Bearing the Light

John 1.6-8, 19-28

If you saw John the Baptist while you were driving down LOVR, you’d make sure your door was locked.

John knew who he was, and what his mission was.

And he also knew—and this is what I really want to talk about this morning—he also knew who he wasn’t.

The religious powers-that-be in his day asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the descendant of King David?” “No,” he replied. “Are you Elijah?” Again, “no.” “Or a prophet?” John says “no” once again.

Tradition was that the prophet Elijah or another great prophet would return before the Messiah came.

John knew he wasn’t them. He knew who he wasn’t. And that created the space in him to say who he was.

“Who are you?” they finally ask, frustration and impatience oozing all over the place.

He said, “I’m a witness. I’m someone who testifies to the light.”

I’m someone who points to the light.

John was only able to be this witness because he kept in mind who he wasn’t.

And that’s something I don’t think we spend enough time thinking about. Who we’re not.

There are so many voices trying to tell us who we are because it’s easier to make us do what they want, or buy what they want, or think the way they want.

We’re bombarded with messages of who we’re supposed to be.

We need to speak up like John the Baptist did, and say that we are not like everyone else.

I invite you to speak up and speak out that you are different.

Love of neighbor.

Love of children.

Love of creation.

As You Wait

1 Corinthians 1:3-9

I’ve noticed that people experience waiting in really different ways.

Sometimes people were pleasant. They would strike up a conversation with the person in front of them or behind them. Waiting created community sometimes.

Sometimes people would get out their phones and spend their time waiting texting or playing games. During the holidays, at pretty much any store we go to, you can observe people waiting.

Some people are okay waiting. Some people use it as an opportunity to talk with those around them. Some go internal and whip out their phones. I’m not sure what they did before smart phones. Still others become impatient. They think something must be wrong.

If people are busy doing something else, they don’t even notice that they’re waiting.

And that’s what Paul is getting at in our Scripture today, he’s telling the church at Corinth how to wait for God.

They’re growing impatient. They’re tired of seeing all the suffering, all the injustice, all the evil in their world.

They have trusted that God is at work in and through them to make things right, but as time drags on they begin to doubt this.

They sensed God at work in their own life and they started paying more attention to that than the mission they were on in Corinth. They went internal. Like people who pull out their phones while they’re waiting.

So in our Scripture Paul says, “…you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus….”

Your spiritual gifts are not to be the focus of your faith. You are not to lose your focus on your larger mission. You are to use your gifts while you wait for God to complete the new creation that started with Jesus.

Your gifts are to create community, to build one another up, and to help you on the larger mission that God has called you to.

Whether you have the gift of hospitality or compassion or helping or administration, you are to use them in cooperation with others. That’s the only way the Corinthian Christians could carry out their mission.

And the only way we can carry out ours. Together.

And that’s the way we wait for God. Together.

Not privately.

It requires us to work together. To share our gifts with one another.

Friends, we are not lacking in any spiritual gift as we wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus.

He will also strengthen us to the end, so that we may be blameless, working for God, with God, until all things are made new.

Do It All…

Philippians 2:14-18

I memorized Philippians 2:14 as a young man. But I memorized the New International Version translation of it. Do all things without grumbling or complaining. I used to repeat it to myself when I found myself grumbling or complaining.

In fact this might be the right moment to begin repeating it to myself. Because I still grumble and complain.

To be honest, I would much rather Paul said, “Try to do all things without grumbling or complaining, or without murmurings and disputings, like the King James Version translates it.

Or how about this: “Do most things without murmurings or disputings.” That way I could do most things without complaining, but I still had an out if necessary.

I scoured the Internet for wisdom about complaining. And I found some great stuff that I wanted to share with you this morning. I think you’ll like it:

A man who robbed a Wendy’s in Atlanta was so put off by his skimpy haul that he called the restaurant twice to voice his disapproval.

A man named Arthur Bundrage approached a Syracuse, New York, bank teller and demanded $20,000. When he got home, he discovered he’d been shortchanged. Outraged, he stormed back to the bank to tell them what he thought of their service. That’s when he was arrested.

These are reported events, and the list was endless. But do you know what? All those reported were serious when they made these complaints. They were serious.

And so are we when we complain.

We don’t have that wider perspective that helps us see that we aren’t see things right.

Or that, if we are really upset about something, the best thing to do is communicate it openly and honestly with the person we’re upset with.

Simply complaining about something or someone gives us the appearance that we’re doing something to increase our happiness. But we’re not.

All complaining does is fix our attention on something that makes us unhappy. Who wants that?

That just saps our spiritual energy and makes us feel like throwing in the towel.

If you’re unhappy about something, do something. Say something. Speak up. That’s the way to change something. Don’t just complain.

Paul knew this. He knew that complaining would kill the new Jesus movement faster than Caesar could ever dream.

He knew that Jesus followers would encounter misunderstanding and suspicion and hostility from the world—and each other. He knew that our gut reaction was to complain.

Don’t fall into that trap, he urged the church at Philippi. Don’t complain. Instead thank God for all the blessings in your life. Relationships. Health. Abilities. Friendships. Remember these.

Gratitude is the antidote to complaining.

Gratitude creates spiritual energy and joy. Complaining saps both.

It’s my hope that today we will remember what Paul said about not grumbling or murmuring.

That we will remember instead to be grateful for all the blessings in our lives. Family. Friendships. Freedom. Food. This church. Our beautiful world.

Join me today in giving great thanks to God, from whom all blessings flow.

I’m Gonna Let It Shine!

Matthew 25:1-13

I know a thing or two about weddings. I’ve had the pleasure of marrying probably a hundred couples now. And I’ve learned this about weddings. They’re always late. They never start on time. Once a wedding started only 5 minutes after it was supposed to. That’s been the closest to start time so far.

I love that Jesus uses a wedding as the context for this parable. I’m sure he went to his share of weddings. We probably all have. I’ve certainly been to my share of mine.

It’s so interesting that Jesus uses experiences from everyday to teach. He rarely talks about Scripture. Instead he talks about farming and families and relationships and even weddings. Stuff people know about.

I think he’s trying to tell us that the divine isn’t strange or foreign to us. God is all around us. Constantly. Even in the things we think God has nothing to do with.

He was dependent upon them to light the way for him. He didn’t have a lamp of his own. If the bridesmaids didn’t keep their lamps lit, everyone was in serious trouble. The wedding would be even later, if at all.

And the astonishing thing is that Jesus says, “This is what the kingdom of heaven, or God’s reign, is like.”

Huh? What? What on earth do bridesmaids running out of oil for their lamp stands and the spiritual life have in common?

And what about those supposedly wise bridesmaids—the ones who have plenty of oil, the ones who won’t share it with those who are running low—who are they. Because I want to steer clear of them. Jesus calls them wise, but they sound a little mean to me.

Let’s unpack this parable a little bit to see what’s really going on here. What Jesus is trying to teach us. Who’s who in this parable?

These 10 bridesmaids are Jesus followers. He’s the bridegroom who arrives a little later than everyone expected.

When the gospel of Matthew was written, some Christians were giving up. They were losing hope.

These are the 5 who run out of oil. They don’t have enough oil to keep their lamps lit. 5 however, have enough oil. They are able to accompany Jesus when he finally arrives.

Oil is spiritual energy. It’s spiritual power. It’s what allows us to create and shine light in times of darkness.

Remember what Jesus said, “…let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” Jesus is telling his followers not to lose hope or give up even though it appears that he’s running late. Or maybe not showing up at all.

Even though it looks like he might be a run away bridegroom, he says, keep your lamp stands lit. Make sure you continue cultivating your spiritual power, and doing good works, even though I appear to be running late.

Don’t give up, he tells us. No matter what. Even though it looks like I’m running late. Don’t give up. Let your light shine. I’ll be there.

This parable is about fueling up. Making sure we’re ready for a long journey. Not running out of spiritual energy.

Now if you’re like me, you’re thinking, “What about those 5 bridesmaids who have enough oil, yet refuse to share with the 5 who run out of oil?” How mean are they? They send the other 5 away and say, “You have to get your own oil. You can’t have any of ours.” Yikes! Are they even people of faith? Why don’t they share?

Let me tell you a secret. You can’t share spiritual energy. You can’t give someone your spirituality. You can share lots of things. You can share a cup of coffee. Or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Or even a car. But you can’t share your spiritual energy with anyone else. You can’t give someone else your joy or compassion or freedom to anyone else. Any more than you can give them your eyesight or worldview or sense of humor.

They are all uniquely us. Every person has to cultivate their own spiritual life. You can’t get it from someone else. When times get tough, when we’re going through a time of loss and grief, no one can give you the peace that passes understanding to get you through it.

When you’re dealing with chronic or a life-threatening illness, no one can give you the confidence that nothing, not even this, can separate you from the love of God.

We’ll all face circumstances that will make us want to give up. To let our lights go out. If we don’t have a deep well of spiritual oil to draw from, our lamp stand might go out.

We have to resist that temptation. We have to continue developing our spirituality every single day. Because we don’t know when we’re going to enter a time of trial and need to draw from it.

That’s What It’s All About – part 2

Matthew 22:34-46

Jesus knew that holiness was ultimately something positive.

It wasn’t about avoiding a bunch of no-no’s, even though that’s how Scripture often frames them. Being holy wasn’t about not breaking any timeless rules that God gave us.

Do you know people who think like this? That being holy means not breaking this or that rule or cultural more?

It’s a life-denying strategy that begins to shrink the world around them. They see evil everywhere. And they especially see when you’re committing evil. And they let you know about it.

“You’re breaking rules,” they say.

Jesus didn’t think of holiness this way. He saw it as essentially positive. Love God. And love your neighbor. That’s what the Bible is all about.

Don’t look at life as a bunch of things to avoid. Look at life as things to do with joy and gratitude. Think of yourself as God’s partner in the work of restoring creation.

Go out and love God and love your neighbor. Today. Right now.

The second thing that Jesus knew that the Pharisees didn’t was that there is a cipher to the Bible. There is a special lens through which the Bible must be read to understand it correctly.

And that lens is love. Love God and love your neighbor. “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets,” Jesus said.

This is the solid foundation upon which the Scriptures are built.

The other 611 commands in Scripture are ways of fleshing out what it means to love God and neighbor.

Sometimes it’s readily apparent how these teachings line up with the big two. For example loving your neighbor as yourself means that you don’t kill them.

But sometimes you have to do a little research. Like when the prophet Hosea tells us not to eat raisin cakes.

Now I happen to like raisins. I know others don’t. But I really like raisins. Especially raisin bran!

I thought, “Am I going to have to give up raisin bran?”

Well it turns out that in Hosea’s day, raisin cakes were baked for other gods. Eating them was a way of showing allegiance to these other gods. Apparently they liked raisins, too.

So loving God meant that we didn’t eat raisin cakes.

It made perfect sense to them in their day. But it’s not really relevant for us today.

All the commands in Scripture are ways of fleshing out what it means to love God and one another.

They aren’t ways to condemn or test one another. That was the Pharisees approach.

Jesus had a different approach. Use Scripture and faith to allow God’s love to be known in the world. To help transform the world.

That’s what it’s all about.

We need to understand Scripture the way Jesus understood Scripture.

Not something we use to test each other.

But as a testimony of the life-changing and world-changing power of God’s love.

A love that is ultimately positive and life affirming.

A love that is the key to Scripture and to life itself.

It’s been 500 years since the Protestant Reformation.

May we continue reforming ourselves and our church through God’s love.

And when we find ourselves tested, may we turn to it and trust in it and in nothing else. Amen.

That’s What It’s All About – part 1

Matthew 22:34-46

Some people are very concerned that we think about God and faith and the Bible in just the right way.

Our Scripture this morning tells us about a time when the Pharisees tested Jesus.

They were always looking for a way to trick him into saying something “wrong” or blasphemous.

This time they were trying to get Jesus to say that one of God’s commands was greater than all the others.

According to the Pharisees, all of God’s commands were just as important as all the others. Because they all came from God.

Honoring your father and mother was just as important as not lying. Not mixing two different types of fabric was just as important as not killing someone.

The Pharisees believed that all 613 commands found in the Hebrew Scriptures were all equally important. 248 were positive—things like “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 365 were negative—things like “Don’t work on the Sabbath.”

They were waiting for Jesus to say, “Actually, this is the most important,” and they could say, “Gotcha! You’re a blasphemer!”

They think they have him this time: Jesus, what do you think is the most important commandment?

“To love God with all your heart and mind and strength,” a teaching from Deuteronomy.

The Pharisees wanted just one. But Jesus gave them a bonus answer.

“Love your neighbor as yourself,” a teaching from Leviticus.

These two commands, Jesus said, capture all of the teachings from the Hebrew Scriptures. Love God and love your neighbor. That’s what God was trying to get across.

That’s what the Bible is all about, Jesus said. Not rules about mixing fabrics or what you can or can’t do on certain days.

And he meant it. He didn’t obey some of the commands. Like not working on the Sabbath. He healed someone on the Sabbath. He worked, a clear violation that got the Pharisees all worked up.

And he spoke with women. And treated them as equals.

And he spoke with foreigners. And treated them as equals.

Serious rule breaking, Jesus.

Jesus didn’t think about the Bible the way they did. He didn’t see Scripture as a list of commands and prohibitions.

He saw it as a record of God’s loving faithfulness to all people, and as an encouragement for us to love God faithfully in return. And to love all people, and even to love ourselves.

Love your neighbor as yourself. That presupposes that we love ourselves.

Something about Jesus’ answer resonated with the Pharisees. They didn’t say, “We got ‘em! Arrest him!” Our Scripture says they gave up asking him questions. Testing him.

I think they realized that Jesus knew something about God that they didn’t know—that they couldn’t know—as long as they held on to their rigid way of thinking.

Is It Contagious?

Is It Contagious?

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

Before there were doctrinal disputes and creeds and overseers, there was a razor sharp focus on being the church.

Each member of the body of Christ practiced a holistic ministry. One that connected their hearts and hands. Their minds and bodies. Their faith and their works.

Listen to what Paul says: We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.

I like how Paul puts it: the work of faith.

For Paul and for James, being a person of faith means that we live an integrated life.

We praise God for redeeming us, and then we get to work on showing and sharing the good news of God’s redemptive love with others.

Paul is quick to point out that faith is the ultimate starting point. That faith in God comes first.

If you do have a vibrant faith in God, it will inevitably lead you to love people. To work for their liberation. It will be your joy to help others.

It’s a natural consequence of being grateful. Gratitude provides a limitless source of energy. It’s empowering.

The early church lived totally differently from everyone else around them. They extended hospitality to strangers. They resisted all of the idols that their culture held up. They lived in true spiritual abundance.

And it spread. They had a truly contagious faith.

They had all they needed: each other, the work of faith, the labor of love and steadfastness of hope.

Faith, love, and hope. Paul mentions this triad three times in his letters. They are the virtues that Paul considers foundational to the joyful Christian life.

Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, giving shelter to those in need, healing the sick, and visiting the imprisoned.

The way of Jesus and the early church is contagious. They were the church. People saw love and healing and community and they wanted to be part of it.

Faith, hope, and love.

Think About These Things

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Don’t worry about anything.

Well, that may be easy for Paul to say.

But what about us? What about us who live in a world where nations are either threatening each other with war? Or are already at war?

Just last night I was at a vigil for the victims of the Las Vegas shooting rampage. I cannot count the number of times the past couple years I’ve said, “My thoughts and prayers are with the victims of ___________________.”

At first glance Paul seems to possess an unrealistic attitude toward life that doesn’t admit these harsh realities.

Paul does know about human suffering. He wrote this letter to the Philippian church from a prison in Rome.

He’s well aware that life is fragile. That there is injustice.

Nevertheless, he says, “Rejoice in the Lord; again I will say, Rejoice! Don’t worry about anything.”

Paul’s someone who doesn’t ignore human suffering, but someone who looks it straight in the eye, and then continues working.

He chooses faith over fear. And he invites the church at Philippi—and us—to do the same. He invites us to choose joy in the midst of uncertainty.

He tells them not to let a disagreement get in the way of the wonderful thing God is doing in and through them.

He tells them struggles are not an excuse to stop trusting in God, or to stop caring for one another.

As he waits to see if he will live or die, he talks about joy.

He does this for two reasons, which are still relevant for us today:

First, Paul found a source of true joy that will never fail. He knows that whether he lives or dies, whether he           has much or little, whether people treat him as a friend or as an enemy, he is never alone.

Second, he knows that how we think determines to a great extent, how we live. He knows that our thinking           shapes our life.

Your perceptions, your thoughts, your mental habits, determine to a great extent, your reality. The more good stuff we stick in our bodies, the better.

Our thoughts are kind of like a rudder that steers our ship. Be mindful that we are thinking thoughts that will take us where we want to go!

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Think about the things that will fill you with light and joy. That’s the way to stay on course through life.

Run for Your Life

Philippians 3:4b-14

Sometimes we lack the proper wider perspective. We think we’re headed down the right path. But then we realize that we were mistaken.

Maybe you’ve been headed down the wrong path before. In a relationship. Or at work. Or with your family or friends. Suddenly you get that wider perspective. You realize that you’ve been doing it all wrong. You’re been running in the wrong direction.

If you have, you have something in common with Paul.

In our Scripture today he’s telling the church at Philippi that he used to run in the wrong direction in his relationship with God. But he didn’t know it.

He thought that a relationship with God meant doing all the things he was told to do by his society. Have the right family. Know Scripture. Keep God’s commands. Persecute the dangerous Christ followers. Paul was perfectly obedient and dutiful. He was running with all of his might. Until he meets Jesus.

He realizes that he had been mistaken. That he was wrong about Jesus and his followers. He discovered that there was real freedom and transforming power and community in the Jesus movement. And he’s overcome with sorrow.

He said he counts all the energy he spent being so dutiful and so proud as waste now that he knows the way of freedom.

That’s an intense feeling. That sense of regret—that you’re a failure.

If you’ve ever been mistaken about something important, or been betrayed by someone important, you know what Paul feels like here.

He’s at a turning point. A make or break time in his life.

Will he be overcome with regret and fall into despair? Will he lack the courage to begin again? Or will he realize he made a mistake, realize he was running the wrong way, and make a course correction?

He chooses the latter: but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

He makes a serious course correction. He becomes a servant and a pastor to the community he used to persecute.

God allows course corrections.


Bind Us Together

Or, to be passive. To pretend that we weren’t really hurt. That doesn’t work either. And there’s no justice here, either.

Jesus and Paul teach us about an alternative between aggression and passivity, between violence and silence. Loving confrontation. Dialog. Engagement. That’s the way to resolve conflict and find justice.

When you view our passage in its larger context it becomes “You’ve become lost; you’ve left the playing field, and we’d like to invite you back into the game.”

It isn’t about punishment but restoration. It’s not about who’s wrong and who’s right. It’s not about winning. It’s about reconciliation.

It’s about choosing to remain bound together when a relationship is threatened.

If someone still isn’t reconciled after three attempts, Jesus says, treat them like a Gentile or a tax collector. Which sounds like an excuse to treat them like an outsider, but remember who it was who Jesus spent his time with.

Gentiles and tax collectors! He defended them against critics. He healed them. Gave them food. Ate with them. He helped their families. And invited them to make peace with their neighbor and God and become his disciple.

When Jesus says to treat someone like a Gentile or tax collector, he’s saying they need to hear the liberating good news of God’s love, because they’re stuck in the old creation.

When a conflict arises, don’t ignore it. Don’t retaliate either. Talk about it. Grow through it. Your covenant with one another will be strengthened.

In our day, unresolved conflict is tearing apart relationships and families. It’s tearing apart communities. It’s tearing apart our country and our world.

Our world needs to see a group of people who can overcome their differences and their conflicts and treat each other with respect and dignity.

Our world needs to see that people can remain bound together even in difficult circumstances.

It needs to see that conflict is inevitable because we’re all so different, but that we can remain bound together.

Conflicts do not kill churches. Refusing to deal with conflict kills churches.

But dealing with them gives churches life and vitality. And it helps the world see that we can live together in peace.

May we bind our selves together. May we discover that all we need is one another. May we discover that what is most needed and most sacred is right in front of us.