Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Telling It - Undaunted Believing

Preached on Sunday, October 25, 2015
Scripture readings: Hebrews 11:1-7, 29-40; Mark 5:21-43
I have been wanting us to learn to tell the good news in a new way. “Gospel” is a famous Bible word and Christian word, and it is so famous that we take it for granted and forget what it means. Gospel means good news.
I have wanted us to learn to tell the good news of Jesus, not just from the old stories of the Bible, but in the story of our lives. I want us to learn to help others understand the Lordship of Jesus, and the cross, and the resurrection from the way in which that Lordship, and that cross, and that resurrection take shape in our lives now. How does all of that make us new people now?
Near Desert Aire/Mattawa WA: September & October 2015
Another part of the good news is the way we receive it; the way it comes into our lives. The good news comes by means of grace, repentance, and faith.
The good news is one single story as big as heaven and earth; but even in such a big story, everything works together as one. Grace, repentance, and faith are not separate things, but interlocking pieces of the story.
Grace means that we receive the good news as a gift. It comes to us as a new life that we have not earned.
Repentance comes from grace. Repentance is a life lived in a new direction; and that new direction is possible only because of God’s grace. In Jesus, God has given us a new heart and mind that can live in that new direction. Our new heart and our new mind can lead us in that new direction because Jesus lives in them. It is their nature to carry us that new direction.
Today we come to faith. Faith is another great word that we take for granted or misunderstand. The great catchphrase, in the New Testament, is “repent and believe.” Jesus put the two words right, tight together. He said, “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news.” (Mark 1:15)
Jesus was there, telling everyone who would listen to him that God was taking charge of the world in a new way. It was Jesus, himself, who was making this happen. Jesus was the king of the kingdom; and he was there where they could see him, and they could hear his voice.
When Jesus confronts you, when Jesus speaks to you; that is when wonderful things can happen (life-changing things). Grace is there. The beginning of a new heart and mind are there.
Life in a new direction is there: grace and repentance. What else could you want? Repent and believe. You want faith. You need faith.
I think, from the example of Jesus, that it’s pretty clear what faith needs to be. When Jesus confronts you in order to take charge, and when Jesus calls you to something, faith means sticking to Jesus and following through.
Faith and believing have other parts to them, but the English language is not very good at helping us understand faith and believing. Faith and believing include the fact that, when you have faith and believe, you know something to be true. But the truth is that you can know a lot of things that don’t make a difference in your life.
Faith and believing mean consenting to what you know. You are not against the kingdom of God being near. In fact you consent to it. You agree that it is good, and that you are on the side of the kingdom. But a lot of people will say that they agree with something and that you can count on them to be on your side, but they don’t do anything.
A deeper word for faith and believing is trust. Trust takes you further. Any trust that is worthy of the name requires you to take a real stand. When you believe and trust that someone or something is right, then you stand up for them. And you stand up against those who don’t.
In the gospel story, in Mark, the president of the synagogue (his name was Jairus) decided to trust Jesus, even though a lot of his colleagues hated Jesus. A lot of his colleagues saw Jesus as dangerous.
Mark doesn’t give us a picture of the mind of Jairus about Jesus. No one really knew who Jesus was, or what he was about, except that Jesus claimed to represent what the kingdom of God was doing.
Jairus bowed at Jesus’ feet. He took sides. Jesus could claim the faith of Jairus, and tell him not to fear, even when the heart of Jairus’ desire seemed to be lost. Jairus, when all of his motivation for seeking Jesus seemed crushed, stuck to Jesus.
This is faith. This is what it means to believe. You cannot live in a new direction without the grace of a new heart and mind. You cannot live in a new direction without faith.
But see the truth here. Faith is not an item that is in you. Faith is not one of your working spiritual parts. Faith is a living connection with Jesus and with everything that Jesus stands for.
Jairus’ family was going to carry a dark mark on them for the rest of their lives, because they would always be a sign of the truth of Jesus as the king of the kingdom of God. For the colleagues and neighbors of Jairus, his living and breathing daughter would always be an unpleasant reminder of the truth of the good news of Jesus. The sight of Jairus, bowing at Jesus’ feet would always be held against him and his family.
The woman who tried to hide in the crowd also had to stick to Jesus. She tried to be healed by simply touching the hem of his clothing, but Jesus wouldn’t let her get away with that. She had to come out into the open. She had to face her fear of her neighbors. She had to tell everything.
The woman who tried to hide in the crowd had a chronic hemorrhage. She had an unstoppable flow of blood. This made her what her people called “unclean”.
Blood was considered holy when it was part of the sacrifice of an animal on the altar in the Temple. There it stood for a life given in sacrifice to God for the forgiveness of sins. When the blood of a sacrifice was sprinkled on you, it stood for the grace and mercy of God given to you. That blood made you clean.
But, out of context, blood was too holy and it made you unclean. People who touched blood (especially when it was the blood of other people) were not supposed to touch other people. If someone who was bleeding touched you, then you were unclean and you had to isolate yourself, and wash, and bathe, and wait. It was complicated.
The woman who came to Jesus made half the town unclean that day. When she told Jesus everything, everyone knew this. Everyone was mad at her. They were mad at the inconvenience she had caused them. It was rude, insensitive, and inconsiderate. They would hold it against her.
The language of the Gospel of Mark tells us (in the Greek) that, when the woman touched Jesus, she was cured. When she came out into the open and told Jesus everything, then (in the language of the Gospel), Jesus declared that she was healed. There was a difference between being cured and being healed.
In fact, in the story of the bloody woman  and the dying girl, both of them were more than cured and revived. They were given something that was saving. It was more than being saved from long sickness. It was more than being saved from death. The kingdom of God had come to them in Jesus.
Jairus and his family, and the woman and whatever family she had, received something because they had stuck to Jesus through their risk-taking and through their facing of their fears.
Faith isn’t something that gets you what you want; because the father wanted his daughter not to die, and the bleeding woman wanted to be healed without getting caught. Jesus had something else in mind for them, and for us. Jesus wants us to have a new heart and a new mind that will stick with him in spite of shame, and anger, and reproach, and fear, and danger, and despair.
Sticking to Jesus was never easy, and it isn’t easy now. The disciples who followed Jesus on the road (as the big twelve) were always aware of the danger from the authorities. And they were mobbed by the crowds. And they were swamped in the storm. And they were given seemingly impossible tasks by Jesus.
After Jesus died on the cross, and rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven, the people of Jesus could only live out the kingdom of God by sticking to Jesus through danger, and risk, and being in want. That is faith.
The Letter to the Hebrews and all the other writings of the New Testament tell us the same message. What the new life and the new heart need are to stick to Jesus.
Our reading from Hebrews says, “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” (Hebrews 11:1, New International Version) I believe the King James Version is better. “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
Sureness and certainty are things that we feel. Substance and evidence are things that are objective. They exist, whether we feel them or not. Faith is not a feeling. Faith is sticking to what Jesus has given you for substance and evidence, in spite of its mysterious invisibility.
The reference to the creation tells us that what God gives us in Jesus has substance and reality. It tells us that our new life in Jesus has the same reality as the world we live in, even though our new life comes to us every day from God’s invisible work. God continues to make you his new creation.
The hope that your faith holds onto is the coming of the kingdom of God, when God will make all things new. The hope is in the future, but, in your new heart and mind, the future is now. You life is a time capsule that doesn’t contain the past. Your life in Jesus is a time capsule that contains the future. Jesus puts the future in your heart and mind.
The world around us may not see the power of the cross and the resurrection of Jesus. The world may not see how the cross and the resurrection will bring a new heaven and a new earth. But you are different. You know this without seeing it. The substance of that future lives in you now.
God first began to call me to the ministry when I was twelve. The Holy Spirit spoke through the stories we were studying in Sunday school. In those stories God called people like Moses and Jeremiah to serve him and they had objections to being called. They had good reasons for why they should not be called. They tried to worm out of it.
I prayed that God would help me understand what he wanted me to do in such a way that I would be certain of it. I thought that if I was certain that I not try to worm out of it.
God answered my prayer for certainty, but I tried to worm out of it anyway. God gave me a vision. I saw a storm and darkness coming over the world. I saw people in fear, and anger, and confusion, and doubt, and despair. I was told to speak to them for God.
What I saw was very difficult and terrifying, and I haven’t forgotten it. But I stick to Jesus, even when it is difficult and terrifying. I finally surrendered to that when I was nineteen. But I couldn’t do anything else. And, from then on, my life changed. The people who knew me best knew that something had changed in me.
In that vision there was light beyond the storm, and there was the voice of God speaking. In you (in your new heart and your new mind) God has planted the substance of your hope: the evidence of things not seen. There ahead of you, hope is able to grasp what no one else can see. Your hope is able to grasp and stick to the kingdom that is ruled by the cross of Jesus and by his resurrection.

Think about how that part of the gospel story became part of your story. Think how Jairus and the bloody woman had to come out to Jesus and take that risk. Think of the fear and the despair that went through them. Think of how your own life has changed by sticking to Jesus through it all.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Telling It - The Good News of Repentance

Preached on Sunday, October 18, 2015

Scripture readings: Job 42:1-11; Mark 6:6b-29

The word “gospel” means good news. The center of the good news is Jesus, who is God himself coming into our world and coming to our side. This is something that happened in history a long time ago, but it is also something that is happening now.
Columbia River at Desert Aire/Mattawa: August 2015
If we are the people of God (the people of Jesus) then we are people who experience the God who came long ago coming to our world, now, and coming to our side, now. This is good news. We have a story of good news in our lives that is based on Jesus. We have many stories of good news, and Jesus sends us out to share our stories of good news (the good news as we know it) with others.
People who don’t know Jesus can meet him in the scriptures, just as the people of Jesus’ day could have met him in their scriptures: in what we call the Old Testament. But that was never enough.
The good news was a thing that had to happen. It had to be lived out; so that stories could be told about it. That is why God became a baby in Bethlehem, and a carpenter at work, and a man wandering on the open road. That is why God was robbed of justice and crucified on a cross for the sins of the world. That’s why God died and rose from the dead.
Yet it was never enough for God to come in Jesus and live out the story so that it could be known. It was always the plan that Jesus would send the people who followed him into the world to tell the world their own stories about him.
It’s your job and mine to tell those stories that Jesus has given you and me. These are stories of good news. Part of the good news is the thing we call repentance. Repentance is a strange thing. It doesn’t feel good. It doesn’t feel happy. At least that’s what we’re afraid of before we do it.
And we are afraid that repentance is something you have to do. Doing it seems to involve feelings we want nothing to do with. Job did it and he said what we want to avoid saying at all cost, “Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:6) It doesn’t sound like any fun.
It doesn’t sound like something related to love. It sounds more like a reaction to expectations. We know that people have expectations of us. People have checklists of things they judge us by. They expect us to repent.
Repentance is not a reaction to a checklist of a bunch of things that God has decided he doesn’t like. There are lists like that, but I don’t think God carries a checklist with him to size us up.
Some Christians might carry such a checklist. I remember, when I was in college, knowing a lot of Christian kids who had a checklist like that. Christians don’t go to movies, or watch television, or play cards, or gamble, or drink beer or wine or margaritas. Christians don’t dance.
I remember a very cute Christian girl, whom I knew when I was in college, with a checklist like that. She asked me if I danced. Without thinking I said, “No, I’m a terrible dancer.” But that wasn’t the answer she was looking for. I’m pretty sure she suspected me of dancing because she knew that I was a Presbyterian and so she knew that I couldn’t be a very good Christian (if I was one at all). If I danced, she would have the proof of it on her list.
I believe a lot of Christians carry lists like that, and I don’t believe that they are very good tellers of good news.
No, repentance isn’t the way we deal with someone’s check list. For one thing that would suggest that God doesn’t love someone until they repent, or that God doesn’t do good things for people until they repent. God is doing good things for everyone all the time whether they pass the grade on someone’s checklist or not.
No one in the New Testament comes to Jesus with repentance first in order to receive a blessing. They are blessed, they are helped, they are accepted, they are healed, and then they repent. They turn around. They see everything in a new way. They see Jesus in a new way. Through Jesus they see God as they never imagined him to be.
Job despised himself and repented, not because of all the trouble he had gone through, and not because he believed his friends, at last, when they told him he was only getting what he deserved. Job despised himself and repented because he was so happy. He despised himself for missing it for so long.
The story of Job is long, and strange, and complicated. Job never did anything wrong. The worst he did was to doubt that God loved him. All his endless arguments come from that.
Long before he repented, Job said, “If only there were someone to arbitrate between us (between Job and God), to lay his hand upon us both, someone to remove God’s rod from me, so that his terror would frighten me no more.” (Job 9:33-34)
Job wished there was some go-between to take God’s judgment away. Job was right to want that. He guessed some truth about God.
Then, later, for no apparent reason, he begins to think like this, “I know that my Redeemer lives and that in the end he shall stand upon the earth.” (Job 19:25) The redeemer, here, is a word for someone who is your own flesh and blood coming to your rescue. Something told him that God could be this redeemer; and he was right, only no one had ever told him anything like this before.
At last something happened that Job could never have expected. Job had to make a confession. “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know….My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:3-6)
In the beginning, with all the tragedy that came into his life, Job felt that God was against him and didn’t love him, and wouldn’t speak to him. At last Job saw God. Job met God. His book never tells us what Job saw, but what he saw was more than enough. He saw it and said it was wonderful; too wonderful to know.
Job, long before the time came in history, saw the God who became flesh and blood for us in order to rescue us by living for us, dying for us, and rising for us. In some miraculous way, the God of miracles showed himself to Job. And Job looked and saw Jesus.
In the book written about him, Job received a new life that was bigger and better than before. In the end, God says that everything Job had said was right and that the accusing friends, with their checklists, were wrong and that they needed to be prayed for and forgiven by Job.
In the Bible, the words that are interpreted as “repent” mean to turn around and to have a new mind or a new heart. We never find the turn-around coming first. It’s always the change of heart and mind that comes first. God’s people see something and we must remember that what they see is something that never went away from them.
What never went away was the God who had rescued them from slavery in Egypt. That God was leading them through the wilderness and later they knew this God as the one who had finally led them to the Promised Land of peace, and freedom, and fruitfulness. They never managed to keep that new mind and heart for long. Without a new heart and mind from God, you can’t know peace, and freedom, and fruitfulness for long. The long troubles of the Old Testament are the continuing saga of what happens when you have no new heart and mind.
There was a family I knew long ago where the husband had been an alcoholic for years and then he recovered and he stayed recovered, day by day. You know, that is one of the places in our world where you see this secret of the new heart and mind. Recovery from addiction requires a new heart and mind every day. But this is true of all of us. It’s the only way to live as the children of God. And it is always a miracle, as well as a responsibility.
The wife in this family would say that the miracle of their life together, as a family, was not that Jesus had changed water into wine. Their miracle was that God had changed the wine into heat, and electricity, and house payments, and furniture.
Timothy Keller writes this, “In our world where everything is about promoting your self, repentance feels brutal. But repentance is the only way to be healed.” Repentance is really the power and evidence of a life revealed by God, in Jesus, for you.
Repentance is like saying you’re sorry. Good parents teach their children to say “I’m sorry.” Good parents know that this is a good way for their children to enter life in a way that they can learn, and grow, and thrive. It’s easier for children to say “I’m sorry” because they have new hearts and minds. Saying, “I’m sorry,” keeps them that way.
Grown-ups often don’t let other grown-ups say, “I’m sorry.” We teach other grown-ups that they’ve had their chance and blown it. If we were children we would believe in repentance
Your story of the power that gives you repentance is also the good news that others need to hear from you. They are waiting to hear your story. Of course they don’t know they are waiting at all. But God has told you that they are waiting for you to give them the good news.
Repentance is always happy, and the only tears from repentance are tears of relief, and love, and joy, and hope. Repentance is always happy because it sees something that makes everything possible.
The funny thing about the Gospel of Mark is that Mark doesn’t tell us the stories of those who repented. He only tells us the stories of people who had their chance, who saw the evidence, and walked away from it. One of these people even killed the evidence.
King Herod Antipas is one of those examples. He imprisoned John the Baptist who was a forerunner and a witness of Jesus. John was the one who baptized Jesus and saw who Jesus was. John knew that repentance was a preparation for life.
Herod loved to listen to John, and John must have only told Herod the truth about Herod’s own life and about Jesus, the Messiah who was bringing the kingdom of God. Herod was tempted by the goodness he heard and saw in John the Baptizer, but he never let what he heard and saw change him, or make a difference. His pride kept him from a new life and he killed the witness to the life of Jesus.
The scariest thing about the gift of repentance is what happens when the gift is resisted, and ignored, and eliminated. Even when you clearly see what is happening to you, you find good reasons to say no. You resist life, and peace, and freedom, and fruitfulness.
There was a girl I often sat with at meals in the dormitory cafeteria in college. She was living a very dysfunctional life. She was looking for love in all the wrong places. She was Jewish but one day she told me that she felt Jesus looking at her when she was in that wrong place. I told her that Jesus was only telling her that he loved her and wanted to give her a new life. Her answer was that if she followed Jesus she would have to change her life.
It was a dead end for her. The new life that would have come from repentance, the new life that would have come from not trying to hide from the eyes of Jesus, would have given her so much peace, and freedom, and fruitfulness. Her new life would have been a gift, just as repentance would have been the gift that led her to that new life.
You need to know that God considered Job to be the best man in the world, of his time, right from the start, before any of his troubles came. Read the first chapter of Job and don’t try to explain it away.
Job’s repentance is one of the most important stories in the Bible. He was the best person in the world of his day, and his temptation was to give up on the love of God, and to give up on the life and the future that the love of God still had in store for him.
One of the most important lessons is that good people need to repent because they don’t know enough about the love of God. They don’t trust that love and they give up on the life and they give up on the future that God still has in store for them. You know this about Job when you read his story to the end.
I’ve known young adults who failed at things that were very important to them. They felt like failures. They felt they were at the end of their dreams. I have told them that they needed to believe that God loved them and they needed to know, also, that they were younger than they thought they were. We all know how old we are, but we almost never know how young we are.
Good Christian people stop believing that God can still do great things through them. Churches stop believing that God can still do great things through them.
Maybe they are right, sometimes. But they are usually wrong and they need to repent, but they probably won’t. It takes a miracle to see, again, the God you have stopped seeing. If you truly saw God, if you let yourself know what God wanted to show you, you would have a new life.
There are times when you fall back on what you have always heard, and on what your prudent mind tells you, and on what other people say. Meanwhile, God has not gone away. His plan for your life has not gone away.
It’s a story that you will be able to tell in the future, if you repent. The Bible tells us that even the good people, even God’s people, need to repent and be people of faith again.
There are always very good and wise sounding reasons for saying no to this. Don’t do that. Be someone who says yes to God. If you believe that God is a God of miracles, then believe in one more miracle and be ready to take part in it.

You need to see the God who is here trying to get you to see that he is looking at you, and that he is ready to give you life. Other people need to hear you tell that next story.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Telling It - The Gift, the Gifted, and the Givers

Preached on Sunday, October 11, 2015

Scripture readings: Isaiah 45:18-25; Mark 2:1-17

One of my favorite sentences or verses from the Bible is something I carry around in the form of a paraphrase. It goes like this: “For by grace you have been saved, through faith; and that not of yourselves. It is the gift of God (not of works) lest any one should boast.” That is from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, chapter two, verses eight through ten.
I looked up those numbers just for you. Normally I am absolutely no good with chapter and verse numbers.
There are some good words in those phrases. They are deep words (short, and simple, and fancy at the same time): words like saved, and grace, and faith.
These words are part of the story of the life of any Christian. Any follower of Jesus has a life built around these words: words like saved, and grace, and faith.
But we forget what these words mean. They are so deep, and so wrapped up in who we are, that they become like shorthand. They become shortcuts for huge stories that reveal our whole identity, and yet we don’t think about what they really mean.
We use words like saved, and grace, and faith in the same way that we use the words awesome and wonderful. We use the word awesome without intending to say anything about being in a state of awe. We use the word wonderful without thinking what it means to be full of wonder.
You are called to share the good news of Jesus. The good news is a story that took place in history, two thousand years ago, but it is also a story that is really happening to you and to other people around you right now. How do you tell your part of the story when words like saved, and grace, and faith are shortcuts, shorthand, or code for much bigger things?
Let’s think a bit about the word saved and a bit more about the word grace.
The word “saved” means rescued. Have you ever been rescued? I have been rescued several times: three times from the water.
Once I was rescued in the swimming pool at a summer camp when I was eight.
There was the time when I drowned, when I was seventeen. At that time my body was rescued from the water and then, on shore, I was rescued from not breathing. I was rescued from an out of body experience. I was rescued from death.
The third time was about twenty years ago, when I was kayaking on the Grand Ronde River with a group from my church on a white water trip. I was in an inflatable kayak with a friend and I got swept out of the kayak at the top of a long rapids. I had my life preserver on, but the water was pretty strong and I got swept quite a ways along the cascades and boulders until the other kayakers caught up with me and saved me. I really felt saved.
Have you ever been rescued? Has Jesus ever rescued you? Long ago, Jesus rescued me from a splendid isolation that was not very splendid. Jesus often has to rescue me from pride, and from anger.
I have a lot of trouble with the temptation of anger. I need Jesus to rescue me.
Jesus rescues me from depression. That’s another place where I need rescue pretty often.
When I was sixteen, I was attacked by the Devil (or one of his minions). I believe he was trying to take control of me. This is interesting because (at the time) I really didn’t believe in the Devil at all. I had no fear of the devil, and I had obsession with him; because he didn’t exist.
In spite of all that, Jesus rescued me from the Devil. I have told this story to some of you. I told this story, about a week ago, to someone who needed to know that I could understand something that had happened to them. You and I need to be able to tell the stories of Jesus in our own lives.
Jesus has rescued me from myself. That is the most important of all the rescues that he has done for me.
In the seventh chapter of Mark, Jesus says this: “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a man can make him ‘unclean’ by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him ‘unclean’....What comes out of a man is what makes him ‘unclean.’ For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance, and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man ‘unclean.’” (Mark 7:14-023)
I don’t have to find the exact word on this list for what I need to be rescued from. I don’t have to find the exact word on this list for me to confess this list as the list of my sins. It’s easy enough for me to find my anger there, and my lust, and my fear, and everything else. It’s all covered there, whether I find it named there or not. The point is not the words on the list but the state of mind and the state of our heart that we must confess and repent.
Then there is the rescue, the salvation, and the grace. Jesus said: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:17)
Jesus is not talking about sickness at all here. The Bible often speaks of sin as sickness and sickness as sin. Anybody in a twelve-step program knows the connection, when you need to cut off every possible avenue of escape from change. Every excuse needs to be covered and made impossible.
Jesus, in his own set of steps, said to Levi Matthew, “Follow me.” (People had more than one name. Matthew calls himself Matthew. Mark and Luke call him Levi.) Levi Matthew was despised by his own people because, as a tax-collector, he was either working directly for the Roman occupation of his own country, or else he was working for the puppet government of the Herod family. Levi Matthew was a traitor and, since he didn’t care what respectable and spiritual people thought of him, he was probably a lot of other contemptible things as well; and so were all his friends.
They didn’t have leprosy so as to be physically untouchable. They were, as a group intellectually and morally untouchable.
Untouchable Levi Matthew received the grace of God through Jesus, who is God in the flesh (God living in this world as one of us).
The salvation that was going to come from the cross and the resurrection was already at work rescuing Levi Matthew from himself: from whatever it was at work in his heart that separated him from his family and his neighbors. The grace of God was already at work saving Levi Matthew from himself. The grace of God was already at work saving Levi Matthew from everything in his heart and life that were separating him from God.
Jesus said, “Follow me.” There was grace. It was clear that Jesus was speaking for God. It was clear to Levi Matthew that Jesus knew all about him because Jesus had caught him, red-handed, doing his traitor work.
There is no mention of faith. Faith came in the form of the gift of words that said, “Follow me.” Levi Matthew did nothing to deserve the call of Jesus. He didn’t even ask Jesus to call him. In the Bible the word “grace” means gift. Levi Mathew’s life of faith began as a gift.
It’s the same gift as the forgiveness that Jesus gave to the paralyzed man. No one who came down though that hole in the roof asked Jesus for forgiveness; and it was probably Jesus’ own roof that they tore the hole in. Forgiveness came as a gift unexpectedly and unasked for.
No one, up until that moment, had any idea that Jesus might forgive sins. No one believed that anyone but God could forgive sins. No one knew quite how to take Jesus. Jesus simply gave forgiveness. It was a surprise. It was a gift.
It’s hard to tell the story of grace. It’s hard for Christians to understand it. We don’t find very much grace in the human world around us.
There is very little room for grace even among Christians. We are often in competition with each other between churches, and among ourselves within each church. We often judge each other and we take our own pain out on each other.
How can we tell our stories of grace to the people who don’t know Jesus yet?
If we understood anything we would know that everything is grace, in God’s hands. Everything is grace. In college I had a friend named Pat who was an excellent Christian. He wasn’t a hippy, even though he was as mellow as a hippy. And he didn’t do any of the things that the real hippies were supposed to do in order to get mellow.
What he had was the jolly mellowness of grace. Pat was a lot like Santa Claus, if Santa could have been a twenty-year-old college student.
Pat could be talking about hiking in the hills, or working, or playing around with friends, and he would suddenly, for no apparent reason, start to laugh. He would sit back, and put his arms behind his head, and laugh, and say, “We don’t deserve anything.” “We don’t deserve anything.”
We might say that out of self-pity. Pat was full of joy when he said it. We don’t understand grace very well.
If I ever tell you that you don’t deserve something I only mean it the way my friend Pat would. I mean that you have received the grace of God, and it is wonderful, it is awesome.
I have always loved Jesus but, for a long time, I insisted on following him only as the true and absolute introvert that I am. Jesus refused to accept my conditions. I was terrified at the thought of doing what I have been doing now for many years, and Jesus refused to listen to me. He refused to let go of me.
I am still afraid of doing what I do as a pastor. Jesus doesn’t care about what I fear, because Jesus is not about fear. Jesus is about grace.
My other objection to what I do revolves around the matter of gifts. When I dropped my conditions I didn’t think I had the gifts needed to be a pastor. I am not a speaker. People who knew me recognized that I had gifts as an artist (which I no longer use), and gifts as a poet, and some musical gifts. I had some gifts for writing which my professors recognized.
But I saw no gifts for the ministry. My friends encouraged me, but my church didn’t, and they were both right. I came to terms with the Lord in the matter of gifts. I would do my best both to stop thinking about gifts and to stop thinking about what other people think about my gifts. Both of these are very hard to do, by the way.
 I would live as if it was my gift to have no gifts. God said that he could work with that.
That is how it works, even now. But it’s a lesson that has to be learned new, every day (or at least every Sunday). That’s my story of grace. I will tell you that some people hate that story, but I live by it. This life of grace helps me to give grace to others.
Jesus forgave when forgiveness was unasked for and unacceptable. Jesus called the unwanted, and the rejected, and the unacceptable.
Jesus doesn’t wait to be asked. Jesus doesn’t wait for faith. Jesus doesn’t wait for acceptability. Jesus offers himself as a gift and makes our lives into a gift. Jesus gives grace. Jesus is his own ultimate grace, because he is God, and this is what God is.
The Church of Jesus Christ is called to share the good news of Jesus; which includes giving the gift of grace. If we are not people of grace, who give grace, then we can’t understand the story, and we can’t know how to tell it, and others will not believe us, even if we try.
That being said, we must be determined to be people of grace who give grace without measure and without waiting. There is no other choice. When we are comfortable receiving grace and giving grace then we will understand the story and be able to tell it, and not a bit before that.

Let go. Receive the grace of being rescued from yourselves. Receive grace. Give grace. Be totally people of grace. That’s enough.

Monday, October 5, 2015

World Communion - Called to Be the Body

Preached on September 4, 2015
Scripture readings: Ephesians 3:7-21; Ephesians 4:1-16
A man was walking by a mental hospital. The grounds of this hospital were completely surrounded, and completely hidden, by a high wooden fence. Now, this man heard voices chanting on the other side of this fence. They were chanting, “13! 13! 13! 13!” The man was overwhelmed by curiosity. He just had to know what was going on.
Exotic Animals, Sutter Buttes, CA: May 2014
He spotted an open knothole in the fence and peeked through the hole, and all at once someone poked him in the eye. The man screamed and then he heard the chanting begin again: “14! 14! 14! 14!”
It’s possible for the Lord’s people to become like the mental hospital, with strange people saying strange things that no one understands, cooped up behind high walls, poking people in the eye.
But that is not the job that God has called us to do. Each one of us is called to do a job. Being a Christian is not just a matter of being saved, or receiving inspiration, or being nurtured and fed in the faith.
These things are important. But it is just as important to know that being a Christian is a matter of being called to do a job.
Paul knew he had a job to do, and he called his job a gift from God, or a grace from God. The word grace means a gift. Paul says, “Although I am less than the least of all God’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the nations the unsearchable riches of Christ…” (Ephesians 3:8)
Paul means, “By the grace of God, I was given a job.” In fact grace means an unearned gift, a gift you could never work for. You could never prepare yourself for it.
We receive a lot of gifts like this in life. For instance how could you ever really prepare for a thing like marriage? And how could you ever prepare to be a parent? A mother once confessed: “I took a parenting class that taught us three theories of parenthood. Now I have three children, and no more theories.”
Marriage and parenthood are both jobs. They are constant, real work. And they are also blessings, gifts, graces. And it goes without saying that you don’t deserve them! Although, once you have been given the gift, it behooves you to rise to the level of the gift.
Now, it is the same with the fact that God has a calling for you; a job for you. What is your job? You and I all have the same job. To bring God glory, “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church.” (Ephesians 3:20-21)
The famous first question of the old Westminster Catechism sums up our job. “What is the chief end of man?” That is, what is the primary purpose of all human life? And the answer is “to glorify God, and enjoy him forever.”
That is why we are alive. It is tempting to say that giving God glory (showing how great God is) is our job, and our enjoying of God is our reward. But the chance to give God glory is also a great gift, and the enjoyment is also our job.
We are called to enjoy God and the life God has given us. In Philippians (4:4) Paul says, “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say, rejoice!” You might say that we are commanded to be happy; at least we are commanded to be as happy as it is decently possible for us to be, under the circumstances.
Paul describes God’s plan. “God’s intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known.” (Ephesians 3:10) Paul tells us that his message, and ours, is meant to be seen by every nation. This message is meant to be shared by everyone all around the world. The world would be a different place if everyone could experience the wisdom of God that is found in Jesus.
“That, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known.” “Manifold” means taking many forms. “Manifold wisdom” means that the proof of God’s wisdom takes many, many forms.
God’s wisdom here refers to God’s great plan. God’s plan is to change human life by coming into our world, in Jesus Christ, to give himself as a sacrifice for the sins of the world and for our sins, on the cross.
Was that a wise plan? Was that the smart way to do it?
Well, I guess that is what we are trying to figure out when we ask what would have happened in our own lives if there had never, ever, been a body of God’s people somewhere around us, worshiping, and praying, and working together in love to share the glory of the Lord with others.
The church makes the many forms of God’s wisdom known, because the church is made up of many proofs of God’s wisdom. Just as the Bible is a collection of many books, and many, many stories; so the church is a collection of many, many lives that tell a story.
They are all examples of one great story; the story of the one, true God, who comes down into our world, with a sacrificial love, searching for us; searching for people everywhere. We are called to lives that tell the story of the difference that Jesus makes.
(Ephesians 4:1) Paul says, “I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.” And he doesn’t mean to make yourself good enough for your calling, because the Lord’s calling is grace. It is an un-earnable gift.
In fact, the need for being humble is built into the job. “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.” (Ephesians 4:2) We, as a church, can never expect to glorify God unless we are “completely humble and gentle.” We can never hope to glorify God together, as a church, unless we can “be patient, bearing with each other in love.”
Your calling, and mine, is not just to talk, or to be a good talker. Francis of Assisi said, “Preach the good news any way you can. If necessary, use words.” Sometimes you have to speak, but speaking is not enough.
Words are never enough because there is something about the message that only has power when it becomes visible, when it is seen in action within the involuntary relationships of a community of people like us.
We are not a voluntary organization. We are an involuntary organization. We are a family and you can’t choose your family. It’s the world that tells Christians that they can choose their family. This world is wrong.
The calling of God is for you to be in such a community, and Paul tells us that the Lord created the church to be that community. That is our job.
Paul isn’t talking, here, about the wisdom of God being shown in your individual life, although the wisdom of God may be shown there. For Paul the manifold wisdom of God is shown in our involuntary relationships within the church. Paul doesn’t say, here, that the glory of God will be revealed in you as an individual, although it may be revealed there. But Paul says, “To him be glory in the church.”
It comes from the miracle of God being able to create a team of people who are “completely humble and gentle; patient, bearing with one another in love.” To be like that, to be seen like that, people have to work as a team, together, on purpose, with commitment, not giving up and not walking off the field. But this, too, is a gift. It is an empowerment that comes from the Holy Spirit. Pray for the Spirit to give you this gift.
God’s plan is to draw all people together into one family; through the cross of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit. If we believe that this is part of the message, and if we believe that we are the messengers, then we have got to live the message in togetherness.
All Paul’s talk about individual gifts serves to teach us that each one of us has a different way to do the same job. Not one of us is like any other, in terms of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Each one of us is needed to help the others. And each one of us needs help from the others. Because none of us has all the gifts we need.
Paul says that, as we share the message in love, we grow in our connection to Christ, and we become the people the Lord has designed us to be. Paul says, “Speaking the truth in love (that means, speaking the Lord’s message of love, in the language love) we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” (Ephesians 4:15-16)
Spiritually, Jesus is everywhere, and he fills everything. But Jesus wants to have a body on earth, a body of people who are committed to serving and working together.
The thing about a body is that it must be someplace, sometime. Wherever Christians worship and work together, they are the body of Christ then and there. When we gather to worship together, and plan together, and learn together, and work together, then we are the body of Christ here and now.
Christ wants to work, and Christ wants to make himself known, here and now. Every place on earth, every city and town, every tribe and nation, is a place where Jesus says, “I want to be here, now.” And he calls his people, and says to them, “Work side by side to make me known here and now.”
The Lord’s Supper is one of the ways in which the Lord makes himself present with his people. Here he tells us about his body nailed to the cross for us, and his blood shed for us. At this table he tells us what he did to make us members of his body together.

All around the world the bread and the cup are being shared today to remind the people of Jesus that we are now his body on earth, and that we have been called together to serve him and bring him glory here and now, and we are doing the thing that our brothers and sisters are doing (all around the world) when they gather together. We are all working on the same great job.b