Sunday, March 29, 2015

Follow Into The City

Cry like nobody is watching. 

Luke 19:39-44

New International Version (NIV)
39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!”
40 “I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.”
41 As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it 42 and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. 43 The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. 44 They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.”

My dad always used to tell me that I had my priorities screwed up.  

My dad was a master of reverse psychology. And, as much as I resent some of the things he said and did to me while growing up under his rule and reign, there is still some truth I hang on to till this day. The one thing he said to me that I still wrestle with is his talk about priorities. I was a teenager. All I wanted was the freedom to do as I pleased the way I wanted to do things. I felt I didn't need his watchful eye guarding my ever move. I didn't need him telling me what to do every step of the way. If I made mistakes, then I made mistakes. I longed to get my hands dirty; to do something on my own. Maybe I wasn't ready yet. Maybe I didn't understand all I needed to understand before I took that big step. Didn't matter to me. You learn by doing. Or, so I thought. Now I'm at a place in life where I'm less anxious about asking for things. I take a lot more time brooding over things I pray about or ask for. There was a time some 30 years ago when I would have jumped on the chance to do my own thing. There was also a time when I had all the important stuff turned around and focused in the wrong direction. 

Dad's words were clear, cutting to heart and soul. 
"You got your priorities mixed up" he said. "When you should be thinking about others, you're thinking about yourself. And, when you should be thinking about yourself, your thinking about others." Of all the things that Dad ever said to me those words cut like a knife. Now, you might be thinking, "Geez, my dad said way worse things than that!" Yea, so did mine. I could recall countless times where he made me cry and made me angry. I'm a melancholy kind of guy. Introspection is central to my own personal theology and well as our belief system as Wesleyan-Methodists. I have taken those words from my Dad and gritted me teeth over them for three decades now. I seek to use them today as we cover this scripture and focus upon the people Jesus was speaking with and then turn the spotlight upon ourselves for a little introspection. Because, we all get our priorities mixed up.

It's Palm Sunday.
We've read scripture from Mark concerning the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. 
There is such a mix of emotions surrounding this moment, both from Jesus and the people. 
We have watched throughout this Lenten season the varied responses to Jesus' claims that he would go toward Jerusalem and to his death. Peter and his brutal rejection of that claim and, in turn, Jesus' brutal rejection of Satan's presence in the midst of Peter's words. We've seen the Pharisees and the religious leaders trying to make sense of Jesus' teachings and promises in light what they have set up as their prominent and pious system. There seems to be a bit of a misunderstanding as to what comes first - the chicken or the egg. How many have debated the origins of such things? If the egg came first, then the chicken isn't a creation as much as a larva, a pile of goop. If the chicken came first, then life as we know it sprung forth from inspiration. A pile of goop doesn't seem very inspired. Human beings can make a pile of goop and turn it into something. The something may or may not look very good. Only God can take something from nothing and create life. 

So, what comes first for us in our measly human existence?
Does God come first? Does meeting the needs of others come before ourselves? Or, do we have to come first with our trappings and misgivings? What's more important, the need or the cause? What's more important, the song or the sermon? Do we put the cart before the horse or do we just jump on the horse and ride it all the way to town? Our lives as human beings can leave us with an undetermined amount of uneasiness as we seek to try and straighten out the crooked path of priorities. 

If the Apostle Paul's word are true and Jesus has taken upon himself our human frailties so as to understand out temptations and trials, then he must know something about our struggle with the dreaded list of priorities. Where there times where he was unsure about what to say to a person for fear of being to injected into their life and possibly offend them? Was there a moment when he was too absorbed with himself and didn't meet the needs of enough people? Well, the Apostle's words say that he handled all of it with grace as to live without sin. So, he must have handled to issue of priorities very well then. And, because he did, he has the right to walk into Jerusalem and give them the big ol slap in the face they so righteously deserve. 

Has Jerusalem listened to God over the years? Has Israel? No, they haven't. 
How many times have they forsaken their God? How many times have they given in to lust and greed and vengeance? How many times have they turned their back on the God who rescued them and turned them into the great nation they became? Even now, they aren't living as a nation so much as a sub-state of the Roman empire. They are not in place God intended them to be and it is because of their sin that they are in the spot they are in. How many prophets came before Jesus and begged and pleaded/ The most recent one had his head delivered on a silver platter. And, now Jesus knows that his time will come soon. In the midst of all the cheering and raucous praise, he feels in his heart that the end is near. 

Yet, even though he feels the pain, he accepts the tribute. He is their king. Just not the king they are looking for. They want a king that will set them free from the oppressive Roman rule they are under. Jesus seeks to rule their hearts and set them free from the sin that so easily besets. It is a battle over priorities again that seems to get in the way of understanding the reason Jesus is there. There are people who seem to be troubled by whether or not to focus on themselves or to focus what Jesus is teaching. Those people again would be the Pharisees. "Teacher, rebuke your people." Rebuke them? For what? You're telling me you've never had a moment where you felt really good about something so as to want to stand up and shout about it? It tears me up when I hear people saying that they don't come to church for the music. "I just come to hear the sermon." Well, then, you misgiving soul, did not come for church today. You just came for yourself. And, if you don't like music in church, then you aren't going to like heaven either. Because my bible says in Revelation chapter 4 that there is going to be lots of singing and praising. There's going to be people waving palm branches and shouting "Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord God Almighty" It's not going to be a funeral service. It's not going to be drab or dull, and quiet. It's going to be good.

"If I tell them to be quiet, them even the stones will cry out."

All of creation, even the stones just lying there on the ground, are ready to praise God. 
And, these guys, who want everything their way or else, who are ready and willing to kill Jesus at a moments notice to ensure that they get their way, want everybody to just be quiet. Oh, if I was in Jesus shoes I would get ready and give them a big ol blast of hellfire just like my dad would have given me after an "F" on a report card. Whoa man, I can feel the blood boiling and the anger swelling at very thought of having to go up against some nay-sayer who thinks it has to be their way on everything. You probably know someone like that. Some one who think they have all the answers. Someone who thinks everything has to be their way or else. Someone who thinks they are just so cute every time they demand their own way. It ain't gonna look so cute when I blast in and give them a holy slap up side the head. Give it to them Jesus. They got their priorities all messed up. They're focusing on themselves instead of focusing on the needs of others. 

But, he doesn't do that. At least not in this moment.
Oh, there will be a time for the turning over of tables of money changers in the near future. 

But, in this moment, there is nothing but tears.
"As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it..."
 It was the week before Spring Break in 1990 when my father came into the living room and sat down across from me. I was in the rocker where my dad usually sat. It was "his chair" but I stole it whenever he wasn't in it. I sat there looking at the newspaper like he would have been doing. Recently my dad and I had been having a argument about the car I drove. You see, I worked my rear off the save up the money to buy said car. It didn't matter to me that my mother's name was on the deed. It was my car and I wanted the freedom to do what I wanted with the car. I was a senior in high school at the time. Curfew was a topic for discussion between us. I thought I should be able to come and go as I pleased. I don't recall all the parameters of our conversation, but my dad did something that completely surprised me in that moment. I'm sitting in "his" rocker. He comes in and sits down in the rocker across from me. Tells me he has done a lot of thinking about the matter. Says he has thought it over and decides I can now stay out until 11 during the week. Friday and Saturday nights I can stay out till 1 AM, if I want. Spring Break was just around the corner and I was allowed to stay out till 1 AM every night, if I wanted, since there would not be school to focus on the next day, all week.

If I'm recalling the moment correctly, I sat there with my mouth open. I couldn't believe it. I had gotten my way. I was going to be allowed to stay out as late as I wanted to. I was going to be allowed to do what I wanted to. My dad asked me if I thought this arrangement was fair. I recall simply saying "Yes". "Ok then" he said, and got up and left the room. I really couldn't believe it. But, it wasn't long before I twisted up a perfectly good situation and made it bad for myself. You see, I couldn't keep the 11 PM status. I pushed my time away from home till 1 AM real quick. And, every night of Spring Break where I should have been home by 1... Well, lets just say 4:30 comes pretty quick when you're not paying attention to the time.

Why is it we human beings are so stubborn headed?
Even when we do get our way, we mess it all up and make things worse. By the end of the week, the religious leaders would get their way. They would get Jesus on a cross. The nemesis to their ill fated quest for personal preservation would be out of their way and in Roman hands. They would have to convince some Roman authorities that he truly was a threat to their rule. But, when lying is what you do.... Yes, hell fire and brimstone would eventually come. But, in this moment, Jesus does what you might not expect.

He cries.

Scripture here says he wept over Jerusalem. As he gives them the decree that their city will be destroyed and all will be lost, he does so with tears. He doesn't crush them with forceful threats or hateful gestures. He uses the saddest of human emotions to speak to them. He cries while telling them that not one stone will be left on another. He cries while telling them that their children will die along with them. He cries, because he came to those who were his own. And, his own did not recognize the time of God's coming to them. How many times have they been given the chance to repent and turn away from their stubbornness? How many people have spoken the truth to them about what was to come? How many chances does a person get before we seen the walls caving in around us?

It's hard for me to come to terms with, but my undoing was my own fault.
After I graduated high school, I left home. But, not in the way one usually does.
All the ingratitude I showed, all the problematic behavior I shoved off at my parents only manifested itself in one unexpected afternoon as I came home from work. I'm still not sure what I did that day that set him off. Maybe it was all the curfew I had missed. Maybe there was a shirt left on the floor that didn't make it into the clothes hamper. Not sure exactly. But, what I saw made me choose to go. I came home to a bedroom that had been torn apart. My bed had been taken apart. The box springs were standing on end, leaning against the wall. So was the mattress. All the clothes had been pulled out of my closet. All the clothes had been pulled out of my drawers. I stood there in the doorway of my bedroom and just stared. My mom came down the hall and stood there with me. I didn't say anything. I just stood there. Then, maybe I did the unexpected. I got back in my car, went back to work, got two big boxes. went back home, packed up everything I could carry, and I left. My Dad was mowing the lawn that day. He never looked at me while he was mowing. I shoved the two boxes in my car and off I drove. I never came back home to live again.

It's taken me a long time to come grips with the meatiness of that moment.
I was mad at my Dad for the silent rage of that day for a long time. For some reason it has taken all these years to now be a father myself to finally realize why I left home that day as an 18 year old know-it-all.

I didn't want to follow.

I didn't want anybody telling me what to do or how to do it. I didn't want to follow the rules.
The rules my father was giving to me. Even in the moment when I got what i wanted. I finally got my way and it still wasn't enough. I just didn't want to follow. I wanted to do my own thing.

How many chances does God give a person? I don't know.
I'm thankful for the ones I've been given. I know I'm willing to follow now.
I know the Father I'm focused on now needs my willingness to focus on the rules at hand.
I know he has helped me to figure out the priorities. To focus on myself when I need to. To focus on other when I need to. And, to know when I'm stepping over the bounds of respectfulness.

Where He leads me I will follow. And, I'll go with him all the way.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Follow Until Others Come

Monkey See. Monkey Do.

John 12:20-33

New International Version (NIV)

Jesus Predicts His Death

20 Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the festival. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. “Sir,” they said, “we would like to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went to tell Andrew; Andrew and Philip in turn told Jesus.
23 Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. 25 Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me.
27 “Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name!”
Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.” 29 The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him.
30 Jesus said, “This voice was for your benefit, not mine. 31 Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up[a] from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33 He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die.

 Monkey see, monkey do is a pidgin-style saying that appeared in American culture in the early 1920s. The saying refers to the learning of a process without an understanding of why it works. Another definition implies the act of mimicry, usually with limited knowledge and/or concern of the consequences. - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

You are most likely familiar with the phrase. You've probably used it more than twice in your time. You know what it means. People will do what they see other people doing. We use it when speaking of children, most generally. If one kid is getting into something then, pretty soon, you might have two or three kids getting into something. When asked why they are all getting into this unwanted disturbance there is usually some finger pointing back to the original culprit. The original "monkey".

I thought it would be interesting to investigate how monkeys learn. So, I typed that very phrase into Google and away we went. "how monkeys learn" Right off the top, the first article was from a 2007 article from Science Daily that said that Monkeys learn in very much the same ways that humans do. It seems that humans increase their learning capacity when they are actively involved in the process of investigating and digesting the information. In other words, it's a "hands on" means of learning rather than just being force fed the information passively. There was more than one search result that had to do with monkeys being able to learn to recognize themselves in the mirror. One of the neat moments in life is when we see our children recognizing themselves. They come to understand who they are and what they can do. Most often, we humans, and our monkey counterparts, learn what we can do by imitation. The copycat. We see somebody doing something and we begin to wonder if we can do it too. So, we try. And, pretty soon we learn our limitations and our boundaries. We learn to stretch them too. We learn what is too much for us to handle and what load we can bear.

As we approach this scripture today, lets keep all of this "monkey business" in mind.
 The scripture says some "Greeks" have come and they want to see Jesus.
It says here that they come to Phillip. John's account makes special note that Phillip is from Bethsaida, which in Hebrew means, "house of Fishermen". Didn't Jesus call these disciples to be "fishers of men"? It seems that in fishing, the fisher has to keep moving around while trying to find that perfect place to catch those fish. And, sometimes, the fish just come to you.

Phillip seems a bit unsure as to what to do. They haven't had much contact with the Greeks. In their travels they have come to the edge of the Decapolis, those ten Greek cities just beyond the borders of Israel. They have seen several foreigners come to Jesus with requests. They want healing. They want an audience. But, this looks like the most direct moment for any of the disciples. Now, these people want to see Jesus. What does Phillip do?

You can't blame Phillip for wanting to consult someone. He approaches Andrew. Funny that he would choose this disciple. Andrew has some history with bringing people to Jesus. Andrew is one of the first to follow Jesus. One of the first things Andrew does is to get his brother, Peter, and bring him to Jesus. Andrew might know what to do here. I think they make a wise choice when they are not sure what to do. They both go to Jesus, together. When we are not sure what we are to do or how we are to do it approaching Jesus, by yourself or with a friend, is the most logical and prayerful choice you cam make.

There is something about this moment that is a sign for Jesus. Something about these people approaching him makes him focus ahead down the road. There are other moments in the gospels where Greeks or other foreigners - non-Jewish people, have come to see Jesus. In each opportunity, Jesus is either amazed by their faith or puts them off, saying "I came not to reach out to the Greeks, but to the Lost sheep of Israel." Now, in this moment, there seems to have been enough of these visits. It triggers a sign that the end has come. It's time to really start thinking about  the cross.

Jesus has words for those who would come to follow him. His audience must be his own disciples as well as the Greeks who have come. The message is for all who would listen.
23 Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. 25 Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me.
 What is he saying?
As spring time approaches, it's time to get ready to begin tilling soil and preparing the ground for planting seeds. Seeds actually are dead and live at the same time when put them in the ground. They hold life in their delicate frame as we drop them into the soil and cover them over. But, burying them also smothers them. They need water and air in order to spring up and have life. But, it only happens when a seed is placed in the ground. It's a strange process to explain and Jesus uses it to describe what our mission is and what his own purpose is for all of us in need of salvation.

To dies and give oneself in this manner means to give all we have inorder to fulfill the purpose of the kingdom. We follow until others come. We follow until people we don't even know wander up to the gates of heaven looking for an audience with Jesus. We meet the needs of people we don't even know. We give of our lives until they are spent of and used up. 

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Follow to the Father (or, How to Give the Same Message to Two Different Audiences)

into       LENT

You can always come home. 

Luke 15:1-3

New International Version (NIV)
15 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Then Jesus told them this parable:

11 Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”

The word Pharisee literally means - "separated one".
This group has been a focus for us in this Lenten season. We want to look at the way they do things, how they practice their religion, and how they interact with the world around them. To be separated from the world around them meant to keep some sort of purity for themselves.That purity became an obsession. There was a purity in what they believed about God. Their rituals in the temple. How they conducted themselves while interacting with other cultures and people. Every area of their lives was ruled by this need for purity. Right down to the food they ate. How it was prepared. The way they washed their hands before they ate. And, especially, who they ate said food with.

To the Pharisee, sharing a meal with a sinner or tax collector was not only a trampling of their belief system but also showed a certain acceptance to the lifestyle of said person.

The Pharisees undoubtedly shook their heads in disgust when Jesus would go off with a group of tax collectors and others to eat at their houses. For these religious leaders, the mere idea of being crowded around and touched by such people would have been an absolute defilement.

Jesus, of course, hears these murmurings. He is aware of what they think of his exploits. In this moment we come to some familiar parables in the 15th chapter of the gospel of Luke. Jesus strings together three parables the help illustrate why he enjoys being with the common, everyday people. "The sinners." There is a climatic approach to these parables. A shepherd loses one of his sheep. An old woman who is cleaning loses a coin. A father who has two sons has to watch one of them walk away. In the final story, Jesus casts this rigid group of religious leaders as a key character in his story.

Why the younger son wants to leave, we don't know. Jesus chooses to leaves some details out. Maybe it not important. Maybe what's truly important here is that the father has to say goodbye. It's never easy to let your child go. Letting them leave, for whatever reason, is one of the hardest things a human being has to endure. We raise our children with as much knowledge and fortitude that we can muster. We hope they will make the right choices. We hope they have learned all the need to know to be successful. We don't want them to fail.

I recall what it was like to leave home at 18 and venture into the world.
I had no idea how I was going to make it. I had no real vision for the road ahead. I had a job at the local grocery store. I had a car I loved. There were a few dollars in my pocket and rent to be paid. Other than that, there was no vision for the future. Living day to day. Just trying to survive. Some kids had college and dreams of a career. I just wanted to work and play. Not much more than that. I feel as if I can draw some parallel with the prodigal here. Maybe you can too. There are moments in our lives when we just want to venture away and do our own thing.

The father must let go. It has to be hard. I can only imagine. My kids are still growing and with every milestone I wonder if I will be able to contain my grief. My boy will start kindergarten this year. My girl will head to fifth grade in the fall. Fifth grade! It seems like I was just picking her up like I am my 5 year old boy. I am bracing myself for it. There will come a moment when they both will have to leave home. Like the father of the prodigal, I will have to simply let go and watch them leave.

The prodigal's case is only similar to our if we take it from a spiritual level. The father represents God in the story. The son represent those who have wandered away to do their own thing. Worship their own god. Live their own lifestyle. A lifestyle that is not centered or focused on God's values. But, centered an focused on ourselves. The son wants to take his inheritance and just go do whatever he wants to do. Spend it raucously. Drink whatever he wants. Go wherever he wants. There is nothing forbidden to him now. How many of us sought to leave home so we could 'sow our wild oats'? I recall where my 'old stomping grounds' are in northern Ohio. The things I have done. The moment that require forgiveness. The people I encountered. As teenagers, we can't wait to get out there and blaze our own trail.

It is in the midst of blazing his trail that the prodigal wakes up one morning and realizes there is nothing left. No more money. No more fun. No more wild oats to be sown. In his story, Jesus put him in the midst of a great famine. A picture the Israelites would be familiar with in their own history. How many times did the Israelites go through hardships and trials? Now, this son, this "prodigal" has lost all he has. There is nothing and he is desperate. The only work he can find is slopping pigs. It is in this moment while he is feeding the pigs that he realizes how hungry he is for some kind of nourishment. So hungry is he that the very slop the pigs are taking in looks good to him. Then he realizes one other thing.

If he were at home, none of this hardship would even be possible.

The idea slowly forms in his mind. "If I go back home, maybe my father will take me back."
Maybe he can hire on as one of the servants. Maybe there will be work to do. At least he can eat three meals a day and have the strength to do the work. He forms a repentant speech in his mind. "Father I am not worthy to be called your son..." He has it all planned out what to say and how to say it. With that bit of foundation laid, he begins to head for home.

The father hasn't slept a wink since his son left. He has paced the floor. He has worried about what his son will encounter. He has sat on the front porch waiting and watching. One day as he watches, a small dot punctuates the horizon. He sees a figure in the distance, growing in size with each step taken. Then, he notices a familiar stride. You probably recognize your own family or kin from a distance as well. That walk or the hair or clothing. The father knows it is his son. He leaves the house in a dead run.

Upon reaching his son, he sees a ragged form of the boy who left home. He hardly looks like the person who left to seek fun and pleasure. The son begins to recite the careful tune he has planned to give his father in hopes of finding shelter and refuge. The father doesn't even let him. He calls for a servant. "Get him a robe. Put some sandals on his feet. Put a ring on his finger. Kill the fatted calf so we can celebrate." The boy who was thought to be dead has returned home. Celebration is in order.

The older son comes in from the fields and a hard days work.
Upon hearing all the commotion, he wonders why there is a party going on and nobody invited him. He calls a servant over and ask what he ruckus is about. "Your brother has returned! Your father has killed the fatted calf so they can celebrate." The father finds out that his older son is outside and won't enter into the fray. He steps out to have a conversation that the Pharisees suddenly see as a moment where they fit in to this story. "You've killed the fatted calf and have celebrated this worthless child's return? I have been here all these years and you've given me anything so I can go have fun with my friends!" The father sees his anger. He knows he is troubled. "My son. You are always with me and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found." 

No matter who was are in life, the sinner who has squandered and sown wild oats, or the dutiful person that is disciplined and orderly in their life - we all need salvation. Some go off to distant lands seeking a life filled with pleasure and riches. Some are right outside heaven's door. Living a life that seems good and hopeful. But, inside is filled with hatred and hurt for others. Both need the life that only Christ can bring. No one is meant to be shut out. Both need to "come home". 

In coming home, we find the celebration has begun.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Follow to the Mountaintop (or, How to Stick Your Foot in Your Mouth)

into LENT

We must go through the uncomfortable. 

Mark 9:1-12

New International Version (NIV)
And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”

The Transfiguration

After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus.
Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.)
Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!”
Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. 10 They kept the matter to themselves, discussing what “rising from the dead” meant.
11 And they asked him, “Why do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?”
12 Jesus replied, “To be sure, Elijah does come first, and restores all things. Why then is it written that the Son of Man must suffer much and be rejected?

The ecstasy of mountaintop moments are not always interpreted as such. 
We often think of those incredible moments where we find our emotions running high and then adrenaline kicking in as something filled with satisfaction and elation. I would plead that case that we have been told that mountain top moments are supposed to be enjoyable. Well, then, why don't we have more of them? Why aren't we engulfed with more incredible moments that take our breath away? Is there something we don't like about the mountaintop? Is there something that makes us uneasy? 

Maybe, just maybe, there is something that turns our stomach at the thought of going through such elation. We like a simple life that we can understand. We like situations where emotions and people don't get out of our control. Many times mountaintop moments are full of the unexplained. Sometimes there are no words. Sometimes a moment lacks definition. 

And, sometimes it's just so easy to say too much and stick your foot in your mouth. 

Part of this situation, I believe, rests on our youth and the other part is common human melodrama. When we are younger, we yearn for the mountain. We want to go up. We want to be at the peak and take it all in. When we are younger, we don't want to come down off the mountain. We want to roost there and live. But, after every mountaintop experience we find ourselves coming back down to the valley again. We get depressed. Elation gives way to sorrow. Maybe that's why we seek to avoid the heights as we get older. We don't want to be let down. We have taught ourselves not to expect too much, not to want too much, that way we don't have to feel let down. We get comfortable in the valley. Then we don't have to go up. We don't need to feel that elation is we don't want to. 

But, just for the sake of conversation, let us analyze this moment through the eyes of some curious, blue collar fishermen who tagged along on an invite. Where are the rest of the twelve? Don't know. We read about some moments like this. The only ones who are present are these three, the brothers - John & James, and the fisherman Peter. For some reason, these three get to see more than the rest. The healing of a little girl. This mountaintop experience. Later, in the garden, the gospel account will say that these three go a little deeper into the garden, with Jesus, leaving the others behind. Sometimes that what the mountaintop is about. You get to be one of the people who gets to see what others do not. It is a special thing to be one of the inner circle.

The nuance of this particular moment that applies to all of us is where the mouth comes open and strange words come falling out. Words that come with reason or maybe without thinking, but they come. And, we are left with a bitter moment of kicking our own rears in a regretful rehashing of the events. Look at this moment and see if you can't put yourself in the shoes of this haphazardly speaking fisherman.

Peter does what many of us do in moments when were aren't sure what to do. How many of us have found ourselves in an awkward moment where eloquent words do not fall from our lips. Maybe we shouldn't say anything at all. Instead, this is what falls out of our mouths. "Why don't we do this or that?" Peter is simply living up to his reputation. This is what he does. He blurts things out without thinking. This account comes to us from Mark's gospel. It is thought that Mark got much of his account from Peter or the retelling of events from Peter's life. Maybe Peter is being brutally honest about himself here. The other synoptic accounts say that the disciples were too afraid to say anything. Imagine being there when the sky gets cloudy and suddenly as white as white can be. Jesus' clothes are 'suddenly' transformed. Also, there are suddenly two extra people on the mountain. It is revealed that these two men are Moses and Elijah. Imagine being in the presence of such greatness! What would you do? What would you say?

I recall back in my Nazarene days we would have revival services every spring and every fall. I was dealing with this "calling" I thought I had. I knew I'd be up front at some point speaking and leading. I just wasn't doing it right then. I had much schooling and years of maturity ahead of me. It seemed that every revival week I wanted to corner the evangelist and talk him to death. The pastor would try to cut me off. It never worked. I had questions. I had concerns. I had wonderings. This guy was supposed to have the answers. Goodness, I shake my head as I look back down the road.

Maybe Peter is wondering how long they'll be up on the mountain. They have guests. It's a monumental moment. Maybe this will last a while. Why not plan of staying for awhile? “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” I can see the eagerness to please in Peter voice and in his face.We've all had those awkward moments. You either blurt something out that makes you want to slap yourself, or you have an epiphany an hour later thinking about what you could have said. Peter doesn't mean anything bad. He just doesn't know how to handle the mountaintop experience. It is the voice of God that brings order in the awkwardness. Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” 

The mountaintop is full of "sudden" experiences. Rarely do we plan the whole thing out.
This moment of elation is brought to us by the sudden moment of God, knowing what we need and when we need it. Suddenly, the cloud is gone. So, are Moses and Elijah. It's just Jesus and three guys left speechless. Then it's time to come down off the mountain. Just like myself with the evangelist every spring and fall, these three guys have questions. Here's another thing the mountaintop does. It exposes what we are not sure about. The scripture says that Jesus charged them to keep quiet about this event until he had risen from the dead. The walk back down the mountain, Peter seems to reveal to Mark, these disciples have a discussion about what "rising from the dead" means. There is so much we don't understand. Even all these centuries later, we still have no idea what Jesus is talking about. Mostly because we have not experienced certain moments and truths yet. Experience is essential to our Christian faith from a Wesleyan perspective. It completes the quadrilateral for us.

Scripture. Tradition. Reason. Experience. 

They tests all areas here on this mountain. 
The very essence of scripture is seen in the person of Moses, who gave the Law. The idea of tradition is present in the figure of Elijah, who spoke and tried to reason with the people of Israel. The voice of God brings experience to a whole new level. Still they have questions. They saw him on this mountain. Now something doesn't make sense. And they asked him, “Why do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?” You are already here, Jesus. We just saw Elijah. Our leaders say Elijah was supposed to come first. It's funny what different scriptural accounts reveal. In Luke's passage, it says they came to understand that the person of John the Baptist represented Elijah. The forerunner. The one who went ahead preparing the way. Do they see now why they were taken up on this mountain?

Going up on the mountaintop is essential to our faith. 
It can be awkward. It can leave us speechless. It might show us something we weren't expecting. 
But, it's necessary. If we are following Jesus, then we go. It's where Jesus went. 

These followers would later be forerunner themselves. Spreading and sending the gospel message everywhere. Sharing the good news to all who would listen. If we are also followers of Jesus, are we "going ahead"? Are we preparing the world for his coming? He is coming back. Is the world ready? Are we ready?

It will be a mountaintop experience when he returns. Full of chaos and mystery. Hard to explain. 

But, he's coming. The difficult road lies ahead, just as it did for Jesus. The ecstasy of the mountaintop will see us through. That's why we went up there. To witness the glory of God. To have something incredible to hang on to as we come back down and go back to our lives. We go through the uncomfortable to get to the comfortable. The only thing that waits for us is glory.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Follow to Your Death

into   LENT
Our 2015 emphasis in simply one word.
Join us as we seek to follow Christ.
Our journey will take us to the Cross and to the Resurrection. 

If you love somebody, set them free.

Matthew 16:21-28

New International Version (NIV)

Jesus Predicts His Death

21 From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.
22 Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”
23 Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save their life[a] will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. 26 What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? 27 For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.
28 “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

The 1980's were full of good music laced with eternal truth.
When I read the scripture we are covering today the first song that came to mind was an old one by a guy named Sting. He and two other guys formed a group called The Police. Sting would venture out on his own for a very successful solo career. One of his solo songs is what came to mind upon reading the discourse here in Chapter 16 of Matthew. "If you love somebody, set them free.

Setting things free to go their own course. The problem with doing so is that we have to allow freedom to run it's course. The other problem is that we too often try to predict the future. Sometimes we think we have a good idea where a certain path might lead. We don't like the results. We don't appreciate the direction. We would like for things to work out in a different way. So, we fight. We struggle. We pull. We tug. We squabble with the other person. We create discontent because we don't think they are doing the thing that we think they should be doing. And so it goes. (Billy Joel reference) 

In today's scripture, Jesus is beginning to share the direction that things must go from here forth. He is very frank that the end of this path will bring him to the door step of the religious leaders in the Jewish community. The disciples already have witnessed several times how these leaders have reacted to Jesus, his teachings, his ministry, his life and practices. His healing have caused small tremors of discontent within the Temple. No small thanks to Jesus rolling through and turning over table and setting lots of animals free. It didn't help when he told a man to get up, take his mat he had been lying on, and go home. Oh and one other thing, his sins were forgiven. "Who is this that he even forgives sins?" Yes, Jesus knows where this path is heading. And, conveying that truth to his disciples is what is truly important from here forth. 

The problem with sharing what we feel God has laid upon our hearts with other people is that almost always some other person who feel as if they know what we truly should be doing. There is usually that one person who just can't see what the Lord has put on our hearts to do. If you're married, maybe that other person is your spouse. They don't share your enthusiasm to follow the Lord with same intensity that you do. If you're on the job, your boss just doesn't get why you need that week off to go on some mission trip. If it's within your circle of friends or family, someone just doesn't get why you think God, Jesus or church is such a big deal. And, then, you go and share some insight or truth you have discovered. God wants you to pursue some idea. God wants you to go into the ministry. God wants you to write a book. God wants you to go next door and take your neighbor a casserole and simply show them some Love. You've seen "The Look". usually accompanied with wrinkled eyebrows and a deep look of "you have absolutely lost it"written on their eyeballs. 

What you were hoping for was some much needed support. Instead what you got was a good chewing out or a simple scoff of ridiculousness that leaves you feeling empty. I can only imagine what Jesus must have felt as he is sharing the direction this ministry would be going. How many of these disciples were looking at him with those eyebrows? That look? What he talking about? It sounds like he's saying he is going to die or something? Is he for real? Oh yes he is. And, for one of these disciples he cannot bear to hear it. This one disciple takes what he hears as honest truth. When Jesus would ask "Who do men say that I am?" this one disciple is the one to answer affirmatively that Jesus is Messiah. The One who came to save the people. Maybe Peter understand more than he lets on. And, in his understanding, he cannot stay quiet and just watch his friend go off and die. 

22 Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”

Weeks ago, I felt as if the Lord gave me these specific scriptures to cover as we progress through Lent. Who knew what we would be seeing in the news on an international level. Missionaries being abducted and even killed. Coptic Christians being lined up and executed publicly.  News & Media figures detained and some being killed, simply because of their nationality. One of the most disturbing was that of Kayla Mueller. Friends and family said the 26 year old was walking the path she felt God wanted her to be on. Mueller was taken hostage in Syria where was working to provide humanitarian aid. Mueller started working in southern Turkey in December 2012, where she was assisting Syrian refugees. On August 3, 2013, she drove to the northern Syrian city of Aleppo with a coworker/friend who was traveling to the Spanish Doctors Without Borders hospital in Aleppo to work for a day.[7] She worked with international aid agency Support to Life.[8][9] On her departure from Aleppo to return to Turkey, militants abducted her. (details via Wikipedia page).

I imagine Kayla's conversation with family and friends prior to leaving for this part of the world to work and do ministry. What is ministry? Meeting people's needs. Or, as the Rev. Stan Ling would state - ministry is simple "meeting people". Kayla took off to go have way around the world just to "meet people". What did her friends and family think about that? Did anybody try to talk her out of it? How much resolve did Kayla have to muster to convince herself, and others, that this was what God had set before her to do? In the last couple of days we have heard about Free Methodist missionary Phyllis Sortor. She has been kidnapped in Nigeria. While ISIS is the problem in parts of the Middle East, the group known as the Boko Haram is the general nuisance in parts of Africa. This group has been at the work of abducting women and children. Knowing that such things might happen when they head out into other parts of the world, does this keep people from wanting to become missionaries or humanitarian workers? When God has put such a focus on the life of such a person, the result is one that permeates the realm of fear and causes the one involved to follow indiscriminately. Leaders in the Free Methodist Church would speak of Sortor in words the suggest her selflessness. “[She is] one of the most compassionate, hard-driving, let’s-get-it-done women I know.... Nothing is about her. She’s really a giving person.”(quotes from the LA Times)

When we choose to follow Jesus we are following to our death.

That death might work itself out in a physical way. The Lord knows many of our brothers and sisters in the faith have found that out in centuries gone by. There are people in this world who do not like the message of Christ. When Jesus says, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No man comes to the Father except by me." what else is he suggesting but that this Christian faith is exclusive to salvation. There is no other way. There is no other Savior. When we acknowledge such an admission we are saying that a part of us has died. In order to say that Jesus is our Lord, we must give up the idea that we can save ourselves. We must give up our sin. We must turn away from it. We must embrace forgiveness and mercy and acknowledge that we need something bigger and greater than ourselves. Have you done that? Have you given up all that you have and all that you are in order to lock arms in a bear hug around the Truth? I need this. There is nothing else I need more. For many who call themselves Christian, it is all about us. We say we believe in Jesus while heading out the door to go back to doing whatever we want to do however we want to do it.

After dealing with Peter, Jesus would then speak to the group.
24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.

Three things. Good things come in threes, or so I've been told.
Deny yourself. When was the last time you denied yourself something? As we began this Lenten season, the question was put in front of us as to what we would give up. many people give up something for these 40 days. In denying ourselves we pick something else up. Jesus would call it a cross. Something heavy. Something awkward and hard to carry. Jesus would soon carry a cross. A burden. Something majestic and messy all at the same time. And, while carrying that messiness we are charged to follow.

I have had a few conversations with well meaning Christian folks over the years who would speak about the entire cross event as too messy. Too gory. It's filled with too much grief and anguish. I can't bear to look at it or even think about it. I don't understand why we need to even think about all that death and pain. Hmmm. Well, as I have cautioned many a well meaning person, this one thing I would state. Without all that grief and pain and death, we wouldn't have any salvation. Jesus' death on the cross is what makes all this possible. Without it, we have nothing.

And so it goes. "Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains a single seed. But, if it dies, it produces and many seeds." (John 12.24) Phyllis Sortor has given her life again and again so that others could have enough to be clothed and fed. Recently she helped raise enough resources to build and open a school in January 2015. Kayla Mueller knew what it meant to give it all. She picked up that cross and followed knowing all too well where it might lead. And, I have no doubt she has heard the words, "Well done good and faithful servant".

What kind of words are we going to hear when we leave this world?
Have we done anything worthwhile with our lives? Our time? Our resources?
Or, are we content to sit back and watch the world go by?
Allowing someone else to deal with all that stuff. We have more important things to do.
Or, maybe we have all the answers to the world's problems. Just ask. You'll get a long explanation of what everybody else is doing wrong and what they need to do to correct it. Hmmmm. Doesn't sound like there's much denying ones' self in those empty words. Doesn't sound like there's any cross bearing. Certainly doesn't sound like there's any following.

Back in the 80's alot of those well meaning songwriters had actually grown up in Christian or Catholic homes. I've read the back stories of many of the artist who wrote and sang those songs. There was a notion of social concern for the issues of the day. Or, even in the realm of a love song you might find words that could be taken either way. Maybe the words suggest a human kind of love. But, upon further analysis, you might just want to focus those words on Someone else.
Take this song for instance. After I became a Christian I looked back on this song with a new found fondness. Following Jesus means looking him in the eyes and finding all the love you need.

It's love that will lead you to your death.

In Your Eyes - Peter Gabriel
love I get so lost, sometimes
days pass and this emptiness fills my heart
when I want to run away
I drive off in my car
but whichever way I go
I come back to the place you are

all my instincts, they return
and the grand facade, so soon will burn
without a noise, without my pride
I reach out from the inside

in your eyes
the light the heat
in your eyes
I am complete
in your eyes
I see the doorway to a thousand churches
in your eyes
the resolution of all the fruitless searches
in your eyes
I see the light and the heat
in your eyes
oh, I want to be that complete
I want to touch the light
the heat I see in your eyes

love, I don't like to see so much pain
so much wasted and this moment keeps slipping away
I get so tired of working so hard for our survival
I look to the time with you to keep me awake and alive

and all my instincts, they return
and the grand facade, so soon will burn
without a noise, without my pride
I reach out from the inside

in your eyes
the light the heat
in your eyes
I am complete
in your eyes
I see the doorway to a thousand churches
in your eyes
the resolution of all the fruitless searches
in your eyes
I see the light and the heat
in your eyes
oh, I want to be that complete
I want to touch the light,
the heat I see in your eyes
in your eyes in your eyes
in your eyes in your eyes
in your eyes in your eyes