giving up something, usually chocolate or caffeine or some other unhealthy habit. I’ve decided that this year I’m giving up being a vegetarian. I really committed to trying it, but after about 15 minutes I decided I liked meat too much. To what are you saying no this Lent? Maybe a better question is, “Why are you saying no to something this Lent?”

That whole practice is rooted in self-control, one of the spiritual fruits Paul lists in Galatians. It’s something believers have wrestled with ever since the serpent said to Eve, “Hey, doesn’t that apple look delicious?” In the third century, there was a group of folks called the Desert Fathers that practiced an extreme form of self-control. They moved out to the middle of the desert to live, removing from their radar screen any form of distraction or temptation that could keep them from getting closer to God. One of these Desert Fathers said, “Do not trust your own self-righteousness, and control your tongue and your stomach.” He wasn’t a lot of fun at parties.

If you’re like me, when you look at your email inbox or Facebook feed, there are days when moving to the middle of the desert sounds like a great idea. But in reality, we don’t have the luxury of removing all obstacles between us and God. So instead, we have to figure out how to navigate around them, how to practice saying yes to things that get us closer to God and make us more Christ-like in the process.

This whole process would be a lot easier if we didn’t have free will. Right? God, just tell me what to do and I’m obligated to do it. Instead, God did an awesome thing when God gave humans the freedom to decide for themselves. We are not mindless automatons pledging robotic allegiance to our Creator. We have been given the ability by God to choose. But this freedom comes with incredible responsibility and at least two potential dangers. The first danger that comes is that we end up making so many choices that we can’t tell the important ones from the not-so-important ones.  And the second danger is that we don’t acknowledge there are consequences for each decision we make, big or small. What you practice today is who you become tomorrow.

Today, in our world, there are millions of things competing for our yes, and if we don’t have a plan for how we make those decisions, if we don’t practice the discipline of saying yes and saying no, we’ll end up saying yes and no to the wrong things. So what criteria should we use? How do we know when to say yes and when to say no?

First, we have to get the “why” behind the practice of saying yes and no. What are we trying to accomplish? What’s the end game? Let’s acknowledge that this is about a whole lot more than just giving up something for Lent. That practice actually works against the deeper discipline, because it presents itself as a temporary fix to a greater problem. If I can just say no to chocolate for six weeks, then I can gorge myself on all the candy that’s 50% off at Target the day after Easter. Right? We’ve allowed saying no to become an end in itself, rather than a means to a greater end. But let’s be honest, that Starbucks coffee you’re giving up for Lent isn’t the reason you’re not getting closer to God. So why practice saying yes and saying no?

I heard a motivational speaker last month who talked about the importance of focused, intentional decision-making. He gave the example of getting up early to exercise. He said when that alarm goes off at 5:30 a.m., he has two choices: he can get up, get dressed, and do what he needs to do to take care of himself. Or he can go back to sleep and give it away. This was a bad example for me, because if my alarm goes off at 5:30 a.m., I would choose to give it away every time. But his point was well-taken: You have been given the incredible gift of this one precious life. Don’t give it away.

So here’s a question I want to encourage you to ask yourself when you’re wrestling with yes or no. Ask, “Will saying yes to this crowd out God, or will it help me to see God at work in my life?” That’s tough because using that question as our criteria might mean saying no to some things we really want to do. By the way, I’m horrible at this. I came out of the womb saying yes. I say yes way too much, and then in hindsight wonder why it takes me three months to read a book. Most days I strike a decent balance, and yet there are days when God might be trying to say something to me, but I just don’t have the time to listen.

Maybe this can help us. In Galatians, Paul gives us a representative list of things to which we should say no: “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.” I’m willing to bet every single one of us said yes to at least one of those things before we came to church this morning. You can’t get on social media without saying yes to strife, anger, quarrels, and dissension. Our world invites us to say yes to all the wrong things. But what you practice today is who you become tomorrow. So who do you want to become? With two small words, yes and no, we make our days. With yes and no we engage, or pull out, or dig in, or do the first thing that pops into our head, we follow something shiny on our radar screen, or we intentionally focus on who we are becoming. This is your one life; don’t give it away.

I’m sure if we all had this life to do over, we would change things. We would say yes to some things and no to other things. Isn’t hindsight great? But we can’t go back. All we can do is move forward, with whatever time we have left, being intentional about saying yes to the things that bring us closer to God and allow us to use our gifts. Maybe your next yes is to leading or serving in a new way. Maybe your next no is to a relationship that isn’t life-giving. Maybe you need to say yes to a deeper investment in your children or grandchildren. Maybe you need to say no to a fun activity that you enjoy but that isn’t helping you get closer to God. Maybe you need to say no to staying silent on social issues; maybe you need to say yes to staying silent on social issues. Only you can know what decision will crowd God out and what decision will bring God closer.

I’m glad we have free will and the ability to choose and so many options. But I also recognize that if we’re not careful, we’ll realize too late that we’ve said yes to so many earthly things that we’ve unintentionally said no to God. I’m so thankful that Jesus said yes to the cross, even though I’m sure he wanted to say no. But he knew that saying yes was God’s will for him. Don’t give it away. What will bring you closer to God? What will help you shine your light for others? What will be life-giving to you and those around you? Say yes to that. You were created by God to change this world, or at least to change someone’s life for the better. You. You have been called to do that. When the opportunity comes to serve God, will you say yes or no? Don’t give it away.


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Becoming…Sermon Series – #4: From God of Violence to God of Love

SCRIPTURE – John 16:25-33 – “I have said these things to you in figures of speech. The hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figures, but will tell you plainly of the Father. 26 On that day you will ask in my name. I do not say to you that I will ask the Father on your behalf; 27 for the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God. 28 I came from the Father and have come into the world; again, I am leaving the world and am going to the Father.”

29 His disciples said, “Yes, now you are speaking plainly, not in any figure of speech! 30 Now we know that you know all things, and do not need to have anyone question you; by this we believe that you came from God.” 31 Jesus answered them, “Do you now believe? 32 The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each one to his home, and you will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me. 33 I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!”

Becoming…Sermon Series
3 – From God of Violence to God of Love
Jan. 28, 2018

For the first time in several years, Crestwood has a men’s basketball league. Each Sunday afternoon, a bunch of us gather for fun and fellowship and doing our best Rex Chapman impressions (kids, ask your parents who Rex Chapman is). But I’ve noticed something interesting the last few weeks. A person’s demeanor changes when they cross that line onto the court and the game starts. Guys who are super-nice off the court take on a different persona. For instance, last week one guy was throwing elbows, shoving other players, and even cursed at the refs. Granted, it was me, but the guy completely missed a foul call. It really brought home to me that, for many of us, the idea of competition and an “us vs. them” mentality is a part of our DNA. Has that spilled over into our faith, as well?

For this sermon series, we’re looking at the way we’re becoming better followers of Christ. What steps are we taking on our spiritual journeys to be more faithful, more connected to God? So far, we’ve talked about moving from believing to belonging, from being organized to being organizing, and from being judgmental to being gracious. You can find all those sermons on our website.

Today, we’re looking at moving from a God of violence to a God of love. Now, you could make the argument that we are already there. No one is posting on Facebook that God should smite a certain group of people or calling for God to rain down fire and brimstone on whatever team the Wildcats are playing this week. We might think that a God of violence is so Old Testament and that we’ve moved way beyond that in our cultured, developed society. Have we? Or does that mindset still exist?

Let’s get to know that God again, shall we? While the God of the Old Testament exhibits much grace and creativity and compassion, that God is mostly known for tendencies toward violence, vengeance, and judgment. One of the best-known examples is the story of Noah’s Ark. If we dig a bit deeper into that story, once we get past the fuzzy bunnies hopping onto the ark, we realize that God killed everyone by Noah and his family in the flood for their disobedience. Makes you think twice about making change in the offering plate, doesn’t it?

That disturbing behavior from God continued once the people had God’s law to follow. Take, for example, the different offenses in the Old Testament that are worthy of a penalty of death. For example, worshipping other gods was punishable by death. Should that be punishable by death? No! Should you enforce the death penalty on someone who worked on the Sabbath? No! How about someone who committed adultery? No! What about a rebellious child? (Pause) No! But that’s what God calls for in the Hebrew scriptures.

The image of a violent God doesn’t end there. In Deuteronomy, God calls for the Israelites to invade the surrounding towns and to annihilate every person who lived there. And if you think that’s bad, here’s one that’s even worse. King David wanted to do a census, so he does it, but without consulting God first. God gets angry and sends a pestilence on Israel. Seventy thousand people die. As it reads in the Bible, God kills 70,000 of God’s own people because God was angry that David took a census. Are you rethinking signing the attendance pad earlier? Did you consult God first?

How do we make sense of this portrayal of God? For me, I chose not to believe those scriptures. I don’t believe God commanded the Israelites to kill all those people. I just don’t. That’s not the God I worship or have come to know through Jesus Christ. I actually think this passage tells us more about the people writing it than it does about God. The Israelites existed in a tribal culture, in which taking land and defeating enemies with the blessings of the gods was commonplace. If you won a battle, it was God’s will. If you lost a battle, you were being punished by God. If the flu broke out in your tribe and a bunch of people died, then you must have somehow angered God to cause this punishment.

Back in the days before medicine and science and meteorology, God got the credit for good things and the blame for bad things. I don’t believe God commanded the Israelites to do those things. And I also don’t believe God killed people for David taking a census. I believe a disease swept through the Israelites, and the only way they knew to explain it was God’s wrath. The authors of the Bible wrote what they knew, and so they portrayed God as a warrior who led them into battle and punished them when they did wrong. I’m sure if we were writing the story of God today, we’d do it much differently.

Or would we? We’d like to think that our culture has purged itself of this “God Of violence” perspective, but I’d argue it’s more prevalent than we want to admit, and it shows up most in the “us vs. them” mentality that dominates how we relate to people and cultures different than us. I experienced this while living in Chicago. I was riding the subway one day and was eavesdropping on a group of guys who were discussing the two local baseball teams, the Cubs and the White Sox. They were each saying which team they liked and why. When it got to one of the guys, he said, “I actually root for both teams.” His friends almost enacted the death penalty right there. “You can’t root for both teams! You have to pick one or the other or else you’re a traitor!” Thankfully, nothing like that happens with college basketball teams around here.

There is still a prevailing sense in our society that if you are not for us, you are against us, even if you’re not really against us. We have to be willing to admit that Christians have used that mandate down through the centuries to commit heinous acts of violence against other people. The Crusades, the oppression of Native Americans, and the Holocaust all had deep roots in a warped mindset of Christian superiority, that you if weren’t for us, then you were against us. I love being a Christian, but I understand why some folks in the world hate Christians. We have to be willing to name that the God of violence still lives. We have to be willing to own our complicity in the wars and violence that have taken place in the past. As Brian McLaren writes, “The less aware Christians are of how dangerous Christianity has been, the more dangerous Christianity will be.”

Where the ice gets decidedly thinner is when we link our faith and our country so closely that our patriotism, which is love of your country, turns to nationalism, which is the belief that your country is better than all the other countries. Before you accuse me of being a flag-burning infidel, let me say I love America, and I do believe it is the greatest country in the world. But I also believe there are other great countries filled with great people, and just because I love America doesn’t mean I have to hate some other place, even if they choose to hate me.

This is how the tribalism of the Old Testament is still alive today. Back then, the Israelites would conquer a nation, kill their people, and take their land because they believe God called them to do that. Doesn’t mean that’s what God did, but that’s how they interpreted their victory. “We went to war and won, so God must have ordained it.” So God got a lot of credit for commissioning violence that I believe God never called for in the first place. That was simply how the tribal culture operated.

Fast-forward to today. If we believe we are the best country in the world, and we believe God blesses us over and above any other country, then it’s not a big leap to claiming a divine mandate for asserting our supremacy over others. The more this is perpetuated at the national level, the more it trickles down to the interpersonal level, and suddenly everyone who is from one of those other countries is a potential enemy.

I’ve told you all that in Chicago I frequented a local 7-11 for my beloved Slurpees. The store was owned and run by a Muslim man who always wore his turban and robe. I went into the store a few days after 9-11 happened. The owner was wearing a baseball cap, T-shirt, and jeans, looking as un-Muslim as possible. When I asked him how he was doing, the frightened look in his eyes was haunting. At a time when our nationalism had been dialed up to the extreme, he was experiencing in a new and frightening way what it felt like to be a “them.”

As cultured and sophisticated as we would like to think of ourselves, we have to admit our violent impulse is still alive today. I’ve seen it on the basketball court, I’ve seen in Sandy Hook and Las Vegas and countless other cities, and we saw it this past week with the school shooting in Marshall County. As human beings, we still believe a primary to work out our differences is by strapping on the gloves or loading a gun, and in our world today we have way too many means at our disposal to enact violence, from easily accessible guns to nuclear weapons. At some point, we have to stop making it easier to kill each other.

So how do we move from the God of violence to the God of love? Well, Jesus. That’s always a good answer, right? The coming of Jesus Christ brought to us a new understanding of grace and love we’ve never seen before, and it replaced any notion of God as vengeful or violent. But here’s the problem: When it comes to “the enemy,” we live like we conveniently forgot that Christ ever existed. We revert back to an “us vs. them” mentality, with God blessing us over and against anyone who’s not like us. The irony is that we become obsessed with winning when we worshipped a savior who very clearly lost, being crucified like a common criminal.

McLaren says we need to evolve our understanding of a gracious, expansive God from “the God of us” to “the God of all of us.” Yes, God blesses us. But God blesses others, too, not in ways that favor one person or group or nation over another, but in ways that affirm the value of all people and groups and nations. Because when you get right down to it, no matter to whom you pray, 99.9% of us are good people just trying to do the best we can. By seeing God this way, we are not demoting God to a weaker, lower level. Instead, we are rising to a higher and deeper understanding of God. That feels counterintuitive to us in a world where might makes right and the country with the most weapons wins. But I’m pretty sure the Bible says something about beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. That’s the work we are called to do.

The God of violence we meet in the Bible will continue to live on as long as we believe our tribe is favored above all other tribes, and that the only way to bring God glory is to eliminate the “them” to protect the “us.” But if we remember that Jesus came to show us a better way, we’ll move from “the God of us” to “the God of all of us,” recognizing the dignity and worth of all people, even those who we believe pose a threat. Jesus said, “Love your enemy.” Sometimes I wish he didn’t. It would be easier to hate them. In fact, we’ve tried, over and over and over again. Did it get rid of our enemies? Or did that just make us more enemies? As Dr. King said, “Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.”



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Becoming…Sermon Series – #3: From Judgmental to Gracious

SCRIPTURE – Matthew 7:1-5 – “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.

Becoming…Sermon Series
#3 – From Judgmental to Gracious
Jan. 21, 2018
Rev. Kory Wilcoxson

We continue our sermon series at the start of the new year looking at the kind of Christians we are becoming. This is a great time to make resolutions about losing weight or getting our lives together. I made a resolution not to shovel any snow in 2018. Already broke it. How about resolutions for our spiritual growth? Are we making progress on our journey of faith, or are we standing in one place? So far, we’ve looked at the move from an emphasis on believing to an emphasis on belonging, and at shifting our church’s focus from maintaining the organization to organizing for service.

Today, we’re looking at the move from being judgmental to being gracious. This is a tough one because I can’t imagine anyone would self-identify as judgmental. That’s not a desirable quality these days, is it? “You should meet my friend, Kory. He’s so judgmental!” And no one likes to feel judged, either. At my house, if I’m wearing something that isn’t aesthetically pleasing, I’ll hear, “Where did you get THAT?” To which I respond, “Geez, why so judge-y? This Members-Only jacket still fits!” No one likes to be on either side of judgmentalism.

And yet, that is a primary way our culture defines the church. In an extensive survey of non-Christians, the Barna group found that 87% of them said the church was judgmental. That was the second only to “anti-homosexual,” which 91% of people said described the church. Interestingly, the third-highest descriptor was “hypocritical.” If 87% of non-Christians think the church is judgmental, then almost nine out of ten non-church goers you meet assume you are judging them.

And, to be fair, you are. Judging other people is a part of our human nature. It’s in our DNA to draw conclusions about a person based on what we know about them. And the more information we gain about them, the more we judge them. We form opinions on their looks, how they dress, their family, where they live, what they do for work. We can’t not judge. The challenge is what we do with this information, how we keep our judging from turning into judgmentalism.

Here’s a story I’ve told before but that’s too funny not to repeat, and is supposedly true. An elderly lady was gambling in Las Vegas and hit it big on a slot machine. With a bucket overflowing with coins, she got on the elevator, realizing too late that there were two large black men on there with her, standing at the back of the elevator. She was incredibly nervous as the doors closed, waiting for the elevator to move. But it didn’t move. And the longer she stood there, the more nervous she got. Finally, she heard a deep voice behind her say, “Hit the floor!” She threw the bucket up in the air, got down on her knees and screamed, “Please don’t kill me!” There was a long pause, and then the voice said, “No ma’am, I mean you have to hit the button for a floor before the elevator will move.” As the amused men helped her pick up her coins, she recognized them as former basketball players Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley.

We all judge, don’t we? But there’s a difference between judging and being judgmental. I’d articulate the difference as this: judging is drawing conclusions and forming opinions about someone based on the information you have. “That person is tall; I bet she is a basketball player.” Being judgmental is drawing conclusions and forming opinions about someone that criticizes or condemns them. “That person is tall and black, I bet they are dangerous.”

Where the church gets into trouble with this is in how it is perceived in dealing with behaviors we label “sins.”  The church is notoriously famous for letting people know when they have crossed a line and sinned. For example, the church has long had a reputation for labeling activities like drinking, smoking, dancing, and watching movies as “sins,” because we all know the famous Bible passage where Jesus warns against evils of doing the foxtrot and binge-watching the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. The church has a reputation for being judgmental, and every time some of our self-appointed religious spokespeople open their mouths on TV, that reputation is solidified.

Of course, we Christians don’t call it judgmentalism; we call it “telling the truth in love,” which we then use as a license to point out the sinful speck in the other person’s eye. A great example of this is the phrase, “Hate the sin, love the sinner,” which, by the way, is not in the Bible. It might sound like a harmless, grace-full statement on the surface, it really carries with it an air of judgment. It’s the ancient version of our modern-day “Bless his heart.” You can get away with saying the meanest, nastiest, most gossipy things about a person as long as you end it with, “God bless his heart.” “Did you hear about Johnny? That two-timing, Bible-stealing, no-good son of a biscuit eater lost his job again. God bless his heart.” Christians think spraying a little love on their judgment will make it smell better, but apparently 87% of non-Christians still smell the stink.

But wait! Isn’t condemning sinners a part of who we are called to be as Christians? The Bible is very clear that there are behaviors that are sinful, and if we don’t point them out to people, who will? The problem with that is we don’t have a standardized definition for what counts as a sin. As our society becomes more individualized, we’ve developed a kind of do-it-yourself morality. I’ll decide for myself what’s a sin, which means a sin is usually something someone else does that I don’t approve of. When we do that, we ourselves are committing the sin of pride, putting ourselves above someone else, but you don’t hear about people being excluded from the church for being too prideful

You might be surprised to know that Jesus did very little judging himself, but had a lot to say about judging others. Our passage today about the log in our eyes is a good one. So is the story where he says to a group of people ready to stone an adulteress woman, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” How do you hate the sin and love the sinner in that situation? “We love you, Gertrude, so just remember that as we’re hurtling these boulders at you.” Although Jesus was surrounded by sinners, he never judged them.

So, what did Jesus do with sinners? He ate with them. Partied with them. Spent time with them. He didn’t act like they were sinners. They weren’t a project or a mission field. They were his friends. People with names. Defined as beloved children of God, not defined by their sins. The only people he judges are those who think they’ve got all their stuff together. He judges the righteous for being self-righteous, for spewing hate speech about the speck in someone else’s eye while ignoring the log in their own.

So, what can we Christians learn from Jesus about how to exercise judgment? How do we overcome the earned stereotype that Christians are judg-y people and become something more gracious? It starts by acknowledging that we are all guilty of the sin of judgmentalism, and that our judgmentalism isn’t based on the Bible, but on our own desire to feel superior to someone. One of the ways we lift ourselves up is by putting someone else down, and when we do that, when our pride takes over, we are guilty of judging. We all have that relative, right? The one who can’t quite get their lives together, who gets spoken about in hushed tones at the family reunion, the one who makes everyone else’s life difficult. And, if we admit it, there’s a part of us that feels good about ourselves because at least we’re not like them. More often than not, our judgmentalism is not about helping the other person get better, but about making ourselves feel good.

And yet, by doing that, we’re committing our own sin. Paul says it this way in Romans, addressing a group of people who were criticizing others for their behavior: “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.” So, the first part of becoming more gracious is recognizing and repenting of our own judgmentalism.

We also have to own our own sinfulness, even if we find our sins the more acceptable kind. We may not be really bad sinners like murderers or adulterers and people who don’t use their turn signals, but, as Paul reminds us, we have all fallen short of God’s glory. C.S. Lewis says it this way: “There’s someone I love, although I don’t approve of what he does. There is someone I accept, although some of his thoughts and actions are disappointing. There’s someone I forgive, even though he hurts the people I love the most. That someone is me.”

And for that reason, we deserve judgment. And we have gotten it because our God is a judging God. That’s one of God’s primary roles. God called us to be God’s people, to act a certain way, to live a certain way, and every single one of us has fallen short of that. So we have been judged. And we have been found innocent. Wait, what? What kind of “Law and Order” twist is this? Because of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection, all of us have been found “not guilty” of the very sins that condemn us to punishment. Christ’s death on the cross has set us free from that judgment and replaced it with God’s grace.

Why, then, is the church not known for its grace? Why aren’t 87% of non-Christians saying the church is too gracious instead of too judgmental? Because too many Christians still believe that it’s better to shame someone into having faith than love someone into having faith. Shaming them allows me to stand above them, but loving them requires me to get down in their mess with them, to eat with them, to party with them, to spend time with them. It’s so much easier to shout at someone, “Stop doing that!” than it is to show them there’s a better way, a way that we have found, a way that has changed our lives.

Will Rogers noted that before a Native American would criticize another person he would walk all the way around him. He would look carefully to see what the view was from that person’s perspective before condemning him. I want you to think about someone, or a group of people, whom you are most tempted to judge. It could be based on their looks, their lifestyles, their beliefs, their behaviors. Who is that for you? Now, what would it mean for you to walk all the way around them, to see things from their perspective?

Here’s my resolution for 2018: I’m going to try and be known for being too gracious. Granted, I might bet to Heaven and God might say, “You know, Kory, in 2018 you loved people too much. You went too far. You should have been more judgmental.” I guess I’ll have to take that chance. Because this world is not going to be made better by exercising more judgment. But it could be made better by exercising more grace. Or maybe not. Maybe replacing judgment with grace will only help one other person accept the gift of Jesus Christ. But that would be enough, wouldn’t it?

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