Henderson Community Church

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God’s Mercy is for ALL people

Matthew 15:21-28

This past week, like many parents here, was my daughter’s first week of school. And, more so, it was her first week of kindergarten. Lexi has had “mixed feelings” you might say about starting school and wasn’t a huge fan of pre-school, so my wife and I have been doing our best to get her excited about this new adventure in the hopes of installing an appreciation for education and a desire for life-long learning. In thinking so much about exciting her, my wife and I have also been feeling the anxiety of wanting so much to get her off on the right foot, so she has a smooth transition into kindergarten. My own anxiety was going through the roof this past Thursday as some unforeseen challenges arose.

After running some church errands last Thursday morning, I decided to park under the shade of the big pine trees on the north side of the parking lot, where the orange donation bins used to be. It was going to be a warm day, and with a black paint job, my car can heat up pretty quick. What I didn’t realize was that there was still several bits of glass shards remaining on the ground. As I started backing out on my way to pick up Lexi from school, I noticed the tire pressure gauge alerting me that my front right tire was at 22 psi. At first, I assumed it was an error, but after driving north on Oakland a-ways, I quickly realized there was a problem.

As the numbers quickly went lower and lower, I was faced with a serious decision. Do I pull over, call AAA, and force Lexi to wait for me long after school has ended? Or do I race home as quick as I can, ignoring the obvious problems and repercussions of driving on a flat. I chose the latter. With it being only Lexi’s second day of school, and me wanting her to not have any bad experiences so early in the school year, I couldn’t bear the thought of her having to wait by herself outside or sit in the school office with strangers, wondering where her dad was. In short, I didn’t want school to become a traumatizing experience!

If you’re a parent, whether your kids are still living at home with you or whether they have kids of their own, you probably have felt that same desperate desire to do whatever you could to protect and provide for your child. And maybe there’s some here who have never have had biological children yet have felt that same parental love and concern for a child in your care. Regardless, a mother or father’s love is a powerful thing, love that will go to any length, overcome any obstacle, and fight off any danger. Today in our reading from Matthew, we see a mother’s desperate desire to take care of her child beautifully displayed.

The story goes something like this. Jesus and his disciples were traveling outside their normal territory, to the region of Tyre and Sidon, a place mostly inhabited by non-Jews, otherwise known as Gentiles. Jesus is walking along when all of a sudden, a woman starts shouting at him; “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.” Now, this was unexpected for two reasons. First, it would be a bit jarring to be walking along and suddenly hearing someone scream out your name. It’s like when you’re driving along down the road and all of a sudden, you hear a long, sustained horn blast. Immediately, you tense up, check the mirrors, and look in every direction to see what you might have done and who you have offended. But this wasn’t even the most shocking part of it.

In the time of Jesus, the woman’s behavior was culturally unacceptable. Her culture expected women to be reserved in public. By shouting her demand at Jesus, she violated social norms.[1] It’s like the old saying, “children should be seen and not heard.” Women, in the time of Jesus, had no business speaking to a man who was not her husband—and even worse—she was a Canaanite woman, a woman of a different religion and ethnicity, which made her desperate shouting all the more inappropriate. It’s no wonder that Jesus ignored her the first time and his disciples urged him to shoo her away. Her actions were out of place, and Jesus responding to her would have been all the more culturally unacceptable.

But she was relentless. Not only does it seem like she kept shouting for Jesus’ attention, but she was so desperate that she came in front of Jesus, knelt before him, and begged him, saying, “Lord, help me.”

Yet Jesus is still unconvinced. He tells her, “It’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Ouch! Commentators disagree as to whether Jesus was trying to insult her or just make an illustration, but best-case scenario, Jesus was implying that his only purpose was helping his own people, and spending any time and energy on her would be a waste. Yet, again, this is a desperate mom; she is willing to do whatever it takes to give her child a better life. We understand her desperation, right? It’s that mama bear mentality which will stop at nothing, absolutely nothing, to care for her child.  And we understand that, right? Because most—if not all of us—have felt that surge of emotion when we felt someone or something was threat to our child. We will do whatever it takes. So, she says, fine, call me a dog, call me whatever, but even the dogs get to eat the scraps of food that fall in the floor. She was willing to completely and utterly humiliate herself if it meant getting her child the attention and care she needed. I’d bet most—if not all of us—can think of a time we have done the same for our child.

Jesus was apparently impressed by this woman’s actions. “Great is your faith,” he said, “let it be done as you wish.” Now, I’ve heard different thoughts on why Jesus was initially so unresponsive. Some have suggested he was testing her faith, some have suggested he was trying to work within the confines of the culture, and some have even suggested that Jesus had a change of heart and was compelled to help this woman he initially disregarded.  It’s that last one that seems so jarring to us. Jesus, needing to have a change of heart? Could it really be?

Let me ask you to suppose, even if it’s just for these next few minutes, that Jesus really did have a change of heart, that because of this woman’s boldness, he was “forced to encounter his own prejudice”[2] and change his perspective. What might that mean for you and for me? Please, think about that for a moment. It’s so easy for us to sit back and think we’re good people, especially after the events that took place in Charlottesville. It’s easy for us to say, “hey, I’m not marching with the KKK or waving a Nazi flag, I’m the good guy here.” Yet, so often, when mothers in our own time, like this Canaanite mother, cry out for mercy, their cries often go unheard.

The cries of the Canaanite mother are echoed today in the mothers of undocumented immigrant children from countries south of the border. Mothers who send their children away, likely never to see them again, because the poverty and violence in their own country is so inescapable.

The cries of the Canaanite mother are echoed today in the mothers of transgender children who simply want their children to feel safe and protected while they are at school.

And, we hear the cries of the Canaanite mother echoed today in the mother of Heather Hayer, the woman killed by a domestic terrorist in Charlottesville, angrily denouncing a national leader who could equate he daughter with neo-Nazis and white supremacists.

The cries of the Canaanite mother are echoed today in the mothers of African-American boys who have to worry about their child’s safety if they encounter a police officer, lest their child become the next Tamir Rice or Philando Castile.

The cries of the Canaanite mother are echoed today in the mothers of the several police officers who were injured or killed in the line of duty, in Charlottesville, Florida, and Pennsylvania.

It’s so easy to say, like the disciples said to the woman, “this isn’t the right way to do it.” In the same way, it’s so easy for us to say, “you’re disrespecting law enforcement,” or “apply for legal entry into our country,” or “stop politicizing our schools.” Yet moms are screaming out, “Lord, have mercy on me. Lord, please help me.”

There is no shortage of God’s mercy. There’s enough mercy to share with African-American mothers AND with families of police officers. Thinking we have to pick a side is a false choice.

This was a woman who was willing to break through external differences to claim God’s mercy.[3] This was a woman who violates boundaries of ethnicity, heritage, religion, gender, and demon possession—even perhaps Jesus’ own reluctance, to find mercy for her daughter.[4]

Jesus was a big enough person not to be ashamed to learn something from a Gentile Canaanite woman.[5] How about us?

When people come to us, jarring us out of our peaceful existence, screaming for our attention, begging for our help. How will we respond? Can we like Jesus, overcome our initial hesitancy, recognize their pleas for mercy, and show them grace?

Yes, the cries may not come in ways we might appreciate or prefer—Jesus hardly preferred being yelled at by some stranger. But when push came to shove, he was willing to let go of his own reluctance, and show her mercy.

As I mentioned, there are many voices crying out for mercy. Will we respond in grace and love to their pleas? Or will we simply ignore them and keep walking?

 

What would Jesus do?

[1] Jae Won Lee, 359.

[2] Iwan Russell-Jones, 358.

[3] Jae Wom Lee, 357.

[4] Jae Won Lee, 361.

[5] Jae Won Lee, 361.

Get out of the boat

Matthew 14:22-33

An idiom is a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words.  For instance, when we say it’s “raining cats and dogs,” cats or dogs are not literally falling from the sky, but rather we’re saying that’s it’s raining heavily.

Here are some well-known idioms:

“A hot potato” = An issue which many people are talking about and which is usually disputed

“A penny for your thoughts” = A way of asking what someone is thinking

“Actions speak louder than words” = People’s intentions can be judged better by what they do than what they say.

“Add insult to injury” = To further a loss with mockery or indignity; to worsen an unfavorable situation.

“Back to the drawing board” = When an attempt fails and it’s time to start all over.

What are some other well-known idioms?

The text for today is the familiar story of Jesus walking on the water. But before we get into the story,      we should go over some background details. Backing up a little bit in Matthew’s telling of the story, King Herod has just had Jesus’ friend and confidant John the Baptist beheaded. Grieving from the loss, Jesus left for some time alone, yet the crowds of people followed him anyway. Despite his own grief and turmoil, Jesus had compassion on the people, caring for their ailments and feeding them—specifically in the well-known feeding of the 5,000.

After all this, Jesus really needed some time to himself, so he sent the disciples to journey on ahead of him           and he headed up a hillside for some time in prayer. The disciples meanwhile had ventured out in the middle of the night when a storm arose on the lake.  Due to the intensity of the storm, the disciples were unable to make it to the other side and were instead being tossed about by the wind and the waves. Early the next morning he finds the disciples far out to sea, struggling in the boat. Perhaps sensing their difficulty, or maybe just wanting to go out and take a stroll, Jesus comes walking out to them on the water, walking through the wind and the waves, parting the storm.

The disciples saw Jesus but were fearful, thinking he was some kind of ghost. Responding to their fears, Jesus responded, “take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter answered Jesus and said, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus said, “Come,” so Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water,   and came toward Jesus.

I want to stop here for a moment.

It’s worth noting what Peter said to Jesus. “If it’s really you, tell me to take a risk in faith.”  Peter knew that only Jesus

would ask him to step out of his comfort zone of the boat and into the risk of the wind and waves. Peter knew that the call to discipleship, to take risks, was unique to Jesus.[1]

We know what happens next. Peter takes his eyes off Jesus, sees the wind and the waves, becomes fearful, and begins to sink, yet Jesus rescues him before it’s too late.

There are three points I’d like us to take away from this passage.

First, is that Jesus asks us to stop being “afraid of our own shadow.”

What does that idiom mean? Right! Jesus wants us to let go of the fear that holds us back. I said it once and I’ll say it again; I believe doubt is not the opposite of faith, rather fear is. Fear can be a debilitating force, stifling our generosity, limiting our vision, holding us hostage to the present (or more accurately, holding us hostage to the past, as evidenced by last weekend in Charlottesville). God assures us that if we “get out of the boat,” Jesus will be with us, but first, we’ve got to let go of the fear that is hold us back.

The second thing I’d like us to notice from this passage is that following Jesus means “throwing caution to the wind.”

What does that mean? Exactly! Stepping out of a boat is not the safest thing to do in the middle of a stormy sea with no life vest or other safety device. The key to faith and fullness in Christ is to follow Peter’s example and be willing to step out of the comfort and security of our own “boat”       and head into the troubled waters       of the unknown, the uncertain, and the unsecure.[2]  Following Jesus means taking risks.

The third thing I’d like to point out, is that if we’re not careful, like the disciples, we can “miss something even if it hit us in the face.”  

What does that idiom mean? The disciples, because of their fear, could not recognize Jesus when he came to them in ways they never expected.[3] Jesus does this even today.  He comes walking to us, in the midst of our turmoil, and tells us “to take courage, it’s me, don’t be afraid.” Yet so often, we do not recognize him, and he walks on by… or worse—we tell him he’s no longer needed. Following Jesus means recognizing and responding to him when he calls us, even when it’s not what we would expect.

“What is so clear from this passage is that we are called to step out in faith, even in the midst of troubled waters, if we are to be faithful to the call of Christ. Stepping out in faith is not a guarantee that we will not face troubled waters or be filled with fear, but it is always accompanied by the assurance that Jesus will not abandon us, that when we need it most,” he will be there for us.[4]

If we are to call ourselves disciples,

if we are to call ourselves Jesus’ church,

we must recognize Jesus when he walks our way

in methods that we would not expect,

and we must respond to his calling

—lest Jesus simply walk on by and leave us…

 

Jesus comes to us in the midst of our turmoil and says, “take courage, it is, don’t be afraid.”

Are we willing to take the step of faith, to get out of the boat, and follow him into the unfamiliar?

My prayer for this church, it that we would hear Jesus calling to us       in the midst of our turmoil and respond to his call by stepping out in faith. And not miss him all together as he walks on by…

 

[1] Clifton Kirkpatrick, “Matthew 14:22-33: Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word, ed. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Year A Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 334.

[2] Clifton Kirkpatrick, 336.

[3] Clifton Kirkpatrick, 334.

[4] Clifton Kirkpatrick, 334.

Serving Jesus means Serving Everyone

Matthew 10:40-42

Most Sunday evening, my wife works the overnight shift at her hospital and therefore takes a nap in the afternoons. Some weekends, like this past weekend, she works both Saturday and Sunday nights. As one might imagine, trying to keep a four-year-old and two dogs quiet the whole afternoon gets old fast, so I’ve begun a habit of going over to my parents to spend the day. I pack some clothes for Lexi, bring food for the dogs, grab my running gear, and load up Lexi, the dogs, and myself and drive down to Littleton to spend the rest of the day with my parents. Once there, we sit down on their deck, let all the dogs play together, and watch Lexi explore outdoor adventures at Grandma’s house. As my mom and I talk, the subject of church often comes up as my father is a pastor at a church in Denver and my mom is highly involved as well, organizing the food bank and other ministry programs. Since church is such a big part of both of our lives, often our conversations revolve around us “comparing notes” about each other’s churches!

Inevitably, she shares her frustrations with some of the behaviors of the many people she serves at her church—and in fairness to her, she has every reason to be offended. Often, she interacts with people who are dishonest, disrespectful, and down-right disgusting in some of their behaviors—people trying to steal food, people lying about their family needs, and people behaving in repulsive ways.  Listening to her complaints, I can understand why she gets so frustrated with people who behave in these ways. Whether we mean to or not, we have this tendency to place expectations on people to whom we are being generous or kind—we expect them to recognize and appreciate our generosity/service/kindness/etc. that we are so wonderfully bestowing upon them.  And if they do not—well then, they are not deserving of our kindness, service, or generosity in the future!

In fairness to us, we’re set up for this expectation by what we see on TV so often; a politician serving soup at a homeless shelter to happy, smiling faces, an athlete having fun with a group of low-income children at a sports camp, a celebrity visiting young people and their families at the local children’s hospital. What the film crews edit out are the clips of the drunk, homeless man yelling at the server about getting a bigger serving of food, the clips of the young kids quarreling with their siblings and refusing to listen at the same sports camp, and the clips of child or family so overwhelmed and exhausted from their health issues that they refuse a visit from the big-name celebrity.  In other words, in real-life, helping people isn’t always as glorious as what it’s made out to be in commercials and expect in our minds.

People are people, dealing with their own issues and struggles—just as we’re not always friendly and receptive to the store clerk or restaurant server who shows us excellent service, neither sometimes are the people who we are helping. Their thankfulness should not determine whether or not they receive our help—it’s not our decision to make. Yet, it is a decision we often do make—deciding who is and is not deserving of our help, charity, or kindness. If you’re like me, you have a mental check-list in your mind of who is worthy of our service and giving—children, veterans, and single moms—and those who we think probably just need to “get a job.” Show me a child who is suffering or a veteran who is struggling with PTSD or some other ailment from war and I’ll rush to help—but show me a middle-aged homeless drunk man and I’m not nearly as passionate or enthusiastic to come to his aid. We like to pick and choose who is deserving of our help.

The thing is, this directly conflicts with what Jesus taught. In the verses we read today from Matthew, Jesus said we are to welcome and receive, and that God looks kindly on those who give even a cup of cold water to a “little one.” But what we don’t always catch in our reading is that Jesus said we are to help no matter what. One commentator says it this way. When we find someone in need, we should give to that person as if they too were a disciple of Jesus, regardless of whether that person does, in fact, fit into any definition of “disciple” that we know.[1] Jesus wants us to treat the people we meet as equal to us and deserving of our help whether or not we ourselves perceive them as being equal or worthy of our help. Basically, it’s not our job to judge, it’s our job to serve. After all, it’s in service to others that we make Jesus visible to others. If we never welcome and serve, Jesus has no opportunity to be made known to others.[2]

Sure, I get that it’s hard when our giving and kindness is not reciprocated with the gratefulness and appreciation it does deserve, but that’s no excuse for us to stop showing love and kindness to everyone. Love is not always met with love.[3] Sometimes, love is met with crucifixion. Remember, Jesus came to our world offering love and welcome, yet beyond being simply ungrateful, there were people who were so unappreciative and disrespectful of his gift of love and grace that they had him killed! Yet this is indeed the beauty of Christianity and the mystery of following Jesus; crucifixion is followed by resurrection! When we serve others, when we show Jesus’ love and welcome, when we give to all those in need—even if the people seem ungrateful, even if the people seem disrespectful, even if we are rejected—something good is happening within us. Our old ways, our old attitudes, our old behaviors of determining who deserves our kindness and who does not, these old ways, attitudes, and behaviors are dying within us, and out of that is arising a new us and a new way of looking at the people around us.

The importance of Jesus’ teachings of showing kindness to everyone cannot be understated—nor can its relevance. In Washington, our politicians are leaders are debating who is “deserving” and “undeserving” of affordable healthcare. We all want to make sure there is affordable healthcare for children and veterans, but we find ourselves far less sympathetic towards people who we feel to be undeserving, people we think should just “get a job.” What would Jesus say? Is our kindness and compassion to be limited to those we deem worthy? Or are we to treat that person as if they too were a disciple of Jesus, regardless of whether that person does, in fact, fit into any definition of “disciple” that I know? I believe the principles of Jesus teaches us to live by extend beyond simply our own day-to-day lives and rather into the way we live with one another in society.

And they also extend into our places of worship, our churches. It’s easy to get the idea that church is supposed to be about us. One commentator says that we are not “consumers” but “providers of God’s love”: we’re not supposed to seek a place of safety and reassurance in the church–it’s not “a hideout,” not “the place where those of us who know the secret password can gather to celebrate our good fortune,” and we are not people chosen simply because we deserve God’s love and kindness. Instead, God wants to disturb churches that have become members-only meetings and remind us that it is time to share.[4] When we look at ourselves as privileged and exclusive recipients, we assume our church and our ways of practicing church are sacred and untouchable. If instead we see ourselves as equal recipients of God’s grace and love, we’re willing to let new people in and their new ideas, we’re willing to reconsider what it means to be church and how we practice church, because God’s gifts are not unique to us and we recognize God’s gifts in others as well.

To live in the way of Jesus may require us to turn from familiar patterns of behavior that do not welcome others,[5] it may require us to recognize that our positions of privilege are not that privileged after all. To repent, and see that we have been given God’s love and grace like every single person on this planet. And the fact that we recognize that doesn’t make us special or more important—rather it compels to share that love and kindness with others so they too see the love and appreciation God has for them. And sometimes, that means doing things differently—which is what it truly means to repent.  God doesn’t want us to feel sad or sorry, that’s more self-centered thinking—God wants us to change our mind and do things differently!  Our task as disciples should be active service, inspired by seeing Jesus in the faces of others in need. We serve him by serving our neighbors.[6]

Once again, I’m reminded of the story of the Good Samaritan. Remember, religious scholars came to Jesus trying to get Jesus to define who was and who was not their neighbor. They knew the teaching that they were to love their neighbor, but they wanted to strictly delineate was deserving of their love. It was in this this context Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan. We too come to Jesus and ask, “who is my neighbor? I’m okay helping the child or the veteran, but not the immigrant or the homeless man. Jesus says not only are we to love our neighbor, but Jesus also reminds us that we’re all neighbors. And more, Jesus teaches us that in welcoming those different then us, in showing kindness to those others may label as undeserving, and in even giving a cup of cold water to a thirsty person—in doing this, in treating each person as a beloved child of God, we welcome and receive Jesus and the one who sent him…God.

 

[1] L. Mark Davis, “Welcoming and Watering,” LeftBehindandLovingIt <https://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/> (accessed June 29, 2017).

[2] Liddy Barlow, “Living by the Word: July 2, 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time,” in The Christian Century 134, no. 12 (June 7, 2017): 21.

[3] Emilie Townes, “Matthew 10:40-42: Theological Perspective,” in in Feasting on the Word, ed. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Year A (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011), 3:191.

[4] Barbara Brown Taylor, quoted in “Even a Cup of Cold Water,” <http://www.ucc.org/daily_devotional_even_a_cup_of_cold_water?utm_campaign=ws_jun23_17&utm_medium=email&utm_source=unitedchurchofchrist> (accessed June 29, 2017).

[5] Emilie Townes, 192.

[6] Liddy Barlow, 21.

God’s Values vs. Family Values

Matthew 10:24-39

This past Friday, Vice President Mike Pence visited our beautiful state to celebrate the 40th Anniversary of Focus on the Family, a global Christian ministry dedicated to helping families. Based in Colorado Springs, the organization has Associate Offices is 13 regions world-wide in places such as Australia, Africa, and the Middle East. Founded in 1977 by psychologist James Dobson, Focus on the Family has a stated mission of “nurturing and defending the God-ordained institution of the family and promoting biblical truths worldwide.” If you’re like me, you probably think families need all the help they can get! It’s hard being a family these days! Whether you have young children at home, teens ready to leave the nest, or your kids are grown up and have kids or even grandkids of their own—you likely have seen first-hand the pressures burdening so many families. While we do live in a beautiful state, it is also a very expensive state in which to live—the median price of a single-family home is $420,000. That’s not the average price of a home, which can be skewed by high end properties, that is simply the price in the middle—where half the homes sold cost more and half the homes cost less. Unfortunately, employers aren’t necessarily adjusting their compensation plans accordingly, leading many families to feel the squeeze financially.

Via foxnews.com

With all the other pressures that weigh on families these days such as children, work, intimacy, and chores—it’s hard enough being a family without having to worry about finding an affordable place to live. We need our home and our family to be a safe, welcoming space, a source of comfort and love—whether we’re the parent, a child, empty-nesters, grand-parents or even great-grandparents. Stress and conflict disrupts our family and makes handling the pressures of the daily grind even harder. “Problems at home” as we like to say, inevitably spill over into our external activities such as work, hobbies, and friends. We don’t need family to be another source of conflict—we need help smoothing out the sources of anxiety that exist in any family or relationship.

Why in the world then would Jesus say; “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn

“‘a man against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’ “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” What’s going on here!? Can we please have back the warm, comforting Jesus we like to think of? You know, the one often pictured sitting with the children while soft, fuzzy lambs graze in the lush green. Perhaps you’re wondering, what exactly is going on here?

Let me confess first off, this is a difficult passage of scripture to talk about. There’s no quick, easy answers to language as strong as this—and simply saying “it’s complicated” leaves one desiring more, yet delving too deep into exegetical and theological interpretations will inevitably bore even the most astute listener. Once I was asked after church services about this passage; it caught me off-guard and I wasn’t really sure how to respond. I think I gave some sort of unsatisfying and not-quite-accurate response such as, “it doesn’t really mean what it seems.” Yet, even if you were to ask me today after services, “what does this passage mean exactly,” the details I’d begin to explain to you would be about as engaging as listening to a lecture on the Israeli-Palestine conflict; lots of intricate details of historical distinctions, cultural differences, and language particularities. Again, this is a difficult passage to talk about.

Let me say in short, or rather use another’s words to say in short, that in Mediterranean societies a person’s primary loyalty was to blood relatives, especially parents…It was a retort to people who used family ties as an excuse not become a follower of Jesus. Only a couple pages over in Matthew chapter 8, Jesus said the infamous line, “let the dead bury the dead.” It was a response to a person who claimed he wanted to follow Jesus, but first needed to follow through on all the societal customs regarding a father’s eventual death and burial. Jesus was saying, “come now, while you feel called, don’t let your fire burn out.” In other words, if you don’t do it now, later you’ll make excuses why you shouldn’t and end up never doing it.

Think of it like this. Several years ago, Corinna and I were preparing to move to Springfield, MO. Being as I’m a big runner and enjoy working out at a nice gym, during the week I was out there looking for a job, I decided to go check out one of the local fitness centers. I don’t remember what the place was called and I think it’s been renamed since, but I walked in and asked for the tour of the place. Having once worked for 24 Hour Fitness, I should have known what I was walking into. The guy took me on the tour, showed me the equipment, and then started going over pricing with me. I tried my usual cop-out ploy— “I need to talk to my wife about it first.” Undeterred, the salesman grabbed his phone, put it right down in front of me and said, “here, you can call your wife right now.” This guy saw through my attempts to use my wife as an out, to avoid having to decide right then and there. Like Jesus, he knew that once I went back home and started thinking about it, I would realize, “I don’t even have a job yet! Why in the world would I sign a $50 a month contract on a gym membership? This is I think what Jesus was saying; don’t use your family as excuse to not follow me.

Now that’s not to say that family can never be a source of opposition. “The first readers of this text faced family pressures to reject Jesus and his claims that are scarcely imaginable for many of us. Sometimes we do have to make hard choices, sometimes we do have to choose between one or the other. After all, following Jesus shakes up our values, rearranges our priorities, and reorients our goals. The message of Jesus is not always soothing and comforting; sometimes it might feel like a sword that is digging into us, trying to cut away everything that’s not good in our lives. Think of it like this. If your child or grandchild ever had a splinter that went deep into their skin, below the surface and beyond the reach of tweezers, you probably had to pull out a needle and puncture the surface of their skin in order to get the splinter out. I’d imagine, like most kids, the child winced or cried or screamed as you dug into their skin to get the splinter out lest it become inflamed or infected. Sometimes, the truth of Jesus digs into us in ways that aren’t always comfortable. Sometimes, the truth of Jesus reveals to us things about ourselves we don’t always want to see. And sometimes, the truth of Jesus seeks to rid us of misconceptions about relationships.

I think there’s this common belief in Christian circles that the best Christians are the ones who have the perfect nuclear family. You know, hard-working dad, loving mom, and two perfect kids—a boy and a girl. In other words, the Smiths are essentially the perfect Christian family! All joking aside, we have in some ways in this country equated traditional family values such as honesty, loyalty, and industry—when combined with the nuclear family—as the ideal of what it means to be a Christian. And while this sounds fine on the surface, such ideals imply that’s the only way to be a good Christian. Single mom—that’s too bad for you; divorced—that’s a permanent mark against you; childless—why aren’t you producing godly offspring; gay—you might as well forget about it. Sometimes traditional family values conflicts with Jesus’ values.

Via syracuseculturalworkers.com

Where family values say love family and hate your enemies, Jesus says love everyone.

Where family values legitimize only some relationships, Jesus says love is love.

Where family values define insiders and outsiders, Jesus welcomes all.

Remember, Jesus welcomed prostitutes, lepers, and tax collectors, all those people who didn’t have a family or weren’t deemed as acceptable in the eyes of society.

Family values and Jesus’ values are not the same thing. Sometimes following Jesus will put us at odds with members of our own family. Sometimes following Jesus will force us to make hard choices. Sometimes following Jesus will feel like God is sticking a gigantic needle in our finger! It’s not always easy. But the good news is that in Jesus, we are a part of God’s family—and God has a big house, with room for everyone. Whether we have the nuclear family with the 2.2 kids at home, whether we’re a single mom raising kids alone, or whether we’re divorced and figuring out life on our own, we are a part of God’s family. Jesus demonstrated God’s love and welcome, especially for us outcast and oddball families. And even better, in Jesus, God welcomes perfect families like the Smiths too! God’s family values each and every one of us!

Jesus doesn’t like leftovers

Matthew 9:35-38

A few weeks back, I ran a 20k race around Turquoise Lake in Leadville, Colorado. I ran the race with my dad who is training for the Leadville Trail 100, a 100-mile race that begin and ends in Leadville. I’ve been up to Leadville quite a few times over the years, and it’s quite a neat town for those who’ve never been—there’s quite a bit of history and some great human-interest stories such as Molly Brown, Baby Doe and Horace Tabor, and Doc Holliday. And, readily visible to anyone driving into Leadville are all the old mining operations that dot the landscape, all over it seems, and they have become as much a part of the dramatic mountain scenery as the mountains themselves. Much of what remains is amber hills of piled up mine waste, known as tailings, which are the leftover materials from the process of separating the valuable minerals from the ore. In and around Leadville, these tailings or leftovers, were piled up and left.

As the years passed, it became apparent that these tailings were not harmless piles of rock and dirt but were actually harming the nearby water and soil as water runoff drained the leftover heavy metals remaining into the nearby soil and water, leading to some pretty devastating environmental effects. Beginning in the mid-1980’s, the Environmental Protection Agency began investigating the area, eventually leading to the designation as Superfund clean-up site.[1] A big part of the clean-up efforts meant addressing these piles of mine tailings. With these tailings piles the source of so many environmental hazards, one would think residents would have been enthusiastic about seeing these piles disappear for good. True to most things in life, it wasn’t quite that simple.

To some long-time Leadville residents and state preservationists, the tailings piles are a valuable part of a distinct local history, a symbol of the great gold and silver booms of the past. Considered part of the scenery and intrinsic to the historical appeal of Leadville, many wanted to leave the tailings piles as is. So, in 1997, under pressure from media, as well as from citizens, preservationists and state representatives, incredulous EPA authorities agreed to leave several remaining tailings piles in place in the Leadville Mining District.[2] Perhaps it was because of my recent trip to Leadville a few weeks ago and my experience of seeing these tailings piles first hand—we ran over a little pile during the 20k—that these tailings came to mind as a read this story from Matthew this past week.  The story gives an overview of Jesus’ outreach efforts. He traveled across the country, speaking in cities and villages, teaching in the synagogues—their religious centers, and healing the people who were sick. We read that each time he saw the crowds of people, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Those words, “harassed and helpless” really stood out to me, so I dug a little deeper to learn a little more.

Harassed and helpless

To harass someone means to hassle, to bully, or to trouble. Sometimes we say we’re being “beat-up” by life. We don’t necessarily mean that we are being physically beat-up, just that with all the harassment, we feel abused. When we read the word helpless, we think of someone who is hurt and unable to help themselves—literally, they are without help. But in the Greek language in which this was originally written, the word had a deeper meaning; it implied someone who was thrown aside or cast away. Think if you will of the story of the Good Samaritan. Remember, there was a Jewish man who was attacked, robbed, beat-up, and left for dead. He was, in short, harassed and helpless. In other words, the helplessness doesn’t simply describe a handicap or impediment of the person—but more so describes the fact that a person has been hurt and impeded by another.

Imagine if you will, that you are up in Leadville for a weekend get-away this summer. Perhaps you’re biking on the mineral belt bike trail that circumferences the town. Traveling roughly 11 miles and at elevations of about 10,000 feet above sea level, you stop often to catch your breath and the enjoy the views. There are certainly some spectacular views to be seen around Leadville; Mt. Massive, Mt. Elbert, Turquoise Lake, and of course—the many piles of tailings around the town. If you’re like me, you’re quite intrigued by the piles as you notice the old wooden structures around them and wonder what the scene must have looked like one hundred years ago. Like the many other tourists and residents, perhaps you see these piles as a neat historical feature worth preserving. There are other ways to view these piles however. Some see them as environmental hazards, and think about massive environmental impact caused by the initial mining efforts and now by these leftovers.

When Jesus traveled around, seeing the crowds of people, he saw people who had been “used and abused,” people who have been bullied, beat-up, then cast aside by the ruling elite and their system of governance. As one commentator states, these aren’t just people who were wandering around looking for a leader, or people following the wrong religion or an errant philosophy of life. They were people who were being harassed and jerked about. That is to say, someone, some system, some way of life was oppressing them and then casting them aside.[3] These were people who were being treated like inanimate objects, like resources from which those in power extracted from them everything they could, then discarded them like a pile of tailings.

Sick to his stomach

Jesus saw this happening all over, in towns and in villages and it bothered him. And really, it did more than bother him, it made him sick to his stomach—or at least that’s the best way to describe it in modern terms. These days, when we talk about our emotions, we talk about our heart—like something touched our heart or broke our heart. In the time of Jesus, people talked about their emotions as residing in their guts. So, when it says that Jesus had compassion on them, it wasn’t as if he was saying, “oh, that’s too bad,” or “gosh those people seem to be having a tough time;” it might be more accurate to say Jesus had a visceral reaction to their suffering.[4] It affected Jesus to the point that he said to his disciples, “hey, we’ve got to do something, there are so many people who need help.” And, in chapter 10, Jesus sends out his 12 disciples on a mission trip of sorts to the various communities in the region.

But here’s the thing, Jesus wasn’t simply sending out his disciples to go put band-aids on people, he was telling his disciples to proclaim a different way of living, God’s way of living, which challenged those who caused the suffering of others and brought hope to those who were suffering. Simply put, it’s not enough to clean-up piles of mine tailings—at some point we might want to ask why are we allowing to take place a process which creates such a toxic stew in environmentally sensitive areas in the first place. In the same way, Jesus was saying, “I’m not content just putting band-aids on people, I want to stop what’s hurting them in the first place.”

California Gulch years ago via https://coyotegulch.blog/category/superfund/standard-mine/

I think if we’re honest with ourselves, like some of the people of Leadville, we like piles of tailings, we like that there are people worse off than us. No, we wouldn’t admit that—but like the people of Leadville can look out onto piles of mine tailings and be reminded of their history, we can look out onto people struggling and be reminded of how we’ve done better in life than them—that we’ve been more successful, worked harder, whatever we like to tell ourselves. And like the town of Leadville will always have EPA clean-up going on so long as there are piles of tailings, we’ll always have people to help as long as there are people worse off than us. It feels good to help other people. And helping other people is good. But at some point, don’t we have to stop putting band aids on people and figure out what’s hurting them in the first place?

People, not objects

The thing is, we all have this tendency to treat people as objects from which we can extract resources to advance ourselves and our own agenda. And worse, we often set up structures and systems to streamline the process.[5] Jesus said, “enough!”  People are people; not objects to be used and abused, cast aside when they no longer have any value to the persons at the top. And this is the message Jesus told his disciples to share, the message of the Kingdom of God, good news, that God loves and values all people equally, and that God’s way of doing things does not allow for people to be used and cast aside like a pile of mine tailings—nor does God’s way of doing things allow for such a system to exist in the first place.  We’re all valuable to God—let’s live like that and treat others accordingly!

Jesus is sending us too!

In some Bibles, the heading over chapter 10 says, “the twelve Apostles.” Others say, “Jesus sends out the twelve,” or something similar. The meaning is basically the same, because the word “Apostle” literally means “sent out.” And just as Jesus sent out his 12 disciples, so too does Jesus send us out as disciples into our villages and communities, to look with compassion upon the people who are hurting and help them—yet we must not stop there—we must also ask, “Why are these people hurting? Who is hurting them? And what can we do to stop people from being hurt?” For in God’s kingdom, the good news that Jesus wanted to disciples to share with everyone, that God loves and values all people, there are no leftovers, no tailings, no unwanted remnants—and it’s our job as followers of Jesus spread that good news with all people.

 

[1] https://cumulis.epa.gov/supercpad/SiteProfiles/index.cfm?fuseaction=second.topics&id=0801478#Why

[2] Katie Redding, “EPA proposes new clean-up plan for Leadville,” TheColoradoIndependent <http://www.coloradoindependent.com/34677/epa-proposes-new-clean-up-plan-for-leadville> (accessed June 16, 2017).

[3] L. Mark Davis, “Indiscriminate Wishing Boundaries,” LeftBehindandLovingIt <http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/> (accessed June 16, 2017).

[4] L. Mark Davis, “Indiscriminate Wishing Boundaries,” LeftBehindandLovingIt <http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/> (accessed June 16, 2017).

[5] Wm. Paul Young and Brad Robinson, The Shack Study Guide (Newbury Park, CA: Windblown Media, 2016), 66.

More than just a Jesus fan…

I wonder if there is a spot that has a special place in your heart? Perhaps it the house you grew up in, the small town where you are from, a favorite camping or hiking spot, or somewhere a significant event in your life occurred, such as an engagement. It would be a place where just coming back to that spot brings back memories, stirs your emotions, and takes you back to a certain time or place.  Or it could be a place that as soon as you get there, you have this warm, comfortable feeling of being “home.” This may sound odd to some of you, but being that I am a city boy, I’d have to say that the place that feels most like “home” and brings back memories is the intersection of 80th and Sheridan. Yes, I will confess it’s a bit strange to me too that those intersecting streets and the surrounding area seem meaningful to me, but it’s true. Whenever I drive through that part of town—and especially on the rare occasion on stop at the King Soopers—it brings back a rush of memories and emotions.

From my high school years until very recently, my family lived just south of 80th Avenue on Lamar St. As a teenager, I went to church near Pomona high school. I remember going with my friends to pick out a movie to watch at the Blockbuster Video on Wadsworth; the place always had an odd smell. Many a summer evening I ran around Lake Arbor with my dog Toby. Countless times Corinna and I had dinner at the Taco Bell. And Corinna and I lived in a small townhome near the railroad tracks for four years. But beyond just memories, being there stirs my emotions. When my wife and I lived there, we were both students, living off low-paying jobs, navigating the challenges of work and school, and dreaming of a better life in the far-off future. While I now live in a far bigger suburban home and drive a better car, in many ways I still feel like the young man scraping by, trying to build a better life for himself and his family. If you asked me what was my hometown, I would point to that certain area on a map. What or where is that place for you?

In our reading from the book of Matthew today, Jesus and the disciples find themselves at just such a place. In the book of Matthew, mountains are an important setting. Matthew wasn’t simply describing the scenery but highlighting important parts of the story by “elevating” them throughout.[1] The disciples had meaningful experiences on mountains in Matthew’s story, such as the Feeding of the 5,000, the Sermon on the Mount, the Transfiguration, and this event which is commonly called “The Great Commission.” Based on their past experiences, the disciples should have known something significant was going to take place when Jesus told them to “meet me on the mountain.” Important things happened on mountains. And if anything, hiking up to the top of the mountain, the disciples would have had a rush of memories and feelings flooding back to them, just as I have whenever I’m back in my old neighborhood.

Some commentators think that was the whole point of Jesus having them meet him on a mountain was so that the disciples would be reminded of the important events and teachings of Jesus that took place on a mountain; especially the Sermon on the Mount, which are uniquely connected.[2] In verse 20, the end of the book of Matthew, and the last instruction Jesus gives, he tells his disciples to teach people  everything he had taught them. What exactly had he taught them? Well, think back to that other important event that happened on a mountain, the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus gave some of his most memorable—and perhaps most important teachings. On that mountain, the disciples were told about the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” and so on. On that mountain, they were told to be salt and light, advised against certain wrongful actions, implored to love their enemies and help the needy, taught how to pray (“Our Father…”), given spiritual advice, and told to look out for bad leaders. It was the most significant section of teaching in the entire book of Matthew, and when Jesus was having the disciples meet him on a mountain for one last piece of advice, he wanted the memories of the Sermon the Mount to be resonating in their hearts and minds.

Not only did Jesus want the teachings from the Sermon on the Mount to be resonating in the disciples’ minds as they made their way up the mountain, but Matthew also wanted them to be resonating in our minds as we read this passage ourselves.  As I mentioned earlier, this section of scripture, especially verses 19-20, are commonly referred to as “The Great Commission.” Countless sermons have been preached about “going to tell other people about Jesus.” When I was in Bible college, I heard message after message imploring me to “go, go, go” with the pastor  sounding more like a cheerleader imploring his team on to victory. And in many ways, that’s a silly yet in other ways appropriate example; for when being a Christian is simply going and telling others about Jesus, the goal of Christianity is basically about trying to build the biggest fan base and going to church is like going to a sporting event to root for your favorite team.

A couple weeks back, I went with a friend to a Rockies game. At the stadium, people were all decked out in Rockies attire, wearing hats and jerseys, waving flags and big foam fingers. And, being that the Rockies are pretty good this year, there was a large, engaged crowd. Doesn’t it seem like this is what Christianity has become? Like, “hey, we’ve got the best team, come root for Jesus.” And along with being a fan, we can get our Team Jesus memorabilia!  Shirts, hats, bumper-stickers, and so on! We can regularly gather together to cheer for our favorite team with the entertainment value equivalent to an actual sporting event. Being a fan of Jesus is essentially no different than being a fan of the Rockies. “Hey, our Team Jesus is off to a great start this year! You should come cheer him on with us. We’ve got the best fan experiences and the best entertainment—you can even get some free Team Jesus swag just for coming!”

I’m reminded of a book by author Kyle Idleman titled, Not a Fan.  He says, the Dictionary defines a fan as “an enthusiastic admirer.” Fans want to be close enough to Jesus to get all the benefits, but not so close that it requires sacrifice. Fans may be fine with repeating a prayer, attending church on the weekend, and slapping a Jesus fish on their bumpers, but is that really what Jesus wants? Was Jesus simply telling the disciples to go recruit more fans so we can have the biggest team? Is that all that being a follower of Jesus is about? Building a bigger fan base?

Here’s the thing. In our Bibles, we see the word, “go,” and it’s written in a way that it’s the most important thing. “Go, go, go” I heard many a times in Bible college—and you wonder where I get the idea that following Jesus is like rooting for your favorite team! A more accurate translation of this passage would be, “while you are on your way,” or “why you are doing what you’re always doing,” teach people what I have taught you. And what had Jesus taught? Those wonderful words from the Sermon on the Mount.

While we live our normal, day to day lives; buying groceries, going to the doctor, dropping the kids off at school, or whatever you do most days—while you do it—encourage the people around you to live like Jesus taught. Teach people to be a positive light in the midst of negativity, to help the needy, to love their enemies, and to avoid the things which ultimately harm them. Basically, while we live our lives like Jesus, we’re supposed to help others do the same. Being a Christian is less about wearing the jersey, rooting for the team, and attending all the home games—and more about encouraging people to care about those who are poor, reminding them to show love to people different from them, and to be a positive light in the midst of so much negativity. And in doing so, people will want become Christians themselves!

So to me, I’m far less concerned about numbers and crowd size than others. Don’t get me wrong, I want to see our church grow just like any church wants to grow, but numbers aren’t necessarily a sign of true commitments. The world of sports has become obsessed with numbers to the point that there is a statistic for nearly any action that happens on the field of play—yet still it seems impossible to quantify the true character and commitment of a player. In the same way, attending church doesn’t make one a Christian any more than being in a garage makes one a car. This isn’t about fandom, this is about following the life and teachings of Jesus and helping others do the same.

So, while you are on your way, while you are about your normal business, while you are doing what you already do, teach people to be a positive light in the midst of negativity, encourage them help the needy and love their enemies, and advise them to avoid the things which ultimately harm them. And, as you continue to model a different way of living, people will become attracted to your way of living and you can tell them, “I live this way because I follow Jesus, and I’m part of a group that gets together and supports one another in our journey together. Why don’t you join us—I bet you’d like it.” It’s not about adding more fans, it’s about teaching others to become committed followers of Jesus through doing what we already do. While we are on our way, doing what we already do, let’s live like Jesus and help others do the same.

 

[1] Volschenk, Gert. “Review article: The mountain motif in the plot of Matthew” HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies [Online], Volume 66 Number 1 (3 September 2010)

[2] L. Mark Davis, “Galilean Rendezvous,” http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/

Jesus and Mental Illness

John 14:15-21

In churches like ours across America today, many are lifting up mental health in their communities by participating in what’s known as Mental Health Sunday in our affiliation of churches. Highlighted on the third Sunday in May, Mental Health Sunday is a way for churches to begin or to continue to provide education and support to its people around mental health challenges.

Mental illness is a medical condition that disrupts a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others and daily functioning.  Just as diabetes is a disorder of the pancreas, mental illnesses are disorders of the brain.  These illnesses are medical conditions that result in a diminished capacity for coping with the ordinary demands of life when left untreated. Anyone can have a mental illness.  One in four adults experiences a mental health disorder in a given year.  One in 17 lives with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, major depression, anxiety disorder or bipolar disorder.  About one in 10 children live with a serious mental or emotional disorder. Most mental illnesses are treatable.  Most people diagnosed with a serious mental illness can experience relief from their symptoms by actively participating in an individual treatment plan, which may include medication, psychosocial treatments, and other support services.

Mental illness can disrupt a person’s ability to work, care for himself/herself, and carry on relationships.  It affects every aspect of life. However, because mental illness may not be immediately visible to others, the person can be negatively judged as being weak, lazy or uncooperative.   This lack of understanding can lead to the stigma of people with mental illness.  Friends and family members feel the impact of mental illness experienced by their loved one.  Those feelings can be varied, and family members, friends and caregivers need to be supported in the midst of their experiences.  Some might feel protective of their loved one.  Others may feel embarrassed by the social stigma associated with mental health challenges.  Still others may feel angry.  All may feel helpless to provide support and encouragement.  This range of feelings is common, and friends and family members may feel all of these at different points and should be encouraged to seek professional counseling as needed.

People who live and struggle with mental illness need community support and continuity of care to move towards recovery.[1] Yet, churches have consistently done a BAD job at this. Some commonly held beliefs are that mental illnesses are a result of personal weakness, lack of faith, poor upbringing, or simply the result of sinfulness. These misperceptions distract from the fact that mental illnesses are brain disorders and require medical treatment[2] and if anything, discourage people from getting the treatment they need from medical professionals. Yet these misconceptions continue to persist.

Recently I was listening to a message from a local pastor talking about “defeating depression.” The pastor listed four ways to get depressed. Wear yourself out, shut people out, focus on the negative, and forget about God. While these might make for good bullet points in a sermon, they are both inappropriate and irresponsible to proclaim to any group of people among which there are likely several who are actually suffering from depression and mental illness. Depression is not discouragement; depression is not about being defeated. To equate depression with feeling bummed out or sad diminishes the real and serious suffering of a person who is in need of more than just a pep talk.

People who are suffering from depression have difficulty sleeping or find themselves sleepy and sleep too much. People suffering from depression have trouble being social and going out with friends even though they know they should. People suffering from depression find themselves suffering from overwhelming and uncontrollable negative thoughts. And yes, people suffering from depression struggle with their faith and relationship with God. Being worn out, shutting people out, focusing on the negative, and forgetting about God are not causes of depression—they are symptoms of depression—and suggesting that these are causes reinforces the false and dangerous misconception that depression is a result of personal failings only pushes a person struggling with depression into a deeper hole and discourages them from getting the treatment they truly need. For a church or Christian leader to suggest that mental illness is a result of sin or some character flaw completely misses the message of Jesus.

In John chapter 14, Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” What then are the commandments of Jesus? I’m reminded of what Jesus said just a few verses prior in chapter 13.  “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” To love one another is the ethical imperative, to obey Jesus is to love. One commentator says that if the command is to love God, and if God is love, then to love God means loving all and leaving no one out. [3] Telling people they are the cause of their own mental illness is not loving. Discouraging people from getting professional help is not loving. Treating people as if they are bad or sinful because they are depressed is not loving. Such thinking leaves people out. This isn’t what Jesus intended.

Jesus showed us the way to embrace those who are marginalized by society and advocate with and for them. Think about the people with whom Jesus spent time; prostitutes, lepers, tax collectors, people all on the outskirts of mainstream society, people considered sinful and bad. Yet Jesus loved them and included them, and in so doing, Jesus also showed us that every person has value and worth and deserves love, dignity and respect. Think about the people in the Bible who were said to be possessed by an evil spirit, people today we might say were suffering from a mental illness. Jesus looked upon them with care and concern, seeking to bring them healing and wholeness. Jesus did not blame them for their suffering, he did not shame them, he did not suggest what they could have done differently—Jesus simply healed them and showed them love. This is what we must also do.

It’s very likely that we all have someone in our life who is suffering from mental illness. Perhaps it’s someone grieving the death of their loved one, someone who has been diagnosed with a serious mental illness, or someone affected by the experience of their family member. Our commandment as followers of Jesus is through our love and inclusion of one another and especially these struggling to reduce stigma and promote the inclusion of people with mental illnesses and their families.

I also want to say to those among us who are personally struggling with mental illness or depression that you are not alone and that you are loved. God is with you, and we are with you. In this same passage in John, Jesus comforts his disciples by telling them that once he left, they would be given a Comforter, a Counselor, an Advocate—what we now call the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God. You are not left orphaned, you are not alone Jesus said. Though the presence of the Holy Spirit, God is with us, comforting us, fighting for us, loving us. When our depression or mental illness tells us we are all alone, God is there to remind us we are never alone. When our depression or mental illness tells us we are worthless or no good, God is there to remind us what we are precious in God’s sight. And when our depression or mental illness tells us we are sinful or bad, God is there to tell us God loves us and thinks highly of us. When the evil spirits of mental illness attack our body and mind, God is there to defend us, support us, and comfort us.

Finally, I also want to say, not only are you not alone if you are personally struggling with mental illness or depression because God is with us, but I also want to say that you are not alone because mental illness is something I have struggled with through the years. And if I, as a pastor, as someone who has been considered worthy of pastoral leadership by two different denominations, as someone who has eight years of ministry training in higher education can struggle with mental illness, mental illness is not a sign of sin or some other personal failing.

I am not a trained counselor or psychologist, but if you or anyone you know ever need someone to talk to about your own or someone else’s struggle with mental illness, I would be glad to sit and talk with you and help you or your loved one find the care they need. Because, I believe truly, with all my heart, that God loves us deeply, more than we can ever imagine, and the best way we can show our love for God is to love one another equally and unconditionally.

 

[1] “Introduction to Mental Health Congregational Toolkit,” UCC Mental Health Network, <http://mhn-ucc.blogspot.com/p/ucc-mental-health-network_2919.html>

[2] UCC Mental Health Network, <http://moredomainsforless.com/wideningthewelcome/MHNbrochure.pdf>

[3] Larry D. Bouchard, “John 14:15-21: Theological Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word, ed. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Year A Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 494.

God never stops building

Years ago, I was a student at Baptist Bible College, a small college in Springfield, MO. For those not familiar, Springfield is a small city in the southwest portion of Missouri on the Ozark Plateau; a lush, green part of the country with gentle rolling hills. Living in Colorado, after each school break ended, I would begin the 770 mile car trip which took me across eastern Colorado, the entire state of Kansas on Interstate 70, and then due south toward Springfield eventually ending up on Highway 13 for the last leg of the journey. The trip took about 11-12 hours, depending on how fast I drove. And driving across Kansas made it feel all the more long!

With apologies to the folks in here from Kansas, I know there are some sight-seeing spots along the way, such as the High Plains Museum in Goodland, the Castle Rock in Quinter, and the Historic Fort Hays in Hays but they were never enough to distract me from my ultimate destination. Not even Russell, where my grandfather was born or the Garden of Eden in Lucas could get me to stop. It was get through the state as quickly as possible! By the time I crossed the Kansas River and got into Missouri, I was weary eyed and struggling to make it the last couple hundred miles or so to Springfield. As drove those last miles, I watched the day turn to evening and the sun slowly set behind the dark green forests. Driving through the country past little towns, I’d see things that always caught my eye, each and every trip.

For instance, somewhere standing above the trees I’d always see a smokestack with a flame of fire burning at the top. I always wondered what it was connected to and what it was doing there. Another sight was the Osceola Cheese factory. I love cheese, but after 11 hours on the road, I never wanted to stop to try theirs. Finally, there was the Highway 13 Church of Christ, or more specifically, the building where the Highway 13 Church of Christ met. There was a sign out front of the building that said, “Church of Christ meets here.” Yeah, it confused me too—that’s why I remember it to this day. Apparently, in the Churches of Christ tradition—and yes, there is a difference between the Church of Christ and the United Church of Christ—there is a common practice of putting on the sign in front of the building that the (such and such) “Church of Christ meets here” in a distinct attempt to distinguish the building from the actual church.

Now perhaps that confuses you even more than hearing there’s a difference between the Church of Christ and the United Church of Christ! For, when most people talk about going to church, what they mean is that they will be going inside some kind of edifice or building.  The word “church” actually has Scottish roots,[1] and came from a saying meaning “house of the Lord” or “God’s house,” referring to an actual building. One of our sister churches down in Denver is actually called, the Kirk of Bonnie Brae, founded in 1947 in the Bonnie Brae neighborhood of Denver. Bonnie Brae is Scottish for “beautiful hill,” therefore it is literally, the “church of the beautiful hill.”

Adding to the confusion is the fact that in the New Testament, when we read the word “church,” the true definition of the word is something different. When biblical writers wrote about the “church,” they weren’t talking about an edifice or building or structure—they were talking about a group of people assembled together to worship Jesus.  The word is ekklesia, meaning “an assembly of Christians gathered for worship in a religious meeting.”[2] So if I may add to your confusion, if we wanted to be truly accurate, we might say that this structure we meet in is the church building, but we the people gathered together are the true Henderson Community Church; meaning, this building could be no more, and as long as there are some of us gathering together to worship God, the Henderson Community Church would still exist.

I talked about cornerstones with the children already. A cornerstone was literally and symbolically important in ancient times. For practical purposes, the cornerstone was the stone set at the corner of two intersecting walls, prepared and chosen for its exact 90˚ angle, and the basis for the construction of the whole building. Choosing the right corner was basic not only to the aesthetics of the building but also to its stability and longevity.[3] The laying of the cornerstone was also important and symbolic, much as today there is great fan-fare around “breaking ground” for construction of a new building. In the section of scripture we read today from 1 Peter, we are told that we are “like living stones, being built into a spiritual house…through Jesus…a chosen and precious cornerstone.”

The Biblical writer, using the metaphor of construction, was trying to make a point. The people were being gathered together and built up into a spiritual entity with Jesus as their foundation or cornerstone. The author was trying to distinguish the actually wood and stone structure from the people gathered together. In other words, the church wasn’t the building, it was the people—and we, you and I, we are the church, we are Henderson Community Church, not this building in which we meet. Just as this church continued to exist when the first building was torn down and this building constructed, this church will continue to exist long after this current building, so long as there are people like you and me gathering together to worship. In short, we don’t need the building to be a church, we just need one another.
We are then “Living Stones,” human building blocks which God is trying to fashion into something great, greater even then what Jesus did when he was alive. That’s after all what Jesus said in John 14; that “the one who believes in me will also do greater works than these.” We are like human Legos that God is trying to put together into something great. I loved to play with Legos when I was a kid. I had all my various Legos in a box that I would dump onto the floor and start constructing. Though all the pieces were intermingled, I’d always start with the same one—this flat green square. About 6 inches by 6 inches, it was the “cornerstone” if you will, everything I set was in reference to this piece, it was the first step in construction of my creation. Now, if you know anything about Legos, you know that due to their interlocking peg design, they are meant to stack one on top of another. If I’d have tried to use something else for the foundation or cornerstone, it wouldn’t have worked. Say if I started trying to build walls on a pillow, or a linoleum floor, or wooden table—it might have held—but not as long or as strong. Just as in building Legos, we’ve got to have a good foundation. And here, as a gathered group of people here to worship, our foundation has got to be Jesus. Everything we do, everything we’re about, must be about following Jesus and helping others do the same.

There is a difference between humans and Lego building blocks! I’d say it’s quite apparent. Legos are little plastic lifeless blocks whereas human beings are living, breathing, thinking entities. If I want to stack on Lego block on top of another, I simply grab it and put it in its place. I don’t have to worry about it fighting back, resisting, or running away—I think that only happens in the cartoon Lego movies. Human beings are different. We can think and act for ourselves and God doesn’t simply pick us up and put us where we should be. We must allow ourselves to be built into the thing God wants us to be. We, as Henderson Community Church, have to allow God to construct us into the church God wants us to be. We are living stones, living Lego blocks which God wants to join together to create something great. Because truthfully, God is never done building. Let me say that again. God is never done building. Maybe one more time. God is never done building.  I think the biggest problems with churches today, and I mean the assembled group of people, not the structures they meet in, is that churches act like God is done building. What they were constructed into by God 20-30-50- even 100 years ago was something great, but God wants to do something greater. God is never done building, remember that. God is like the kid who is never satisfied with his Lego creation. He’s always knocking it down, tearing it apart, trying to make something bigger and better.

via brickmodeldesign.com

Honestly, how many kids do you see who have their Lego creations proudly on display in their room? I know I certainly didn’t! Mine would last maybe a day. It’s adults who have Lego creations on display. Did you know you can go online and buy a Lego creation of your favorite sports stadium, say Coors Field or the old Mile High? I’d love to buy one of Yankee Stadium to proudly display in my office. Yet what would the 10-year old Loren do? He’d take it down, tear it apart, and try to build something better. This is what God tries to do. And I emphasize the word “try.” God comes to us and says, “hey, I’ve got these new pieces that I want to add to the puzzle to create something even better. Yes, it may require taking some things down and pulling some pieces apart, but it’s going to be bigger, better, and incorporate more pieces.” What do we do? We say, no thanks God, I’m happy with one I got. I’d rather look at that little display on the shelf than see what better creation you could make out of it. It’s a shame really.

We are living stones, living Lego blocks if you will, that God is trying to create into something new. It’s our choice whether we let ourselves be built into the new creation God is trying to make. It’s our choice whether we let Jesus be our foundation or cornerstone. My prayer is that we would set ourselves on the foundation of Jesus—that we would base everything we do on following Jesus and helping others to follow him too—and that we would allow ourselves as living stones to be created into something new and beautiful for God. We, you and me, we are the church, not this building, not this edifice, are Henderson Community Church.

 

[1] http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?allowed_in_frame=0&search=ekklesia

[2] http://www.biblestudytools.com/lexicons/greek/nas/ekklesia.html

[3] Joel B. Green, “1 Peter 2:2-10: Exegetical Perspective,” 463.

Jesus & Politics

This past Thursday, our President signed an Executive Order giving churches broader flexibility in regard to speaking out about political candidates. Called “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty,” the order asks the Internal Revenue Service to “exercise maximum enforcement discretion” over the regulation known as the Johnson Amendment, which applies to churches and non-profits, restricting them from speaking out on behalf of specific political candidates, something previously prohibited by the IRS; though such political speech was prohibited, it was rarely, if ever, enforced. In only one instance has a church lost its tax exempt status due to overt campaigning against a political candidate. As for the President’s actions Thursday, it appears as if the order was largely ceremonial, offering no real substantive change from the current laws of the land.[1]

Truthfully, this is a relief to me, and to most pastors. Nearly 90% of Evangelical leaders don’t think pastors should endorse from the pulpit, according to a recent survey.[2] The thought of actively promoting or denigrating specific candidates for political office just doesn’t feel right. Already during campaign season we are endlessly bombarded by political advertising on television, online, in our mailboxes, or anywhere else a candidate can advertise. The thought of churches becoming clearinghouses for political contributions in favor of specific candidates just seems antithetical to what we’re supposed to be about. Our country is politicized enough as it is, we don’t need churches to become political entities. Imagine if I started preaching out in favor of specific Republican candidates—Democrats and Independents would feel unwanted and unwelcome. So much for extending God’s love and welcome to all people!

I’ve been at churches on both sides of the ideological spectrum. I’ve been at one church where a church leader preached a message about the importance of electing the right candidate so that candidate could elect conservative Supreme Court Justices. I’ve been at another church where during joys and concerns, a congregant expressed as a praise that a local sporting goods store would no longer be stocking a certain type of rifle, which elicited a mild applause from the congregation.  In both instances, I personally felt a bit uncomfortable as I wondered about the people in the church who might feel differently and whether they would feel unwelcome.  Christianity isn’t just for Republicans, it isn’t only for Democrats, it’s for all people, no matter one’s political persuasion, and one of the best things about our church and affiliation with the United Church of Christ is that we are a church where we can be united, not divided, by our faith.

Yet while I’m relieved our church won’t have to be speaking out for or against political candidates any time soon, church shouldn’t be a place that is devoid of politics altogether. The Bible has much to say about how we treat one another and how we live together in community, both of which are at the foundation of our system of governance in the United States. Throughout the Old Testament and New, there are countless scriptures which speak to the importance of being a good neighbor, caring for the poor and needy, taking care of the sick, protecting the young and vulnerable among us, and principles of good leadership. The Bible is a guide to living our entire lives, including how we live our political lives. So, while churches cannot specifically encourage or discourage its congregants to vote for specific candidates, churches can and should encourage its people to consider how they can live out the values of their faith in all areas of their life, including the voting booth.

In our reading from John today, Jesus talks about being the gate that protects the sheep, and later in the chapter, tells that he is also the “Good Shepherd.”  This speech we read from Jesus is a portion of a long argument Jesus is having with the religious leaders of Jerusalem.  Can you remember the story of Jesus healing the blind man after sticking mud on his eyes? Those religious leaders were upset with the way Jesus was doing things and Jesus accused them of being spiritually blind. Even worse, here in chapter 10, Jesus questions their leadership qualifications, implying that they were illegitimate and unrecognized, nothing more than thieves and robbers looking to harm the people! While there was no such thing as the Johnson Amendment or the IRS back in the time of Jesus, there was the Roman government who authorized the religious rulers, and the price Jesus paid for speaking out against these political candidates wasn’t just threats or fines, it was his very life.

Yet while Jesus speaks out strongly against the religious rulers, he was much kinder in his treatment of the “sheep,” or the commoners of the land. In our time, I’ve heard the word “sheep” used derisively as an insult against someone who is perceived to be a blind follower, someone who goes along with the status quo without questioning things. Jesus seemed far more respectful in his metaphor, he implies that the sheep are intelligent, aware, and brave—they won’t just follow anybody. In fact, Jesus said that understanding and appreciating the sheep was a good characteristic of a shepherd, and ultimately, of a leader. For, though we may not recognize it as such, in the time of Jesus a shepherd was a symbol for leadership.[3]

Jesus was making a bold statement regarding the qualities of these religious leaders. First, he implied that they are thieves and robbers who have come to power illegitimately. Then he said that thieves and robbers only come to steal and kill and destroy. These are powerful people to which Jesus is talking, and he’s telling them, and everyone listening, that these religious leaders are going to steal from them and take their resources. Jesus said that these religious leaders are going to kill or more accurately, to sacrifice the good of the people to help themselves. And Jesus said that ultimately, these religious leaders are going to destroy the people! Very strong words indeed. And truthfully, this is what was happening. The religious leaders had aligned themselves with the ruling Roman authorities so as to maintain their own standing—but in so doing had sold out the common people through higher taxes, oppressive policies, and unfair treatment, all the while enriching themselves.

He contrasts this style of leadership to the kind of guidance he is offering, whereby people find protection, sustenance, and ultimately, abundant life. He said “whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture…I have come that they may have life, and have it to the fullest.” Other Bibles translate this as “abundant life.” Whether we call it full life or abundant life, it sounds pretty wonderful. If you were to stop and think for a moment about a time in which you could describe your life as being “full” or “abundant,” I wonder what comes to mind? Perhaps it’s a memory of a gathering with family and friends for a birthday or celebration. Maybe it’s a time you were able to do something whether through your job or through volunteering where you were able to make a lasting difference in someone’s life. It could be that just the presence of the person sitting next to you for all those years tells you that you’ve had a full and abundant life.  This is the kind of life Jesus offers, one in which we find meaning, community, and relationship[4]—and these are the same values we must seek to extend to others through our own individual actions and through the actions of our church.

Truthfully, we see the terrible leadership of the religious leaders in Jesus time on display in our own. And, here I believe, following the way of Jesus sometimes means refusing to support leaders which utilize their positions of power to enrich themselves and their family by taking resources from those who need it most. Just as in the time of Jesus, we should not sacrifice the poor and vulnerable among us so as to enrich a few. Ultimately, such selfish, self-centered actions of leadership will destroy a community or a nation, just as Jerusalem itself was ultimately destroyed. The way of Jesus means demanding of our leaders a more just and biblical approach in caring for the people of our communities.

And while following the way of Jesus means holding our leaders to a higher standard, it also means, I believe, working to bring to all people that abundant life of which Jesus spoke; meaningful work, supportive community, and nourishing relationships. Christians and their leaders should be about helping people find good jobs that pay enough for people to support their families, we should be about helping friends and neighbors come together and form true and lasting cooperation with one another, and we should be about helping people create and sustain deep and meaningful relationships by supporting couples, strengthening families, and caring for our seniors. This is the abundant life of which Jesus spoke!

Following the way of Jesus doesn’t automatically make one a Republican or a Democrat, but it should make us all care about politics, about how we treat one another in a society and the expectation we place on our leadership. We should hold leaders accountable to act in our best interest and to sacrifice of themselves to advance the common good, in order that we might live full and complete lives. No matter Amendments or Executive Orders, we as followers of Jesus should strive to live our lives in accordance with the ways he taught, and the examples we see throughout the scriptures. Jesus has come the each and every person might have life—and life in abundance! Let us be about sharing the abundance of Jesus with all people.

 

[1] Camila Demonoske, “On Religious Liberty, Trump’s Executive Order Doesn’t Match Rhetoric,” NPR.org <http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/05/04/526853555/in-name-of-religious-liberty-trump-targets-a-rarely-enforced-irs-provision> (accessed May 5, 2017).

[2] “Pastors Shouldn’t Endorse Politicians,” NAE.net <https://www.nae.net/pastors-shouldnt-endorse-politicians/> (accessed May 5, 2017).

[3] Donald Senior, “Exegetical Perspective: John 10:1-10” in Feasting on the Word, ed. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Year A Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 445.

[4] Molly T. Marshall, “Theological Perspective: John 10:1-10” in Feasting on the Word, ed. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Year A Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 446.

Connecting in Christ

All across America, churches are struggling with how to reach young people. Statistics tells us that more than ever, younger generations are abandoning Christianity and organized religion as a whole.  In response, many churches have sought to lure millennials back by focusing on style points: cooler bands, hipper worship, edgier programming, impressive technology. Yet while these aren’t inherently bad ideas and might in some cases be effective, they are not the key to drawing young people back to God in a lasting and meaningful way. Young people don’t simply want a better show.[1] They want community, they want connection, and they want authenticity.View More: http://amylorraynephotography.pass.us/henderson

Experts say that the first factor that will engage younger generations at church is as simple as it is integral: relationships.[2] Young people need to experience the life-changing love of God through other people.[3] And it’s not that young people just want to spend time with a bunch of people their own age. Another author says that having older fellow congregants matters because young Christians will be the first ones to admit that they’re looking for guides through adulthood.[4] They want to learn how to pray and read the Bible; to enjoy fellowship and be part of community.[5]

But it’s not just any older person, they tend to be looking for older adults that are living their intentions. They want people who are sincere and authentic in their faith. Experts say that religion has survived through the years because it provides people with community, with friends—with support.[6] The key to advancing Christ’s church and our church here in Henderson isn’t through flashy lights or loud music, it’s by helping people make connections through personal relationships.

cropped-Henderson-0014-min1.jpg

Another interesting tidbit is that 67 percent of young people prefer a “classic” church over a “trendy” one, and 77 percent would choose a “sanctuary” over an “auditorium.”[7] While certainly the trend is to build churches that look more like a shopping center than a place of worship and to avoid any overtly religious wording, research is actually telling us young people appreciate the religious practices others are so apt to abandon. One author says:

What finally brought me back, after years of running away, wasn’t lattes or skinny jeans; it was the sacraments. Baptism, confession, Communion, preaching the Word, anointing the sick — you know, those strange rituals and traditions Christians have been practicing for the past 2,000 years. The sacraments are what make the church relevant, no matter the culture or era. They don’t need to be repackaged or rebranded; they just need to be practiced, offered and explained in the context of a loving, authentic and inclusive community.[8]

Community, connection, and authenticity; three simple yet profound things that can’t be imitated. Three things also we see in our reading from Luke today.

Walking on View More: http://amylorraynephotography.pass.us/hendersonthe road to Emmaus, after his resurrection, Jesus encounters some people talking about the events that had recently taken place in Jerusalem. Jesus approached, and unrecognized to them, asked them what they were discussing. They told him about his own crucifixion and death, and how the women had found his tomb empty. Hearing this, Jesus thought it was silly they didn’t understand, so he explained why everything had happened. When they neared the village, they invited Jesus to stay with them because it was getting late, so Jesus did. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they realized it was Jesus.  Immediately Jesus vanished from their sight. When they realized what had happened, they ran to tell others about meeting Jesus on the road and how he had been revealed to them in the breading of bread.

In their encounter with Jesus, these people from Emmaus found community; “stay with us” they said. In their encounter with Jesus, they found connection; “were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us,” they said. And in their encounter with Jesus, they found authenticity; Jesus sat with them at the table, “took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.” In sharing a communal meal, these people experienced the risen Christ. We don’t just practice communion because it’s tradition, we don’t just do it out of habit, we do it because we believe in taking bread and sharing it with one another we experience Jesus again ourselves.

Truthfully, young people are looking for what we have; a community of people with which to engage, folks of different ages and experiences with which to connect, and authentic faith practices in which to participate.  We each know this deep down because we each have experienced it, just as those from Emmaus did with Jesus long ago.

 

[1] Rachel Held Evans, “Want millennials back in the pews? Stop trying to make church ‘cool.’” WashingtonPost.com < https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/jesus-doesnt-tweet/2015/04/30/fb07ef1a-ed01-11e4-8666-a1d756d0218e_story.html?utm_term=.0f6160d80670> (accessed April 28, 2017).

[2] “5 Reasons Millennials Stay Connected to Church,” Barna.com

<https://www.barna.com/research/5-reasons-millennials-stay-connected-to-church/> (accessed April 28, 2017).

[3] Nancy Flory, “How Does the Church Reach Millennials?” Stream.org <https://stream.org/how-does-the-church-reach-millennials-hint-its-not-flashing-lights-and-rock-band-worship/> (accessed April 28, 2017).

[4] “The Unexpected Things Millennials Want in Church,” RelevantMagazine.com <http://archives.relevantmagazine.com/god/church/unexpected-things-millennials-want-church> (accessed April 28, 2017).

[5] Diana Butler Bass, Christianity for the Rest of Us (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), 64.

[6] Tom Gjelten, “Why Religion Is More Durable Than We Thought In Modern Society,” NPR.org < http://www.npr.org/2017/04/28/525895389/why-religion-is-more-durable-than-we-thought-in-modern-society?utm_source=facebook.com&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=npr&utm_term=nprnews&utm_content=20170428> (accessed April 28, 2017).

[7] Rachel Held Evans, “Want millennials back in the pews? Stop trying to make church ‘cool.’” WashingtonPost.com < https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/jesus-doesnt-tweet/2015/04/30/fb07ef1a-ed01-11e4-8666-a1d756d0218e_story.html?utm_term=.0f6160d80670> (accessed April 28, 2017).

[8] Rachel Held Evans, “Want millennials back in the pews? Stop trying to make church ‘cool.’” WashingtonPost.com < https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/jesus-doesnt-tweet/2015/04/30/fb07ef1a-ed01-11e4-8666-a1d756d0218e_story.html?utm_term=.0f6160d80670> (accessed April 28, 2017).

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