What happens when false gods
We all have been called to offer the invitation and also be the one to receive it.
During the daily prayer we offer at our church, this was the reading and the question we set out to ponder. It comes from the podcast: pray-as-you-go.org which was created by the Jesuits of Britain.
The morning's passage is from John 1:45-51 which I invite you to read. It is here that Jesus is gathering his disciples. They are walking through Galilee when they find Philip, who then runs to tell his friend Nathaniel who'd been asleep under a tree.
Having been awoken by the shear joy beaming from his friend, Nathaniel ask a great, albeit funny, question. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth”?
Because Jesus comes from the wrong town Nathanael is tempted to dismiss him as a nobody. And so the narrator asks us to ponder, "Do I fail to recognize God in people because of where they come from, how they speak, what they look like?"
Take a moment to think about those people who seem invisible to our eye because they are not like you or me. Think about what it might feel like if you knew that they too thought that way about you.
Now think about this phrase: "Come and see." This is a powerful invitation to hospitality, love, forgiveness and grace. Not only have we all been called to offer the invitation, but to also be the one to receive it.
When we forget to see Jesus in the all the people we pass in the busyness of life, do we also forget to hear the invitation as well?
"Every cut, bruise, scar, grey hair or memory I have
reminds me of my place in God’s loving grace.
Each one screams out, “I am important to God.”
What comes to mind when you hear me say, “Once upon a time?”
Do you think of a particular story? Perhaps it’s a fairy tale from your childhood? As a kid I can remember going to the library to hear the librarian read from Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Flea and the Professor,” which as you might know was the story chosen for the Danish Festival this year.
I always loved this story about a young professor who loses everything in the world - except a flea who lives in his vest. Having to start all over again, the professor and the flea become the best of friends who create a circus act and tour the world. On their adventures they overcome shipwrecks, cannibals, and fits of tickling. It wasn’t until I grew up that I realized this tale is more than whimsical entertainment. It also speaks to the idea of redemption and renewal, the narrative of God and Christ at work in life.
Stories can be powerful, and work in many different ways. Aside from our physical make-up, there are very few things all humans have in common. One, however, is we all have a story to tell. In the years spent writing my own, I’ve discovered that the more you put your story out into the world, the more we see how much we actually have in common. And it’s all tied to the story of our life.
A couple of weeks ago I sat in Midway Airport in Chicago. My flight had been cancelled due to weather, and despite of what my mother taught me, I began to talk with strangers. In the process I met a man from Aspen, Colorado who works with some of the same people I used to work with in advertising. Later that night I shared stories with a mother and daughter from Madison, Wisconsin only to discover that the week before we met, they had dinner with a very dear, personal friend of mine. Is that crazy or what? Now it’s doubtful that I’ll never see these people again. Yet we’ll always be connected by these new stories we share.
This quote was recently sent to me: “Life is like a library in which the stories of our lives are published, but every book is different. We all have unique covers and our own stories to tell.” Mine has yet to find its way onto the New York Times best-seller list… merely because it’s not finished. However, I understand there are some interesting tales about me getting passed around the community, some have added embellishments for good measure.
Stories are told and shared in many different ways. Cave drawings were used to communicate before we had languages. Museums use photographs and found objects that tell us about our towns, historical events, and national heritage. Tattoos that once told of a sailor’s adventures now record one’s journey through cancer. And just this week, NPR reported a story about the retelling of the Battle of Gettysburg using dioramas and miniature figurines of cats dressed like soldiers.
For centuries, Christian churches have told God’s story in artfully carved marble, detailed paintings, and colorful glass all perfectly pieced together. The ceiling around the wedding chapel at our last church is adorned with 18 different stained glass portraits that illustrate the entire history of the Congregational Way and the influences we’ve had on America.
Many of you might recall the story of a minister, his son, and a baseball that mysteriously made its way through our beloved rose window. I’m not sure if anyone really knows how the ball broke through the stain glass, but I can say with much certainty that Sean and I had nothing to do with it.
We all have a story tell, about the major events of our life and the circumstances that led us here today. But if someone were to ask you to write your autobiography, where would you begin? At your birth? With your parents or family tree? Your first day of kindergarten or Jr. High? I guess it all depends on what you want people to know about you.
Matthew begins his gospel story by giving a genealogical account of those whose lives are interwoven into Jesus’. The Jews used this is an ancient story-telling technique to establish a person’s legitimacy and inheritance rights. By applying it to his gospel, Matthew asserts Jesus’ legal claim to the thrown of David, and his ancestral tie to God’s covenant promise with Abraham.
While there are numerous others omitted from this long list of tongue-twisting names, what makes the genealogy unusual is the addition of Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary. Not only are they women, but three of the five are of questionable character, and two are not even Jewish. Some of the men on this list are questionable as well. Jechoniah, for example, was so evil that God cursed his family. Yet his name is included in Jesus’ story.
What does that say to you, about your life and your place in God’s kingdom? While I believe Jesus is divine by nature, these names tell me that his humanity comes from people no different than you and I. I look at this list and know that God loves us so much that he was willing to enter into our dysfunction and messiness in order to redeem us and weave us into his own heavenly narrative.
Our sins, our scars, our past all have a place among the pages in God’s book of life. Our story is God’s story. He is the almighty author. So we must never be ashamed of what we’ve been through because God will always use our story for his glory.
The Bible is filled with people like us. Blessed people, cursed people, bad and good people. Faithful or fearful, fearless or faithless God doesn’t overlook anyone. From the reluctant priests to a redeemed prostitute, the Bible give us this assurance: we are never too broken or too messed up to be a part of God’s storied love.
In knowing this, I can look at myself in the mirror and see how God is present in my life. My tattoos recall the crazy adventures of my past, while the well-disguised line across my neck speaks to my future. Every cut, bruise, scar, grey hair or memory I have, reminds me of my place in God’s loving grace. Each one of these life markers screams out, “I am important to God.” (Which, I might add, is the perfect title to anyone’s autobiography.)
Dan Allender writes, “Take seriously the story that God has given you to live. It’s time to read your own life, because your story is the one that could set us all ablaze.”
We cannot be ashamed to share our story or the Good News of Jesus Christ. His story is deeply interconnected to ours. He knows what it’s like to suffer, to be betrayed, to be hurt, or to feel abandoned. He also knows what it’s like to love and be loved, to forgive and to be forgiven, to give and to receive. His life story teaches us how to live well by doing God’s will.
You can chose to write your story without him, or you can let go of the pen and allow Jesus into your life… to “right” your life using ink made from his own imperishable blood.
Through Jesus, the sins of our past will no longer define who we are, yet they still remain a part of our life to remind us of who we can become. Through Jesus, our story ends in victory. Our final chapter concludes with each one of us fulfilling our God-given destiny.
Your life may have begun “Once upon a time.” But thanks to our blessed Lord and Savior, all of our stories can end the same way: “They lived happily ever after.”
The Bible (NRSV). Genesis 5:1-5; Matthew 1:1-17.
"Our students discovered they are in good hands
because they have always been in God’s heart."
If you’ve been watching the Olympics, you know there have been some unbelievable stories unfolding. Records broken, bones broken, spirits both lifted and crushed. The stands have been packed with fans cheering for their country’s pride… as well as proud parents watching all those early morning drop offs and late night pick-ups finally paying off.
Our own Michael Phelps continues to add to the U.S. gold metal wins. As it stands, he is now the greatest Olympian of all time, breaking a record that has been held since 156 B.C. This is an amazing feat. While nestled in the arms of his mother and grandmother, Boomer Phelps watches. Only 3 months old, he’s too young to know who his father really is, or what his father has done, yet we can’t help but wonder if he will grow up to be like his dad.
In sports, it is not uncommon to have a child follow in a parent's footsteps. Take Laila Ali for example. For the first time in her professional boxing career, she was on the receiving end of some really damaging punches. Just when it looked like she was done, she recovered and won the fight. Afterward, a reporter asked her if she was tempted to quit. She replied, “Yes, but then I remembered who my father is.” Laila Ali’s dad, of course, is none other than the late, great Muhammad Ali.
For the Christian, it’s key that we remember who our Father is – God Himself. When life pins us against the ropes or kick us to the curb, or even when we seem to be sailing into a clear victory, let us never forget that there is something more powerful than human nature, which strengthen us and save us from our self.
At Vacation Bible School this past week, an inquisitive group of children gathered in this very room to learn about their heavenly Father. It was here they discovered how the presence of God shapes their life.
On the first day they learned, “God knows Me,” and as such, God wants us to know him. On day two they discovered, “God hears Me,” so we can trust God is listening to our concerns and needs. On the next day, it was, “God strengthens Me,” and through him we can do the impossible, like break the all-time Olympic record. The week wrapped up with the bold declaration, “God loves Me.” Because of that love, given to us for no reason or effort from us, we can trust God will be there no matter what. The key word here is trust.
Like the psalmist who said, “I trust you, O Lord; you are my God. My times are in your hand,” our students discovered they are in good hands because they have always been in God’s heart.
Think about a time when you put your trust in another’s hand. Maybe the decision was out of a physical need. It was just three years ago my doctor told me surgery was needed, and that radiation and chemotherapy will be required to kill the cancer. I trusted his judgment, and place myself in his skillful hands. And here I stand.
Sometimes the decision isn’t physical, but an emotional longing. Last night I officiated a wedding where the young bride and groom made the commitment to entrust who they are and who they will become into the care of each other’s hands.
Sometimes the decision is less a decision and more a trusting movement. While on vacation, my son and I went for a walk on the beach. Before I knew it, there was a set little sandy fingers entwined in mine. He knew his father, and his father knew him. Together they naturally welcomed one another with trust and intimacy.
It’s not always an easy thing to place who we are and who we may yet become into another’s hand. There is a sense of vulnerability in the act. Because the world seems to move further and further away from the hand of God, many of us are like Philip. We need proof before we buy into it. Like Missourians we say, “Show me.”
We lack trust, and as such we find ourselves separated from others.
The psalmist, however, confesses, “God…my times are in your hand.” In Hebrew, the word for “hand” can also be translated as “power.” That is to say, to place ourselves in God’s hand is a transaction that bids God’s power to hold us. This is a comforting word in those times we feel powerlessness. Yet too often we forget that when God embraces us, we take on God’s power. And great responsibility.
Had we read the whole psalm, we would have seen how the language moves back and forth between affirmations of God as rock, and acknowledgements of years spent in deep sorrow. But in both good and bad times, trust is placed in God’s hand, in hope of God’s saving grace that comes in the form of “steadfast love.”
That word in Hebrew for such love is hesed. It expresses an intense and zealous love, kindness and mercy. Christians call this grace. It’s the kind of love that comes with the assurance that when we place ourselves into God’s hand, God will never let us go.
Philip wants God’s hesed and to feel its power in his life. What he lacks, however, is the realization that it’s been with him the whole time. As he prepares for his departure Jesus tells his disciples, “Whoever has seen me, has seen the Father.”
Upon hearing this, the disciples seem to stand there. They are either scratching their heads wondering what Jesus is telling them, or they are stunned knowing the consequences to anyone who would make such a bold and dangerous confession. Yet, isn’t this the one statement we all must be willing to make as Christians? That Christ is the Son of the Living God. Through him we receive salvation, because through him we find God, and the grace and mercy of his steadfast love. So how do we show it, or even explain it, to those who need to see it before they believe it?
I imagine the relation between God and Jesus is like a large picture window, one that exposes the whole world to you and you to the world. Through it God can see you, and you can see the open arms of God’s steadfast love reaching out. Anyone, therefore, who desires to know the Father, or understand God better, need not look further than Jesus, the perfection of God’s hesed.
For example, when we look at the way Jesus meets people where they are, and in the way he listens to them, and cares for their needs, we see the Father’s steadfast love. When we observe the way he prays, or the way he forgives, and heals, and feeds others, we see the glory of God’s love at work. When we see the way Jesus gives of himself for others, we see God’s abundance given freely to anyone who wants it.
Through Jesus Christ, the kingdom of God comes to life with clarity. But that’s not all. Being both fully human and truly divine, Jesus is not only a window but a mirror as well. We see through him to see the father, but we also look at him to see ourselves. Thus, Jesus did not say sit here and do nothing. Instead he said “Come, follow me.”
He calls out to us shows us how to be God’s hesed in our communities. Through him and by him we become the steadfast love and peaceful presence of God the Father in our homes, our workplace, and in our public and private social gatherings. In all that we do, we must always boldly declare, “Whoever has seen me, has seen the Father.”
So here’s my question to you. Are you a window that allows others to see God’s peace and love shining through? Do your everyday words give a clear picture of God’s love and grace to those in need? Do your actions reflect Jesus, and invite others to seek God’s outstretched hand to hold? In other words when people see you, do they see the Father?
The Bible (NRSV). Psalm 31:14-16; John 14:8-14.
The contents and idea of this sermon were drawn from and deeply inspired by this wonderful morning devotional from John Indermark, The Greatest of These: Biblical Moorings of Love. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2011.
O'Neill, Kerry. FCA:The Relentless Devotional for Competitors. www.bible.com/en-GB/reading-plans/614-the-relentless-devotional-for-competitors/day/1 (accessed August 13, 2016).
When we focus on our common bond, we can work together
in spite of our differences, especially when our survival is on the line.
Mine happened while I was sitting on a dusty blanket in the middle of the Serengeti in Tanzania, Africa. Our guides, Patrick, Elson and Francis, had set out blankets under an enormous Acacia Tree. There, in the shadows of a dusty green canopy, we escaped the midday heat and ate our lunch.
The meal itself was not that spectacular. However, I remember it because we were served the same box lunch every day; a small piece of chicken, a ham and butter sandwich, a hard-boiled egg, a cookie, and whatever fruit was left over from breakfast. By no means would anyone say this meal was gourmet. But it sustained us and satisfied our hunger pangs as we roamed the vast wilderness looking for animals to shoot...with our cameras.
What made the meal unforgettable was not the contents, but the company. Less than 50 yards away a traffic jam of wildlife pushed one another across the expansive plains. By our guides estimation there were no less than 200,000 wildebeest, and 10,000-20,000 zebra. Mixed in there were hundreds of Thompson gazelles, dik-diks, impalas, and a few other migratory animals, each peacefully searching for the same thing. A meal.
National Geographic has aptly named their trek, the Great Migration. For nowhere in the world is there such a movement of animals as immense as this. From July to October, over two million animals migrate from the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania to the greener pastures of the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya. Before long, they return to do it all over again.
It’s hard, however, not to think of Disney’s version of this story; like the Lion King, without the lions (which are always present). I imagine the tribes of animals gather and their leaders meet and agreed to form a civil community with each other. There would be one chosen from all the herds to lead the animals through a great adventure, working together towards a common cause, sharing equally the precious resources needed for survival. It would of course have a great soundtrack.
Anthropologist and Zoologists have studied such societies for centuries. What they have learned is simple. When we focus on our common bond, we can work together in spite of our differences, especially when our survival is on the line. Much to Luke’s point in the Book of Acts, “The whole congregation was united as one—one heart, one mind!...And so it turned out that not a person among them was needy."
In Matthew’s gospel account of Jesus feeding the multitude, we learn about another diverse group that gathers to share a memorable meal. Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, free and slaves, men and women and children were all represented. What drew these people to that field along the seaside that day would be the very thing that would unite them as one people. It was the carpenter’s son, Jesus of Nazareth.
Like wildebeest and zebras, they came by the thousands. Matthew records that there were 5,000 men, not including women and children. Judging by today's standards that number would add up to around 20,000 people. As you might imagine, sending a crowd that large to the local village for supper was not an option. But if we look at those numbers in the context of a first century family, the population could be easily doubled, if not tripled. Which of course makes Jesus' miracle that much more remarkable.
Great miracle aside, I can’t help but wonder what they were hoping to hear that day when they sat down to hear Jesus speak? Were they expecting a good old fashion revival, with altar calls and heart lifting gospel music, or a thought-provoking Ted Talk? I’m sure some came in search of a miracle worker, or perhaps a politician who could rally the crowd into action.
Matthew doesn't really give us any clues other than they were hungry, and that Jesus had compassion for them all. While they, like us, sought out Jesus for many different reasons, I believe each one left that night, having been fed in such a way that their life would be forever changed. At this unforgettable meal, a disorganized and diverse community would find their common bond. And their salvation.
It is my hope that maybe this week you will spend some time thinking seriously about why you came here today. Have you come searching for something or looking to be fed? Too often we forget the reasons we gather together. And at times it might seem like it’s just automatic, something we do for an hour on Sunday.
Sitting around this room are imperfect, messy, wonderful people on the same path as you and me. We are all trying to make sense of life and to be better people. Many of us are looking for deeper meaning and purpose. And many of us believe that if we open ourselves up to God, then the spirit of God’s life and love will nourish us and sustain us throughout all eternity.
I believe Matthew’s story provides some food for thought, some “soul food” if you will. In it we discover that through Jesus Christ, God shows sympathy for his people, feeding our deepest wants and desires. No one is left unfed, unsatisfied, or even unchanged. So whatever your reason for being here today, may you leave knowing that God's compassionate love is always ready to meet you and to feed you no matter where you are in the great migration of life.
John’s gospel describes Jesus as the very Bread of Life, the new manna given to us for our wilderness journey. This bread is offered to you today at the communion table. Thus whenever we come together in his name, we enter into communion not only with one another but with God, who offers his love and grace in great abundance. This gift that we have received is so beautiful and so immense that we cannot hold it for ourselves, but instead we are moved to share it with every human being on earth.
Through Jesus, God places himself in the midst of this community, and shares all he has with us; a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish. A meal so memorable that we still speak of it today. By God’s amazing gift, we become a community like no other; redeemed, renewed, and resurrected through the body and blood of Jesus Christ.
To quote the band U2, we the church, the very Body of Christ, become "One love, one blood. One life, with each other. Sisters, brothers. One life, but we're not the same. We got to carry each other. Carry each other."
In spite of all our differences, be it political, social or religious, may we never lose our focus on that one love and common good, Jesus Christ, who feeds us and strengthens us so that we can challenge ourselves to grow and deepen our spirituality, and make the world a better, more peace-filled place, "so that not a person among us is needy."
As we come together to share this communion meal, we share in Jesus’ story. Through him, we become one in his suffering and in his resurrection. We become a part of his life and his glory, his love and his grace. Many have come from the East and the West, the North and the South to taste the meal that Jesus offers. Come and let us gather as a family around the table. Each one of us is different, yet loved by God all the same.
We do not put up walls or barriers to keep you away. Instead, we offer you, the faithful and faithless alike, to take this simple bread and cup and receive all that Jesus has to offer. Come not because you have to, but come because you want to be filled with the abundance of God's love. Amen.
An ex-copywriter turned punk rock pastor and peacemaker who dedicates his life to making the world a better place for all humanity.
"that they all might be one" ~John 17:21
~ St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)