Evidence of Christ With Us

April 15, 2018            3rd Sunday of Easter

Acts 3:12-19               1 John 3:1-7                Luke 24:36b-48

How many of you have ever watched the TV show The Big Bang Theory? In this show there is a character called Sheldon Cooper who is a genius at scientific knowledge but is hopeless at adjusting to social situations. This year CBS created a show called Young Sheldon, where we see Sheldon’s development as an eight to nine year old boy-genius trying to make sense of a world that will not be logical no matter how much he tries to impose logic on it.

Because Sheldon sees the world in terms of scientific facts he cannot accept his parents’ Christian faith because God cannot be proven or logically explained, which tends to lead to comic clashes on the show. In this last week’s episode for instance, when a tornado passes by their East Texas town the family hides in the bathroom, the mother in the bathtub with Sheldon and his twin sister. During the tornado she prays; “In the name of Jesus I cast a cloak of safety around this house and my children.” After the tornado is all over, and they go outside, Sheldon narrates, “The good thing was the tornado missed our town. The bad thing was my mother thought that she was the cause of the avoidance.”

I laughed because in that line is the quandary that we face as modern day people – how do we prove our faith subjectively and quantitatively like we would a scientific experiment? And the answer is: We can’t. The reason why Faith is called faith, and not the Theory of God, is because it is so deeply personal that the only way we can prove God to ourselves is through our own experience.

Now in the first century things were different. Don’t get me wrong, the ancient civilizations had science, math, and logical reasoning, but there was still a serious belief in, what we might call today, the magicality of things. Today, although we might like a good ghost story around a fire, and we might say that we believe in the possibility of ghosts, most of us probably don’t believe that people can come back from the dead as ghosts and wreck a house or harm people. But there is serious writing, as far back as ancient Egypt, that supports the existence of the restless or vengeful dead who were intent on doing just that.

So Jesus walking into a room where his disciples are – people who saw him die and be buried – was far more than just a startling event – it was terrifying. Nothing was good about Jesus being a ghost. Prayers for the dead were read so that people didn’t come back and do this.

But then Jesus eats a piece of fish and everybody is relieved, because everyone knows that ghosts can’t eat. Apparently, depending on which legend you subscribe to, ghosts can absorb water vapor, or smoke, or the vapors and steam from food, but they cannot ingest solid food. Especially fish, which is a protein, something that takes time to digest.

So this was evidence given by Jesus to his disciples that he was indeed and in fact an alive and functioning person. But of course this is counter to Jesus’ death that the disciples had witnessed. So the only explanation that the disciples (and us, 2,000 years later) have for this is that the God, the ultimate creation power, is involved; death has been altered; and Jesus is in fact who he said he was: The Son of God. Logically that is what the disciples took from that experience. When you eliminate everything else, what you have left, no matter how improbable, must be true.

But we all know that faith doesn’t always operate on logic. It mostly operates on two gifts from God: Experience and choice. First of all, we experience the presence of God in our lives through our encounters with Him, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. Second, we choose to believe that God is actually in our lives, and we choose to see and recognize God’s presence with us. The great thing about that scene in Young Sheldon, was that in the middle of a horrific experience Sheldon’s mother felt God’s presence and chose to see God as the safety in her life and in the outcome of the tornado. Sheldon doesn’t see God at all because to him God can’t be measured so He can’t exist.

And so now, with Sheldon and his mother, we are back to the 21st century. Are we going to choose to see God as a part of our lives, or are we going to dismiss God because we can’t see any evidence?

Last week I said that the first step to our ministry is declaring that God is going to be in our lives, and that part of that declaring is the belief in the possibility of God, and that he is in our lives doing wonderful things and supporting us. Today we get to the second step in that process: Finding the evidence for God in our lives.

If you think about it, the Gospels are the written evidence of testimony, from people who were there, explaining to us why they believe that Jesus was the Son of God and the Messiah. We read them because we learn about Jesus’ life. But one of the underlying challenges is for us to go out and than look for evidence of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit in our own lives. Like the disciples, if we don’t have the evidence of Jesus in our own lives, then we can’t honestly live our faith, or pass our faith onto others.

So the problem for us becomes: How do we find the evidence of God in our own lives?

I think one of the ways we find God is through the natural world, especially for us here in God’s country. We are so lucky that we get to immerse ourselves in the wonder of God’s creation and can marvel at the intricacy and beauty of the natural world. Let’s have an Amen for the beauty that surrounds us.

Another place we can see God in our lives is in the relationships of love and support that we get from people. How many times have you had a problem in your life and the perfect person comes along who helps you solve the problem or answer the question? Or just the people who support you on a day-to-day basis? God put them in our lives and we should give thanks for them.

This leads me to think of the assurance that we receive during times of pain. There have been a few times in in my life when I have not felt good or right about things, and other times that I have been downright hurt emotionally and mentally, but I have felt a presence that has told me that everything will be all right and that God is present for me. It doesn’t come from within me – at that moment I am sure that everything will NOT be all right – but it is there as a blessed assurance that something is supporting me at that moment.

We can also find God in our community in the way that we support each other to make a good community. Good communities aren’t just in existence they are created by the people who live around us who care enough to build a place of respect and decency for everyone. The second commandment addresses this: We must love our neighbors as we love ourselves. If we recognize the value of others then we will build a community of love and respect for others. And that respect and love comes when we see the divine value in people.

God’s evidence can also be to show you how wrong you are. I remember one that I had a few years ago. I went to see if I could get a gift card from a new business in town for our Christmas Fair. I didn’t think that I would receive much from the company because they’re parent store is based out of town so my assumption is that they wouldn’t be community minded. God wacked me up-side the head – The gift card was $75.00. I didn’t ask for that amount, that was what they volunteered to give me.  And I really believe that God told me at that moment, “Don’t believe the worst about people before you meet them.”

Sometimes it’s hard for us to express the evidence of God in our lives. But how many times have you heard people say, “God was watching out for me,” or “I believe that God sent me or helped me?” That is a personal evidence and witness. And in that is built the question: Where is God for you in your life? Last week I said that you should practice declaring what you look for to do or be renewed with God. This week I challenge you to take some time to look around you for the evidence of God in your life.

God is with us when we tell our own story. God is in the big and the small and the simple evidence of eating a fish to prove to us that he is real. But it is up to us to live our faith by choosing to look for the evidence of him in our lives. When we start to recognize him we will hear him say to us: Peace be with you. And when we find that peace we will also find that we will be witnesses to Him.

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Declaring for Christ

April 8, 2018              2nd Sunday in Easter

Acts 4:32-35               
1 John 1:1-2:2                        John 20:19-31

Easter was THE HOLIDAY in the early church. Christmas didn’t start to be observed until the 4th century, but Easter was a collection of holy days that was observed right from the beginning. The second biggest holy day was Pentecost, which is where we will be in a few weeks.

Along with Easter, the season of Lent came into being – although we don’t know how long Lent lasted at first. But we do have commentaries from early church fathers who say things like, “This year we are fasting for 2 days,” or “This congregation in a certain town fasts for a week before Easter.” It wasn’t until later that the church adopted the 40 day fast, from the Jewish tradition, which we observe now.

But Easter and Holy Week were the big event. From Palm Sunday until Easter everyday was a celebration of something in Christ’s life.

During Lent we are supposed to be forming ourselves in the habits of discipleship. During the Easter season, we are supposed to examine our faith and prepare ourselves to claim our gifts of the Spirit for our ministry as Christ’s disciples to the world.  This leads us to Pentecost, where we celebrate the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on us, and accept our commission into our ministries.

So during these seven weeks I would like to examine with you how we figure out what we are called to do in Christ, and how we might go about it.

Now you might say: Why do we need to go through the motions of learning how to be disciples, then examine our calling, and then make a big deal about going out into the world every year? Most of us went through Sunday school, and got confirmed already – why do all that again?

Well, think about the idea of New Year’s resolutions. Every year we are encouraged to look at our accomplishments of the year, and then to make new goals and see if we can figure out a way to accomplish them. Now usually your life doesn’t change that much to where you have a completely new set of goals.

Some goals you tried and they didn’t work, so you gave them up, like maybe salsa dancing lessons. Some goals were one offs, like visiting Disney Land – we did it and can cross it off our list. Some goals, like saving to build a house, take a couple of years – you’ve got to evaluate how well you did, and see if there is any way you need to change to move forward. And some goals are brand new, like when I moved here and decided that I was going clean up the parsonage garden. But to be effective with our goals we also need to recognize: What we need to let go of that is no longer working for us; improve what we are still working with; and try to figure out what we need to learn to get us ready for the present or the future.

Discipleship works the same way. We aren’t in the same place that we were when we got confirmed in our faith. Being a disciple in high-school is different from being a disciple in college, being single, getting married, having children, changing into a new job, or retiring. Discipleship is about focusing yourself into the various areas of your life as they are now, and living into them as a person who is following the teachings of Christ.

Every year the circumstances of our lives change, and we change as we interact with life. Hopefully we become better people. Hopefully we learn how to manage our time, energy and resources so that we can be generous with them. Hopefully we start to better recognize how we can be positive and renewing in our relationships, in our families, jobs, and communities. Hopefully we learn how to be more effective with our actions. Hopefully we become better listeners, less judgmental, and more understanding and compassionate toward other people. Hopefully we get better at practicing all this on a daily basis. And all of this is happening as we are applying our Christian values to ourselves and our lives.

Now lets take a look at the beginning of the 1st Letter of John: We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life– this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us– we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.

This operating verb here is DECLARE: Reporting something that you know to be true and certain. John says, I am telling you what I have seen, heard, and touched. I am a witness to these things, and that’s how I know it is true, and my true witness is why you can believe that it is true.

John of course was there when Jesus came into the upper room, and probably scared the heck out of everyone. John also knows that there are people who are going to doubt what happened, like Thomas. And he knows that the people reading this letter are in some ways like Thomas – they haven’t encountered Christ physically, the way he has. And actually Thomas was an apostle who saw all the miraculous things that Christ did, and even then he couldn’t wrap his head around the idea of Jesus walking through the door. So John understands that the way people are going to believe in Christ is if they begin to live the way of Christ, open themselves up to the change for the better that Christ will bring to them, and then encounter the Holy Spirit for themselves.

But in order for any of us to have that encounter we need to declare within ourselves that we believe that Christ is real. The traditional church declaration is that we accept Christ as our Lord and Savior. I have problems with that as an absolute starting point because not everyone begins there. Some of us do start with a more complete trust in God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit; others of us have to work out what that means. But any life coach will tell you that no goal is ever going to be achieved unless you begin to believe that it is possible. Maybe you don’t start with knowing how something is going to happen, but you believe that it can happen, and that you can personally participate in a process that will make it happen to you. If you don’t have that belief you will never achieve what you set out to do.

The first step to making our reality is that we declare what we will be. No one ever learns to play the piano without first deciding and declaring that they are going to learn to play the piano. If we declare that we are going to be Christians, that will lead to us examining how to be a Christian, and how to put it into practice. If we go through those steps, then we are more likely to act like Christians.

All of our ministries also start with a declaration that we will be in them as a Christian. In my job, as a nurse or doctor, I am going to treat my patients with care, compassion, and dignity as I heal them. As a teacher I am going to treat all of my students fairly and make the subject matter comparable to them. As a parent I am going to be as loving to my children as possible, and set boundaries for them to teach them to be good people and to keep them from harm. As a spouse, as a friend, as a boy-friend or girl-friend, I am going to be as honest and as caring as I can.   As a Christian, whatever we decide to do we declare inside ourselves that we are going to be as Christ wishes us to be. The best loving person we can be.

And yes, it’s sometimes hard to get down to that Christian point and work from it. Christ was always telling his disciples: Quit focusing on who is going to be the greatest and concentrate on how you are going to be compassionate to the least of my children. Like to disciples we don’t need to start with the end result, we need to start at the beginning – being the best we can be right now.

So what are your Christian goals? How are you going to be a better parent, child, co-worker, manager, spouse or neighbor in the spirit of Christ? Take some time this week and sit with Christ in prayer, or journaling a letter to Him, or take a walk together in the woods, and think about what you want to declare for the coming Christian year now that it has been renewed in the resurrection. Where do you want to be renewed? And then take a breath and declare your intention. It is the first step of moving forward into your eternal life with Christ.

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Coming Back to Life

April 1, 2018              Easter Sunday

Ezekiel 37:3-14       Mark 16:1-7       John 20:3-18       Romans 6:3-11

Easter is the fundamental, cornerstone holiday of Christianity. Easter is the reason why Christ was incarnated. Easter is the reason why Jesus was baptized. Easter is the culmination of Jesus’ life. Easter is the end result of Jesus’ death. Easter is the beginning of a new movement, which will eventually become the Christian faith.

Easter is centered around the resurrection of Jesus from death into life. But Jesus didn’t come back into his old life. He came back as himself, made into something new. And that is one of the key points of resurrection, we are revitalized, but not into what we were, but into what we will become.

Jesus showed us what we could be. His life was dedicated to teaching his apostles, disciples, and followers how they could find within themselves their true being that was connected to God. And when you make that God connection you can expand outward to connect with your neighbors through love. He showed us how to recognize sin, or inflections of negativity, in our lives and counter the negativity with Grace. He showed us how with generous actions of love and compassion we can find the solution to a sinful situation, and find our absolution while we are applying the remedy to make things right again.

Jesus continually reminded us through his own actions that God loves everyone. God loves children, God loves lepers and cripples, God loves tax-collectors, God loves fishermen, God loves women, God loves centurions, God loves the possessed, God loves prostitutes, God loves foreigners, God loves strangers in our land, and God even loves Pharisees.

Each of us is child of God. And even though we are all sinners; even though we make mistakes; even though we inflict negativity on ourselves, each other and on this world; even though we inflicted negativity on Jesus with his horrible death on the cross; Our father still forgives us because he understands that often we do not know what we do.

And even though God lived with his son through that terrible crime, committed by His children against Him – a crime that represents the most horrible action of political injustice, for convenience of power by the powerful, to maintain their power – we are assured that we are still loved by God through Jesus’ resurrection.

In the moment that Jesus died on the cross the temple curtain was ripped in two, and there was no longer a separation between ourselves and God, because now we have a medium to receive God by receiving Christ and living as Christ lived. And let me ask you something. When those in charge no longer have the monopoly of communicating with God, when they are no longer the only channel to the divine, where is their power?

And in the moment that the stone was rolled away, and Christ stepped out of the tomb, to meet the women who had come to finish the burial rites (which were no longer needed); to meet the disciples who were traveling to Emmaus; to meet the apostles who were hiding from the authorities in fear in the upper room – in all of those moments it was revealed that death, which we all fear, is nothing to be afraid of.   For there is life on the other side of it, for those who believe in the continual and almighty power of God.

This is the Generous Renewing Action of Compassion that God gave to us for Eternity: That we no longer need to fear the greatest fear that lurks in every corner of our lives. That no matter what – we are promised and assured that we will be resurrected to a new life.

But resurrection doesn’t just happen on the other side.

Remember – God’s power is flowing both ways. It flowed into this world and cracked open a door when Jesus was born. But the power from the tomb blew that door wide open. Like the cataclysm of the Straights of Gibraltar collapsing and filling up the Mediterranean Sea, God’s Grace flowed into to world and filled it up when Christ walked out of the tomb. And we now move through the invisible sea of God’s Grace.

When do we find resurrection?

A student finds it when they are struggling with a term paper that they can’t figure out how to write – and then a friend says something and everything falls into place and the paper writes itself. A young woman finds it when she has been in therapy for sexual abuse – and then suddenly she understands that she is not at fault and that the abuse is not a reflection of her self-worth, and she begins to be healed. An alcoholic finds it when in desperation they go to an AA meeting – and a member becomes their sponsor and they learn that they are not alone with their anxiety and demons. A homeless person finds it when they find a place to live and they keep a job and bring themselves out into a new life that they though was lost to them.

Resurrection happens whenever we feel that our lives are wrong, and then something happens and they become right.

Sometimes resurrection is in an instant, like the case of the student and the paper. And sometimes, like the student and the paper, it is a small thing. So small you might not consider it to be a resurrection. But resurrection at it’s most basic definition means: come back to life. So coming from a dark place of uncertainty and no hope into a place of certainty, purpose, and direction is resurrection; even if it’s just a term paper.

Think about the small resurrections in your life. They exist in the sea of God’s Grace. A minnow is just as important as a whale.

Sometimes resurrection takes time, like the young woman in therapy, the alcoholic who is in recovery, and the homeless person who step by step climbs out of poverty. Sometimes the step-by-steps are baby steps rather than strides or leaps. We look forward and don’t feel that we are moving, but when we look back we see the ground that we have covered. And sometimes there are flashes of the resurrection light, or a gradual brightening, but then one day you look around and realize that you are in full sunshine and saved from the darkness that was.

Think about your gradual resurrections. All that time, even though you might have felt like you were swimming against the current, you were still swimming in the sea of God’s Grace.

With Jesus’ resurrection – during all of our life – we are coming into life. Admittedly we are already here in life, but if you take on the belief that resurrection is always happening to you; that you are always experiencing God’s Grace; that you are participating in the love of God by doing and giving generously of your compassion and love; then you are moving into a stronger spiritual connection with God everyday, you are moving toward your eternal life, and you are living a resurrection.

Where in your life are you in a tomb? A place of no hope, a place where nothing happens; a place of no light; a place where you cannot move forward because you are stuck in an enclosure where there feels like there is no way out. Where ever that place is, accept the gift of God’s Holy Spirit of Grace. Breathe and pray to God to show you a way out.

The answer might not come to you all at once. There might only be a crack in the door, but gradually that stone will roll away and you be able to stand in the light. And don’t think that just because you are in that tomb that God isn’t there. Because God created this earth there is no place on it that is forsaken by God. And because God created you there is no place within you that is forsaken by Him.

Two thousand years ago, on this day, God called Jesus back to life. Today, on this day, God is calling all of us back to life. Lift your tombs up to God and pray for freedom. Lift your resurrections up to God and give him thanks. Walk into you own resurrection to Eternal life with Him. He’s waiting outside your tomb, in the garden, along the road, and in the upper room to meet you.

 

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Good Friday: Sin verses Grace

April 30, 2018

Today, on Good Friday we mourn the death of Jesus Christ. We tell the story of his trial and execution. All of this takes place in the context of the season of Passover, when sacrifices were made to atone for the sins of the year. We proclaim, with a mix of joy and sadness, that Christ ended that cycle of sacrifices, by sacrificing himself for us. We say that Christ died for our sins. Not just because of our sins but FOR our sins. That he was a willing participant in the drama.

How many of us really believe that?   How many of us really believe that we are sinners? How many of us want to go there in our brains and think about the concept of SIN?

Well, today is the perfect day to talk about sin, because that is what this whole crucifixion is about. Today I want to get down with the very sticky concept of Sin.

We don’t like the word SIN in our modern post-Freudian society. Today we do not have SINS, we have ISSUES. We do not commit sins, we make mistakes, some more serious than others. And sin has become a term and a topic that is usually avoided by parents, psycologists, and many preachers. Actually I can’t blame us for that because for centuries sin has been one of the most exploited words and concepts in the Christian political canon and has been used as a convieniant stamp of condemnation. Historically it has been applied to everything from children chewing gum, to women wearing trousers and riding bicycles. It has been used to justifying slavery and oppression of people who aren’t of the dominant race, with the justification that by keeping people of other races subjecated we are saving them from their “sinful natures.”  Even today, for some politicians, if a person doesn’t agree with their agenda they get out the sin stamp, and BAM, they label the forehead of their opponent with it. And that defines and disposes of the problem once and for all, because a sinner is in a different lower category of human being. And like Pilate we can wash our hands clean of them because there is nothing we can do to stop their nature.

But I would like to offer you a definition of sin that might help you to come to grips with what it actually is. It’s not complete—but it is a starting point to understanding it, avoiding it and countering. Think of it this way: S-I-N: Systemic or Spontaneous Infliction of Negativity. Systemic means something that happens over and over again and is imbedded as a pattern in a person or culture. it contrasts with Spontaneous which is something that just happens in the moment and is not thought out. Infliction is the act of imposing something painful or horrible on someone. And negativity is depletion rather than growth; the opposite of something positive and generative.

An example of a systemic infliction of negativity is slavery. African-Americans were oppressed and used within a legal system. They were deprived of their rights and not even considered to be second-class citzens, they were considered to be non-citizens, property, and sub-human. We are still living out the iniquity of slavery into our generation individually and culturally and are still paying for this sin with intolerance and lack of cultural direction on both sides of the racial barrier. Perhaps the scripture of sins being inflicted to the third or fourth generation is a warning that that is how long it takes to clean up an action of systemic infliction of negativity.

A Spontaneous infliction of negativity is when you mistakenly hurt someone, or do something wrong. Hurting someone feelings, an accidental car collision, anything that is not intended but does harm is a spontaneous sin. The negativity that comes from it needs to be acknowledged and we still have to work on restoration.

Unfortunately negativity is a part of life. We cannot help making mistakes or being involved in bad systems that surround us.  But we have two choices in our reactions. We can forgive ourselves and others and try to fix what is wrong to make things positive, or we can continually berate ourselves, and tell ourselves that we are worthless and unworthy of love and that the situation is hopelesly ingrained.

Unfortunately it is very hard to forgive ourselves when we commit or are involved in an act of negativity. When we cannot find forgiveness in ourselves we put ourselves into a zone of unworthiness and get stuck in a negative downward spiral. And when we are in that spiral we believe that we will never be good or right, and that our world will never be good or right. And we also believe that we can never change the world because that is always how things are done.

But the message of Christ was that we can break the bonds of inflections of negativity. Christ’s message was God’s love. The creator of the universe loves each and every one of his children, each and every fiber of our being.   Christ preached that God loves us and forgives us. Christ healed with the forgiveness of God. And by dying on the cross for our sins and rising on Easter morning, despite our sins, Christ assures us that God forgives us for our sins.

Christ taught us that a way to conquer sin in the world is by living in GRACE. To commit ourselves to living G-R-A-C-E: Generous, Renewing, Actions of Compassion Everyday. If you look at Christ’s life it was all about teaching us how to be generous to others, how to renew our lives into something positive with the Holy Spirit; how to operate with compassion with our neighbors; and how to daily live this life in God’s love.

And we can take these daily actions because we are assured that God forgives us for our sins. We do not have to keep sacrificing ourselves, we do not have to keep sacrificing our family, we do not have to be sacrificing those around us, with our continual Inflections of Negativity. We can commit ourselves to living a life of Grace with our daily compassion actions that renew people and situations into a more positive state of being.

On the Cross – the greatest symbol of our systemic and spontaneous infliction of negativity—Christ forgave us, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” With that breath and pronouncement we are freed from our sins because the debt has been paid and we do not need to keep on paying it with our lives, and souls, and psyches. And the door is open for us to always ask God’s forgiveness for our sins, so that we don’t get stuck in that negative spiral, and we get on with living our life of grace. And we have God’s permission to live our imperfect lives with His grace despite our imperfect nature.

Love and forgive yourself because God loves and forgives you for your mistakes. Love and forgive your neighbor, because God loves and forgives your neighbor. Love God by following the example of Christ who came on this earth to love us, and to show us how it is done, and to give us proof of God’s love to us. Live in the Grace of God by your renewing actions of compassion. God and Christ are in your lives and are going to work with you to make things right.

That is the new covenant. A new beginning, where things will be well because there is freedom from sin, the systemic and spontanious infliction of negativity, which keeps us oppressed and fearful. Don’t we want God’s love to come into our lives so that we can climb out of the negativity? When we look at this cross and remember the death of Jesus, and the terror of the attempt to destroy God’s love, remember that it is the symbol of God’s magnificent triumph over sin through love and forgiveness for all the horrors that we do. Remember that God’s forgiveness, God’s hope, God’s love, is yours now and forever, world without end, Amen.

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Getting Into Our Resurrection

March 18, 2018          5th Sunday of Lent

Mark 5:21-24, 35-43              John 11:17-2

You know one of the things about humans that makes us human is the question: “Why did you do that?”

I am always wondering why people do what they do. I wonder why some people buy vanilla ice cream and other people buy chocolate. Is it genetics and some people’s tastes buds are better programmed to taste vanilla rather than chocolate? Is it association because of happy childhood experiences? It is social pressure because your sister is coming over and she doesn’t like chocolate? Or is it the whim of the moment that has you chose one over the other?

Normally I don’t concern myself with people’s ice cream choices, but I am very interested in why Jesus raised people from the dead.

Resurrection comes from a Latin verb resugere, which means to “rise again.” In that form you can use it to mean the bread rises again, or I rose again later in the morning. But Latin took the verb and made from it a specific noun resurrectio, which means the revitalization of something. The Christians in turn took that word, added an N and used it to define the coming back to life of Jesus. Today we can use it to describe: The revitalization of something; something coming back to life that was considered to be finished; the bringing back to life of people in the Bible and Jesus’s resurrection; and our own resurrection that is assured for us, as Christians, in the life to come.

In the Gospels Jesus brings back three people from the dead. Today we heard the stories of Jairus’ daughter and Lazarus, but there is also the Widow’s Son at Nain. Since the disciples saw Jesus raise these people from the dead, I am a bit surprised that the disciples didn’t believe the women when they came back from the tomb and told them that Jesus himself was raised. If he raised other people he certainly could have done it for himself.

But why would Jesus be walking around the Palestine raising people from the dead? You would think that once the word got out that he could do this then he would have been mobbed by people begging him to make their son, daughter, father, mother, or grandparents come back to life. Yet this doesn’t happen. I think that part of the reason is the secrecy behind these acts. Jairus’s family is told not to tell anyone about the incident. Nain is a little out of the way town in the hills, so an event from there might not be taken seriously in the wide world. And the healing of Lazarus happened within the community of Jesus’ followers and not in the context of the wider world.

In John’s Gospel when Jesus says: I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me even through they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die; we equate it with the assurance given to us by Christ that if we believe in the power of God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit, that we will continue in our existence after we die in another place that is sanctioned and blessed by God. The generic term for this is Heaven. We are not given to know what heaven is like but we are assured that it is there, that God dwells there, and that we will have a place in it.

Besides the connection to heaven though I think that Jesus preformed resurrections was because he wanted to break through to people the idea that renewing and revitalization was possible and is available to us. And also there is a contrast between the giant resurrection of raising someone from the dead and the smaller resurrection that can happen to things in our lives. Think about it – If someone can be brought back from the finality of death then you can turn around anything.   We can be resurrected through a revitalization of something that seems to be petering out, or something can come back to life that was considered to be finished.

How many of us have been involved in something that seems to have no energy or life to it? It can be a job, a relationship, or a lifestyle that has become the same day after day, year after year, repeating the same thing over and over again. Two words: Dull and Boring. But dull and boring didn’t start that way. They started out as exciting new ventures.

A new venture is an adventure. You are learning new things about your job, relationship, or your lifestyle. You’re trying to figure out how all the aspects work together: What is expected that I do in my job? How do I do it? How do I find the resources and materials? How do I manage my time to get everything done? Who can I work with? Who do I not want to work with? Oh, now I did something – Yeah! – but how do I make it better?

There is an energy to start, but then you learn over time the patterns of your work, and to be more efficient you find a routine that helps you to get more done. The problem sets in when you think that you have figured out everything to do the job well, and then you stay in that pattern and never try to bring in anything new. Then you start to get comfortable and because you are comfortable you don’t want to change. Besides what you are doing is efficient and it’s working. And if it’s not broken – don’t fix it.

But unfortunately comfort and stability can turn into boredom and stagnation. Suddenly things are not exciting or inspiring. And also the world around you is going to be changing. You keep doing what you’ve been doing because it’s been working, but slowly what you are doing is going to start to clash with the outside world because what you are doing isn’t going to feel relevant anymore.  And if you keep on going – hoping that things in the outside world will revert to “normal” (normal being the way it was back then, when things were working well) you are going to eventually be dead in the water. Because the world doesn’t ever move backwards. And good old days are only the good old days because with hindsight we understand them. While we were in them they were just as confusing as the present.

But how does a belief in Jesus get us out of this rut and back to relevance?

Jesus’ teaching was not focused on working with things. His was a system of ethics to work with people. Jesus taught an ethics of humanity that the way to connect with God, and to live our lives to the fullest in God’s spirit, is by treating other people with respect, trying to understand their situations, and helping them where they are. Jesus wasn’t laying out a bunch of minutia rules that were impossible for people to follow all the time and were used as a yardstick to measure how holy, or how Jewish you were. Jesus’ ethics requires us to think of all people as equally worthy to God. Then we must consider how we can translate our actions into generosity and compassion to show that worthiness to others.

Actually, the only thing that we are really working on and with in our lives is our relationships. Unless we are living as hermits, most of our jobs are centered around our relationships with our colleagues, and most of our lifestyle focuses on the ways that we interact with people. And our relationships with our loved ones might have a systematic structure, but ultimately it is the one-on-one interactions that determine how we grow into understanding each other.

Jesus is the resurrection because when we believe that the teachings of Jesus hold the valuable answers that we need to live, and we follow his teachings, we commit ourselves to living our lives in respectful, caring relationship with others. When that happens we recognize the changes and growth that people, including ourselves, go through as we interact with life. We accept that change is good and will make all things new. We get into a continual revitalization of our lives.

When I was teaching someone asked me what my secret was to always having a relevant class. I told her that I do my best to make the class what the students need, not what I think they need. If I get it 80% right I’m happy. The remaining 20% is 10% of stuff that has become out of date, and 10% is going to be new stuff that I’m trying out, to replace the 10% that was out of date last semester – and I never know if the new stuff is going to work, but at least I’m NOT using the out of date stuff. The point is: to stay relevant you always have to look for what needs to be changed and what you need to do to make it relevant.

So what is a relationship in your life that needs a bit of resurrecting? What 10% of it is out of date – and how can you use the love that Jesus teaches us to bring it up to date? I bet if you thought about it you could come up with a whole bunch of actions that would make your life and relationships more vibrant, loving, and interesting. Dedicate a little time to the problem and a solution and see where it leads you. Jesus showed us that raising things from what we think is dead is not impossible, in fact it’s very probable.

Believe in the power of the love that Jesus has taught you, start to work with it, and you might be surprised that God is going give you the resurrections that you are asking for.

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Being a Shepherd with Christ

March 11, 2018          4th Sunday in Lent

Mark 6:30-34              John 10:11-18

The I AM saying of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is back to back with his saying, “I AM the door.” As the gate or door Jesus is our teacher, the authority and way to understand and walk with God.

But with his declaration of “I am the shepherd,” we get into more layers of commentary about who Jesus is, his purpose, and the beginnings of the higher purpose of his sacrifice and as our savior.

Jesus starts by saying that the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. His audience would have known that there were wild foxes, jackals, wolves, lions, and bears in Palestine during Jesus’ time, and all of them would have been a threat to a sheep herd. Shepherding was a risky life. Besides herding the sheep a shepherd had to walk long distances, and be willing to sleep out in the fields during the times of the year that the grass was plentiful to maximize feeding time, and you had to be ready to encounter and fend off wild animals. Shepherds had to be willing to go up against the animals that would come after the sheep and the shepherds to get their dinner. Most shepherds were skilled with slings, bows and arrows, and could also use their crooks to defend their flock.

Like the sheep, who are powerless against carnivore animals, Jesus’ disciples would see themselves as people who didn’t have much power, and who could be devoured by the people in power. The reason why the messiah was such a resonating ideal was because the Jews wanted a leader who would come to them, free them politically, and return them to a state where they could control their cultural destiny. For many people the messiah was supposed to be the second David: Their first king who was also a shepherd and who defeated the foe Goliath with a weapon of a shepherd.   For Jesus to say, “I am the shepherd,” is to equate himself with King David, his ancestor, as a defender and liberator of his people.

Jesus then contrasts the hired hand with the person who owns the sheep. The owner has an interest in the flock because it is his flock that he has built up and nurtured, so he is willing to take the risk of bodily harm to defend the flock. The person who the owner hires to look after the sheep is simply paid wages, so when danger comes the hired hand will value his own life over the lives of the flock. The image of the bad shepherd is actually one that is used several times in the Old Testament as someone who is only concerned for their own well-being and was never concerned for others or the greater community. I could actually see the phrase he’s a bad shepherd being used the same way as we would use the term shark: Someone who is only interested in what they can get.

We can also expand this idea to people who are religious scam artists. There were a lot of bogus faith healers wandering around Palestine at the time, who were scamming a lot of people with their messages and tricks. Occasionally the Roman authorities would crack down on the ones who really caused trouble. When that would happen the faith healers would usually skip town leaving their followers to take the blame. Jesus saying, “I am the good shepherd,” is his declaration that he is going to always stand by disciples no matter what.

Jesus also declares that he has other sheep who do not belong to his flock but that he is going to bring them into the flock so that there will be all one flock. Remember that Jesus was talking to a group of people who were very insular. As Jews they would never have said that Romans, Greeks, Persians, Syrians, or anyone else was a part of their flock. They were very resistant to assimilation – something that was often commented on by Roman authorities, who tried to Romanize the Jews. Jesus was really pushing the boundaries by declaring that their universal God is not just the God of the Jewish people but of everyone.

Jesus mentions again that he is willing to lay down his life for his sheep. And because we are his flock he is going to lay down his life willingly. Jesus says: No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.

We understand this as Jesus’ laying down his life on the cross and his taking it up again in his resurrection. The disciples wouldn’t have understood this at that point but they would have gotten another nuance, which is the symbolism of the sheep as the standard sacrificial offering for sins at the Temple. When someone sacrificed a sheep they give up the benefits of the past effort of raising the sheep, the present food and the sheep’s monetary value, and also the future baby sheep if it was bred, food in the form of meat and milk, and clothing or income in its wool. That’s a lot of sacrifices.

Sometimes in our modern day and age I think we use the term sacrifice too loosely. People talk about sacrificing their careers for their children; sacrificing their vacations for their work; or their movie nights for doing taxes. But those are not always sacrifices. A sacrifice means that you give up something of value to attain something that is considered holy and will bring you closer to God. Now maybe sacrificing your career for your children could fall into that category but the other two – probably not.

Often we don’t like to talk about giving things up for something holy because it might make us seem as if we are slightly round the bend; as if we are too religious, or part of a cult. But in our communion litany we declare: We offer ourselves in praise and thanksgiving as a holy and living sacrifice. That means that we are going to willingly offer our lives to living in the holiest manner that we can.

But living holy doesn’t mean that you spend all day in prayer and meditation, reading the Bible, or writing commentaries, although that’s a good place to start to get you connected to God. Living holy means that you dedicate your life doing God’s work in the world. You dedicate yourself to being generous with your love. You create renewing positive actions for yourself and others. You practice being compassionate and try to understand how and where people are coming from. And you try to do this on a daily basis. Prayer, meditation, Bible reading, and journaling are tools to keep you connected personally to God – but it is our dedicated actions in the outside world, like Jesus’ actions in the world, that make our sacrifice a living one.

But if being positive people, who wish to make the world a better place, is what Jesus wants us to do, and living in a positive atmosphere of caring doesn’t sound too bad, then what are we really sacrificing?

Well, first of all we are giving up ourselves as the center of the universe and putting God in the center of our lives. The ego doesn’t want to do that. One of the problems of being human is that we are the great resistors of God. We put God way out there, and make it seem that God isn’t here with me.

But actually God is in front of me. God is in front of me in the person of everyone who I connect to. We are all God’s children because we are all part of Jesus’ flock – even the ones who don’t know it.   Every kindness that you offer to a person is an offering to God. That might not seem to be much of a sacrifice but when you are kind to someone you are taking yourself out of the center of the universe and putting God in the center by honoring and caring for one of God’s children. You are being a caring shepherd to someone of God’s flock.

Like Christ, who gave himself up for us, we have to give up a part of ourselves to serve. Jesus is our good shepherd, but he want us to be good shepherds to all those around us. Being a shepherd is not easy, but if we let Christ shepherd us, then we will know how to be there for others with His love.

This week the Sharon church was vandalized by some young high-school students. Nothing terrible was done – some food was eaten, they wrote offensive words in our guest book, spilled rock salt on the floor, and set off and stole a fire-extinguisher. We might disparage these kids as being a bad lot, and I do believe that they have to be confronted and make restitution for their actions.

But we also need to ask ourselves – are we being good shepherds to the children of our community? It is always something to examine. We might think that a child who is not ours isn’t our responsibility, but as a community everyone in it is in some way our responsibility. We just need to take a long look at ourselves and figure out how.

So let’s get ourselves out of the center and put Jesus and God there. Let’s ask ourselves questions that might make us uncomfortable but might give us some answers that will lead to action. Don’t just brush off an incident because it seems like you can’t do anything about it. Maybe a little act of kindness will lead to something good.

And who knows – maybe someday we will find ourselves being a good shepherd for those who need it.

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Walking Through Those Open Doors

March 4, 2018             3rd Sunday in Lent

Mark 13:32-37              John 10:1-10

Today we are looking at the saying, “I am the gate.” Or in some translations, “I am the door.” Let’s start first of all with idea of a gate and see where it leads us.

Doors and gates separate spaces. Usually when we think of doors and gates we think of safety. The sheep pen was a place of safety for the sheep, just as a house is usually thought of as a place of safety for us. Within a pen, sheep would be behind walls, with a roof overhead that would shelter them from bad weather. Also the pen was a confined space that the sheep would huddle together in, allowing them to become warm during the night. Hopefully our own homes are places of safety that protect us from the outside world and weather, and places of comfort allowing us to be warm when we sleep.

Just like we need to go out into the world, during the day the sheep needed to be let out into the surrounding hillsides to find the food that they needed to live. But Jesus reminds the disciples that the wandering is not random or unsupervised. The sheep are led by a shepherd, who they know and trust, to a place that they can find food, and then they are led back again to the sheltered sheep pen where they are closed in for the night. Usually one or two people would watch the pen during the night to insure that no one, either a thief or a wild animal, would come to steal the sheep. But a thief or a wild animal is not going to come in through the main gate. They would climb over the pen walls or dig under them.

The gate can be closed or opened, and on one side is safety and security, and on the other side is adventure/danger and uncertainty. But like the sheep, we have to go out into the world and find our food, even though it is an uncertain world out there.

Jesus identifies himself as the gate: The authority of passage between these two worlds of security and uncertainty. But the gate can also represent any passage between any two distinguishing spaces, and Jesus as the correct way to travel safely between those two worlds.

Besides our areas of home and the outside world, I can also imagine other worlds that we interact with: The spiritual world and the material world; The world of myself and the world of my relationships with others; The world of people I know and people I don’t know; The job that I know and the new job that I’m taking on. Anytime you move from the known and certain with safety, to the unknown and uncertain with possible danger, you have to pass through a gate. There is a moment when you cross over from one to the other. Jesus says that by following his values and principles, you will be able to make that crossing and that you will be able to handle what is on the other side.

By following Jesus’ values we resist falling into systems of negativity against people and we commit ourselves to living out generous, renewing actions of compassion everyday. We try to keep away from sin, and we try to live and act in grace. That is living a Christian life. Or as John Wesley would say: Resist evil, do good, and always keep God in your life.

Jesus says twice in this passage: “I am the gate;” the correct passage from one side to the other. But he also mentions twice thieves and bandits (and I threw in wild animals) who want to hurt, not help the sheep. As I said, thieves and animals aren’t going to come in the gate – they’re going to try to do end runs over or under the wall. Think about the imagery of the thief: people who want to acquire what doesn’t belong to them, or they want to get something the easy way and not work for it.

The shepherds are doing it the working way. They are taking care of the sheep everyday, and guarding them at night, and they are doing it no matter what the weather. But there is a little warning to us in that imagery. When we leave our secure environs, we can’t be like thieves – thinking that we can go over the wall and do it the easy way.

One of the aspects that is central to the Christian faith is accountability. Now you might think that no one notices when you do an end run and try to take the easy way out – the way that maybe cheats a little here or there – but God and Jesus know. They know who goes in and out of the gate. The good thing is, they know when we are lead astray, or make mistakes going over or under that wall, and because of Jesus they are willing to let us try to back on track through that gate.

Jesus says at the end of this passage that if we keep trying to choose the right path through the gate, through Him, that we are going to be saved from ourselves and our foolish directions, and have life abundantly. Thank goodness for that, because sometimes I get confused as to where that gate is – and I’m not sure if I’m going through it or going over the wall. But I’m trying, and I know that God knows that I’m trying, because I have Jesus’ assurance that He knows I am trying. If I did not have that assurance, I couldn’t get up some mornings and walk out my front door.   So let’s say an Amen for the assurance of Jesus in our lives.

But other than the eternal Amen for my blunders, there is something else very reassuring about that gate. That when I walk through it, no matter the unknown and uncertainty and danger that I might face, that Jesus is going to be there with me as my shepherd. So not only is he guiding me in the right direction through the door, but he is also going to be my shepherd while I am in that area where I need the most help.

What does that do for me? Well first of all, it helps me to see which doors or directions are the right ones for me to walk through, and second it makes those uncertain or unknown doors less scary. And if I am less scared about new and uncertain paths then I am going to see more possibilities of directions to take.

If you read any of the Gospels you see that Jesus is continually frustrated with his disciples because they have difficulty imagining that the world is going be different from what they imagine or believe it to be. Jesus challenges them every step of the way. He cleanses lepers, heals the sick, drives out demons, and then he turns around and tells them – Okay now it’s YOUR turn to go out and do this.

If I had been Jesus’ disciple my answer would have been, “What? You are kidding! I am so not able to do that.” But Jesus keeps on telling them: You don’t need ability, you need the practice of faith, and as you practice with your faith the ability will come. That is the working way of Christianity, and how we make our faith real. Peter was doing a great job walking on water with his little bit of mustard-seed faith. It was when he doubted his faith that he lost his ability to walk on water and he sank.

What happens when we are presented with a new opportunity? The doubts start: I don’t have the qualifications; I’m too young; I’m to old; I don’t have enough time; I don’t have enough money. The list goes on. But if the new opportunity is a chance to act with generous, renewing actions of compassion, then it is a door that Jesus is opening to you. Yes, it might be scary because it’s new, but because you have the faith of Christ you will be practice with your faith and learn what to do and get better at it.

So remember that when you are given a new opportunity, and you see that it’s a good one that let’s you live your Christian self in the world, then walk out of your security zone, through the Jesus gate, and into a new world with Jesus. Jesus is behind you in your safe area, he is the door that you walk through, and he is before you in your new adventure.

Keep walking through those open doors with Christ, and you will be living your life with His grace abundantly.

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