The One Voice that Matters

We Christians are a strange lot. 

In my mail the other day, on top of the advertisements was one of an unhappy man and an unhappy woman sleeping in the same bed but turned away from one another. A friend of my husband’s, shown this flyer, thought it was probably advertising a linen sale. Closer inspection reveals that this carefully chosen image with the “My Pillow and Me” text was actually for a start up church.

Back to the pile of advertisements, just underneath the unhappy couple, was a rather different image…the cover for the first Victoria’s Secret Valentine’s Day catalog.

Maybe Victoria’s Secret has an alternative way to approach the couple’s challenges.

We Christians have a problem. It doesn’t look like fun to be a Christian. Even the church advertised on the sleek post card, which I’m sure uses fun contemporary music and preaching from a young, engaging family man, looks like its seeking unhappy people to fill its chairs. Come and bring your problems to us and we will make you into happy, wholesome people. The Bible tells us how.

While Jesus wasn’t advertising lingerie, I always picture him with eyes that, when they look at me, make my heart flutter. It is good to walk with Jesus. 

Not because Jesus is going to make you into a good person. To be good is too small a goal, too determined by what those around us call good. Such a quest keeps our ears listening to the wrong set of voices.

In college I earned some of my keep by refereeing basketball and baseball games. We were cautioned against having “rabbit ears,” a term for hearing all the grumbling, shouting comments made about our calls. The good news for the basketball referee is that the 24 second clock starts five seconds after you hand the team the ball, automatically limiting the length of appeals. It is much harder in a game like baseball when the screaming fits of the one who thinks they’ve been wronged continue indefinitely. To be a good referee means your goal is not to please all the voices on the court or the field or the crowd. To be a good referee is to make the calls that allow the game to be well played.

When you are a player, if all is going right, you don’t even think about the referee. You have the opportunity to leap and run and tackle and block. I didn’t referee football, but it’s the playoffs, so bear with me. You have the ability to use all of your natural gifts, and all the gifts of those on the team, to create moments of pure bliss. A football spectacularly caught and run into the end zone; a no look pass that leads to a slam dunk; a tackle of the running back behind the line of scrimmage; a block high in the air of the superstar’s shot. Aren’t these the moments that make the game worth watching?

It is good to walk with Jesus because when he sends the ball your way, he believes you will catch it. When you do, when you have those moments when you know you’ve done something that is pleasing to God, is that not bliss?

For those worried if there’s a place for them on the team, you should know there doesn’t appear to be any kind of tryout. In the gospel of Mark, Jesus just says, “follow me.” And James and John put down the net they were focused on mending, get out of the boat where their father and servants remain, and follow. They don’t show any natural ability. Just get up and follow. 

Now, I suspect there were some voices raised in spirited protest at that moment. But the gospel’s ears have tuned them out. The gospel is not interested in what the servants or the dad has to say. Instead it records only Jesus’ voice, and I quote from the King James Version because the words are so familiar…”Come ye after me, and I will make you to become fishers of men.”

Spoken by just anyone, these cryptic words would not have moved anyone out of the boat. But some have served under a commander. You knew his voice. Is it not true that you would follow the voice of the one who is there to keep you alive?

A cacophony may surround you, there may be shouts and cries, there may be your own stubborn voice making it clear that you don’t like what you are being asked to do, or another’s voice who is telling you what you need to do. But there’s only one voice that leads us to life everlasting.

What keeps us alive, what keeps us in the game, is when we, upon hearing Jesus’ voice, get out of whatever boat we’ve been on for a bit too long. Christianity is not a settling down type of faith. It is rather a faith that calls us to go and fish people out of the small worlds they are swimming in to show them Jesus’ way: sometimes by example, other times by words and prayer, and yet other times by opening up and sharing your God story with one who is eager to hear.

I will make you to become fishers of men.

Call these words from Jesus a mission statement and notice how it is big enough to encompass wherever you are in your life. It is not dependent upon your job, or role, or age, or health.

And now notice that Jesus says “I will make you to become….” There is some training involved. Jesus plans to show us the way. These words come at the beginning of the gospel of Mark. There is much scripture yet to be told before we enter Jerusalem, see Jesus nailed to a cross, and look into the empty tomb. There are many disciples to be gathered, people to heal, demons to expel, doors to knock on, and bread to be served. There is much to learn.

We don’t learn how to be a master fisherman or fisherwoman in a day. Even when we do know some of the basics like how to put a lure on a line or a worm on a hook, how to cast out and reel in, how to share our story, how to pray, how to listen, and how to challenge, we still sometimes let the big one get away.

The great thing about a Jesus mission is that it continues on beyond our failings, beyond the world’s failings. When we accept Jesus’ mission we don’t suddenly become superstars, but we enter into a new arena where the rules beckon us to see beyond the challenges of this world.

So take the ball and run. With Jesus, there’s always an opening. With practice, each one of us has a chance to break out into those blissful moments when we know we have pleased God.

Pleasing to God

When the firm ground shifts, praise God.

As I started to prepare for my next preaching assignment (North Long Beach Christian Church, January 22, 10:45), I turned to this week’s lectionary texts–a set of readings used by many Christian churches across denominations.  They struck me with full force.

“If riches increase, do not set your heart on them.” (Psalm 62: 10)

“For the present form of this world is passing away.” (1 Corinthians 7: 31)

And, in describing Jesus’ calling of his disciples, Mark writes:

“As he went a little farther, [Jesus] saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets.  Immediately he called to them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.” (Mark 1: 19-20)

These scriptures remind us that family, riches, and our current work do not last.  God’s mission for us must be large enough to move us beyond our current roles.  “For the present form of this world is passing away.”

Paul’s summation:  “Let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it.” (1 Corinthians 7: 29-31)

Stop everything!  Paul shouts.  Seek only to please the Lord.

Stop worrying about finding one who will love you, stop fretting over the possible loss of your job, let go of your anxiety about what you will eat, drink, or wear.  “Follow me,” says Jesus.  Come and please God.

In the word of our culture:  Really?  We look around and see what others have and what we do not.  When someone else has what we most want–what we have spent years faithfully preparing for–how can we not feel jealous and angry?  When we’re losing our job, when we’re graduating from college into a hopeless job market, when we’re losing our home, when we’re betrayed by the one we thought loved us–when what we thought we could count on is no longer, how can we go on believing that God is on our side?

While the Bible expects us to cry out as in the Psalms, the word given to us who are experiencing personal landslides is not an answer to our torment, but an action:  cling to God.  Join with the Psalmist to praise God.

On God rests my deliverance and my honor;  My mighty rock, my refuge is in God (Psalm 62: 7)

And yet, perhaps because they are so often used, these words are too easy, providing a vision of comfort and stillness.  It doesn’t have to be that way.  The word from Mark is not to be still, but to move out with Jesus–to please God.  A more contemporary song of praise–Matt Redman’s “Blessed be the Name,” puts at the end of the song’s crescendo these words:

You give and take away, You give and take away, My heart will choose to say, Blessed be the Lord.

Redman’s lyrics are, to the mindset of many, downright offensive.  They are strong enough to get my attention.  What do you mean God gives and takes away?  Before them comes…

Every blessing you pour out, I turn back to praise; When the darkness closes in, Lord Still I will say…

Blessed be the name of the Lord, Blessed be your name; Blessed be the name of the Lord, Blessed be your glorious name.

When the football player who became a houshold name in the past few months lost his playoff game and entered into the realm of reporters, was he not trying to do just this?

Couched in all the imperfections of a man, we don’t believe it.  It offends.  It is easier to find fault, discount him as being naive and insensitive.  And he may be both.  And, at times, we may be both.  But as the ground beneath our feet moves, it may be better for our souls to let go of the judgment and instead join our voice with one who is trying his best to hold onto his God when the road, for now, has ended.

Let us join with the Psalmist and offend this world’s sensibilities when, having lost something great, we joyfully proclaim God has another way.  Let us shout out that on God rests our honor:  Join in…”My heart will choose to say….”  Let us be prepared to follow Jesus.

Long ago, the sons of Zebedee sat in a fisherman’s boat, mending their nets with their dad looking on.  How small is their world.  How tiny their expectatoins.  Hunched over, their mission, which seemed as essential to them that moment as breathing, is simply to fix their tattered net that it might once again hold fish.  The hired men wait for them to finish.  Their dad, knowing only what he has always done, is fixed in place.

How often do we get caught up in our own net mending?

Praise God who puts an end to that.  Our lives are not meant to be so narrowly defined.

If the ground under our feet is sinking sand, it is time to rise up, leave the mending to those who need the work, and use our gifts–the gifts that no one can take away–to please our God.

Blessed be the name of the Lord, blessed be your glorious name.

In Christ,

Heather

Able to Forgive

Jesus said to forgive not seven times, but seventy times seven.  I’ve come to understand this to mean that if you are seeking to live with God, you will have many opportunities to forgive.

My friend Susan suggested that forgiveness is an English word that really should be two different words.  Perhaps she is right.

There’s the type of forgiveness that we can offer when there is a chance for reconciliation, when there is an “I’m sorry,” and an attempt to make amends.  We forgive by allowing another chance.  Then there is the more difficult type of forgiveness.  The type where we forgive without any sign that our being hurt has changed or will change anything.  It is the forgiveness unattached to the action of another.  We forgive to be free.

Over the years I have heard people say, “I need to be able to forgive,” or “I struggle with anger.” Each one I speak to understands that if they could forgive they would be free of that ungodly feeling which keeps them in its grip.  But how do you get from wanting to forgive to being able to forgive?

A pair of Biblical images come to mind, both from the gospel of John.  In John 4, Jesus sits with a woman at a well, speaking to her of “all she had ever done.”  Despite the narrative not describing her deeds in detail (all we are told is she has had many husbands and the one she is currently with is not her husband), it is clear that she felt Jesus heard her, knew her, and understood her.  Then, at the close of the gospel, the resurrected Jesus meets Peter.  Remember, Peter denied knowing Jesus three times in the courtyard as Jesus was being questioned by the authorities who would have Jesus crucified.  Peter was scared.  However, after all is done, the resurrected Jesus comes to Peter and gives him the chance to speak three times of his love for him.

“Peter,” Jesus says, “do you love me?”

Peter responds, “Lord, you know I love you.”

Jesus commands, “Then feed my sheep,” referring to the people Jesus led.

Both the woman at the well and Peter have plenty to be angry about.  I suspect anyone who has had many husbands is not without culpability, but still has been, in one way or another, betrayed.  And the woman would feel the guilt of having not lived rightly.  Further, the Jerusalem temple priest’s insistence that only in Jerusalem could worship of God be properly performed would have set up a divide between one such as her and others who could afford to go to Jerusalem to worship the right way.

Similarly, Peter has experienced a great betrayal, as he watched his teacher, friend, and Lord die.  The powers of this world won.  Jesus didn’t save him.  In fact, Jesus set him up.  He, like the woman, feels guilty.  He didn’t respond rightly when the time came for him to take a stand.

John’s gospel has a great injustice in the background of both stories.  Yet, scripture moves away from righteous anger, choosing instead to emphasize the need for both to be forgiven by Jesus.  In this way, John makes an important link. When anger has a hold on us, what we really need to be able to forgive, is to be forgiven.

While there may be a few in the history of Christianity who have been able to go directly to God to be forgiven, most of us require a friend, someone who will sit with us at the well, or find us when we are lost and give us a chance to speak.  Note Jesus didn’t say to Peter or the woman, “what you need to do is to forgive.”  He didn’t make the ability to forgive a prerequisite to experiencing what it is to be forgiven.  He didn’t ask them to make lists of all their wrongs.  Just as important, but slightly different, he didn’t allow what they were angry about to define the conversation.  Instead, Jesus showed the way to forgiveness by listening and responding with compassion.

So, if you are seeking to forgive, seek out a compassionate friend, one who, like Jesus, will listen long enough and deeply enough that you are once again conscious of God’s love of you. If you are seeking to help someone who is stuck in anger, who knows she wants to forgive but cannot, follow Jesus.  Be a compassionate friend—listen and love.

Then go one step further.  One more guidepost is given by Jesus in these two encounters.  He gets both the woman and Peter back to work.   The woman didn’t need a clear directive.  After her conversation with Jesus she went home and told everyone about the one she had met at the well.  She preached. Peter, however, needed a last little push.   So when Jesus visited him, he said, “If you love me, feed my sheep,” which meant “get to work caring for the people who follow me.”  The goal is not simply for us to forgive, the goal is to get back to God’s work.

We help each other forgive when, whatever the difficulty, we remind one another that we have not been fired from God’s work in this world.  In fact, whatever has happened has likely made us more able to follow Jesus.

And so, people of God, listen, love and help one other see our respective places in God’s work. With Jesus as our guide, despite the best efforts of our anger and shame, we will forgive–and we will carry the light that makes us free.

In Christ,

Heather

Now What? A sermon for troublemakers

Church signs on one of the main streets in Tucson, AZ tell the story of our holiday.  On the Wednesday, after Christmas, five signs still advertise the Christmas Eve/Day worship services.  One tells of a group that meets there, Alienated Catholics Anonymous…it was at a Catholic church.  And then there is the one at a bigger church that someone showed up early in the week to change, proclaiming:  “One Service Only, January 1.”

Jesus has been born, now what?

The Christian church seems to fall down and say, “no more!”   “We’re tired.”  No kidding.  I saw what was done here on Christmas Eve.

Gone will be the poinsettias and added candles.  Gone are the expectations for overflowing crowds dressed in their shimmering greens and reds.  Gone are the dancers, the choir, the folk song artists, and the poet.

Take a breather, rest.  We are among friends.  You who come on a Sunday after Christmas, you are like a fine sauce boiled down to its richest flavor.  You are those I wrote about at miningtheword.net, those who follow a law of sorts that says Sunday morning belongs to God.  You are the ones who I love to hang out with, for your faith always strengthens mine.

If you are one who has come here today because of a commitment made on Christmas Eve, know there won’t be any bells and whistles today, but if you listen, you just might hear God.

Listen.

Scripture is not done on Christmas Eve.  It doesn’t take time to pause.  In fact, it seems in a hurry to leave the manger, to get back to Nazareth, where Jesus is circumcised 8 days later.  Luke has yet to reach its climactic moment–which doesn’t happen in the manger.   The sheep and the donkeys are given no song to sing when Jesus arrives despite our love of “Away in the Manger.”   Instead, the climax, the final songs and predictions about the baby Jesus, are given voice by a pair of faithful people, an elderly man and a woman, who happily greet Jesus in the temple.

Simeon and Anna have served the temple for many years.  We are told that Simeon was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. Of Anna we are told she was a prophet, some 84 years old, and lived in the temple worshipping there with fasting and prayer night and day.  Taken together, they represent all that is good about the people of God.  Fred Craddock lists their traits.  They are “devout, obedient, constant in prayer, led by the Holy Spirit, at home in the temple, longing and hoping for the fulfillment of God’s promises.”  When Simeon sees Jesus, he became the first Christian prophet, praising God… “my eyes have looked upon your salvation.”  When Anna sees Jesus, she becomes the first Christian preacher, “speaking of Jesus to all those who are looking for the redemption of Israel.”  Together, they shout out: this baby, this Jesus, brings to us what we’ve been looking for all along!

Words like consolation, redemption, and salvation are drawn out of the Old Testament, the Hebrew scripture.  “’Comfort, comfort, my people’ says the Lord God” in Isaiah 40, a word to those who had been under another’s oppressive rule, those who had their possessions stripped away.  To console is to comfort.  Redemption…my favorite image of redemption is of standing in line with cans and bottles ready to put them in the machine–that they might be remade.  Redemption suggests that the current form has used up its usefulness, and a new form is required.  Salvation:  that which a people who understand they are in need of help–that they are in some type of trap–seek.  One image holds us, another remolds us, the last sets us free.

John Calvin’s writings suggest that if it is true that we have an implant in our hearts to seek God, it is also true that we are capable of making anything into our God…or the inverse, that we are capable of making God into anything.  How true that is with the one who was born a man and yet still of God.  How true it is with us who don’t like to sit still enough to be held, don’t want to be remolded, and see ourselves as free when we are unattached to religion.  Oh, how quick we are to model Jesus, not on the Holy Word, but on our own prejudice, our protectiveness, and our idols.

And so to a scene from a movie unafraid to deal with the sacred: Talladega Nights.

Carley (the stereotypical sexy golddigging wife of the race car driver Ricky Bobby) : Supper’s ready! C’mon ya’ll. I’ve been slaving over this for hours.

The family comes to the table, and all take hands to pray, something they are certainly not used to doing.  And, in one of the most often played scenes used to show us how not to pray, we watch as Ricky Bobby, the successful race car driver bows his head and says…

Ricky Bobby: Dear Lord Baby Jesus, or as our brothers to the south call you, Jesús, we thank you so much for this bountiful harvest of Domino’s, KFC, and the always delicious Taco Bell. I just want to take time to say thank you for my family, my two beautiful, beautiful, handsome, striking sons, Walker and Texas Ranger, or T.R. as we call him, and of course, my red-hot smoking wife, Carley who is a stone-cold fox. Who if you were to rate her [behind] on a hundred, it would easily be a 94. Also wanna thank you for my best friend and teammate, Cal Naughton Jr. who’s got my back no matter what.

Cal (Ricky’s best friend interrupts with the words he speaks throughout the film): Shake and Bake.

Ricky Bobby (continues): Dear Lord Baby Jesus, we also thank you for my wife’s father, Chip. We hope that you can use your Baby Jesus powers to heal him and his horrible leg. And it smells terrible and the dogs are always bothering with it. Dear tiny, infant Jesus, we….

Carley (interputs): Hey, you know, sweetie, Jesus did grow up. You don’t always have to call him “baby.” It’s a bit odd and off-putting to pray to a baby.

Ricky Bobby (responds): Well, I like the Christmas Jesus best and I’m saying grace. When you say grace you can say it to grownup Jesus, or teenage Jesus, or bearded Jesus or whoever you want.

Carley: You know what I want? I want you to do this grace good so that God will let us win tomorrow.

Ricky Bobby: Dear tiny Jesus, in your golden-fleece diapers, with your tiny, little, fat, balled-up fists….

Chip (Carly’s dad, the one with the bad leg that smells): He was a man! He had a beard!

Ricky Bobby: Look, I like the baby version the best, do you hear me? I win the races and I get the money.

Carley: Ricky, finish the damn grace.

Cal: I like to picture Jesus in a tuxedo T shirt, cause it says, like, “I wanna be formal, but I’m here to party, too.” Cause I like to party, so I like my Jesus to party.

Walker (another man at the table): I like to picture Jesus as a ninja fighting off evil samurai.

Cal: I like to think of Jesus, like, with giant eagle’s wings. And singing lead vocals for Lynyrd Skynyrd, with, like, an angel band. And I’m in the front row, and I’m hammered drunk.

Carley: Hey Cal, why don’t you just shut up?

Cal: Yes, ma’am.

Ricky Bobby: Okay. Dear 8 pound, 6 ounce newborn infant Jesus, don’t even know a word yet, just a little infant and so cuddly, but still omnipotent, we just thank you for all the races I’ve won and the 21.2 million dollars – woo! (the rest of the family says “woo” too) – love that money, that I have accrued over this past season. Also, due to a binding endorsement contract that stipulates I mention Powerade at each grace, I just want to say that Powerade is delicious and it cools you off on a hot summer day. And we look forward to Powerade’s release of Mystic Mountain Blueberry. Thank you for all your power and your grace, dear baby God.

Oh, there are many uses for this scene.  Don’t pray like this, a favorite of youth leaders.  Jesus can’t stay in the crib forever and neither can you, a favorite of mothers whose 16 year old won’t get out of bed.  But my favorite is… Jesus didn’t come here to be what we think we want, neither a ninja nor a democrat or republican nor one wearing a tuxedo shirt.

Jesus came to fulfill God’s plan, one that is described in the language of consolation, redemption, and salvation.

Luke fits the birth narrative around a well-known story of God engaging an older couple that a prophet might be born.  In reading the first chapters of 1 Samuel you will meet Hannah, an old woman who after much waiting bears a son named Samuel, who she gives into the service of God (as she promised).  Luke starts his narrative with Elizabeth, an old woman who is given a son: John the Baptist, a prophet.  As Hannah’s part in the story ends with her bringing Samuel to Eli, the temple priest, Luke’s birth narrative ends with Mary and Joseph bringing Jesus into the temple, giving him into the hands of Simeon.  Jesus belongs to the God you know from scripture.  Jesus is given definition through scripture.

Luke, writing years after Jesus’ death, dares to see Jesus as the one God will use to console, redeem, and save.

And so…is this really what we need to go forward with God?

Or is this just another man with giant eagle’s wings better left in the crib while we go our own way?

C.S. Lewis argued that the part in us that cares for strangers, the part of us that would risk our lives for another, tells us of God’s existence.  For, he argues, it would not follow from evolution that we would care for someone unrelated to us.  Yet, those are the stories that do our souls good…those stories where self sacrifice saves another.  For Lewis that is a sign that God is at work, because it is a force that stands against the natural world.  Others would say it is the human spirit, and argue that we would be more responsible to not look to God but rather to develop our own selves–our humanity.  Perhaps we can get beyond religion, they argue.

They imagine themselves with giant eagle’s wings.

Comfort, comfort my people, says our God. 

I didn’t come here on Christmas Eve to celebrate Jesus coming into the world so I might fly on my own wings.  I’m not winning any races these days.  I’m not even sure where the starting line is.  But when I stop and imagine Jesus, because of these gospel images, I can feel him taking my hand, leading me through the redemptive fire, that I might be free.

The Biblical imagery makes sense…with Jesus I’m consoled—he takes my hand.  With Jesus I’m willing to be reformed that I might better serve God as did he.  With Jesus, God is free to have the last word in my life.

God’s work through Jesus makes a whole lot more sense than anything I might conjure up.

And Luke keeps it real.  It isn’t all “good news.”

Even as Simeon holds Jesus, gleefully announcing his departure, he is obliged to speak in a more ominous tone:  “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

I don’t imagine these words came easily.  Why can’t it just be joy?  Because eventually the baby cries, eventually we face the difficulty of keeping Christ alive in our world, alive in our own hearts.

Our independence fights against God’s comfort, our need to look good rebels against being reformed, and our humanistic beliefs call us to save ourselves.

This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel. 

Note the order of the words: the falling comes before the rising.  This suggests this is less a categorization of people into two types, than a statement that the falling is part of the cycle of anyone who chooses to follow Jesus out of the manger.

Jesus has been born, what’s next?  Trouble.  The right kind of trouble.

In Talladega Nights, Ricky Bobby was intent on being first because his drunken Dad said to him one day “If you are not first, you’re last.”  All kinds of bad happened in his soul because that became his mantra. Then one day, his temporarily sober father turned up. Ricky Bobby looked his Dad in the eye and said with feeling “I remember you telling me…’If you are not first, you’re last.  Everything I’ve sought to be is because of those words.’”  Hearing this, his Dad laughed and said “that’s a stupid thing to live by, the words of a drunken man.  They make no sense.”

I was reading in USA Today the New Year resolutions of CEOs of small companies.  One talked about making more personal phone calls to his employees, another told about encouraging more travel for those of his company, and another about getting a stand up desk so he might exercise while working.

Jesus has been born!  Are we going to allow ourselves to be defined by the failings of the past?  Is the only important thing in our new year our diet, exercise, and vacation?  These things do not make sense of our lives.

Or…

Are we going to get into some good old fashioned trouble by taking hold of Jesus, his purpose becoming ours…a mission to bring God’s consolation, to bring God’s redemption, to bring God’s salvation…however imperfectly we shoulder it…into our world.  Come on, for Christ’s sake, let’s get into some trouble together…for such is the way of our Lord.  Amen.