Rest for You and Your Relationship with God

Sermon on Deuteronomy 5:12-16 – Rest for You and Your Relationship with God

Why follow the Law?  Why participate in the Sabbath?  Why rest?

These questions may seem like an attempt to circumvent the Law, but we can only benefit from understand our faith and out tradition more.  If we can answer those “Why?” questions, it can help us to improve our lives and our relationship with God.

This passage serves as a great conversation point for that question, and I think we can work toward a help answer by answering this question:

What purpose does the Sabbath serve, both for our Israelite brothers and sisters and for us as followers of Christ.

I will apologize now: we have some boring stuff to hit first at the beginning of this sermon.  Spoken this will not suffer the same tedium but written I cannot do what I will do preaching.  Just hold on for about 200 words and then I will get less boring.

The Hebrew word for Sabbath translates to rest if you go for the cleanest and simplest option.  You can also say “ceasing labor” or “bringing labor to a standstill.”  You can also say “to take a holiday.”  You do not necessarily need to remember all of that, or even care about it, but it should start to paint the picture of “rest” that defines Sabbath.

The Ten Commandments make Sabbath a proper noun, defined as a day of rest at the end of the week.  It has a simple rationale: God rested, so humans can and should rest.  The rest goes beyond just beer and football—God gave it a holy component, a focal point of God—but Sabbath means rest.  Stop laboring and rest in God.

How far should we take that?  Should we go as far as some of our Jewish brothers and sisters and not turn on a light during our holy rest?  Should we not even care about our holy rest because the Sabbath command changed after Jesus and we not longer follow a legalistic interpretation of scripture?

I do not have a rigid, black and white answer for this question—like many things, the Christian church has argued over this point for 2000 years—but we can point to what Jesus and his disciples did for guidance.

If you look at where the New Testament uses the word “Sabbath,” you have three basic things.  You have Jesus teaching in the temple, you have Mary Magdalene waiting until after the Sabbath to prepare Jesus’ body, and you have Jesus and the disciples breaking the Sabbath according to the Pharisees1.  I want to look at those times and examine what the Pharisees believed and what Jesus did.

These scenes happen in each of the first three gospels and John has many examples similar to the second.  We will use Matthew but the Mark and Luke versions would work.

Read the beginning of the interaction in Matthew 12:

 12:1At that time Jesus went through the wheat fields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry so they were picking heads of wheat and eating them.  2When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are breaking the Sabbath law.”

3But he said to them, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and those with him were hungry?  4He went into God’s house and broke the law by eating the bread of the presence, which only the priests were allowed to eat.  5Or haven’t you read in the Law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple treat the Sabbath as any other day and are still innocent?  6But I tell you that something greater than the temple is here.  7If you had known what this means, I want mercy and not sacrifice, you wouldn’t have condemned the innocent.  8The Human One is Lord of the Sabbath.”

– Matthew 12:1-8 CEB

The point of that disciples should jump out at you.  The Pharisees concerned themselves with only following the rules without any concern as to why or the consequences.  The letter of the law meant everything for them and even served as a reason to condemn others who could not or did not follow it to their frustratingly strict standards.

Hungry people need to eat.  Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has its problems, but he hit the nail on the head saying you must address physiological needs before other needs.  I guarantee starving people will not connect with God in prayer and strengthen their relationship with God unless they fix their starvation first.

If you view the Law as something to follow to somehow make it, then of course you cannot eat on the Sabbath no matter your hunger.  If you instead view the Law as written to benefit humans and not to enrich God or serve as the test for salvation, then you can see that God would not desire you to go hungry just to prevent you from doing some physical activity on the Sabbath like plucking grains.

God does not need human Sabbath; God desires humans to have Sabbath, but God does not need it.  The Law is for Humans, not for God.

The story goes on and Jesus broke the Sabbath again.

9Jesus left that place and went into their synagogue.  10A man with a withered hand was there. Wanting to bring charges against Jesus, they asked, “Does the Law allow a person to heal on the Sabbath?”

11Jesus replied, “Who among you has a sheep that falls into a pit on the Sabbath and will not take hold of it and pull it out?  12How much more valuable is a person than a sheep! So the Law allows a person to do what is good on the Sabbath.”  13Then Jesus said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” So he did and it was made healthy, just like the other one.  14The Pharisees went out and met in order to find a way to destroy Jesus.

– Matthew 12:9-14 CEB

The Pharisees interpreted the Law like this: schedule your healings on six days and if you happened to meet the healer on the seventh day, you must suffer an additional day because the time did not work out.  Suffer to honor the Sabbath.

I will not mince words: the God of love does not want you to suffer.  This does not mean you will not suffer on this broken creation but that God did not create you for suffering.  If the opportunity to end your suffering appears, holy rest can wait for your healing.  If the opportunity to end suffering for someone else appears, holy rest can wait for you to heal.

Clearly Sabbath should serve humans, but do we truly need it?

Jesus needed it.  Legalistic rest that we follow because someone told us to does nothing for our souls, but having rest in God and rest from our labors restores our souls.

One small verse from Luke:

5:16But Jesus would withdraw to deserted places for prayer.

– Luke 5:16 CEB

Jesus rested to restore his soul and have time with God.  He did not get away just to follow a rule; he got away for his soul and his relationship with God.

Legalistically resting serves no purpose because you do not rest in God when you desire to simply follow the Law.  Rest, in prayer, away from your labors, worrying less about the amount of “work” you do and more about your connection to God, will restore your soul and improve your relationship with God.

You need to get away from your labors for rest.  Bankers need to get away from money, doctors need to get away from medicine, pastors need to get away from preaching, everyone needs to get away from their labors.  Jesus needed to get away and pray.

Allow yourself to rest.  Do not force yourself to rest to make sure you followed a law, but also do not allow yourself to do your labors without rest because Jesus broke a human interpretation of Sabbath.

Rest in God, however that looks for you.  Amen.

1Matthew 24 also uses Sabbath, and in a different way, but it does not really contribute to or contradict the rest of the sermon.

Am I worthy? Am I good enough?

Sermon on Isaiah 6:1-8 – Am I worthy?  Am I good enough?

I may seem like I pigeon-holed this in, but I want us to worship in a “Season of the Spirit.”  We talk about the Holy Spirit one Sunday a year and then put her back into the little box of things we believe in but disconcert us.  Every year I want to spend more time just exploring the idea that the Spirit gives us gifts and God calls us to ministries using the gifts the Spirit blesses us with.

Those gifts come with a call from God, but our answer usually comes out as questions.  We ask those questions that make is so we never have to actually answer God’s call:

“Am I worthy?”  “Am I good enough?”

Most of us start asking the moment someone first tells us we fail the test.  Some of us get to learn that from theologies that state we cannot earn salvation but imply that we actually can as long as we do not commit “those sins” or do not rack up too many sins.

As a kid, I had a conversation once with a trust adult—the who does not impact the story much—about being “naughty” and struggling to do the same naughty thing over and over again.  He told me that my soul was a whiteboard and when I prayed to God, God wiped it clean, but whiteboards can only get so clean and eventually it would get too dirty for God to forgive me.

He told me I could sin enough for God to stop loving me.  He just said it in a really convenient package for him.

Those terrible lessons—lessons we all learn from people who we love and, in theory, love us—lead to the great existential questions of every potential seminary student asks, or potential minister, or even potential camp counselor:

“Am I worthy?”  “Am I good enough?”

Am I?  Or am I fraud?

I relate to Isaiah’s call story so well.  Even as a confirmand preaching on Confirmation Sunday, Isaiah’s call story felt more like my own than even Jeremiah’s.  God called someone broken and imperfect to a ministry beyond their ability and worth.  The man God called knew the true state of his soul, his brokenness and failings, and told God as much, and God provided the strength and redemption to do the great task.

We will talk about the language Isaiah uses to describe his brokenness in a moment, but first I need to point something out.  This scene happens in and around the temple.  According to human standard and Jewish tradition, Isaiah meets the ritual cleanliness standard.  The temple staff welcomed him into the temple without concern or problem.

Isaiah meet the human cleanliness and worthiness standard.  In all honestly, he probably exceeds human standards of worthiness.  He already served as a prophet of some success before this scene.

He passes the human tests—passes without exception—and yet Isaiah still asks himself those questions:

“Am I worthy?”  “Am I good enough?”

He answers them with a resounding and fearful, “No!”  Isaiah looks at himself and he sees himself in an honest light.  He starts getting worried because humans cannot look upon God, and he sees himself as worse than a regular human.  He believes, in that moment, that he will die because he gazes upon God.

His description of himself speaks volumes.  Effectively every English translation uses the word “unclean” but “leprous” has the same accuracy and a certain descriptiveness “unclean” lacks.

I do not recommend doing this, but you could do an image search for “leprosy” and see what leprous skin looks like.  Imagine a mouth riddled with sores, festering and oozing, cause great pain and making one permanently unclean.

He does not have actual leprosy in his mouth, but his words make his mouth “leprous.”  Imagine the words and thoughts coming from a mouth you describe like that.

I do not believe Isaiah speaks of cussing and “blue language” here.  I believe God probably rolls God’s eyes at how much we worry about that sort of thing.  Instead, I believe Isaiah—and the Israelite people—spoke with mouths that spewed out hatred, judgement, and acting as God, doing God’s job of being judge and declaring worthiness.  I cannot back that up with specifics, but I believe that strikes God as more important than F-bombs and off-color jokes.

God hears Isaiah when he very honestly and very accurately answers those questions:

“I am not worthy.”  “I am not good enough.”

God responds.  “I will make you worthy.  I will clean you.  I will empower you.  I will make you good enough.”  God does not say, “Yup, you pass without my help.”  God does not assure Isaiah of his worthiness.  God does not scold Isaiah for making his brokenness known or expressing his fear born out of his brokenness.

God makes Isaiah worthy and good enough, God alone

God must because Isaiah nor any other human or council or committee can.  God does not use a human standard to determine who has enough worth or goodness to answer God’s call, God does not use some sort of measure of righteousness to determine who God will call, God does not use human methods to clean Isaiah or prepare him for this great task.

Isaiah did not somehow attain worthiness on his own.  Isaiah did not need to attain that worthiness on his own.  When Isaiah did not have enough as a broken human, he had God to rely on and draw from.

God answers those questions that we ask ourselves, just not in our way:

“Am I worthy?”  “I will make you worthy.”

“Am I good enough?”  “I will make you good enough.”

“I cannot do it myself.”  “Rely on Me.  Draw from Me.”

God calls you in your broken state.  God does not have a holiness and righteousness test to determine who to call.  I could tell you so many platitudes and examples right now, but I want to say this in plain language:

God called you and you are worthy of God’s call.  Period.

We have a culture of worthiness and purity, somehow believing that we must attain some sort of level or cross some sort of bar to minister and answer God’s call, a funny belief because God calls us right now, today, even in our broken and unworthy state.

You are broken.  I cannot write any words or give you any direction to make that not true.  You are broken, in need of saving, and not enough to do it on your own.

God saved you.  Jesus died for you.  The Holy Spirit lives within you and blesses you with talents and gifts.  Stop acting like the same God who saved you in your broken state would somehow decide   unworthy of God’s call in your life.

God called you, broken and wounded, to a mission on this Earth.  Answer that call.

We should celebrate the season of the Spirit.  Each of us has a gift we do not deserve but we have.  Use them to answer the call God places in your life, today.  Amen.

Sing Your Song from The Spirit

Sermon on Acts 2:1-21 – Play the Spirit’s Song for You

This manuscript will miss the vital illustration from the sermon I preach.   I will do something right at the beginning that I cannot recreate on paper—either in practical reality or in emotional weight—for many reasons, not the least of which comes from my fear of doing what I will do in front of people.  I could only make writing as fear-inducing by including who I voted for in every presidential election and writing my detailed political beliefs on guns and making sure every member of Grace read it.

For those who read this away from church, imagine right now I picked up my guitar and “Come Thou Fount” and “Amazing Grace” as good as B.B. King would.

I did not play as good as B.B. King—more like the 31-year-old pastor who never had lessons who serves Grace—but please imagine my playing rivaled B.B. King.

Also imagine you responded in whatever way you would to the pastor playing electric guitar in church usually.  I did not plan to get up and make a fool of myself—I can play some hymn melodies in mediocrely beautiful way—but I still played electric guitar in church.

Every Pentecost Sunday I make myself do something that I have talent doing but I fear doing, especially in public.  Last year I played guitar and sang, something people bugged me to do for months.

This year I need to shake that up and take away the thing that I legitimately struggle with—try as I might, the ability to play well and sing in tune simultaneously eludes me—and add the element of probable dislike despite doing it well.

People will get mad at me for playing electric guitar in church.

We live with a difficult reality: some people hate how the Holy Spirit expresses her gifts in us, and some will try to silence our gifts.  Look at how people respond to Nadia Bolz-Weber, Rob Bell, and Timothy Keller; each has brought people to Christ, and people have attempted to silence each because they hated the style of each.  People need the message of Christ given to them by people of different styles but guided by the Holy Spirit.

People need the gifts of the Spirit we have to share.  We may have gifts that make the church or her members uncomfortable but can, and will, bring others to Christ if we have the courage to use them.

Imagining the disciples on at the Pentecost.  They had legitimate fears about the future.  Each spent three years following a man who left.  None had a life to go back to, and they had this edict to share the message of the man they followed after he left them.

In their confusion and lack of direction, this event happens.  The Holy Spirit falls upon them as a tongue, allowing them to communicate with people of different languages.

In a moment, the Holy Spirit solves a major problem of following Jesus’ command.  They could speak to everyone and everyone could understand them.

Some people rejoiced.  They heard the message and understood.  The Holy Spirit gave those who heard the message of Jesus Christ through these men.

I would hopefully shout, “Hallelujah!” but most had a different response.  The “tongues” made people uncomfortable.  A group of uneducated men could not possibly communicate with everyone in the crowd.  The crowd needed a logical reason why this happened.

They came to an almost logical but really just judgmental conclusion: They must be drunk!

This happening at 9 A.M. had no bearing on their conclusion; they had to be drunk; they had no other possibilities.

It fascinates me when the faithful completely ignore and even stubbornly refuse to believe the miraculous, instead wanting everything to fit into neat, little logical boxes.  God blessing them with language and voice does not fit into that box, but day drinking does.

A side point, but also relevant: incomprehensible drunks are incomprehensible.  Their words sound nothing like real language.  The drunken, slurred-tongued ramblings of a drunk do not sound like a holy message of love, or a message at all.  Only other drunks can sometimes understand.

They went with drunk even though it makes no sense.  “These oddballs did something, and we do not like it, so they must have drank too much wine this morning.”

This should make complete sense seeing as we do this Christians who look and act different.  Cases in point:

  • Traditional churches condemn contemporary churches as shallow and trendy while contemporary churches condemn traditional churches as dated and stuck doing evil traditions.
  • Conservative churches condemn liberal churches as not following the Bible while liberal churches condemn conservative churches for following rigid, inflexible interpretations of scripture to the detriment of love.
  • Politically active churches condemn politically inactive churches as being too passive while politically inactive churches condemn politically active churches as being too divisive.

If a Christ has a style we are uncomfortable with, we condemn them outright.  Notice, too, I said nothing about not following Jesus or visible proof of not showing loving in those examples; we just assume God does not work in the “other” who do things differently.

Be honest with yourself.  How many times have you agreed with members of Grace saying disparaging things—or saying those things yourself—about the way First does things?  “Something, something, uptight, something, something, they need to relax, something, something.”  And remember, we have a good relationship with First.  I have just as much guilt as anyone else when it comes to judging how other churches do thing.  I try not to, and I hope my work to get better helps, but, at the same time, have I really improved?  How many times this month have I said bad things about one particular non-denominational church in town?  A lot.

When we see the Spirit working through someone in a way we do not understand and do not like, do we hear refuse to hear anything but loud, offensive electric guitar, or do we list for “Come, Thou Fount” and “Amazing Grace” in their work?

And when confronted with those hate how the spirit works through us, do we play “Come, Thou Fount” and “Amazing Grace” with the Spirit, or do we allow them to silence our spirit-given gifts when they say we sound drunk or call our song nothing but noise.

Or does our fear silence out song?

Play the song the Spirit puts in your heart in the style the Spirit guides you to.  The spirit blesses you with talents and gifts; use them so others can feel Jesus’ love.  Whatever the Spirit blesses you with, whatever style God made you to use those blessings, use them so other can feel Jesus’ love.

And stop trying to silence gifts of the Spirit you do not like.  You do not need to just fall in love with me playing electric guitar during worship or any other gift of the Spirit, and you do not need to need or want to experience everyone’s gifts of the spirit in your life, but stop tearing down people trying to share Jesus’ love in a way that looks, sounds, and feels different to you.  Everyone needs something different to feel Christ; why do we not lift other paths and ministries up instead of making sure everyone knows we do not enjoy that particular thing?

Worry about Jesus’ love being felt.  Lift up ministries and missions that you do not particularly enjoy so they can reach people you might not have the ability to reach.  Sing the song the Spirit places in your heart in whatever voice you have.

The Holy Spirit gives us the path to Jesus’ love; follow it, allow others to follow it, and bring people along the path with the gifts that the Holy Spirit gives you.  Amen

Big Children in Adult Bodies

Sermon on Matthew 18:1-7, 19:13-15 – Big Children in Adult Bodies

The passage this week might seem a weird choice for the Sunday we recognize the Sunday school teachers given Jesus’ warning.  The teachers embody the exact opposite of what Jesus warns against: being stumbling blocks for children or the innocent.  Our Sunday school teachers remove the stones away and clear the path to Jesus for our young people.  They even do the exact opposite of the disciples in the second passage, encouraging the children to go to Jesus.

They exemplify what Jesus wants us to do, making them a great illustration as we talk about stumbling blocks to faith.

Think about what makes you stumble in your faith journey.  When I think about it—especially what made me stumble in youth—denying access to Jesus causes a lot of stumbling, coming from the disciples physically blocking children from Jesus or the church acting as gatekeepers to the cross and to faith.

I can almost hear the disciples’ thoughts as the people brought their children for Jesus’ blessing: “We cannot do this; we do not have time!” or “Children—with their dirty hands and lack of formal learning in the matters of faith—should not come be directly in the presence of the teacher; they can be blessed from afar!”  They absolutely believed they did the right thing, yet they had also heard Jesus describe the children as the greatest among the people.

Jesus, again, has completely flipped their beliefs and practices upside down.

But why would Jesus call the children the greatest among them?  I favor contrarian positions, but I need a why as much as anyone else.

Why are the children the greatest?

Are the children Christ spoke of polite?  Did Jesus grab a polite and proper child to prove his point?

Are the children Christ spoke of studious?  Did Jesus hear this child reading scripture in the temple and teaching a great lesson?

Are they children Christ spoke of quiet?  Did Jesus not hear this child, finding a child that knew that children are supposed to be seen and not heard?

Are the children Christ spoke of eloquent?  Did Jesus hear this child speak in complete sentences at 18 months and have helpful conversations with adults?

Are the children Christ spoke of charismatic?  Did Jesus’ heart melt because the child he grabbed smiled well and captured the room?

If you read that list and wonder where it came from, good.  That list came from my mind late at night.  That list reads like a list of things we want of children, things that make children more palatable and how we point to children being “good children.”

That list also lacks any mention of children being children, the one reason Jesus calls the children the greatest among them.

Jesus calls the children the greatest because of their strong, joyful, innocent faith, made strong, joyful, and innocent by being youthful, something adults cannot attain.  Jesus lifted the child up for everything that makes it a child.

We do good with the little ones.  Before they can really talk, when they do not know how to not disrupt the service, when they are still cute in that specific baby way, we tend to have no problem finding joy with their wonderful presence.

Once they can talk and should “know better,” we stop finding them wonderful and joyful, instead wanting them to change into something not a child.

I have a question for you to ask yourself, and I need your complete honesty when you answer this question:  Have you said any of these phrases—or something pretty close—any time in the past month:

“Kids these days…”
“Millennials are doing this [thing I don’t like]…”
“If they would just grow up…”
“When I was a kid…”

I know your frustrations, some valid but a lot just a sign that things change.  I hear these things all the time: kids spend too much time with technology, kids listen to terrible music or watch terrible TV shows and movies, kids wear weird clothes and do not dress properly for church, kids just do not know good things when they seem them.

Children should live and act like children, but we want their childhood to not discomfort for us and exist so we understand them perfect.  We do not “get it” a lot of the time, and we decide that they must be wrong if we do not understand, and we proclaim what makes them children should not live in the church.

Remember that major stumbling block for faith of preventing access to Jesus and the church, driving someone away instead of opening the doors for them.  Do your attitude and actions toward children whose childhood differs yours drive them away?  Do you want children to fit a mold of your desires and condemn any child who God made different as “immature” or “not good enough”?  Do you want children to act “normal” and “proper” to even step foot in the building?

God made the children in His image, and God does not make mistakes.  If you tell a child God made them not good enough for you, they will fall away.  Children learn who does not welcome them early and telling someone—especially a youth but anyone—they must change who God made them for you to welcome them anywhere tells them you do not welcome them.

Jesus cared about nothing other than the child living and acting like a child, filled with innocence, wonder, and joy—and unconditional love that only a child can give.  He demanded the disciples become like children, not “perfect” and comfortable versions of children but exactly children.

We want little adults in children’s bodies when Jesus demands we become big children in adult bodies.  Our selfish desires for everything familiar and comfortable and casting out everything weird, improper, and sometimes difficult makes us completely miss the Jesus point: Children have the best and most complete faith; their greatness comes from their innocence and youth.

Children are the great among us because they are children.

Today we recognize the Sunday school teachers for lifting the children up, presenting a path for them to Jesus, clearing the stones from that path, and guiding them down the path.  We thank them for embodying the message Jesus gives here: welcome the children and encourage their faith.

Thank you!  Full stop.

We need to remember that adults can do more than teach children and instruct them; we can also learn from them.  May we, as cynical, grumpy, rigid, frozen people learn the joyful love and faith of the children again and allow them to bring out our youth and make us big children in adult bodies.  Amen.

Born of God

Sermon on 1 John 4:7-21 – Born of God

A revelation washed over me Friday.  Not a new revelation, but a reminder from God.

My grumpiness defined last week.  Poor communication and my desire to achieve “Super-Pastor” status came to a vicious head when Alan asked me to lead communion at presbytery and gave me two days to prepare the liturgy.

If you spent any time in the church this last week, I need to apologize to you.  I complained way more than the situation warranted.  I allowed that one request to define and ruin my week.  I felt angry, frustrated, and miserable; every day I wanted to scream at nothing in particular while I worked in my office.

Despite me and my drama, the Spirit use my labors to give me God’s reminder.  As I put together the liturgy, a verse jumped out at me and reminded me of why we do this, why I do this, and the wonder communion should give us: “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” (Psalm 34:8a NIV) I knew immediately that verse need to lead the liturgy because it reminded me something.

That first Sunday we worshiped without Sue, nothing quite went to script but the Holy Spirit made her presence loudly known.  Tamara and Cathy played wonderfully, I remember giving a good message, we laughed with joy, a wonderful service just appeared from our struggles, and I, for the first time, fully felt the awe of leading communion.  I remember I could not stop smiling.  I worried smiling did not fit into proper communion decorum, but that worry could not stop my smiling.

I still have the new-pastor shine on me, but I know that communion will remain one of my most joyful; I truly felt like I lead our meal with Christ that day.

We over-complicate faith and church.  Good Presbyterians will rip anything apart to its smallest piece so we worry greatly about what bread we use and which kind of bread matches best with our intent when we gather around the table and how big the pieces should be cut or if we should cut them at all before the service because are we taking or giving and does it feel natural or manufactured and continue ad nauseam until the pastor bashes in head into the brick wall.

Like I said, we over-complicated faith, and frankly, I might as well stop using the plural pronoun.  Over-heady and borderline-insane Presbyterianism defines me.  Wanting perfection and high-gloss shine on my pastoral ministry defines me.  Tearing apart every action, complicating every decision, and second-guessing every step I take defines me.

I forget that God, first and foremost, called me as “Loving Pastor.”  Not “Super Pastor,” not “Perfect Pastor,” not even “‘Acts Like an Adult Over 50% of the Time’ Pastor.”

God calls me as “Loving Pastor” above all else, and I correctly and fully respond to that call 27.6% of the time.

If someone sees and recognizes a Christian, what do they recognize?  Do we—or should we—wear signs around our necks labeling us “Christian”?  Do they know our God by the ichthyses on the back of our cars and Christian radio blaring on our speakers?  Do we show ourselves as Christians by knowing what words to say in worship and what times the stand?

Do those things define a Christian?

Bubble-bursting time.  I know people who wear the label of Christian like badge of honor, have all the paraphernalia, only have the right music coming out of their speakers, and attend church every week that drive people away from God.  I have examples in my mind, but we do not need my examples; I have confidence each and every person who reads knows that person, and we each have numerous examples.

The label means nothing without love.  If someone recognizes you as a true Christian—a true follower of Christ—they recognize your love.  Your theology and ichthys means nothing without love.

I realized—or remembered—we should define Christianity by love.  Christianity as a label requires a few other things—those things often dependent on who currently fills the pulpit—but without love, those other means nothing.

We have misplaced our concern with making sure we believe the right thing and aligning our belief with the doctrines of the particular church.  Yes, belief itself gives life, absolutely—believing God in the form of Jesus Christ walked amongst us and willingly gave his life for us gives me hope in the midst of this dark and frightening world—but without love, it means nothing.

Love with doubt—even profound doubt leading to unbelief—still has God present and means something; faith without love means nothing and does not have God.

What is God?  God is love.  Period.

You cannot be Christian—even if you proclaim faith and do the proper things and know the words and have the appearance of righteousness—if you do not love.

Interestingly—and really, really obviously—the letter says nothing about theology beyond basically believing in Jesus, and absolutely nothing about orthodoxy or proper denomination or church attendance.  It does not say God requires absolute and rock-solid faith.

It does say, “Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.”

God gave birth to all who love.  Read through the rest of the passage.  It literally defines true faith as believing in Jesus and, almost more importantly to my eyes, showing love.  The author really wanted to drive that point about love home.

Love or you do not follow Jesus and do not believe in God.  Period.

Do you see Jesus as call to love, or as a weapon and path to power?  Do you see God as love, or as vengeance against those you hate?

Did God give birth to you, or did the Earthly desires of greed, power, and hatred?

You answer this with what you worry about.  Do you worry most about looking righteous or showing love?

You know the correct answer.  You know your actual answer.  Do they match?

Show love; mark yourself as born of God.  Amen.

I’m a Thomas Apologist

Sermon on John 20:18-29: I’m a Thomas Apologist

It fascinates me when I notice something new in passages I preach on regularly.  Every year I preach Thomas’s understandable response to his friends telling him Jesus rose from the dead and understand his doubt a bit more.

I noticed something I cannot believe I missed before.  I seriously questioned if I had ever actually read the passage critically before, it jumps out that obviously:

I saw this.  Read verse 20 again:

20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. When the disciples saw the Lord, they were filled with joy.
– John 20:20 CEB

 Now read verse 25:

25The other disciples told him, “We’ve seen the Lord!”
But he replied, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds left by the nails, and put my hand into his side, I won’t believe.”
– John 20:25 CEB

See something similar?  The disciples did not rejoice when Jesus said, “Peace be with you!”  They rejoiced after Jesus showed them his wounds.  They needed the same proof Thomas demanded, and yet we remember Thomas’s doubt vividly and gloss over the other ten disciples not fully believing Mary Magdalene.

Listen to the story in a slightly less flattering light for “The Beloved Disciple.”

When Mary came to find Peter and the author, they ran to the tomb to verify what she said, concluded that Jesus had gone missing, and then ran and hid like cowards.

No judgement – I would run, too, and hide like the coward I am – but the author glosses over his cowardice, instead saying they “went back to their homes.”

After Jesus reveals himself to Mary Magdalene, she tells the disciples the amazing news and yet Jesus still has to show them the wounds for them to rejoice what Mary had told them.  No mention of why they paused and did not immediately start rejoicing.  Mary only needed to hear Jesus say her name to believe; the disciples need to see the wounds to believe.

Again, I cannot judge.  I cannot grasp their level of fear.  An unrecognized man appeared behind the locked door they hid behind from people who wanted to kill them.  They should have screamed like children.  They get a pass for not recognizing Jesus in that moment, but author glossed right over the fact that they needed to see the wounds while making sure we know Thomas needed the same thing.

Verse 25 paints the image of “Doubting Thomas” as written, but read it again, only with some transliteration by me:

 Unless [I get literally what you all needed to believe, even though Mary Magdalene had already told you he was alive], I will [continue to doubt the same way you all doubted].
– John 20:25, Pastor Rob’s Transliteration

Then Jesus appears, encounters Thomas where he stood, and Thomas responds to Jesus exactly as anyone would: “My Lord and my God!”  A recognition, a celebration, an acknowledgement of the truth of Jesus.

How I wish I could experience Jesus responding to my doubt as he did for Thomas.

I have more sympathy for Thomas than a significant portion of the church.  Some of the western church loves to make verse 29 the judgmental lesson of this passage:

29 Jesus replied, “Do you believe because you see me?  Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.”
– John 20:29 CEB

They make verse 29 into this lesson: do not doubt; just believe.

Some like to condemn doubt as proof of weak faith and weak relationship with God.  Some call doubting the work of the devil and struggling with faith the devil making us weak.  If we simply had stronger, most wholesome faith, we would not doubt.

I do not believe that in the slightest.  If the devil causes doubt and wrestling, the devil has written more than a couple of my sermons.  If the devil makes people wrestle with scripture, the devil made seminaries.  If the devil causes doubt and makes us wrestle with scripture, the devil is giving us all the deeper meaning we find in scripture beyond cursory reading.

Me personally, I give credit to the Holy Spirit for my doubt and wrestling because it makes me a better student of scripture.  I refuse to believe the devil makes me think about scripture critically, and I find that thought process fascinating because Jesus does not respond to Thomas like that.  Jesus does not scold Thomas – or the other 10 – for doubting

What he gives speaks to a reality: faith without doubt can be a blessing.

He tells them to desire the faith of a child, the faith of innocence without doubt, but he does not condemn them because they cannot have that faith anymore.

I miss the faith of my youth.  I have three years of academic study basically in faith, I have written hundreds of sermons, and I pray multiple times a day, and yet I have a much more fragile faith than I did in my youth.  How wonderful does believing without seeing feel?  How much blessing and comfort does it provide?

But I cannot have that faith anymore; that faith cannot mature into deep faith.  You must wrestle and think more critically as you mature, making the innocent faith of childhood impossible in adulthood.

Look at what actually happened in the story.  Thomas doubted – with good reason as we all would do the same – and Christ encountered him where he stood and deepened his faith through that encounter.

Thomas’s doubt lead to deeper faith.

Stop ignoring and denying your doubt.  Thomas spent three years with Jesus, he saw the miracles and had 11 trusted friends tell him Jesus came back to life, and yet he doubted.  You are not somehow less broken or less human than Thomas.

And Thomas’s doubt did not violate his love of God and did not violate the love he felt for his friends; he did not sin by doubting despite what the gospel of judgement would love us to believe.

Jesus did not condemn or even scold Thomas; he responded to Thomas’s doubt and deepened his faith.

Lean into your doubt, wrestle with scripture and with God, even shout to God with what you need to deepen your faith and what you need to believe.  I can guarantee that your faith will become more fragile and you will doubt, but wrestling and doubting will also make your faith more honest, more real, and it will open you up to deepening your relationship with God.

Blind faith is shallow; faith built from wrestling and doubt is deep.  More fragile, more confused, but deeper and built with God, not dictated by humanity.

Doubt, wrestle, and build your deep faith with God.  Amen.

“And I won the footrace!”

Easter Morning Sermon: John 20:1-18 – “And I won the footrace!”

A curious thing happened at the tomb.

Obviously, we celebrate the empty tomb.  We celebrate Jesus’ resurrection, we celebrate our salvation.  We celebrate our God rising from the dead and defeating death itself.  We celebrate everything about that empty tomb.

He is risen!  Alleluia!

But this curious thing happens, and the author of John – “The Beloved Disciple” – seems to gloss over it.

Mary arrives to prepare her friend for his final resting place.  She goes to his tomb the first moment the “Law” allows so she can give her friend care and compassion one last time.  She comes in love, ready to complete this awful and yet wonderful task for her friend.

And she finds an empty tomb!  Not the curious part I mentioned, but still very curious and very important.  She arrives to find a missing body.  She assumes – quite logically – someone stole the body.  So, she runs to Peter and “the beloved disciple” for help.

The men race to the tomb, and “the beloved disciple” – again, the author of this gospel – made sure anyone who reads this gospel knows he arrived first.  “The Beloved Disciple” and Peter both see the missing body – or rather do not see it – and then they believed Jesus’ body had disappeared.

For some reason they seemed to not believe Mary Magdalene – or at least doubt her – when she told them upon arriving wherever they were staying – and most likely hiding – but when they saw, they believed he disappeared.

And then they left.

Hence forth I will call them cowards because they ran in fear.  Read ahead to Jesus revealing himself to the disciples; he appeared as they hid behind a locked door, Peter and “The Beloved Disciple” hiding right along with the rest.

Peter and “The Beloved Disciple” saw the same things Mary Magdalene saw, they the same things she experienced, and they were men with at least one sword between them, giving them much greater ability to deal with a Roman or Jewish Leadership attack.

And they just finished spending three years with Jesus and devoting their entire lives to him.  The author calls himself “The Beloved Disciple.”  They should have felt some desire – or at least obligation – to find their friend’s missing body, or at least help Mary Magdalene figure out exactly what happened.

And they left like cowards.

Honestly, though, that should not raise eyebrows.  They acted like humans, like each one of us would in their situation.  They acted like their human selves.

I would have proved myself a coward in the exact same way.  I would never stand around and wait for the Romans to arrest or murder me while I figure out what happened to the body of my dead friend, and I would never wait for the Jewish leaders to lead a crowd to stone me.

Missing body, missing Robby.  Period.  They did nothing curious.

But Mary Magdalene does something very curious at the tomb: she stayed despite having every reason to run because her compassion for her friend outweighed the real, actual, logical fear she definitely felt.  She loved Jesus greatly, and she wanted to serve him one last time by giving him the final gift she could before they sealed him away for his final rest.

That should fascinate you.  The men from Jesus’ inner circle had too much fear and cowardice to show their dead friend the same level of compassion, but this loving woman risked her safety and possibly her life to show compassion and love to their dead friend.

Then Jesus does something equally curious: he appeared to Mary Magdalene first.

Why would he choose Mary Magdalene?  I cannot know for sure, but I believe he chose her in part because she showed him compassion and acted fearlessly in this moment.

She should have run.  She should have protected herself.  By staying, she placed herself in grave danger and did the exact opposite of the rational course of action.  She showed Jesus an irrational amount of love, even after his death, and I believe he rewarded and honored her love and compassion.

I believe Mary Magdalene saw Jesus first because she chose to show love and compassion instead of listening to her fear.

Part of this scene’s curiosity comes from Jesus revealing himself to a woman, a woman no one would believe.  In the patriarchal Jewish society under the oppressive rule of the Roman Empire, a poor, Jewish woman had no power and no voice.

And Jesus chose to reveal himself to this woman first.

A very curious scene has unfolded alongside the curious event of Jesus’ resurrection.  Neither Jesus nor Mary do anything proper or what a rational, logical, worldly person would have done.  The whole interaction reeks of curious madness.

And perfection.

Maybe we need to stop looking for rationale or reason or logic and just love and care for each other.  Maybe we should express the most compassion and love we can without any motive or method apart from compassion and love.

Just love and show compassion to each other.

I find myself, as I think about just doing the compassionate, loving thing despite it going against logic, reason, and worldly instruction, looking towards Fred Rogers and how he served those who needed love.  A documentary about Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood comes out in the summer, and the trailer itself has a wonderfulness that speaks to me.

In it, producer Margy Whitmer describes what Fred Rogers did to make his show:

“You take all of the elements that make good television and do the exact opposite; you have ‘Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.’  Low production values, simple set, an unlikely star, yet it worked.”

Fred Rogers did nothing right according to the standards of television, ratings, and entertainment, instead just doing what the children who watched his show needed.  Glory, honor, fame, riches, and security did not matter to Fred Rogers.  He simply desired to show compassion and love to children who needed it.

In his words, “And the greatest thing we can do is to let people know that they are loved and capable of loving.”

Logic, rationale, effectiveness, safety, security, and comfort are all important, but they must take a back seat to showing compassion and love.  Forget what the world or the church or anyone else tells you to do, forget your selfish desires, forget “the right thing.”  Literally, we need to live in the example of Jesus, and of Mary Magdalene, and of Fred Rogers: act in love and compassion, without other motive or method, and outside of fear.

Peter and “The Beloved Disciple” ran in fear; Mary Magdalene stayed in love.

Forget fear; show love.  Amen.

THE NOTE:  I don’t preach from a manuscript; it’s something I gave up in the past couple of years ago to challenge myself and open myself to interacting with the congregation more.  My effectiveness instantly grew in spite of my delivery suffering.

Effectiveness over pride.  I’m less eloquent, but the Word is preached better.

Grace has a tradition that speaks to my soul, though.  I believe that there should always be an entry point to worship for everyone, in this case those who are hard of hearing or home-bound.   They have a printed manuscript available for those who struggle to hear and they send a manuscript to those who can’t attend.

You probably see my dilemma: no manuscript, no manuscript to print and give out.  So I decided to create a written version of my sermons.  Same basic outline, but in a smoother style of writing instead of the conversational style my delivery has.  It’s a good happy-medium and, as I said, provides the entry point to worship.

I’ve had a huge uptick in subscriptions despite writing very little, and I do a lot of writing for like 10 pairs of eyes, so I decided that I would start putting my manuscripts on the blog like I have done in the past with previous blogs (including this blog’s predecessor).

If you happen upon this little corner of the internet and have strong feelings about it, let me know.

Peace,
– Robby