Questions Jesus Asks Sermon Series – How Much Bread Do You Have?

During Lent, we ‘re looking at the questions Jesus asked his followers, and we’re pondering how we would answer them. Today’s question comes from the feeding of the 5,000.

SCRIPTURE – Mark 6:30-44 – The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. 31 He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. 32 And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. 33 Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. 34 As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. 35 When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late; 36 send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.” 37 But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.” They said to him, “Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii[i] worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?” 38 And he said to them, “How many loaves have you? Go and see.” When they had found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.” 39 Then he ordered them to get all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass. 40 So they sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties. 41 Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and he divided the two fish among them all. 42 And all ate and were filled; 43 and they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. 44 Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand men.

SERMON
Questions Jesus Ask Sermon series
How Much Bread Do You Have?
Mark 6:30-44

I try to be a fairly optimistic person, but there are a few things in life that can bring me down in a heartbeat. Losing a basketball game on a last-second shot is one of those. So is knowing your baseball team is so bad that they have been eliminated from the playoffs before the season even starts. Watching it rain when the forecast called for sunny skies? Major bummer. A trivial thing that really sticks in my craw is when I go to make a sandwich and find all that’s left of the loaf are the heels. I’m all ready for a nice PB&J or a toasty BLT, and all I have to work with are two pieces of edible cardboard. I don’t like not having enough bread.

In our scripture passage today, Jesus has the same dilemma, but something tells me he’s concerned about more than just eating the heels. We continue our sermon series today on the questions that Jesus asked his listeners, and how they responded. So far, we’ve learned that, when Jesus asks a question, there’s usually more to it than what’s on the surface. Simple questions like “What are you looking for?” and “What is your name?” take on a whole new significance when Jesus is the one asking them. The same is true for our question today. Although the version we read has Jesus asking, “How many loaves have you?” that sounds too proper to me. So I’m going with my own version of Jesus’ question: “How much bread do you have?”

This miracle story is probably very familiar to you. It’s often invoked at church potlucks when more people show up than signed up. Someone will ask nervously, “Do we have enough food?” and another person will answer, “Loaves and fish.” Then, everyone nods in knowing agreement. “Yes, loaves and fish.” I’ve never been to a church potluck where we actually ran out of food. God provides. Loaves and fish.

Did you know this is the only miracle that’s told in all four gospels? Each gospel writer tells the story a little differently. For example, John has a young boy provide the loaves and fish for Jesus’ multiplication miracle. And Mark is the only gospel in which Jesus asks this question. But all four tell this story, which, for me, lends to its credibility. If all four tell us about it, then it probably happened.

Let’s the stage. Jesus has just learned that his cousin, John the Baptist, has been beheaded by King Herod. He and his disciples go to a deserted place to rest and grieve this loss, and to get away from the crowds. Jesus is the only pastor I know who was constantly running away from his congregation. But the crowds are persistent, so they follow them, desperately seeking what Jesus had to offer. Despite his own personal suffering, he continues his teaching into the evening.

Finally, the disciples, who are worn out and weighted down with grief, say to Jesus, “Look, rabbi, you’re a really fantastic public speaker, but it’s getting late and these folks are getting hungry. Maybe it’s time to wrap it up.” Jesus responds, quite obtusely, “Well, you feed them,” to which the disciples understandably respond, “Say what? There’s got to be 5000 guys here, not including the women and children. It would take a year’s salary just to buy them bread.”

That’s why Jesus asks our question: “How much bread do you have? Go and see.” I like how the Message translation says it: “How many loaves of bread do you have? Go and take inventory.” They report back to Jesus they found five loaves and two fish, not nearly enough to feed the crowds.

That’s the answer the disciples gave, but I don’t think it was the answer Jesus was looking for. I don’t think he was looking for an actual number. I believe he was looking for an expression of trust. Instead of, “Five loaves and two fish,” I believe Jesus wanted to hear the disciples say, “Enough, Lord. We have enough.”

But that makes no sense, does it? Because it wasn’t enough. Not even close. Five loaves and two fish wouldn’t feed 50 people, let alone 5000. But the disciples forgot a crucial variable in this mathematical problem. They were trying to do multiplication without the X factor. In most cases, 2 x 2 = 4. But when you toss Jesus into the equation, the numbers don’t add up. Five loaves plus two fish times Jesus equals enough food for an arena of people, with 12 basketfuls left over. Just like a church potluck. “Loaves and fish.” “Yes, loaves and fish.”

It’s easy to blame the disciples for their doubt. Had they forgotten that their God worked with different kind of math? Had they forgotten that God rained manna from Heaven to feed the Israelites in the wilderness? Their God is a god who provides. Of course, that sounds good when you’re reading the story in a book, but it’s a different ballgame when there’s a hungry crowd pressing in and you barely have enough food for a sack lunch. It’s not enough, Jesus. It’s not enough.

We are all guilty of doing what the disciples are doing. They are operating from a theology of scarcity. When you do you this, no matter how much you have, you never think it’s enough. So you hold onto what you have, not sharing it with others, not meeting the needs of those around you. You always worry that you’ll only have the heels of the loaf or that your potluck will run out of food. And even when it doesn’t the first time, the second time, the tenth time, you’re just sure that NEXT time there won’t be enough.
What Jesus is doing with the disciples is teaching them to live with a theology of abundance. When you do this, your life is guided by trust and generosity, because you know that no matter how little you have, it will be enough. Living with a theology of abundance can be scary, but it can also be exhilarating, because it releases us from our dependence on possessions and frees us to add Jesus to the equation. I’ve read about and seen this at work, and it is absolutely one of the most powerful things to behold.

Here’s an example. The story goes that a young nun once had a crazy idea, so she approached her superiors and said, “I have three pennies and a dream from God to build an orphanage.” Her superiors scoffed and said, “You can’t build an orphanage with three pennies. You can’t do anything with three pennies.” “I know,” said Mother Teresa with a smile, “but with God and three pennies I can do anything.” That’s living with a theology of abundance.

Even when there is almost nothing to work with, a theology of abundance provides hope. In the movie, “Dumb and Dumber” – bet you didn’t expect to hear that in this morning’s sermon – Lloyd Christmas has a huge crush on Mary Swanson, so he takes a leap of faith and confesses his love to her, and asks what the odds are they can be together. Mary says, “Not good.” Lloyd tentatively asks, “You mean, like one in a hundred.” Mary responds, “More like one in a million.” Lloyd pauses for a second, then his face lights up and he says, “So you’re saying there’s a chance!” That’s living with a theology of abundance.

Last Sunday, one of our youngsters came up to me after church, waited until I had talked to everyone in line, and then handed me an envelope. She said with the most earnest look on her face, “Pastor Kory, please give this to the poor.” Inside the envelope was a crumpled-up dollar bill. Whatever we’re teaching back there in the Children’s Wing, we need to keep it up. That’s living with a theology of abundance.

You know, people have tried to explain away this miracle by saying that it wasn’t really a supernatural multiplication. They say what happened was that when the crowd saw the disciples were willing to share their food, they also took out what they had brought, and when everyone’s food was combined together, there was more than enough to go around. If that is how it actually happened, I would say that it was still a miracle. The fact that people were willing to open their hands and share their only sustenance for the well-being of others is pretty miraculous. It’s a theology of abundance, a belief that whatever we have is enough.

To be honest, I believe that is what actually happened. If Jesus wanted to multiply the loaves and the fish, he could have done it. If Jesus wanted to make the fish jump up and dance the jitterbug, he could have done it. But I believe Jesus didn’t want to just show people a miracle, like they were the audience at a magic show. I believe Jesus wanted to encourage people to participate in the miracle, to leave behind their shackles of “not enough,” to embrace the belief that when Jesus is involved, there’s always enough.

In this scenario, we are called to be part of the miracle, to participate in moving from scarcity to abundance. In order for God’s math to work in our lives, we have to be willing to give some things over. Jesus couldn’t have multiplied the bread and fish had they not been given into his hands to bless, break, and share. The disciples could have hoarded what they had, which would have ensured two things: (1) they would have had something to eat, and (2) no one else would have. I can’t guarantee that God will always fix things the way we want them. But I can guarantee that God can’t work with what we’re not willing to give.

How much bread do you have? Could be a whole pantry full of loaves, or it could just be the heels. I mean, really look around at what you have. Then, do two things: (1) give thanks for it, and (2) figure out how to share it with others. I don’t know how much bread you have, but I bet it’s an abundance. And yet, in this local and global potluck in which we leave, there are people who don’t even have the heels. What are we doing to do it about? Are we going to hold on to what we have? Or are we going to open our hands so it can be, taken, blessed, broken, and shared? Is there enough for everyone? Loaves and fish. Yes, loaves and fish.

 

 

 

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Questions Jesus Asks sermon series – What Is Your Name?

SCRIPTURE – Mark 5:1-20 – They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him anymore, even with a chain; for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones. When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; and he shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” For he had said to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion; for we are many.” 10 He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. 11 Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; 12 and the unclean spirits begged him, “Send us into the swine; let us enter them.” 13 So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and were drowned in the sea.

Questions Jesus Asks Sermon Series
What Is Your Name?
Mark 5:1-13
March 26, 2017

A couple months ago, I told you the story about hearing my named called in a museum and thinking it was God, only to find out it was a mother calling her wayward toddler – also named Kory. I swear not two days after I shared that story, I had another name-calling experience. I walked into the Apple store in the mall, and a young sales associate approached me very enthusiastically and said, “Kory! How are you doing?”

I had no idea who this guy was but I didn’t want to seem rude, so I said with a tone of mock familiarity, “Hey there! Great to see you again. How are you?”

He said, “I’m fine.” Then he paused and said, “Have we met before?”

I said, “Well, I don’t think so.”

And he said, “OK. Because you said ‘Great to see you again” like we’ve met.”

And I said, “Well, you’re the one who called my name!”

And he said, “No I didn’t!”

And I said, “You said, ‘Kory’.”

And he said, “No, that’s MY name. When you walked in, I said, ‘Hi, I’m Kory.’”

And I said, “Well, so am I!”

And then we just stared at each other a few seconds and burst out laughing. And then he gave me a free iPhone because we had the same name. Not really. There’s power in knowing someone’s name or in hearing your name spoken.

We’re continuing our Lenten sermon series today, in which we are looking at the questions Jesus asked during his time on earth. We’re not only considering how his listeners responded, we’re also pondering how we would respond. Today, Jesus’ question seems pretty straightforward – “What is your name?” – but it’s the answer that raises more questions for us.

The story starts with Jesus sailing across the Lake of Galilee to the Gentile region of Gerasenes, where he is confronted by a man who lived in the tombs. In that sliver of information alone there is important symbolism at work that would have influenced how Mark’s readers understood this story. It revolves around the separation of clean and unclean in Jewish society. It may seem trivial to us, but that division was as strong and as intense as the Louisville/Kentucky division that exists in our fair state. I’ll let you decide which is the clean or unclean one for you. Much of the Old Testament law that governed Jewish religious life focuses on issues of what constitutes clean and unclean, and those things and people that were considered unclean were excluded or banned. For example, most things dealing with people who were not Jews were considered unclean. Jesus had just stepped onto pagan soil, across the sea from Jewish territory. Jesus was in unclean land.

And he was met by a man who was the embodiment of being unclean. Nothing in Jewish society was considered more unclean than a dead body. There were strict laws about how to handle a corpse and the kind of intense ritual cleansing that must take place afterwards. So for this man to be living among the tombs in a pagan territory meant that he existed in a constant state of uncleanliness.

Not only does he live in an unclean place, but Luke tells us his body is home to unclean spirits. He confronts Jesus and they have this strange conversation. The demon calls Jesus the Son of the Most High God and begs not to be tortured. Jesus then asks, “What is your name?” and the demon in the man says, “My name is Legion, for we are many.” The Legion begs Jesus once again not to be sent out of the area, and instead asks to be sent into a nearby herd of pigs.

One of the questions I have about this story is to whom Jesus directs the question. The passage leaves it fairly ambiguous. Was he asking the man or the demon that occupied the man? The distinction is important, because who answers determines how this man is defined. Is he defined by who he is, or by the demons that haunt him?

There’s power in speaking our name and having our name spoken, and there’s pain in not having it spoken correctly, or at all. I remember vividly when our oldest daughter Sydney was born. The doctor who was getting ready to deliver her was making small talk while we waited, and she asked us, “So what are you naming the baby?” We told her Sydney, and she scoffed and said, “That’s a terrible name! Everyone will call her Squid!” And I wanted to grab a scalpel and say, “You know, doc, a few minutes before our first child is born may not be the best time to offer your critique.” There’s power in a name.

I wonder if part of this man’s mental struggles is the fact that is probably been years since he’s heard his name spoken out loud. Once he started not fitting in with society, he was ostracized, banished to the tombs to be held in chains. At that point, he was no longer Tom or Sam. He was the crazy guy, the village idiot. Frederick Beuchner wrote, “If someone forgets my name, I feel it is I who am forgotten.” I wonder, when Jesus asks this man for his name, if he even remembers what it is. Or is he only defined by his demons?

It’s interesting to note that after this man his healed and returns to his people, the people are afraid and beg Jesus to leave. Why? Maybe it’s because they’ve never met someone like Jesus, someone with more power than a demon. Demon possession is not a part of our modern society, except in horror movies. Frankly, it’s something we don’t understand, although those of us with children might claim we’ve had some first-hand experience. Yet the Bible is full of talk about supernatural beings like demons and angels. We feel much more comfortable believing in the existence of angels because they seem so benign and non-threatening and fluffy. Angels are safe and good; no one would watch a TV show called “Touched by a Demon.” Demons are scary. We don’t know what to do with them. And so we explain them away as a mental disorder, using our intellect to tell ourselves demons don’t really exist.

And that’s just what the demons want us to think! Are they really real? I don’t know. But I do believe there is evil in this world. I believe there is something at work in each of our lives, trying to distract us from God’s wonder and work, trying to redefine us, to make us forget our name. It could be something internal to us, our own sinful nature, or something external, like an evil force or a demon. I don’t know what it is or how it works, but each time I am tempted to say the wrong thing, to not do the right thing, to not treat another person as my equal, to put myself before God, I know it’s there. Just as it was actively working against Jesus during his ministry, it’s actively working against us today. A writer once said, “We have renamed the demons of the past, but we have not exorcised them.”

Only one person has that power to do that, as we see in this story. Exorcising the man’s demons should have been a cause for celebration, but I think the townspeople were more scared of Jesus’ power than they were of the demoniac. That sounds weird, doesn’t it? But check this out. If Jesus has the power to deal with the crazy man’s demons, he can do the same for them. And they are not sure they want that, because it would mean admitting they had demons and naming them out loud. You know, sometimes it’s better to leave them alone. The people may not be living the perfect life, but at least they’re comfortable in it. They may not have known what to do with the demon-possessed man, but at least they knew where he belonged. As long as the village has a scapegoat, they had someone to whom they could point to make themselves feel better. “Sure, I may be making a few wrong decisions, but at least I’m not as bad as THAT guy.” But what happens when the village idiot turns out to be smarter than you are? What does that make YOU? Now that he was in his right mind, where did that leave the rest of the people?  So they would rather live with their own demons, which they think they can control, and send the power of Jesus back across the lake.

Do you know how they feel? There have been times in my life when I chose to keep Jesus at a distance. His teachings are helpful and instructive when viewed from afar, but we’re not so sure we want to let his power get to close to us. “Jesus, you stay over there on Sunday, I’ll manage things the rest of the week.” Sometimes it’s easier not to have Jesus around, because when he’s around our demons are named for what they truly are. I’m a lot more comfortable dealing with my demons, which I think I can control, than I am dealing with the power of Christ.

To have our demons named for what they are can be scary. We’ve spent a lot of time building up our defenses, fortifying rationalizations for our thoughts and behaviors with statements like, “It’s just a little thing. No one is getting hurt. I can stop at any time. No one else will know. I don’t have to share what I have. She deserves it. At least I’m not as bad as him.” Have you ever said one of these? I’ve said them all at some point in my life. But then Jesus comes along and shines a spotlight on those dark corners of our lives, exposing the tombs where our demons reside. And then he asks, “What is your name?” What happens if we dare name ourselves for who we truly are? Can we face up to the shame, the guilt we feel for not being perfect, for giving in to our temptations, for falling short of who God created us to be?

The reformer Martin Luther had a Latin phrase he used to describe humanity: “simul justus et peccator.” It means, “both saint and sinner.” Each of us has the characteristics of both inside of us. We are possessed by our sinful nature, inherent to humanity, and we are imbued with the image of God. Both saint and sinner. When we think of ourselves, which one comes to mind? Which name feels more descriptive of us: sinner, or saint?

The power of Christ is a transformative power. We may think, because of what we’ve done, that our name is bad: addict, judger, cheater, selfish, unclean, sinner. But Jesus transforms us, exorcising our demons, reminding us of our real name: child of God. You are a saint, a child of God. No matter what you’ve done, no matter how big and bad your demons are, you are a child of God. The power of Christ is a cleansing power. If we dare to throw ourselves at Christ’s feet and ask for the removal of our demons, we will be healed. But first we have to want to be healed: of that negative attitude, of that destructive behavior, of that grudge we hold against someone else. What do we need to throw at Jesus’ feet? What needs to be removed from us in order for us to be clean? Can we name that out loud so that it can be exorcised?

If Jesus has power over the demons in an unclean Gentile territory, he has power everywhere, including in you and in me. And when we let that power work, we become what Jesus commanded the healed man to be. Jesus said to him, “Go home to your family and tell them how much the Lord has done for you.” When we open ourselves to being made clean by Christ, we become a flashing neon billboard that says, “The Lord is at work here.”

Jesus takes flawed people like you and me and turns them into walking miracles to show the world what he can do, because there are so many other people out there who are fighting demons and need to be made clean. In the kingdom of God, everyone is clean. Everyone. A writer once said, “The indisputable proof of Christianity is a re-created person.” Let the power of Christ transform you and make you clean. Then go, show them how much the Lord has done for you. What is your name? Don’t let your demons answer for you. Be who God created you to be.

 

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Questions Jesus Asks Sermon Series – Do You Want to Be Made Well?

This is the second sermon in my series on the questions Jesus asks people in the Bible. How would you answer these questions if Jesus asked them of you?

SCRIPTURE – John 5:1-9 – After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed.One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.

SERMON
Questions Jesus Asks Sermon Series
Do You Want to Be Made Well?
John 5:1-9
March 12, 2017

I went to my high school reunion a few years ago back in the Washington, D.C. area. Those things cause deep, existential crises, right? Talk about a life event that invites questions. Who’s going to be there? What will everyone look like? Will anyone remember me? I had 800 people in my graduating class, so there were a lot of faces there that night I didn’t recognize. But I found that almost everyone I ran into remembered me for one specific reason.

Here’s how most of the conversations went: The other person would make eye contact, look at my name badge and say, “Did you go to our high school?” I’d say, “Yeah, I did.” “Are you sure?” “Pretty sure.” Then they would fake like they knew me for a few seconds until the epiphany hit, and then they’d almost shout, “Oh yeah, you’re the guy who liked Kentucky!” Apparently I was quite outspoken in my love for the Wildcats back in high school, so much so that everyone at the reunion remembered me for that one fact. I could cure cancer or write a bestseller and I have a feeling I’ll always be known by my high school chums as “that Kentucky guy.”

I thought about that story as I read over our passage for today, and it got me to thinking: What defines us? Today we’re continuing our sermon series for Lent on the questions that Jesus asks. While those questions were directed at those in his presence, I believe they are also relevant questions for us. Today’s question is aimed at a particular person for a particular reason, but is fair game for our consideration. Do you want to be made well?

This man in our story today is defined in various translations as an invalid, a paralytic, or a lame man. We’re told that for 38 years, that has been his essential quality, the thing that defined him more than any other. He was known for his infirmity. The man spent every day at the poolside, but that’s not as exotic as it sounds. Beneath this pool was a subterranean stream that would sometimes bubble up and disturb the waters. People believed this was caused by an angel with healing powers, and the first person in the water would be cured. So dozens, maybe even hundreds, of people with various sicknesses and diseases crowded around the water, waiting for the supernatural sign of healing. Imagine the looks on the faces of the broken; imagine the cries of pain; imagine the smells. This is what this man has been experiencing for 38 years. This is all he knows.

Jesus shows up and, as he often does, gets right to the point. “Do you want to be made well?” Seems like a softball question, right? You’d hope he give an enthusiastic “Yes!” or at least throw in a little sarcasm. “Do I want to be made well? No, I’m still working on my tan. Let’s give it another year or two.” Of course he wants to be made well, we think. Who wouldn’t?

But the man’s answer – or lack thereof – gives us pause. It sounds almost pre-planned, like what he would write on a cardboard sign while begging for change. “Sir, I have no one to put me in the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I’m making my way, someone else steps in ahead of me.” This isn’t so much an answer as it is an excuse for why the man is in this situation. “It’s not my fault I’m here,” he says. “Blame the other folks, the ones with the hangnails and eczema who can get to the pool a lot faster than I can.”

While his response may sound pathetic, I believe any of us who have been sick can relate to him. Because when you’re sick, when life is hard, when things are bad you’ll do just about anything to be made well, even believe in a superstition about troubled waters and healing angels. People don’t call psychic hotlines or kneel in front of faith healers because they are bored or have too much money. They are desperate to be made well and will buy just about anything someone is selling if it comes with a promise of wholeness. We may think dipping our toe in a pool is a ridiculous pipe dream, but when you’re sick, you’ll try anything to be made well, to end the misery and suffering and pain, and you’ll feel defeated when it doesn’t work.

What this man wasn’t able to see was that the true source of healing wasn’t the pool. Jesus asks him, “Do you want to be made well?” Some people live with failures and imperfections so long that they don’t know anything other than that. They become defined by their illnesses and shortcomings. I moved from an area of the country where a large segment of the population used to define themselves by the failure of their baseball team. Chicago Cubs fan wore their team’s futility like a badge of honor. “The loveable losers,” they called them. Because of their World Series win last year, their freedom from their failure has brought on an identity crisis. And, to be fair, a big honking trophy, so don’t feel too sorry for them.

Same thing for this man. For 38 years he has been known as the paralytic, the poor guy by the pool. Maybe folks drop an extra quarter in his cup because they pity him. And if he answers “yes” to Jesus’ question, he is no longer that man. He loses his identity, his reputation, even his source of income. Hey, being a paralytic may not be ideal, but at least he knows who he is, knows his territory and his limits, knows what tomorrow will bring.

You would think this man would want to be made well, to have his life drastically changed for the better. And yet we humans are creatures of habit. We don’t like the unknown. So I wonder if subconsciously it’s easier to be defined by what weighs us down than face the unknown freedom Jesus offers. “Do you want to be made well?” Do we take him up on his offer to release us from our addictions, to free us from our negative attitudes, to heal us of our broken relationships and sinful behavior? Something inside us is keeping us down, holding us back from a closer relationship with God. Are we ready to let go of those things? Do we really want to be made well?

There’s a heart-breaking scene in the movie The Shawshank Redemption where a career convict name Brooks gets his release from the penitentiary after spending 50 years as a prisoner there. He’d been in so long that the only life he knew was that of a convict. On his first night of freedom, Brooks ends up committing suicide because he can’t face the freedom he’s been granted. He only knew himself as a prisoner.

But that example may be too extreme for us. We’re not prisoners, are we? Far from it. Do we even need to be made well? Really, aren’t we fine? We’re fine. Fine…except for our anxiety about our finances. Fine…except for the anger we feel about things happening in our country. Fine…except for the nagging feeling that our marriage isn’t solid enough, our job isn’t secure enough, our faith isn’t strong enough. Are we fine? Do we need to be made well?

But that’s not the question. The question is, “Do you WANT to be made well?”  Or is it easier to stay sick? After all, that’s the life we know, and as crazy as it sounds, staying sick feels safer than changing our futures by being made well. For 38 years, the man knew who he was. But now…who is he? What will he do? How will he be known? There are advantages to staying sick.

I played basketball in high school, but apparently not very well, because no one remembered me for that. I was clumsy so I got injured a lot. During one game, I thought I had sprained my ankle, but an X-ray revealed a fracture, so the doctor put me on crutches and scheduled an appointment with an orthopedist. In school the next day, I discovered something I found very advantageous. Students who were on crutches got to leave class early and take a friend with them to carry their books. I suddenly became very popular. Here’s the thing: I knew my ankle wasn’t broken because I could walk on it just fine. But I didn’t want anyone else to know that because I would lose this new-found status.

After a few days, I went to the orthopedist, who took one look at the X-ray and said, “That’s not broken. Can you walk on it?” at which point I put down the crutches and walked across the room. “It’s a miracle!” he said facetiously.  And the next day, I returned to school and reclaimed my status as “that Kentucky guy” who didn’t get to leave class early.  Bummer.

After this man gives Jesus the party line about what he believes holds him down, Jesus rewrites his definition. “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” This healing is different than others. Jesus doesn’t touch him or commend his for his faith. Jesus simply says, “Get up!” Now, this may sound insensitive, but I wonder if this man was really sick. I wonder if he had gotten so used to being identified as the victim that he started to believe it about himself. But Jesus looks at him, sees him for who he really is – a non-lame person – and names it. “Get up!” The man already had the healing he needed within him, but for him, it was easier to stay sick than to change.

His healing comes with a price, doesn’t it? He’s lost the pity of those around him. He’s lost the free meals and free transportation he received. He’s lost his identity as the sick guy. He’s lost everything he’s known in the last 38 years. I wonder if it would have been easier, more comfortable for him to just stay sick? Probably. Change is hard. Growth is hard. Living into who God has called us to be is hard.

And yet, if we choose to stay sick, what are we missing? Why are we willing to go through short-term pain in order to gain long-term benefits in other parts of our lives, but not with our Spirit? For example, many of us will go through the momentary pain of getting a flu shot in order to reap the long-term benefit of not getting the flu. But will we go through the short-term pain of making changes in our lives in order to reap the benefits of becoming the person God created us to be, to free ourselves from the burdens that hold us down? Are we willing to let go of our need to be busy or our anxiety over hard conversations or our fear of the Bible in order to stand up and walk with Jesus?

Jesus offers us the power to be freed from all that holds us down. He gives us the chance to stand up and walk away from those negative qualities and destructive definitions. Is this new path a bit scary? Sure it is, because we don’t know where it leads. But is it worth it? I guess we could ask…well, what do we call this guy, anyway? We can’t call him the invalid or the paralytic anymore, now can we? He’s no longer the guy by the pool, waiting for healing. He’s left that person behind. He’s stood up. He’s been made well. His life has been changed by Jesus. I wonder what we should call him. I wonder what we would call ourselves.

 

 

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Questions Jesus Asks Sermon Series – What Are You Looking For?

Hi folks! Sorry I forgot to post this last week. Must have been busy getting ready for Lent! Here’s the sermon from March 5, which kicks off our series on “Questions Jesus Asks.”

SCRIPTURE – John 1:35-42 – 35 The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, 36 and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” 37 The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38 When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” 39 He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. 40 One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41 He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed[j]). 42 He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

SERMON
Questions Jesus Asks Sermon Series
#1 – What Are You Looking For?
John 1:35-42
March 5, 2017

“What is a shoe?” Did you know that question may be one of the most important questions in the history of the world? And it wasn’t even asked by a person. It was asked by Watson, an IBM super-computer that was competing on Jeopardy! against two former champions, both humans. When Alex Trebek read, “Iron fitting on the hoof of a horse or a card-dealing box in a casino,” Watson buzzed in with the question, “What is a shoe?” demonstrating for the first time that computers can be built to reason for themselves.

In his book Thank You for Being Late, author Thomas Friedman says that question from Watson, asked in 2011, brought to the public eye the amazing power and speed of technological advancements. And it’s changing the landscape for how we humans think and work. Computers are no longer static instruments to be used at cursed at when they don’t work; they are becoming partners in our vocations. For example, a doctor examining a cancerous spot on a patient’s skin can feed that image into a computer, which can compare it against thousands of other images, find information from millions of pages of journal articles, and identify the type of cancer and best course of treatment – within seconds.

What does this mean for us? For one thing, it means we don’t have to know everything, although that won’t stop some of us from acting like we do. From now on, computers will know everything for us. Writer John Kelly makes this astute observation: “In the 21st century, knowing all the answers won’t distinguish someone’s intelligence – rather, the ability to ask all the right questions will be the mark of true genius.”

In that case, Jesus was way ahead of his time. I don’t know if he could beat Watson at Jeopardy! but he sure did know how to ask all the right questions. We’re starting our Lenten sermon series today by looking at some of the questions Jesus asked those around him. We’ll not only explore how they answered the questions, but we’ll daydream about how we might answer those same questions if Jesus asked them of us. Be warned, thought; the questions are a little deeper than, “What is a shoe?”

“Jesus is the answer.” Remember that bumper sticker? It was popular a decade or so ago. I would see that on a car and I would be so tempted to stop the driver and ask, “But what is the question?” Is “Jesus” the answer to “What is a shoe?” When I read the gospels, I often get frustrated at how little it feels like Jesus does answer. Instead, he asks questions, 307 of them to be exact. That’s a lot of questions from someone who is supposed to be the answer.

His questions were hard questions, too, ones without easy answers. We all know that some questions are asked with only one possible answer. For example, if your spouse asks you, “Do I look good in this outfit?” there is really only one answer to that question. One day, Leigh texted me the question, “Should we get a second dog?” and then 20 seconds later texted me the picture of an adorable little puppy that very shortly after that became our second dog. At that moment, the question “Should we get a second dog?” only had one answer. But those aren’t the kinds of questions Jesus asks.

Instead, he asks questions that invite pondering, that encourage contemplation, that don’t lend themselves to easy answers. After all, the word “question” has the word “quest” in it. Jesus’ questions invited his listeners on a journey toward discovery, both of self and of God. The reward of that journey is that we might discover something about ourselves we never knew. The risk of that journey is that we might discover something about ourselves we never knew. Are we willing to answer Jesus’ questions?

The first question for us comes from the gospel of John. In fact, it’s the first words that Jesus speaks. In our scripture reading today, John had been preaching and baptizing, and was popular enough to attract a crowd of followers. But he was quick to point out that he was only the opening act. The main attraction, the Lamb of God, was on his way. When Jesus arrives, John points him out and two of John’s disciples began following him. Jesus turned to them and asks, “What are you looking for?” They respond, “Where are you staying?” which you’ll notice isn’t an answer, and Jesus said, “Come and see.”

“What are you looking for?” That’s kind of a funny start to a conversation, when you think about it. Jesus apparently doesn’t like small talk. No chit-chat about the weather or the fishing conditions. And even the wording of the question is odd. It would seem more logical for Jesus to ask, “What do you want?” But maybe this question cuts deeper than wants. It implies a longing, a searching, a yearning for something.

So the disciples go with Jesus and spend the day. One of those men, Andrew, meets Jesus and calls him Rabbi, but after a few hours with him, Andrew tells his brother Simon not about Jesus the Rabbi but Jesus the Messiah, the anointed one of God. Just as Andrew gives Jesus a name change, so Jesus does the same with Simon. Jesus says, “You are Simon, but you will be called Cephas,” which translates in Greek as “Peter,” or “the rock,” like the word “petrified.”

“What are you looking for?” Jesus asks us. I’m not talking about when we’re browsing on Amazon or shopping at the grocery store or standing in front of the fridge late at night. It seems there are many times in our lives when we’re looking, but we’re not really sure what we’re looking for.

Is that how it feels on Sunday morning? When you come through those doors on Sunday morning, when you come into Jesus’ presence, what are you looking for? I’ll share with you my secret fear. It’s that you aren’t looking for anything. I hope I’m wrong, but I worry about that. I worry that some folks come to church with no intentionality, no expectation. They come because…well, that’s what you’re supposed to do. But if come looking for nothing, I’m afraid that’s what you’ll find.

I wonder how our experience of worship would be different if we came looking for something. I wonder how it would be different if we came with the expectation that we were going to meet Jesus here – in the lyrics of a hymn, in the handshake of a stranger, in the breaking of the bread. I wonder how it would be different if we came here to worship, not just to sit in a pew, if we came with a longing, a searching, a yearning to know something.

“What are you looking for?” Jesus asks the two men. I believe they were looking for much more than a place to sleep or a quick cup of coffee with Jesus. I believe what the two disciples were truly looking for was themselves. They were looking for a new understanding of who they were apart from the way their society defined them – lower class, blue-collar, manual laborers, riff-raff. They wanted to be known for who they truly were, not for their jobs or their family history or their mistakes. They were longing, searching, yearning to be known.

Jesus offers us that gift. Jesus has the ability to look at us and know us, not just for who we are, but for who we were created to be. Jesus looks at Simon and says, “You will be called a rock.” Peter probably thought, “Me? A rock? Does this guy really know me?” One day Jesus looked at me and said, “You are Kory, but you will be called pastor.” And I thought, “Me? A pastor? Does this guy really know me?” Jesus knows you, not just for who you are, but for who you were created to be.

This doesn’t translate well into English, but five times in this passage John uses the Greek work “meno,” which means “stay,” like when the men say, “’Where are you staying?’ They came and saw where he was staying, and stayed with him that day.” Jesus offered them a place to stay, a place where they could remain, a place where they could become known in a way they weren’t known before.

Jesus offers us the same invitation to “Come and see.” When we come into this place, we are invited to sit, to stay, to remain. But we are not invited to stay the same. Do you hear that? Through this gathering, through this worship, through these song and rituals and practices, we are changed, transformed from who we were when we walked in to nothing less than the people of God.

That’s the beautiful irony of this question Jesus asks. What are we looking for? We’re looking for ourselves, and when we come here to find that, we end up finding Jesus, instead. And in the process of finding Jesus, we find ourselves. But it’s not ourselves as we see us, but as Jesus sees us. You know those carnival mirrors? When you stand in front of them, they make you look a lot skinnier or taller, they distort your true image? That’s what Jesus does for us. When we see ourselves through Jesus, we’re not skinnier or taller. We’re holier. We’re more divine.

I think that’s what we’re looking for. We are looking for the true version of ourselves, refracted through the lens of God’s vision of us. We’re looking for a place where we can be known, where we can remain, where we can receive some understanding – no matter how small – of who we are. We’re looking for a community that welcomes us, that accepts us, that knows us and yet still loves us. We’re not perfect here at Crestwood, but we strive to be a place where people can find what they are looking for.

“What are you looking for?” I invite you to ponder that question the next time you come to church. Are you looking for community? It’s here. Are you looking for inspiration? It’s here. Are you looking for forgiveness or a new start? It’s here. All that is here because Christ is here, beckoning us to come and see, becoming known to us in the breaking of the bread. I urge you to come here looking for something, because if you come looking for nothing, that’s exactly what you’ll find. Jesus invited the two disciples to come and see. Come and see who he was. Come and see who they could be. Jesus extends the same invitation to us. Come and see that your questions are welcomed here, because a lot of other people probably have those same questions. Come and see that you are a child of God, loved just as you are, and called to be more than you are. Come and see that Jesus is the answer to the questions you bring with you. Come and see.

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Overwhelmed Sermon Series – #6: THIS Is the Day

Just realized I forgot to post this. So sorry to disappoint both of you who read this blog :-). Here’s last week’s sermon and my last in this series (Trish will preach Sunday to conclude the series).

SCRIPTURE – Deuteronomy 30:15-20 –  See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16 If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. 17 But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18 I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. 19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, 20 loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

SERMON
Overwhelmed Sermon Series
#6 – THIS Is the Day
Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Feb. 19, 2017

I read an article recently in which a reporter asked experts in a variety of fields – sleep researchers, vocational coaches, financial planners – how much time a person should devote each day to their area just to get by. Not to excel, but to just do the minimum. How much time each day should be spent on exercise, eating right, paying the bills? The total time for the minimum requirements added up to 36 hours each day. If you can spend 36 hours each day on these areas, you’ll have the perfect life. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have 36 hours each day, so how do we make the most of the 24 hours we do have?

Today we continue our “Overwhelmed” sermon series, in which we’re talking about the ways life overwhelms us and how the Bible helps us cope. We’re overwhelmed by our busyness and our stuff and the needs around us. How do we live our lives in such a way that makes the most of what God has given us without overloading our circuits and overwhelming our bandwidth?

I use Google Calendar to keep track of my schedule, and one of the features is that you can turn on and off certain calendars, depending on what you want to see. So if I want to see my work calendar or my personal calendar, I can turn it on. If I turn it off, all those obligations go away.

I didn’t realize how profound this feature was until this past summer, when I went on sabbatical. On May 1, I was the pastor of a vibrant, amazing, wonderful church. On May 2, I was Kory, a man without a plan. One of the first things I did that morning was fire up Google Calendar and turn off my work calendar. And I watched as those squares that were filled up with meetings and programs and appointment all went blank. And I panicked. “You mean, I don’t have to do anything?” It may sound blissful, but for someone who is used to having something to do, it was quite distressing.

Theologian Lewis Smedes once wrote, “Every square on the calendar is a frame for one episode of your life.” Pastor John Ortberg said that we are square-fillers, populating each day on the calendar with things to do. We have 24 hours each day to use as we would like. The choice is ours. Following Moses’ lead, our guiding question today is this: Each day, do we choose life or death? Do we fill our squares with blessings or curses?

For Moses and the Israelites, the choice was that simple, that clear-cut. “Honey, what would you like for dinner tonight, manna or manna?” God had parted seas and destroyed Egyptian armies, so it was pretty easy to see which choice led to life and which choice led to death. God repeatedly showed the Israelites in very tangible ways the consequences of their choices. Life or death.

Don’t you wish the choice was as clear today? One of the biggest challenges we face is the paralyzing number of choices we are confronted with in almost every aspect of our lives. For example, do you remember a quaint time back in the Good Old Days when your only choice of Oreos were…Oreos? Then came Double-Stuffed. And Chocolate Dipped. Now you can get White Fudge Oreos, Lemon Twist Oreos, Watermelon Oreos, and Pumpkin Spice Oreos. How do you choose?

The average grocery store has about 30,000 items in it. Your average cable TV provider seems to have that many channels, as well. Want to watch a movie? Pick from the hundreds of titles provided by Netflix or HBO Now. We are overwhelmed by the choices around us, to the point where we waste valuable hours each day simply trying to decide. I typed “the difficulty of making choices” into Google and got 85 million results in .69 seconds. We have too many choices and not enough time to choose.

Each day we face decisions, from the trivial to the monumental. Each day we have the opportunity to choose life or death, to be blessed or be cursed, to be a blessing or a curse to others. Each day is a gift we have been given by God, and it’s up to us how we use it. Or is it? When I look at my calendar, so much on there is out of my control. Sure, I could choose not to show up for work or not to pick my kids up from school, but I like being employed and married. Some of our time – most of our time – is not our own, or so it seems. So how do we choose how to use what we have? How do we choose life?

I believe choosing life means grounded ourselves in God, and that starts from the moment we wake up. I’m sure you’ve heard the morning prayer that says: “Dear God, I think you’d be proud of me! So far today I’ve done all right. I haven’t gossiped, lusted, lost my temper, haven’t been greedy, grumpy, nasty, selfish or overindulgent. I’m very thankful for that. In a few minutes, though, I’m going to get out of bed. From then on I’m probably going to need a LOT of help.”

Each day is a gift that we often take for granted, so choosing life means not taking it for granted! Each day when we wake up, God is calling us forth into this day that was created for us. The very first words of the Bible tell us that darkness hovered over the face of the earth, and God said, “Let there be light!” and this world was illuminated. Darkness surrounds me when I sleep and God says, “Let there be Kory!” and God awakens the light within me to shine forth. The hymn “Morning Has Broken” ends with the line, “Praise with elation, praise every morning, God’s re-creation of the new day.” How might our days be different if we realized that each time we woke up, God was re-creating a new day for us to use? Choosing life over death starts by acknowledging the source of that life, the one who made this day for us.

Each day starts out with unlimited possibilities. No day starts out good or bad. It just starts. Twenty-four hours stretched out in front of us. It’s a blank square pregnant with potential, waiting for us to fill it in with blessings or curses, life or death. The scripture says, “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” Sometimes I wish that passage read differently, because I look at my calendar and I know what is lurking out there. Max Lucado reminds us that this verse doesn’t say “let us rejoice and be glad when it’s over,” or “let us rejoice and be glad in spite of it.” We are called to rejoice in every day. Divorce days. Final-exam days. Surgery days. Drive-your-kids-all-over-Lexington days. Every day has the potential to be a day of blessings.

Whether or not that happens is up to us, because we are the ones making the choices. And at some point, if we want to follow Moses’ advice, we have to choose God. There’s intentionality there. That’s what Moses is saying to the Israelites here. You can’t just go along in your day assuming you’re in a relationship with God because you went to church on Sunday. There’s a decision involved, a paying attention, an invitation to partnership. Moses knows this is important, because there are plenty of other gods out there demanding our time and attention. We face that choice all the time. To which god will we bow down? Which God gets our allegiance? Which God gets our time, our thanks?

It’s easy to give our attention to other gods. Moses knew that, so he warns the Israelites about bowing down to other gods. Moses meant the gods of the Ammonites and the Hittites and the Jebusites. He didn’t know anything about the money-ites and the power-ites and the busy-ites and the fame-ites. These are the gods that demand our attention. None of these gods are bad in and of themselves. They only become curses when we bow down to them. I found a quote this week that says, “If the devil can’t make you bad, he’ll make you busy. Either way you’ll be distracted from God.” Are we distracted from God? What are we choosing instead of life?

Jesus says, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and all these things will be added unto you.” But too often we live as if he said, “See ye first all these other things, and the kingdom of God will be added unto you.” And the more we add on, the more we chase after other gods, the more likely we are to miss the God that is right in front of us. God was with us yesterday. And God will be with us tomorrow. But today…THIS is the day.

Today I’m on day number 16,843. Yes, I counted. Some of those days have been days of blessings, some of them have been days of curses. Most of them have been a mixture of both. This day? So far, so good. But if it ends up not going as planned, if I end choose death instead of life, if I squander the gift of this day…guess what? God willing, there will be day number 16,844. And I’ll have another chance, another day, to choose life.

Author Shauna Niequest has this beautiful statement that’s worth quoting at length: “Today is your big moment. Moments, really. The life you’ve been waiting for is happening all around you. The scene unfolding outside your window is the most beautiful painting, the crackers and peanut butter that you’re having for lunch on the coffee table are as profound, in their own way, as the Lord’s Supper. This is it. This is life in all its glory, swirling and unfolding around us, disguised as pedantic, pedestrian non-events. But pull off the mask and you will find your life, waiting to be made, chosen, woven, crafted.”

She continues, “Your life, right now, today, is exploding with energy and power and detail and dimension, better than the best movie you’ve ever seen. You and your family and your friends and your house and your dinner table and your garage all have the makings of a life of epic proportions, a story for the ages. Because they all are. Every life is.”

Life and death. Blessings and curses. Choose life. Choose relationships. Choose love. Choose hospitality. Choose all the things that Jesus showed us when he walked among us. Fill your squares with things that bring your joy. I know it would be easier to lose your temper or cut corners or to return snark for snark or give up. And sometimes we will take the easy way. But God has shown us another way, a way sometimes filled with challenges and trials and tests of our patience and calls to share what we have. Those ways can be harder. But that’s where life – real life – is to be found.

Moses presents the Israelites with a choice. Life and death. Blessings and curses. And then, it’s up to them. Notice, we never hear from the Israelites what they choose to do. There’s never a decision given. Instead, Moses’ choice is left hanging out there, waiting to be answered.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Overwhelmed Sermon Series – #5:Unbreaking Our Hearts

This is another sermon in a series about how the world overwhelms us and how the Bible encourages to stay grounded in God’s love and grace.

SCRIPTURE – Romans 12:9-21 – Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13 Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position.[c] Do not be conceited.

17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,”[d] says the Lord. 20 On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
    if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”[e]

21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

SERMON
Overwhelmed Sermon Series
#5 – Unbreaking Our Hearts
Romans 12:9-21

I remember the first time I became aware that the world was larger than my universe, and that it was not nearly as safe and comfortable as I assumed. I was probably about five, watching TV and a commercial came on featuring Sally Struthers, who I only knew as Meathead’s wife on “All in the Family.” She talked for a few seconds, and then the commercial showed pictures of these children in Africa who were malnourished, who had open wounds, who had flies crawling around their faces. I had been threatened by my mom to eat all my Brussel sprouts and cottage cheese because there were kids starving in Africa, but I didn’t know there were REALLY kids starving in Africa. I watched the rest of the commercial in silence and disbelief. You mean there were people in the world who didn’t have it as good as me? What was my little five-year-old mind supposed to do with that?

Today we continue our sermon series called “Overwhelmed,” in which we’re wrestling with the ways life overwhelms us and how the Bible and our faith help us cope. We’ve talked about being overwhelmed by our busyness, by our stuff, by how much we are needed, and by the illusion that we should be perfect. Today, we’re talking about how we are overwhelmed by the need we see around us and how it can be almost paralyzing. In the face of such overwhelming need and suffering, what can we do? What difference can we make?

Just a few months after I started here at Crestwood, Haiti was hit with a devastating earthquake. Thousands were killed and millions of dollars of damage was done in this already impoverished country. A few months later, we did a Sunday School series called “God of the Earthquake,” in which we tried to make sense of why such things happen and where God was in the midst of it. I taught one of those classes, and I remember struggling with what to say that would provide answers in the face of such death and destruction. While people were suffering and dying, I was teaching a class. Was that enough? Was there more I should be doing?

It seems like we wrestle with this issue almost daily. Turn on the news or fire up your computer and you’re likely to read about something tragic that’s happened in another part of the world. Tornadoes in Louisiana, terrorist attacks in Tel Aviv, natural disasters, humanly-caused oppression and violence. The bad news is unavoidable. And that doesn’t even take into consideration the poverty, racism, and homelessness we drive by in our own community. Every day we are reminded of the amount of need there is around us.

This wasn’t as much of an issue in previous generations. World-wide suffering was relegated to a few column inches in a newspaper or 30 seconds on the local news. But once the size of the planet shrank, thanks to technology, suddenly AIDS-stricken villages in Africa and bullet-riddled schools in Sandy Hook felt like they were next door. These tragedies went from being abstract to very real, with images, faces, and body counts attached.

When confronted with this, we can’t helped but be moved. That’s not just a Christian response, that’s a human response. I’m still haunted by the image from Aleppo of the dust-covered little boy sitting in the back of an ambulance after his building was bombed. Or the body of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old refugee boy washed up on the beach in Turkey. When I think about those images, along with my sadness and anger, I feel guilt. I feel helpless. “I should do something. But what can I do? There’s nothing I can do.” It’s overwhelming.

My first reaction is to take it out on God, to shake my fist and scream to the heavens, “What are you doing? Where are you?” I don’t believe God causes all this stuff, but I still need to be mad at SOMEbody. Is it OK to get mad at God? Well, according to a source I read, not only is it OK, we are given permission. That source is the Bible. A good portion of the book of Psalms contain psalms of lament, which were written to express the emotions of anger and sadness felt across humanity. You can hear the anguish in the psalmist’s voice when we read, “Why, O Lord, do you stand far away?” “Why do you forget our affliction?” “Why have you forsaken me?” Author Jacqueline Bussie calls is “audacious why-asking,” and reminds us that God is big enough to take our anger and frustration. When we feel overwhelmed by the need around us, a good place to start is to pray these questions to God. Our prayers become our protests against the evil and injustice we see. “Why, God?”

Of course, that doesn’t mean we’re going to get an answer that satisfies us, if we get an answer at all. And in the absence of a good answer, we’ll make up a bad one, as if God is relying on us to explain what’s going on. God doesn’t need us to defend God, and when we do, we tend to slip into Christian clichés that are, at best, not helpful and, at worst, theologically irresponsible. Saying “Everything happens for a reason” or “God has a plan” in the face of starving children or mass genocide makes God look like an insensitive jerk who doesn’t really care about the life God is supposed to have created. We can’t explain why these things happen. We can’t understand. We won’t understand.

That can feel hopeless, but remember that in the midst of all the bad news, we have the gospel, which literally means “good news.” I believe our God knows what it means to grieve, so God feels what we feel in the face of the need around us. Let’s never forget that God watched God’s own son be arrested, beaten, and ultimately crucified on a cross. God watches over and over again as God’s beloved creation – that’s us – spew hatred, pass judgment, answer violence with violence. God knows what it’s like to be overwhelmed by the need around us.

And yet, God still loves us, in spite of all the stuff we’ve caused and we have to deal with. Frederick Buechner has an interesting quote about holy manure, two words I never expected to say together until this sermon. He says, “I’ll tell you about manure. If you don’t pile it up too thick in any one place, it makes the seeds grow. God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son down into the manure with the rest of us so that something green could happen, something small and green and hopeful.”

In the midst of the need around us, God promises to work with the manure to bring forth something small and green and hopeful. And that starts with each one of us. We can choose to hold all of the manure the world throws at us, or we can choose to compost our sufferings. When we compost the pain and the grief and the need, we create within us a space where something can grow, something stronger and more resilient than the suffering of the world. We can cultivate hope, and it’s that hope that is going to save us, because that hope doesn’t come from us. That hope comes from God.

What does that look like in concrete terms? Let me tell you a story I read about Vlad-e-slaw Miss-e-una. During World War II, Vlad-e-slaw worked as an overseer in a German concentration camp, in charge of monitoring 30 young Jewish women. Despite his official duties, he was secretly so horrified at their health and living conditions that he started sneaking food to the women. One day, one of the women, Devora, fell seriously sick. She developed open lesions on her arms and wasn’t able to work in the camp. Vlad-e-slaw knew that if she didn’t work, she would die. He also knew that if she didn’t get treatment, she would die. And he knew that if the guards at the camp knew she was sick, they would kill her.

What do you do when the situation is hopeless? You compost your suffering and let something green grow. What Vlad-e-slaw did was this: he cut himself on purpose and rubbed his own wound up against Devora’s lesions, thus infecting himself with her sickness. He then went to the doctor, got medication, and gave half to himself and half to Devora. They both got better, and both survived the war. Paul says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and mourn with those who mourn.” In our state of abundance and wealth and comfort, if we rub up against the ills of the world, we run the risk of getting infected. But we also create the conditions for healing to occur. God gave us the power to make a difference in this world, and you are never more powerful than when you share your power and you share in someone else’s weakness. That’s the condition in which something green and hopeful can grow.

By doing so, your faith, your actions, become acts of resistance, and resistance is the secret of hope. Refusing to accept things the way they are is the first step toward change. Jesus says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” What would it meant to resist having enemies. Does that sound silly? Resist treating anyone as an enemy. It’s our choice, right? What would it mean to resist hating someone? Doesn’t matter what they’ve done. Refuse to hate them. What would it meant to resist the lie that you can’t make a difference? You know, maybe you can’t do anything by yourself. But look around. Are you by yourself?

So what happens when you see something half a world away that breaks your heart? It would be really easy to change the channel or close the computer. Our hearts have been broken enough, haven’t they? Do we dare let them be broken one more time? God says, “In your weakness, I am made strong. Through the manure of this world, I can make things grow.”

So here’s how you can compost your pain, your suffering, your broken heart. When you see a story on the news that disturbs you, find someone around you to love. When you see the body of a child washed up on a foreign beach, donate to local shelter for abused women and children. When you are touched by the news of people starving, volunteer at a local food pantry. Does it bother you that people are forced to flee their homes because of oppression or violence? Help sponsor a refugee family. If you feel a group of people are being treated unfairly, find someone from that group and stand with them. You may not be able to help that person on the screen, but you can help someone. And hope starts with helping someone.

We are blessed, because we can put our hope in so many things – our education, our money, our stuff, our healthcare. But many, many people in this world don’t have those things. They can only put their hope in two things: God and other people. That’s you and me. My prayer is that are hearts are never unbroken, that we never grow numb to the need around us, that we take our pain to God, that we open ourselves to the suffering of others, that we compost our pain. “God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son down into the manure with the rest of us so that something green could happen, something small and green and hopeful.”

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Overwhelmed sermon series – #4: Racing Toward Perfection

This is the fourth sermon (Trish, our associate, preached the third), in our series on being overwhelmed by life.

SCRIPTURE – Matthew 5:43-48 – “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters,[o] what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

 SERMON

Overwhelmed Sermon Series
#4 – Racing Toward Perfection
Matthew 5:43-48

I read an amazing story recently about Tattoo the Basset hound. There was nothing particularly outstanding about Tattoo. He’s your typical Basset hound. Floppy ears, stubby legs. One day, while his owner was walking Tattoo, a friend pulled over in his car to talk. The owner leaned into the car while Tattoo patiently waited. As the friend began to pull away, Tattoo’s leash got caught on the side-view mirror, and Tattoo’s walk suddenly turned into a run. The car got up to about 20 miles an hour before the driver realized that Tattoo was still attached. To this day, Tattoo has never asked to be taken on another walk.

Do you ever feel like Tattoo? Do you ever feel like your leash is caught on the side-view mirror of an accelerating car, like your life is gaining speed and you’re having trouble keeping up? Today we continue our Overwhelmed sermon series, in which we are looking at the ways our lives can get the best of us and what the Bible says we can do to tap the brake and catch our breath. I told the story a few weeks ago about the South American tribe that paused on a long hike so that their souls could catch up with them. Have we left our souls in the dust for the sake of getting things done?

This break-neck speed of life was not the future that was predicted back when technology was in its infancy. A 1960s article in Time magazine prognosticated about all the new-fangled devices that were being invented, like computers and electric razors, and the enormous impact they would have on our lives. Work weeks would be cut from 40 hours to 20, people would retire at age 50, and everyone would have so much extra time in their lives that they wouldn’t know what to do with it. How’s that working out for us?

Kids, there used to be a time when, if you wanted fast food (that name alone is telling), you had to park the car, go inside, and place your order. Now, you can use the drive-thru and eat your dinner in the car, like nature intended. And remember when life was so rough that you had one bottle for shampoo and another bottle for conditioner? Now, they’re combined into one, so you can avoid all that time-consuming rinsing. Thanks to inventions like these, we have so much more time on our hands, don’t we?

As the apostle Paul would say, “By no means!” That’s the paradox, right? Our lives are filled with time-saving devices, things like microwaves and self-propelled lawn mowers, and yet we constantly complain about not having enough time. So, the end result is that we live in a state of perpetual hurry. We are the kings and queens of doing more than one thing at a time. We call that multi-tasking, because the other thing takes too long to say. We shorten our sentences to LOL and OMG so as to avoid wasting time using a subject and a verb. We are Tattoo, struggling to keep pace with the warp speed of the lives we have created.

This hurried living is more than just a way of life or a necessary evil. Pastor John Ortberg calls it a sickness, the great enemy of spiritual life in our day. There are a few tell-tale symptoms of Hurry Sickness. When you’re approaching a red light, and there is one car in each lane, do you try to guess which one will go faster based on the make and model of the car, and then get behind that one? You might have Hurry Sickness. When you are checking out at the grocery, do you try to guess which lane will move faster based on the number of items each person has in their cart? And then, once you choose a lane, do you watch the other lanes to see if you would have moved faster or slower? You might have Hurry Sickness. Do you complain about how long a red light is? Do you stare at the microwave, wondering if that burrito will EVER get done? You might have Hurry Sickness.

If you exhibit any of these symptoms, you may need a doctor. Not an internist or a surgeon, but the Great Physician. Hurry Sickness is a serious threat to our spiritual condition because it gradually erodes the groundedness of our faith. It eats away, one bite at a time, at our relationships with God and each other. Ortberg says, “The danger is not that we lose our faith. It is that we will become so distracted and rushed and preoccupied that we will settle for a mediocre version of it. We will just skim our lives instead of actually living them.” Do you ever feel like you’re just skimming your life instead of actually living it?

So here’s my question: Why? Why are we in such a hurry? What is the bottom line of all of this? What do we hope to gain? I’d say more time, but we all know better. I think the reason we are in a hurry is that we’ve bought into the illusion that if we can just get everything done, then we’ll have time to rest, relax, spend time with family. If we can get everything done, then life will be perfect.

We know people like that, don’t we? We see them on social media, folks who have clean houses, take relaxing vacations, exercise regularly, throw perfect birthday parties for their kids. We drool over their pictures and statuses and Pinterest boards because they have the life we want, they can somehow do all the things we have to do, but without running five minutes late and having a coffee stain on their shirt. We know perfection can be achieved if we just go a little faster, because we see it in others.

I saw a comic this week in which the wife says to her husband, “Derek, I don’t think we’re doing enough with our lives. When I look at everyone else’s Facebook and Twitter and Instagram pages, they’re full of people having fun all the time.” The husband says, “That’s how it looks, Kim, but it’s not real, it’s just marketing. Trust me, everyone else’s life is just as boring as ours.” I would amend that to say that everyone else’s life is just as imperfect as ours. There’s no such thing as perfection.

Then what are we to make of Jesus’s statement? “Be perfect, therefore, as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Oh, is that all we have to do? Well why didn’t you say so? If we interpret this passage as a call to keep trying harder, we’re missing Jesus’ point. My seminary professor told me, “Whenever the Bible says ‘therefore,’ you have to ask what it’s there for.” Jesus says, “Be perfect, therefore,” implying that what he’s said right before has a bearing on this call to be perfect.

Remember what he said? Love your enemies. Pray for them. Greet them. Go out of your way to interact with people different than you, to build relationships with people you wouldn’t otherwise spend time with. But that’s so hard! I barely have time to spend with the people I like, much less the people I don’t like, or don’t even know. But, if I’m going to believe Jesus, in doing so, he says we become perfect. Not by trying harder, but by relating better.

The idea that perfection comes through relationship-building is a real challenge to our hurriedness, because relationship-building takes time. I was in the drive-thru at Starbucks the other day (so I didn’t have to walk all the way inside), and my drink was taking a little longer than usual (almost as long as a red light in Lexington), so the barista leaned out the window and said, “So, what do you have going on today?” My first thought was, “None of your dang business! Just give me my Frappuccino!” But then I realized that this was a sliver of a moment to build a relationship, no matter how fleeting, with someone I didn’t know. We chatted a couple minutes, and I got my drink and drove away.

But the interaction stuck with me. “So, what do you have going on today?” A simple question, asked with innocent curiosity, which led to a most pleasant conversation that became one of the highlights of my day. I wonder how many opportunities I’ve missed to do that kind of relational work because I’ve been too focused on getting my stuff done. I wonder how many potential relationships I’ve sacrificed on the altar of expediency. It’s so much easier to objectify people and see them as a means to an end, because actually relating to them takes too much time.

The perfection Jesus invites us to seek has nothing to do with getting things right, or even getting things done. If we buy into that myth, then we might as well hitch our leash to a side-view mirror until we collapse from frustration and exhaustion. Why do we let the world make us think that perfection can be achieved through doing more stuff as quickly as possible? If you want to follow someone, you can’t go faster than the one who is leading. Jesus was never in a hurry. Why are we?

Listen to how the Bible translation the Message renders Jesus’ last line about perfection: “In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.” In this version, perfection is not about what you do, but how you live, how you live: generously and graciously toward others, just as God does the same for you.

We’ll always have the opportunity to be busy. And there will be times when our schedules force us to be in a hurry. That’s OK. That’s life. But don’t forget why you’re living it. It’s not to win a medal or cross the finish line first. God put us here to be in relationship with each other, and the more we do that, the more we begin to look like Christ. The more present you are with the person who is right in front of you – your spouse, your child, your friend, your barista, the person you don’t even know – the more present you are with them, the more perfect your life is at that moment. All the things on your to-do list can wait. They’ll still be there when you finish your conversation. But nothing is more important than the person standing right in front of you. Be present and you will be perfect. Perfection is not a destination we’ll reach when we finally get everything done; perfection is how we choose to live in every moment. If we live generously and graciously, then we are perfect, no matter how messy our house is.

There’s a world full of people out there that think God is vengeful, judgmental, exclusionary. They think God doesn’t love them, God can’t love someone like them. Some of them are people who know, but a lot of those people are nothing like us. Relating to them is going to take time, and there’s so much to do. Your chance to be perfect starts when you leave this sanctuary. So….what do you have going on today?

 

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