Hide & Seek

Genesis 3.1-11

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die, for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food and that it was a delight to the eyes and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked, and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves. They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?”

The beginning of the strange new world of the Bible is, indeed, new and strange. God makes it all through the power of speech, “Let there be light!” And then, as is God’s pleasure, God makes humankind in God’s image. Fashioned from the earth, given the breath of the Spirit, our ancestral parents walk among paradise.

This, to put it bluntly, is when the story gets good.

I often wonder what story from scripture is known among the masses more than any other. With the ubiquity of Christmas celebrations, there’s a pretty good chance that lots and lots of people knowing something about the manger and something about the birth of Christ. With the never ending resourcefulness of the “underdog triumph,” David and Goliath must be known by others. But the story of Adam and Eve is, quite possibly, the most well known story from the Bible.

And for good reason.

It is short. It is simple. It gives explanation for why things are the way they are. Though, it cannot be explained in a way that leaves us satisfied, which is what makes it worth coming back to over and over and over again.

Last week in worship Fred Sistler, guest preacher extraordinaire, said, “Genesis doesn’t give us the how, but the wow.” I really like that. There’s a lot of wow in this story. But perhaps, at least with Genesis 3, the wow turns into a woah.

Adam and Even are in paradise. To us that might seem like a remote island in the Caribbean, or any other number of idyllic spots, but paradise in the strange new world of the Bible is simply a perfect communion between God and God’s creation.

Which, if we’re being honest, might not sound much like paradise.

We can scarcely fathom how communal the communion was because it sounds so wrong. And if it sounds wrong it’s because the idea of being too intimately connected with anything, let alone God, is no one’s idea of a good time.

We know what we’re really like behind closed doors, and what’s buried deep in our internet search histories, and where our knee-jerk reactions can be found. We know that even though its easy to point out the splinter in someone else’s eye, we’ve got logs in our own. We know that, to use Paul’s language, we continue to do things we know we shouldn’t.

All of us, the tall and the small, we’re all masters of blocking our some of the grim realities of life. We can read a frightening article about something like the devastating effects of global warming, or we can listen to a podcast about the terror of our current economic situation, but when push comes to shove, we can definitely pretend like everything is fine.

But the Bible doesn’t do this – it never does. Oddly enough, this is why the strange new world of the Bible is realer than our own. It tells the truth, even when it hurts. 

Consider: This book begins with paradise, perfect communion (perhaps uncomfortable communion), and by chapter 11 we encounter murder, near genocide, lying, and loads of violence.

Which begs the question: What went wrong?

As has been mentioned before, GK Chesterton famously responded once to a newspaper article asking “What’s Wrong With The World?” With only two words: I am.

You see, the story of Adam and Eve is real, realer than we often give it credit for. And their story is our story. 

Our first parents find themselves in paradise and there is only one rule. Can you imagine? You can do whatever you want! You’re never in need of anything at all. There’s just one teeny tiny caveat: See that tree over there? You can’t eat from it. Everything else is yours, except for that.

Enter the serpent, the craftiest of creatures.

“Psst, Eve. Did God tell you that you were forbidden to eat from every tree?”

“No, you silly snake, we’re not allowed to eat from one tree.”

“Don’t you find that a little odd, Eve? I mean why would God give you all the other trees to eat from but not this one? Isn’t God the God of love? Doesn’t sound very loving to me…”

“Well, God said we would die if we eat it…”

“C’mon Eve! Do you really believe that? Why would God go through all the trouble to give you life only to take it away?”

And so the seeds of doubt are planted.

The end of the beginning.

She reaches for the tree, as does her husband, and their eyes are opened. That’s the way scripture puts it. The effect is instantaneous. They now know what they didn’t know. There is no going back. 

And what do they do with all this knew knowledge? Are they puffed up with bravado? Are they ready to take on the world?

No.

They are afraid. They see themselves for who they really are and they can’t stand the sight. They fashion fig leaves for clothing, and they hide.

We still hide all the time. We hide in our jobs, in the bottle, in our busyness, in our children, in our wealth, in our power.

And it’s while we’re hiding that God comes and says, “Taylor, Taylor, where are you?”

Notice, the question is not who are you? God does not come with moral judgments, or ethical inquiries. God comes asking where we are.

And what’s the answer?

I’m right here God and I’m lost.

We might not think we are lost, we can try to convince ourselves that we know exactly where we are on the map of life. But, when we take a good hard look in the mirror, we know that we are not as we ought to be. The condition of our condition ain’t good.

And, typically, this is where the scripture, and therefore the sermon, ends. In Adam and Eve we discover ourselves, our plight, and we are made to feel bad about out badness.

And that might not be such a bad thing. Sometimes discovering or confronting our badness leads to goodness. But most of the time, it just makes things worse.

And, notably, that makes it all about us. Our choice, our failure, our punishment.

But what about God?

God comes looking for us.

You see, the strange new world of the Bible is the story of God’s unyielding search for us. From the first parents in the garden of Eden, to the Good Shepherd, to Eschaton, God is for us. 

When they eat from the forbidden tree, God doesn’t hurl down lightning bolts from the sky, nor does God spin together a tornado. No, God goes into the garden and asks, “Where are you?”

Adam, Eve, you, me, we’re all lost. Truly, completely, lost. And for some reason, we assume that we have to be the ones to find ourselves. It’s why we’re forever giving ourselves over to the latest fads of self-discovery, some of which are probably fine. We’re trying to find ourselves with technological advancements, some of which are probably fine. 

We’ve done all sorts of crazy things in the name of progress to make this world more like Eden.

We got rid of slavery only to now have the highest rate of incarceration of any developed nation.

We keep improving our medical systems, but American life spans are diminishing in large part due to the opioid epidemic.

Examples abound!

And yet! (The strange new world of the Bible always hinges on the divine yet.)

And yet God does not give up on us! The story, our story, begins in the garden but it does not end there. The story continues through the strange and wild wilderness in the days of Abraham, it weaves through the journey to Egypt and back again in Jacob and Joseph, it delivers through miracles made manifest in Moses, it rises through the power of David and Solomon, it dances through the prophets who proclaim the word of the Lord, it endures through drought and famines, it connects the lives of the powerful and the powerless, it brings down the mighty and lifts up the lowly.

Of the many details in the story, the story we know so well because we’ve heard it time and time again, the one that always hits me in the face is the fact that, when Adam and Eve see the truth, they hide behind a tree

The story of God’s search for us eventually leads to a small town called Bethlehem, it trudges through Galilee and sails over the sea, it tells of prodigals and publicans, it walks the streets of Jerusalem and turns over the tables at the temple, it marches up a hill to a place call the Skull, and it hangs on a tree for people like you and me, and then it breaks free from the chains of sin and death for you and me.

Our first parents hide behind a tree in their shame, but Jesus hangs on a tree to proclaim that God will never ever stop searching for us, that no amount of badness will ever hold a light to the love that refuses to let us go, and that God is the one who makes a way where there is no way.

Life is a long game of hide and seek. But God always wins. Amen.

Foolishness

1 Corinthians 15.35-38, 42-50

But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed it’s own body. So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus is is written, “The first man, Adam, became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven. What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 

A United Methodist Bishop received a chain saw one Christmas and quickly went to work with it. And then, on New Year’s Eve, the chainsaw slipped, grabbed ahold of his sleeve, threw him to the ground, and in a matter of seconds did some serious damage and he was rushed to the emergency room.

The bishop later reflected that, while riding in the back of the ambulance and the sirens were ringing, if he died because of blood loss, he hoped that his wife would be smart enough to tell everyone that he died chopping firewood for poor orphans.

While in reality he was really just trimming some hedges that weren’t yet in need of trimming.

However, he didn’t die.

Though at moments he wished he did.

He went through serious surgery and was stuck in the hospital for quite some time while he recovered.

And, it was during this time that a well intentioned chaplain entered the room and offered “pastoral presence.” The bishop had enough pastoral presence in his life, but he motioned for the young man to come in. The chaplain looked over the bandage wrapped around his arm and asked, “Are you a Christian?”

The bishop replied, “Sometimes.”

“Well then,” the chaplain intoned, “I suppose your accident caused you to do a lot of praying?”

And that’s when the bishop realized that throughout his whole ordeal he hadn’t felt moved to prayer in the slightest. He shared, later, that his lack of prayer was not due to a lack of faith in God’s ability to heal. The bishop was quick to note that there are scores of healing stories in scripture, that Paul considered healing a sign of God’s active grace, that the book of Acts points to the power of Christ working to heal through the disciples, and that even James the brother of Jesus calls for the people called church to pray of the sick that they might be healed.

Why then was he, a bishop in the church, so reluctant to pray?

At first he wondered if his lack of prayer could be attributed to the fact that God had better things to do with more people in need than his little chainsaw accident. But the more he thought about it, the more he thought about his aversion to the regular prayer requests he had received countless time before throughout his ministry.

That is, he was sick and tired of everyone being sick and tired in their prayers.

We’re at the tail end of what we call the season after Epiphany. Transfiguration is coming. Ash Wednesday is coming. Lent is coming. We will shortly make the journey inward to confront the condition of our own condition leading up to the cross on Good Friday, and yet, we’re still dealing with the shock of the incarnation.

Sure, most of us have packed away all the Christmas decorations weeks ago. Though, if you drive around the neighborhood around the church, you’re still likely to catch quite a few Christmas lights dangling from gutters.

But the proclamation of Christmas is one that lingers even when we move through different liturgical seasons. God, bewilderingly, refused to stay above and instead got down and dirty with us, in the flesh, and moved in next door, as it were.

Jesus, fully God and fully human, chose to be a people, a family, what we now call church.

We are the body of Christ in the world.

And how is our body faring?

Some of us we are tracking our calories constantly, or our exercising doesn’t count unless we can post it somewhere on social media. Some of us are struggling to fall asleep at night as we run through the list of things that terrify us. Some of us are making plans for the next degree, or the next job, or (heaven forbid) the next spouse.

We’re obsessed with our bodies and our physical well being. It dominates our prayers to the degree that if we ever ask someone to pray for us there’s a better than good chance that our request has to do with our, or someone else’s, body.

It dominates our waking, and sleeping life, so much so that many of us have devices strapped to our wrist that not only tell us if we move enough during the day but also if we’re getting the right kind of sleep at night.

And for those of you keeping score at home, I’m wearing one of them right now!

Our health and well being, or lack thereof, is constantly being reinforced through commercials designed to sell us on bodies that we will never have and beauty magazines that will only ever make us feel ugly.

And here’s the Christian message in the midst of all of it: it’s not up to you.

Your salvation isn’t up to you.

You can’t earn it through perfect church attendance on Sunday mornings.

You can’t earn it by giving more through the offering plate than the person next to you.

You can’t earn it from developing an 18 pack of abs.

You can’t earn your salvation because it is a gift given by the only One who can: God.

And yet, the gift of salvation, our very resurrection from the dead, means that our bodies matter today. It means that, once we come to grips with what God did and does, our being in the world changes.

The Corinthians to whom Paul writes his epistles, the Christians he derides for their foolishness, were living as if their bodies no longer mattered – they were giving in to their desires to such a degree that it was harming themselves as individuals and as a community. They were getting drunk on the wine from communion, they were trading bedfellows, they were letting their flesh and blood dictate everything about who they were.

And Paul says, “No! Listen: we’re not there yet. We’re still in our bodies in this mortal life, but the resurrected life is coming.”

Our bodies are important. As I’ve noted before – Christianity isn’t a spiritual faith, it’s an embodied one. It’s why we baptize with water, and we share bread and cup. It’s why we take seriously the needs of the hungry, and the poor, and the outcasts. And it’s why we are bold to pray for the health and well being of ourselves and others. 

But all of that is a long cry from the obsessiveness that we have with our own bodies today.

None of us have the body that we really wish we had. And if we do, we resent how much work it takes to make our bodies look and feel that way. And the older we get, the more we discover that our bodies are not as trustworthy as we thought they once were. 

Certain foods don’t sit like they used to. It’s harder to lose the holiday weight. No amount of lotions and creams can make our wrinkles disappear. And that’s not even mentioning the inability of our bodies to ward away sickness.

The bodies we are in can’t be, and won’t be, perfect.

Paul puts it this way: the flesh is weak.

That’s why he admonishes the Corinthians to not give in to each and every little desire while, at the same time, he reminds them (and us) that we need not beat ourselves up over whether or not we look and feel like we want to look and feel.

Certainly, there are moments during Jesus ministry when he healed those in need, but those moments are remarkably ambiguous. He didn’t heal every sick person in Judea, and even when he did heal he often told people to not tell anyone about it.

Whatever Jesus’ mission was, it was about more than physical restoration.

Consider: Each and every person that Jesus did heal eventually died.

Even Lazarus was raised from the dead only to die again.

Outside of scripture we should note that churches were the location for, and eventually created some of, the very first hospitals because taking care of the last, least, lost, little, and dead is part of the work of God.

But only recently has our obsession with our bodies come to dominate just about every aspect of life.

Including our prayers.

That’s not how Jesus prayed, nor it is how Jesus taught us to pray. Bread and trespasses are mentioned in the Lord’s prayer, but our illness and discomfort are not. I have heard prayers and I myself have prayed prayers about every medical diagnosis you can imagine, but I rarely pray for God’s strength to help me love my enemies, I’m not often asked to pray for someone to have the courage to actually forgive the person that harmed them. 

Prayer is, and must be, more than bringing our wish lists to Jesus, asking him for occasional help when our bodies are no longer functioning the way they are supposed to. 

Prayer, instead, is the risky attempt to let Jesus speak.

That bishop, the one who nearly cut his arm off, the one who didn’t pray in the hospital, he said he was ultimately reluctant to clasp his hands together in petition because the last thing he wanted was to risk a visit from Jesus, who usually shows up making our lives harder and not easier.

The bishop also said that one of the joys of following Jesus (and he used joy sarcastically) is that Jesus usually shows up even when we don’t pray, and sometimes because we don’t pray. 

He experienced Jesus in learning how to be dependent on someone else in his healing, something that most of us avoid at all costs – we never want to be a burden.

He experienced Jesus in the reminder of his own fragility, and his destiny to return to the dirt from which he was created.

He experienced Jesus as the only hope in the world he really had, because were his salvation up to himself, he really would be a lost cause.

There was a time when health didn’t mean just freedom from pain and physical discomfort – health meant wholeness, even holiness. And sometimes holiness is nothing more than coming to the realization that what makes the Good News good is that it isn’t up to us – it’s up to God.

Which is foolishness according to the world. The world bangs us over the head every chance it gets about the need for us to be self-made creatures, to make our own destinies, to pull ourselves up by our boot straps.

Grace, from that perspective, is complete foolishness. It is everything for nothing. It is a divine lark in the midst of overwhelming frustration. It is the only thing we need and the only thing we don’t deserve.

Our bodies will fail us, but God won’t. Maybe some of us will be fortunate enough to experience some divine healing in this life, but all of us have already received the greatest healing of all – the gift of salvation.

In the end, the only thing we have to do is trust God. And when we do that, well, then we’re living in grace and by grace.

No matter what happens to us in the course of that trust – no matter how many things we do or leave undone – if we can trust that God, by death and resurrection, has made all things new, then we can rest in our gift and relax. 

The whole diorama of all our mediocre performances (which is all we can ever really offer anyway) can’t stop the Love that refuses to let us go. If Jesus refused to condemn us because our works were rotten, then he certainly isn’t going to flunk us if our bodies aren’t perfect. 

Do you see? That means we can fail again and again and still live in the life of grace.

Because, at the very worst, all we can be is dead and for the One who is Alpha and Omega, that’s no trouble at all. Amen. 

Of First Importance

1 Corinthians 15.1-11

Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you — unless you have come to believe in vain. For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them — though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe. 

I passed on to you as of first importance what I, in turn, had received.

Jesus died for our sins.

He was buried in the tomb.

He was raised on the third day.

He appeared to Peter, and then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than 500 brothers and sisters at once.

Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.

Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me – the least of all the apostles.

And he called me (me!), the one totally and completely unfit for the church because I persecuted the church. 

But by the grace of God I am what I am, and God’s grace for me has not been in vain. And all that I have done, it’s not me, but the grace of God that is with me.

To Paul, this was of first importance.

Not a list of required behavioral attributes of the people called church.

Not a top ten list of the most important beliefs to affirm if you want to join the club.

Not a dress code of what you can, or can’t, wear to church.

Not a political party’s ideologies you must identify with.

Not even a vision of how to make the world a better place.

For Paul, a story was of first importance – the story.

Jesus lived, died, and lived again and then he appeared to the disciples.

Chances are that you’re here because you have heard this story. More often that not we discover our faith not because someone gave us a list of things to believe in, but because in receiving the story we discover ourselves within it. 

And let me tell you, it is one crazy story.

I mean, what was Jesus thinking?

Jesus does the most remarkable thing to ever happen in the history of the cosmos, resurrection from the dead, and what does he do first? He goes off to find Peter, you know, the one who denied him no less than three times prior to the crucifixion!

Jesus surely would’ve been better off doing something a little more effective. If Jesus really wanted to spread the Good News, he should’ve gone straight to the movers and shakers – the ones who get things done.

If Jesus came to turn the world upside down, then why in the world did he start with the people at the bottom?

Our Lord, the one we love and adore, the solid rock upon which we stand, didn’t knock on the doors of the emperor’s palace with holes in his hands, he didn’t fly up to the top of the temple and wait for the crowds to bow in humble reverence.

The resurrected Jesus appeared first and foremost to the very people to abandoned him.

Let us rest in that bewildering proclamation for a moment – Jesus breaks forth from the chains of death and shows up for the ragtag group of would-be followers who failed him, forsook him, and fled from him into the darkness.

Jesus chose, in this most profound and powerful of moments, to return to his betrayers.

Jesus returns to us.

This is why the Good News is something that has captivated the hearts and minds of many for centuries. Jesus sees us more in us than we see in ourselves… Jesus does his work, his very best work, through people like us!

People who don’t deserve it one bit.

Think about Peter and Paul – Peter was a perjurer and Paul was a murderer – a denier of the faith and a killer of the faith.

And even before all that, Peter was nothing but a dirty rotten fisherman, and he wasn’t even very good at it. Out all night and not a single fish to show for his efforts. And Paul? Paul was a tentmaker! How could that possibly help in spreading the Gospel?

It would’ve been news enough that this first century rabbi rose from the dead, but it’s Good News because he rose for them.

The church can be a lot of things. Depending on which one you enter, it can be a safe space for spiritual reflection with high vaulted ceilings and stained glass windows and incense. It can be a transformative assault on the senses with a Technicolor light show and a bumping praise band. And yet, regardless of the trimmings and the trappings, the outward appearance and the theological architecture, the church usually falls into one of two categories:

A group of good people who weekly pat themselves on the back for being gooder than everyone else.

Or a group of people who come together to cope with their failure to be good.

The first group sounds nice, and it can even be nice, but only for a short time. Because, eventually, all the shiny proclamations about all of our goodness fades away when we come to grips with the condition of our condition. One day all of the things that used to bring us comfort no longer ring true because we know ourselves and we know the world.

Basically, we discover that our goodness isn’t good enough.

We need something (read: someone) to do for us what we can’t do on our own.

The second group however, it doesn’t sell. 

What do you think would happen if we put this on our church sign: “Raleigh Court UMC, we’re bad and we know it.”?

That doesn’t compel people to wake up early on a Sunday morning, and it certainly doesn’t drive people to knock on the neighbor’s doors with invitations to worship. 

And yet the story of Jesus Christ, the one Paul proclaimed to the Corinthians, is that God comes to us not because we are good, but because we aren’t. And when we start to see that, not just in the strange new world of the Bible, but in our very lives, it is the difference that makes all the difference.

For a long time in the church there was an aspect of testimony, of witness. After all, that’s what Paul is doing in the letter. He shared with them how God had worked in his life. Therefore Christians, for centuries, have carved out time and space to proclaim the wonderful works of the Lord by pointing to the ways in which they had experienced the remarkable love and work of the God who refuses to abandon us.

And that’s exactly what we’re going to do right now.

I know this might be a tad uncomfortable – We’re Methodists. We like to talk about the Spirit moving, but it’s another things entirely to give ourselves over to see what the Spirit can stir up from within us. 

Nevertheless, of first importance is the story that is our story. So, if you feel comfortable sharing how you have experienced the story of Christ in your life, how Christ has been the difference that has made all the difference, if you have something to share, I encourage you to come up to the microphone and proclaim that Good News…

Gentle As A Lamb

Philippians 4.1-9

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved. I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your mind in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you. 

Stand firm,” Paul writes to the church in Philippi. “Don’t give in to the pressures that surround you. Don’t be like other people with their judgments and their hostilities. Remember: You’re Christians. So act like it. Try being gentle. Don’t sweat the small stuff. God is close by. God listens to your prayers. And, in the end, if you find anything, true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, and excellent, think about those things. Do what you learned and received from me and the God of peace will be with you.

Let your gentleness be known to everyone. Do not worry about anything.

Thanks for the advice Paul.

But, have you seen the world recently?

It feels like the ground is crumbling under our feet, from police brutality, to a never-ending Presidential Election season, to the fact the the Coronavirus has infected some of the most powerful people in the country who work in the White House.

So, Paul, we appreciate your not-so-subtle nudges here at the end of your letter. But gentleness, and a spirit of non-anxiety, just doesn’t quite cut it right now.

And yet, we can’t help ourselves from loving these suggestive lines from the apostle. Perhaps some of us even have them on perfectly crafted Etsy prints adorning our living room walls.

They all sound like pretty good ideas. After all, who wouldn’t want Christians to be more gentle and less anxious?

Particularly in the moment we find ourselves in! 

Just take a gander at the evening news sometime and note how those who call themselves Christians often comport themselves. Generally, they’re either the ones pointing out the signs of the times as God’s wrathful judgments falling down upon all of us, or they’re spending their time calling into question the behavior, words, and actions of other Christians for not being faithful enough.

So, if you’re like me, living in moderate comfort, usually surrounded by like-minded people, gentleness sounds not only like a nice idea, but a needed one.

Maybe, then, Paul was on to something. That, considering the condition of our current conditions, the best thing Christians can and should do is be gentle toward others.

Thanks Pauly! We’ll get to work on it right away.

Furthermore, we hear Paul’s recommendations of gentleness as a confirmation that whatever it means to be Christian is pretty much the same thing as being a good person.

Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we were all more gentle, regardless of whether or not we confess Jesus as our Lord?

And this line of thought makes sense considering that among the many Christianities that exist, the majority of them don’t like to highlight any differences between those who are, and those who are not, Christian.

Its why, on more occasions that I can count, when I’ve asked parents about why they’re choosing to have their respective children baptized they almost always respond with, “We want to raise them in the church so they know what it means to be a good person.”

Which is fine. Except, there’s a teeny tiny little problem with assuming that, in the end, Christianity is just about being nice.

And the problem is this: Paul wrote this letter from behind bars!

If we want to assume that what Paul writes about gentleness is generally recognized as a good thing, something that would make all of us and the world a better place, then how the hell did Paul get himself arrested?

The same question can be asked of Martin Luther King Jr. For, if what Dr. King really wanted was a world where we all just got a long, where we shared a little more love and cared more about the content of character than the color of skin, then why did somebody murder him?

The same question can also be asked of Jesus: For, if Jesus just wanted us to merely love our neighbors as ourselves, and spread a little more kindness in the world, then why did we nail him to the cross?

That Paul writes these words, these admonitions, from jail challenges our manifold presumptions about gentleness being as innocent as we might assume it is.

Many years ago in a small Southern town a meeting was held among the white folk in the community about the fears of integration. The small auditorium was packed to the brim with all of the well-regarded types, the business owners and country club members, and they focused their entire conversation on how to save our schools, how do we keep them out of our schools? One by one angry speakers rose to call for a boycott, or resistance, or even a show of force against the changing times in order to protect ours from theirs.

In the back of the audition stood an old, half-broken Baptist preacher who had baptized, married, or buried just about every one in the town at one time or another. He came late to the meeting that night and listened intently to the unrest among the present community.

After a hour or so of the crowd’s racist tirades, he raised his hand and asked for the microphone. The crowd made way for their beloved pastor as he, with dignity, made his way to the podium. He stood before the microphone and let his eyes slowly sweep across the room before saying, rather boldly, “You all ought to be ashamed of yourselves.”

The crowd sat in nervous silence until a man in the first row shouted, “Well, that’s not very Christian of you, Reverend.”

To which the preacher lowered his head an said, “There is neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, white or black, rich or poor, educated or uneducated, for there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism. Go home and read your damn Bibles!”

Again, there was silence. 

He continued, “Looking over this assembly, looking at your faces, I this night have realized that I am the worst preacher in the world.”

A muffled gasp came forth from the gathering.

“If you think that anything in our faith justifies your presences here, that the sentiments expressed tonight are in any way exemplary of the way of Jesus, then I have failed miserably in my work as a preacher. I have poured out my life for nothing.”

Then, with the auditorium reduced to stunned and uncomfortable silence, the preacher walked to the back of the room and slammed the door as he left. 

The presider over the meeting made a rather awkward attempt to resume, but for all intents and purposes the evening was over. Slowly, people drifted out.

A few months later the school integrated without incident. 

Let your gentleness be known to everyone.

Paul, writing across the centuries to us today, continues on after his apparent call to kindness with this: Keep on doing the things that you have learn and received and heard and seen in me.

To be honest, gentleness is not the first characteristic that comes to mind when thinking about Paul. Paul was a frenetic ball of Spirit-filled energy who never backed away from a theological fight that he thought needed to be fought. 

And neither is gentleness the first thing that comes to mind when considering Jesus. 

Of course we have these images of a gentle Jesus in our mind, going after the one lost sheep, and of gathering the children close, and sharing one last meal with his friends. 

But in order to save the one lost sheep Jesus leaves ninety-nine to fend for themselves, before gathering the children close he had overturned all of the tables at the temple, and after eating bread and drinking wine with his friends he was betrayed, abandoned, beaten, and left to die.

To be fair – Christians are those called to gentleness, but our gentleness must be true. And truth often requires conflict and confrontation.

Notice: Paul doesn’t recommend that the Philippians should try to be gentle. Rather, he says, “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.” Those who follow the Lord do not become gentle, but rather are formed into gentleness by being made citizens of heaven, baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ. 

That citizenship, the truest any of us will ever have, means that Christians are a people bound and consisted by the Lord and not by the powers and principalities of this life.

Christian gentleness is not letting your crazy uncle get away with his racist rambling without calling into question his behavior and the institutions that formed him in that way.

Christian gentleness is taking the time and making the effort to make sure that all voices are being lifted rather than just those that already hold all the power even if it means calling into question those who hold the power, how they got it, and why they’re unwilling to let it go.

Christian gentleness is showing up the the first and the last, the poor and the rich, the weak and the strong, that all might come to know there is a better way not in us, but in Jesus.

Paul calls the readers of his letter to imitate him and the Paul we are called to imitate was baptized by the fire of the Holy Spirit. That baptism means that death, and the fear of it, no longer ruled Paul’s life. What mattered to Paul, more than anything else, was knowing Jesus Christ.

And knowing Jesus makes all the difference.

Knowing Jesus is knowing that all the stuff of this world crumbles away when compared with the glory of God.

Knowing Jesus is knowing a willingness to be combative about the things that really matter.

Knowing Jesus is knowing a truth about ourselves and the world that other would rather ignore.

In the end, there is no good in us. In spite of our attempts to be gentle, we mostly rest contented to do nothing or we take it too far and use our faith as a bludgeon against others. But the gentleness Paul writes of does not begin or come from us alone – It’s from Jesus.

As the Christ Hymn at the beginning of the letter goes: God emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, humbling himself, and becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 

That is exactly the gentleness Paul believes has re-formed the Christian community in Philippi and across the world. Gentleness first comes from God.

Consider, Paul ends this section with another laundry list not of things to do, but things to consider. For, it is Jesus who determines our understandings of truth, honor, justice, and purity. 

Jesus’ truth is known in the silence that refuses to accept the empire’s power in the person of Pontius Pilate.

Jesus’ honor is made known in the humiliation of his cross.

Jesus’ justice is found in the refusal to abandon the least of these to their own devices.

Jesus’ purity is discovered in the joy of the resurrection of the dead.

Paul commended these things to the Philippians, so that they (and we today) might live in peace, rejoicing always, and resting in the Good News even in a world that knows no peace, joy, or rest.

We are formed not by being or trying to be better people, but instead we are formed by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

Jesus might’ve been as gentle as a lamb, but he was also the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. And what could be gentle about that? Amen.

God Helps

Psalm 121

I lift my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth. He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. He who keeps Israel will neither slumber not sleep. The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade at your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.

A woman was walking down the street one afternoon when all of the sudden the ground fell out beneath her and she fell into a giant sinkhole. After she brushed herself off, she realized that the walls were far too steep to climb out by herself so she began crying out for help.

A doctor was passing by and looked down into the pit when the woman yelled up, “Hey! I’m stuck down here. Can you help me out?”

The doc thought about it for a moment, pulled out a notepad, wrote a prescription, tossed it into the hole and kept walking.

Later, a preacher came walking along and the woman shouted up, “Hey Rev! Please help. I’m stuck down in this hole and I can’t get out!” 

The pastor slowly put his hands together, said a prayer for the woman, and kept walking.

Next, a sweet older woman from the local church walked to the edge and the woman in the pit shouted, “Please help! I’m starting to get desperate down here.”

To which the older lady replied, “Honey, don’t you know that God helps those who help themselves?” And she kept walking.

Finally, a friend of the woman in the hole arrived. “Hey! It’s me down here,” she shouted, “Can you please get me out of here?” And the friend jumped straight down into the pit. The woman said, “You idiot! Now we’re both stuck down here!”

And that’s when the friend said, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.” 

A few years ago the results of a national poll were published and it was discovered that more than 8 out of every 10 Americans think, “God Helps Those Who Help Themselves” is in the Bible. Even more troubling is the fact that more than half of the people who were part of the poll were strongly convinced that is is one of the core messages of scripture!

And it’s not in the Bible!

The expression itself is thought to be traced back to Benjamin Franklin in Poor Richard’s Almanac in 1736.

And yet a super majority of Americans (even American Christians) believe it’s straight from the lips of Jesus!

Now, of course, there is a small smidgen of truth to the statement. After all, if we sit around at our dinner tables praying for manna from heaven, we’re probably going to be left empty handed. However, we can eat because God has blessed creation with abundance and the means by which we can procure food for our tables whether its gardens in our yard or employment in order to purchase food.

Likewise, focusing in school, listening and responding to our spouses, nurturing our children, all of these things result in the betterment of our lives because we have worked for them to be better.

However, all of that pales in comparison to how “God Helps Those Who Help Themselves” has been used by Christians to avoid our obligations to help others.

The expression in question has far more to do with capitalism than it does with Christianity. In fact, it’s rather antithetical to the message of scripture as a whole for God is the God of deliverance for a people undeserving.

People like us.

The truth is: some people cannot help themselves.

Period. Full stop.

Societal discrimination, generational poverty, institutional racism, natural disasters, and a host of other problems prevent people from helping themselves.

Some people, in fact most people, are in holes so deep with walls so steep, that there’s no way they’ll ever climb out without help.

Food scarcity is a major problem in our area here in Woodbridge. As long as I’ve been the pastor here we’ve participated in a food distribution program once a month where huge crowds of people show up just to receive food. They will often stand in line in the heat of summer and in the cold of winter for hours at times just for a chance to bring home a grocery store bag’s worth of food.

Our local elementary school, right across the street, has a majority of students who, when schools are actually open, have free or reduced price lunches. And for many of those students its the only reliable food source they have in any given week.

And I lost track a long time ago how many people have stopped by our doors on any given day asking simply for food. Not for money, not for gas, not for anything else but food.

Now, can you imagine what it would be like if, every time someone asked the church for food we responded with, “Um, don’t you know you’re supposed to work on yourself before God will do something for you? How about you come back next week with at least three examples of how you’ve turned your life around before we give you some food? Ok bye!”

And, just for the sake of clarity, food really is everything. A few years ago a national study was published in which countless researchers looked into what were the best things to do in order to increase the education of students across the country. They looked at smaller class sizes, access to newer textbooks, different educational models, and on and on and on. And do you know what they found to be the best indication of increasing education?

Food.

In the end, they discovered, it doesn’t matter whether students have computers, or better textbooks, or smaller class sizes. If they don’t have access to food, none of those things make a difference.

The Church, and I mean the whole big “C” church, cannot shrug off the responsibility to care for the other with the use of yet another trite and cliche non-biblical sentence because God, more often than not, actually commands the people called church to specifically do for the last, least, lost, and little what they can’t for themselves.

Just pick up a Bible sometime, scan through any number of prominent stories from both the Old and New Testaments – it will become quickly clear how the actual biblical truth is that God helps those who CAN’T help themselves.

Leviticus 23.22 – God says, ‘When you harvest your land’s produce, you must not harvest all the way to the edge of your field; and don’t gather every remaining bit of your harvest. Leave these items for the poor and the immigrant; I am the Lord your God.”

It’s as if God is saying, “Look, I know you think these fields belong to you, but they actually belong to me. So quit hoarding up all your food because there are others who need it more than you. My kingdom is bigger than your field.”

Hosea 6:6 – The prophet writes on behalf of God, “I desire faithful love and not sacrifice.”

It’s as if God is saying, “Look, I know you think you’ve got this whole worship thing figured out. That, as long as you do enough good things for your faith, you’re covered. But do you know what I love more than all your singing and all your praising? When you actually put your faith into action and care for the people I care for most.”

James 1.27 – James implores the early church that, “true devotion, the kind that is pure and faultless before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their difficulty.”

It’s as if God is saying, “Look, remember how I delivered you out of slavery in Egypt, remember how I delivered you out of the bondage to sin and death in Jesus Christ? The kingdom is all about delivering people from a worldly reality into a kingdom reality. The kingdom is all about doing things for people who can’t do them on their own. Get it?”

I could go on and on.

And, you what? I think I will…

Consider Jesus and the feeding of the 5,000. He’s been out teaching and preaching and healing all day in the heat of the sun, and as the day comes to a close the disciples realize that these people need something to eat so maybe it would be better for them to return home.

And what does Jesus say?

“Hey, listen up, uh you all need to start pulling yourselves up by your bootstraps. There are no handouts in the kingdom of God. Thanks for coming out today. Bye.”

Or: “Look, I know you’re hungry, but if I give you fish to eat it will only help you for today. So instead we’re going down to the water and I’m going to teach you how to fish for yourselves.”

No.

Jesus says to his disciples, “You give them something to eat.”

And when they can only rustle up a few loaves of bread and a handful of fish, Jesus miraculously makes it into a meal for 5,000, with leftovers.

Jesus did for the crowds that day what the disciples and the crowds themselves could no do on their own.

Again and again in the New Testament Jesus connects with the brokenness within every community and brings healing.

He sends the abandoned and forgotten back to the villages that disowned them.

He feeds and heals and teaches out of the abundant mercy of God.

Jesus helps people precisely because they cannot help themselves.

I don’t know what you’ve got going on in your life right now, I can’t even see you to know, on your faces, whether this is sinking in at all. 

But maybe, just maybe, you feel like you’re down in a pit – life just won’t let up and you feel overwhelmed and suffocated by worry, fear, and anxiety.

Or perhaps you’ve lost someone you love and every single day is a biting and ringing reminder that you will never get them back.

Or maybe you’re struggling with an addiction that, no matter how hard you try, you just can’t kick it.

We can claw at the walls all we want. We can fashion ladders of self-improvement. We can even make promises to ourselves that tomorrow we will finally become the best versions of ourselves.

But sometimes, the only way out of the hole comes when someone else is willing to jump in and show us the way out.

The psalmist puts it this way: “I lift my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth.”

We lift our eyes to the edge of the pit and we discover, bewilderingly enough, that our help comes from God.

God, in the person of Jesus Christ, is the friend who recklessly jumps into the depths of our despair, who never abandons us even we go off assuming we can do it all on our own (thank you very much), who humbles himself to the humiliating status of humanity just to be born into this broken world of ours.

That’s who comes to help us.

And that’s the whole point.

God helps those who cannot help themselves, and so too we do the same because that’s exactly what God did, and does, for us.

God was born into the world as a fragile child into the deepest pit of fear and terror for a couple all alone in the world.

God went to the margins of society in Christ Jesus sinking lower and lower just to be with the abandoned, neglected, and forgotten.

God chose the broken and the battered to dwell among in order that, in the end, they would be delivered from the miserable estate.

God even went the depth of death just to bring each and every one of us to the other side of salvation. 

And God did and does all of this without cost. 

The grace of God made manifest in Jesus Christ is not something we can earn, buy, or even work for. To put a finer point on it – We cannot help ourselves into grace.

Grace is something done for us and to us.

It jumps into the hole right next to us, and it shows us the way out. Amen.

The Times They Are A-Changin’

Psalm 90.1-12

Lord you have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God. You turn us back to dust, and say, “Turn back, you mortals.” For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night. You sweep them away; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning; in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers. For we are consumed by your anger; by your wrath we are overwhelmed. You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your countenance. For all our days pass away under your wrath; our years come to an end like a sigh. The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away. Who considers the power of your anger? Your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you. So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart. 

For the month of September we’re going to keep things simple – though, when in the church is anything simple? When in our lives is anything simple? Well, we’re going to try and bring some simplicity in the midst of all our complexities each Sunday till the end of the month.

The whole series is focused on the materially simple life that Jesus led, taught, and exemplified. And, each week, we’re going to have a challenges that accompany our worship.

The bible spends a lot of time addressing a great number of topics, but time, money, possessions, prayer, and food are the topics that Jesus talked about the most. And, when Jesus addressed these issues for the people of his days, he came at all of them with an air of simplicity that is often lost in the church today. 

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I walked into the oil change waiting room and discovered a great mosaic of people who littered the chairs and walls with their waiting bodies. There, in that tiny dimly lit room, was a microcosm of Woodbridge in which just about every person and culture and community was represented. And in the midst of this great variety of differences, there was one thing that bound all of us together: impatience.

From the time it took to walk through the door to the only open seat, I took in the surroundings like a detective looking for clues… 

There was the mom fiddling with her cellphone while using her other hand to gently rock her infant back and forth in a stroller while her toddler was laughing manically in the corner as he ripped pages out of magazines one at a time.

There was a youngish businessman who looked like he was going to wear straight through the bottom of his $900 shoes as he paced back and forth muttering profanities under his breath.

There was the teenager who, I kid you not, was using a cellphone in each hand while his eyes were dashing back and forth as he no doubt kept his friends updated through every form of social media about the buzzkill of waiting for his car to be ready.

And there was me, the inconspicuous pastor who sat down and promptly opened up my laptop to start working on this very sermon. I got all of one line written when a much older gentleman caned his way into the room and decisively frowned as he saw not a single open chair.

Friends, I have to admit that my first reaction was to sink a little lower in my chair and tell myself not to make eye contact, because if I made eye contact I knew I would offer my spot, and the hoped for hour of good work would be lost, and he would probably try to have a conversation with me.

But with every passing second, and every ignored glance, the man just kept standing there as if the only thing holding him up was the tennis balled walker that shook ever so slightly under his hands.

So, of course, I begrudgingly packed up the computer, and motioned for the man to take my seat.

And he beamed.

If I were to ask you to describe your life, not here in front of everyone but say we were having lunch, what would you say? Where does your mind travel first?

Do you think your life is simple, or does it feel complicated? 

Time is something all of us think about and mull over more than just about anything else. I could go on and on with stories of people feeling overwhelmed by the concerns and constrains of time. We are fascinated by the fictitious accounts of time travel because they drive deep into the heart of our fears regarding time. We listen to songs about how time keeps on slipping slipping slipping. 

Even in our hymns! Time is now fleeting the moments are passing…

We all experience time differently – those of us chasing our kids around feel very different about time than the empty nesters next door, and very different than the teenagers just hoping to breeze through high school. 

Time is a harsh mistress.

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And even though we all experience it differently, our general attitude toward it is largely the same: we don’t have enough of it.

Last week, I stood here before all of you at the beginning of our worship service, and I made a joke about how even though I was on vacation for a week at the beach, I spent most of it chasing my son from the dunes to the ocean over and over again. I told you that it was exhausting. And I haven’t been able to stop thinking about that off the cuff comment in worship. Because I went on vacation! And then came back to all of this, only to complain about my vacation!

The fact that we live in a world in which some of us believe we need vacation from vacation should be enough to give us pause about our struggles with time.

And so of course, we wrestle with the day to day, we complain about not having enough time, we lament all the things we have been unable to complete, we stress about future endeavors, and our time becomes incredibly complex.

I stood just off to the side leaning against the wall as the older gentleman eased into my former seat. I motioned to grab a book out of my bag but before I had a chance to open it up the man said, “Don’t you just love getting your oil changed?” Thinking he was maybe addressing the room, I waited for anyone to respond until it was clear he was speaking to me. And then, as I thought about the question, I wondered, “Who in the world likes getting their oil changed?!?!” So I just muttered some sort of inaudible affirmation and the man said, “When else do you get such a great opportunity to make a stranger into a friend?” 

And then he did.

For an hour and a half, that honestly only felt like fifteen minutes, we started the bonds of friendship. I learned about his life and wife, his favorite television program (his words), and I even discovered that he has a pretty consistent record of ruining meatloaf.

And the more we talked, the more I found myself relaxing, the more I forgot why I was standing around in a room full of strangers, and when the service writer called out my name, I thought about ignoring it just so I could stick around a little longer.

When I went to shake his hand and say goodbye the last thing he said to me was, “Thanks for sharing your time with me.”

Our time has been changed in Jesus Christ because Jesus is God’s time for us. While we continue to stumble around in a world in which we feel like we never have enough time, God triumphantly declares, “I have time for you!” That, in its deepest and simplest way, its what the incarnation is. God made God’s self available to us in the person of Christ that we might truly know what the gift of time really is.

Because here, on this side of Easter, we live in a new created time. God is free for us, and God is with us and among us, God has become us. And that Good News is all the stranger when we encounter the words read for us this morning. According to the psalmist… God is anything but us! For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, you sweep them away. We fly away but you are God forever. 

The psalmist creates for us a vision of the divine as the unmovable and unshakable presence of eternity in which all of us are like the sands of time swept away almost without notice. Reading this psalm, at face value, makes us dread the passage of time even more! But it is the light of Christ, in the glorious news of God’s incarnation, we discover the passion of the Good News that God gave us time in Jesus.

To have time for someone else might not seem like much. Most of us here encounter a great number of people every day or every week, we exchange news and maintain conversations without having to give it much thought. But in reality, having time for someone else is to make manifest all the blessings one person can show another.

When we give anyone our time, we give them the last and most personal thing we have to give at all, namely ourselves.

Time, with its finite and fleeting nature, is the one thing all of us have, though none of us know how much of it we have. That’s what makes it so confounding. We imagine it to be so much of a precious commodity that we worry ourselves into oblivion about wasting any of it.

But time, at least Godly time – biblical time, is much more simple than that. 

So teach us, O Lord, to count our days that we may gain a wise heart – When we spend as much time as we do worrying about time, we neglect to do the good and important work of being appreciative for the time we have been given. Or, to put it another way, we spend so much time worrying about time, that we aren’t grateful for time at all.

As I said at the beginning of the sermon, each Sunday this month we will encounter the simple qualities of complex realities, but we will also have challenges that accompany our worship. This week, each of us will be challenged to reimagine our calendars (and these instructions will be handed out after the service). We are asking that every night, until next Sunday, you take the time to write down in a journal at least one thing that happened to you during that day for which you are grateful. That might sound overly simplistic, but that’s kind of the point.

With the myriad of ways we are fast-forwarding through the frantic and frantic pace of life, far too many of us are not taking the time to be mindful of our time. 

So you can keep it as simple as writing down one thing that happened for which you are grateful. Time set apart to reflect on your time. 

Or you can take it a step farther and write about how much time you spent on things that give you life, and things that don’t. 

Or you can take it even one step farther and write about ways in which you will try to spend more more time the following day on connecting with God, and with other people. 

When we take the time, to be grateful for our time, that’s when the time around us begins to change. Because instead of resenting our lack of time we begin to appreciate what time we do have. Instead of belittling others for taking up our time, we begin to see them as timely people who have given their time to us. And instead of continuing to meander and miss the beauty of the time we have been given, we begin to see that God is the one who gave it to us. Amen.

God Won’t Give You More Than You Can Handle

Mark 2.1-5

When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

 

 

On the day of the funeral, everything felt too familiar. The pews were filling up with the same people who were here the week before, the same family was waiting in the narthex, and our organist was even playing some of the same music as people were walking in.

I stood right here in front of the gathered congregation and asked everyone to stand for the family. Leading the profession were two daughters who were about to bury their father after burying their mother the week before. Their grief and pain and anger were palpable as they slowly walking down the center aisle, and everyone watched them as they passed.

And we did what we do for a service of death and resurrection. We prayed. We opened up the hymnals and proclaimed God’s faithfulness through song. We listened. We grieved. We cried.

As we finished, I watched the pallbearers stand up and surround the coffin. With hands shaking in nervousness and fear they carried their friend’s body out of the church and put him in the hearse.

And we did what we do when travel to a cemetery. We got in our cars and turned on our hazard lights. We followed one another through the streets of Staunton. We watched cars slow down and pull over out of respect for what we were doing. We drove. We listened. We grieved. We cried.

After arriving at the cemetery, I watched the same pallbearers carry the coffin to the grave over uncertain soil. With sweat perspiring on their foreheads they lowered their friend to the ground and stood beside the family.

And we did what we do by the graveside. We prayed. We listened. We placed dirt on the coffin. We said what we needed to say. We listened. We grieved. We cried.

After the final “Amen” I waited by the grave with a few others, making sure the family was comforted. I overheard familiar and charming anecdotes about the man we just gathered to bury. I witnessed family members reach out to one another for the first time in many years. I saw a lot of tissues filled with tears wadded up in clenched fists.

And then I saw something I’ll never forget. A man, unknown to me, walked right over to one of the daughters devastated by the loss of both her parents. He placed his hand on her shoulder and said, “Don’t worry, God won’t give you more than you can handle.” And with that he turned around and walked away.

God won’t give you more than you can handle.

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I’m sure that all of us here have heard this statement, or some form of it, in our lives. It is part of that trite and cliché Christian-lingo that we use to fill uncomfortable silences when we don’t know what else to say. And it’s not true.

Let’s start with the beginning: God won’t give you… We’ve talked about it with every sermon of this series so far; God doesn’t give us our sufferings. God is not some sadist who delights in our trials and tribulations. God is not some architect of divine destruction. God is not sitting up in heaven plotting away about what terrible things to send for us to handle.

Can you imagine going to a devastated neighborhood in Chicago to families whose sons have been killed by gunfire and saying, “Don’t worry God won’t give you more than you can handle”?

Can you imagine going to a young mother recently diagnosed with breast cancer and saying, “Don’t worry, God won’t give you more than you can handle”?

Can you imagine going to the millions of people in this country who are terrified of losing their healthcare coverage in the next few months and saying, “Don’t worry, God won’t give you more than you can handle?”

God did not kill those families’ sons, God did not give that woman breast cancer, and God is not responsible for the arguments about whether or not to eradicate the Affordable Care Act.

Sometimes, we say things like “God won’t give you more than you can handle” because we don’t know what else to say. We encounter the shadow of suffering that is so suffocating we don’t know how to respond. So instead, we will that awful void with awful words. And we make God into a monster.

The problem is that when we use trite and cliché words like the ones we are confronting this morning, we imply that God chooses to make people suffer.

Jesus, God incarnate, had been on the road for a while, going from town to town, synagogue to synagogue, proclaiming the Good News, teaching about the kingdom of God, and healing those on the margins of society. Word about his ministry spread pretty vast, and he returned to Capernaum for a few days, perhaps to rest. But so many people knew where he was that they surrounded his house and Jesus spoke the Word to them.

Some friends heard about what was happening, so they went to their paralyzed friend and carried him on a mat to Jesus. When they could not bring him to the Messiah because of the crowd, they carried him to the roof, dug through the ceiling, and lowered their friend to Jesus. And when Jesus saw the faith of the friends, he looked at the paralytic and said, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

What a strange and beautiful story. Friends with such profound faith were willing to carry their friend, and dig through a roof, just so he could encounter the living God.

I often wonder about the tradition of pallbearers at funerals. Did it start of out a practical necessity? Is there strong theological purpose behind it? Is it a unique Christian behavior?

But on the day I buried a husband after burying his wife the week before, the day I saw a man dismissively respond to the daughter’s suffering, I saw the connection between pallbearers, and the friends who carried the paralytic to Jesus.

When we cannot handle what’s happening in our lives, we need people who can carry us, and the ones we love, to Jesus.

We will face adversity in our lives. We will experience hardships. We, or someone we love, may struggle with debilitating depression or suicidal thoughts or grief so heavy it feels like someone is sitting on our chest. We might give in to the temptation of an addiction and lose contact with the people we need most. We may fall into a pit of financial debt that feels impossible to climb out of.

If we are like most human beings, at some point we will absolutely face things that are more than we can handle.

So here’s a corrective. It’s not that God won’t give you more than you can handle, but that God will help you handle all that you’ve been given.

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This acknowledges that trials and tribulation will occur in our lives, and it promises that when we go through the muck and grime of life, God will be present.

When we’re walking through hard times, whether they were given to us by the random chance of life, or they’re a result of our own brokenness, or they’re signs of our captivity to the powers and principalities, it’s okay and good to admit, “I can’t handle this by myself, and I need help.” There are times when we need a doctor, or a therapist to carry us. More often, we need family, friends, pastors, neighbors, and brothers and sisters in our church family to come alongside us to carry us through.

God does not give us more than we can handle. God gives us Jesus Christ so that we can handle what life gives us.

For a lot of people, what happened on Friday in Washington DC was more than they could handle. Whether it was the pent up frustration with the political rhetoric that overflowed over the last 18 months, or witnessing a billionaire place his hands on Abraham Lincoln’s bible, or experiencing the great swing of the pendulum from one political ideology to another, it felt overwhelming. Some responded with violent protests and destroyed shop windows and attacked the police. Others responded with peaceful demonstrations making sure their voices were not stomped out among all the shouting debauchery. There were the political talking heads offering their opinions about who was right and who was wrong. There were smug smiles and there were frightening frowns. The inauguration, for some, was more than they could handle.

For others, the last eight years has been more than they could handle. Whether it was the constant feeling like the country was slipping out of their fingers, or the realization that the American dream is not what it once was, or the rise of oppositional and divisive voices, it felt overwhelming. Some responded with protests and boycotts of particular institutions, others responded by focusing inwardly and praying for change, and still yet others waited patiently for a new direction. For eight years there were plenty of talking heads offering their unsolicited opinions about who was right and who was wrong. The last eight years, for some, was more than they could handle.

Some say the time has come for all of us to just get along. A couple weeks ago I even told you that we, as a church, should have a collective New Year’s resolution to be more kind.

Kindness and getting along are good and nice. But there are people around us, people in our lives, who need more than kindness and getting along. There are people desperately clinging to the hope of their healthcare coverage completely unsure of what it about to happen. There are people who are hopeless when confronting their joblessness and economic futures. There are people shaking and quaking about their faith and whether or not they are going to be forced to register themselves because they wear a particular piece of cloth on their heads. There are people who see police officers as enemies and not community protectors.

There are people in our community; there are people in our church, who have more than they can handle right now.

We need people, like the friends who carried the paralytic to Jesus, to carry others who have more than they can handle. We need people who can look us in the eye and tell us we have a problem. We need people who will call their friends every night just to get them through a profound period of loss. We need people like all the women who marched in solidarity all across the world yesterday. We need people with eyes wide open to the horrible suffering of the people around us so that it does not go on unnoticed. We need people who are unafraid of the consequences for questioning the status quo. Right now, we need people who are brave enough to carry us to Jesus. Amen.

 

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Why We Do What We Do – Pray

Mark 10.46-52

They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

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The receiving line following worship is vastly underrated. A lot of people make their way out of the sanctuary quickly, whereas others will wait in line just to ask that one question that popped up during the service. It never ceases to amaze me that some of the most profoundly theological and spiritual moments that take place at St. John’s happen in that line after worship on Sunday mornings.

This month’s sermon series “Why We Do What We Do” has its roots in those conversations. Week after week I will hear some of you wonder about the purpose of an acolyte carrying in the flame for worship, or you ask about the value and importance of having a time for offering and collection, or you question why we talk so much about bible study, or you remark about how difficult it is to pray. If you’ve ever left church with a question on your heart and mind, this sermon series is for you.

Today we will explore why we pray.

We’ve all been there before. We’re driving through the parking lot, maybe running a little bit late, and we cannot find a parking spot to save our lives. We search and search, we circle and circle, but nothing opens up and the more we look at the clock the more nervous and frustrated we become.

The man was driving through the grocery store parking lot with a list of items to purchase in his pocket and not a parking spot in sight. To complicate matters, the man’s wife is pregnant at home and he knows that the only thing that will make her happy is a jar of pickles, ice cream, and a bag of Doritos (all on his list). He had rushed out of the house with the hope of returning home with the necessary items as soon as possible, but the lot is full and he’s running out of time.

He decides its time to resort to the guy in the sky. Not the normal praying type, he’s not sure how to start. “Um… God, I’m not sure if you can hear me, but it’s me calling. I need your help. I don’t know how long I’ve been circling this lot, but I need a parking space. Maybe you don’t realize how getting this stuff for my wife will earn me some major brownie points. And I need those brownie points.”

He keeps driving around with no spots opening up, so he decides its time to step up his game: “God, I’ve been a good guy. I give to charity. I listen to others. I try not to swear. Can’t you just help me out this one time?”

Nothing. If the man was desperate before, now he’s starting to panic. He decides it’s time to make a deal. “Okay God, if you give me a parking space I will go to church every Sunday for the rest of my life. I will start tithing money to the church. I’ll even volunteer in the nursery…” When all of the sudden he rounds a corner to see a perfect spot open up just within his reach and decides to finish his prayer: “Forget it God, I found a spot on my own.”

In the story immediately preceding our scripture today James and John (the sons of Zebedee) want something from Jesus. To which Jesus asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” “We want to sit on your right and left in your glory!” They want power and prestige, and they want Jesus to give it to them. And what does Jesus say? “You do not know what you are asking for.”

Why-Pray

Then they came to Jericho. As Jesus and the disciples were walking with a large crowd, Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth walking by, he began to cry out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” However, the crowds were so large that Jesus was unable to hear Bartimaeus, and those closest to the blind man ordered him to be quiet. But Bartimaeus was no ordinary man so he continued to yell out, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus immediately stood still and called the man forward.

The crowds who have just moments ago ordered the blind man to be quiet now begin to shower him with praise: “Take heart! Get up, he is calling you!” Bartimaeus jumped up from the road and threw off his cloak, his one possession of value, and makes his way to the Lord. Then Jesus asks Bartimaeus the same question he asked the sons of Zebedee: “What do you want me to do for you.” But Bartimaeus’ prayer is completely different from the disciples and we can almost picture him kneeling before Jesus and saying, “My Lord, let me see again.

Why do we pray?

One answer, of course, is that we want God to do something for us. We cry out to God in the midst of suffering for healing, when we are lost we call out for direction, and when we are afraid we ask for peace. We need something from God so we ask for it through prayer.

Another reason to pray is to commune with God. These prayers are not based on receiving something in particular, but setting time apart to listen for the ways that God is speaking in the world. Instead of listing all of our needs and wants, we wait and tune into God’s frequency.

Yet, the majority of prayers come in the form of a need. Sadly, prayer is often our last resort when we can no longer bring order out of the chaos in life and we rely on a higher power to straighten out our mess.

How do we pray?

For centuries faithful disciples have experimented with ways to pray. Silence is always a good place to start. Finding a quiet space and time in our lives and just letting the worries of the world float away. Like Bartimaeus throwing off his cloak, we look for the ways we can rid ourselves of the baggage that clogs our ears and prevents us from listening.

Another form of prayer comes through the reading of small bits of scripture over and over. Like taking one of the psalms and slowly reading the words as our own prayers to God, letting the words of the past make manifest our needs in the present. We dive into the depth of God’s great Word and slowly begin to realize that God is still using scripture to shape us even today.

If all else fails, we can rely on the helpful acronym of PRAY for Prayer.

P – Praise

God, I praise you for all of your marvelous works in the world, and in particular the gift of you Son Jesus Christ.

R – Repent

Lord, I confess that I have not loved you with my whole heart and I have not loved my neighbor as myself. I am truly sorry and I humbly repent.

A – Ask

Father, give me the strength to be a better disciple and patience to accept the things I cannot change.

Y – Yield

God, even with my needs and wants, let your will be done in my life and here on earth. Amen.

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There are such a great number of ways to pray, that so long as we are doing what we do with intention, it can be a form of prayer. The greater question is not how do we pray, but are we praying for the right things?

On Wednesday night the youth gathered for The Circle. We went through the words of communion and feasted together, we checked in with each other and caught up about the comings and goings of the last week, and then we started to go through a few accountability questions. Someone pulled out the question “Who do I need to be praying for and why?” and the table responded in silence as we began to think about our responses. We listened as each person shared a particular need for someone else and it was obvious that our Adult volunteer was astounded by their maturity, and could not help himself from asking a new question: “Have any of you ever had your prayers answered? I’m not talking about praying for the Redskins to win, or to pass a test but a real and true prayer.”

It was truly a beautiful and holy moment as each of them shared a particular time when God had answered one of their prayers, a true prayer. Not prayers for a sports team, parking space, or academic grade, but for healing, patience, and purpose.

Bartimaeus is a model for discipleship. Instead of waiting for Jesus to just show up in his life, he calls out from the depth of his being for mercy. Instead of assuming that God will give him everything he needs without sacrifice, he quickly throws off the cloak of the past in order to embrace a new future. Instead of expecting a divine healing and a return the normalcy of life, he regains his sight and follows Jesus on the way to Jerusalem.

Bartimaeus calls out to Jesus, he fervently prays for mercy, and the crowds catch a glimpse of God’s grace. This event is a miracle. Miracles are those things that bring people from the darkness into the light, not just for the blind man, but everyone gathered around Jesus. Miracles turn our attention to what really matters in this life.

The true power of the miracle rests with Bartimaeus’ prayer. He calls out to Jesus. He comes to Jesus. He prays his true prayer. He sees Jesus better than the disciples, and he was blind.

What are we praying for?

In each of your bulletins you will find an envelope with a blank piece of paper inside. In a few moments I will be encouraging each of us to take out that paper and write down a true prayer to God. It has been my experience that when I pray out loud I don’t take the necessary time to really contemplate what I am asking for. But if we slow down enough to write down our prayer, it might encourage us to pray like Bartimaeus.

Cash-Envelopes

So we will take time to pray to God in written form, and then we will place the paper in the envelope and seal it. Then I would like each of us to write our name and address on the front and place it in the offering plate later in the service. No one will see this prayer but you and God. But we will mail them back to you in a number of months.

God answers our prayers, sometimes in different ways than we can imagine. My hope is that we will all take the time to earnestly pray to God, and in the months ahead we will begin to have our eyes opened, just like Bartimaeus, to the ways the God is moving in our lives. Amen.