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Abiding with Jesus and Dr. King

blogpic MartinLutherKingJrA Sermon Preached for the 2nd Sunday After the Epiphany and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday based on John 1:29-42

“What are you looking for?” Jesus’ ministry in the Gospel of John begins with a question—not an exorcism as in Mark, not a sermon as in Matthew, not in the Temple quoting Isaiah, as in Luke. Today we get a question that Jesus asks two of John’s disciples who have heard that Jesus is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. “What are you looking for? Perhaps John wants us to be clear about our deepest needs before we encounter the Jesus he proclaims. 

Our culture will try to tell us that we need more stuff, a bigger house, more status at work, certainly more likes on Facebook, and more separation from those who are different from us. But Jesus confronts us with the deeper questions that get us beyond the superficialities of a consumer culture and an image of God as a cosmic Santa Claus and asks us, “what motivates you—not on the surface, but deep down in the core of your being?” If Jesus sat down next to you and asked you, as his disciple, “What are you looking for? What do you need?” What would you say?

Perhaps for some of us, it’s a larger sense of meaning, a bigger purpose or a deeper sense of being loved. Perhaps for others, it is strength sufficient for a difficult situation, healing from pain, comfort in our grief, relief in our loneliness, or guidance in a decision.

The two disciples, however, answer Jesus’ question with another question! “Where are you staying?” It sounds like they’re asking for Jesus’ hotel, or guest house.

But for John, their question is not just about directions and lodging. The disciples are really asking, “Where are you abiding? Where will you remain, where will you endure, where will you continue to be?” The Greek word that can be translated all of these ways (meno), is used no less than 44 times in the Gospel in the John. It’s a central theme that John introduces right away. Where can we dwell with you? How can we be with you, to receive what you have to offer? Where can we abide in the very presence of God? To the question, “what are you looking for?” the disciples answer, “to dwell with God by abiding with you, Jesus.”

And isn’t that what we all want? To dwell in God, to live in God through Jesus’ presence, in every breath, in every cell of our body, in our words, in our action in our hopes and in our dreams? So Jesus said to them, “Come and See. Come and be with me. Come and abide with me.” For to abide with Jesus is to belong God. To abide with Jesus is to be saved. To abide with Jesus is to be forgiven by the Lamb of God. To abide with Jesus is to experience a real and committed relationship that lasts for eternity.

When we abide in Jesus, we receive the meaning and purpose we desire. We can hear the guidance we need, receive the strength we seek, the comfort that we crave, and the love that nourishes our soul. For Jesus abides with God and God abides with him. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth--to bring us into that same intimate relationship Jesus shares with God. For John, Jesus came to remove all barriers from us having a deep, abiding relationship with God.

And like any relationship the more time we spend in that relationship, the deeper it becomes, the more intimate the conversation, the more revealing the love, the deeper the bond. In my devotional reading this week, I read this passage:"When you go to your place of prayer, don’t try to think too much or manufacture feelings or sensations. Don’t worry about what words you should say or what posture you should take. It’s not about you or what you do. Simply allow Love to look at you—and trust what God sees! God just keeps looking at you and loving you center to center." This is what John calls abiding in Jesus.

But our faith and relationship with Jesus doesn’t end there, with our own personal relationship with God in Christ—it’s where it begins. Abiding with Jesus is a relationship that also gets lived out in the world. For to abide in Jesus is to abide with all beings that God has created. John’s Gospel begins with these words, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”

That means everyone belongs, every person, every nation, every ethnic group. We all belong to God, even our enemies, which is why Jesus told us to love them. In First John, it says, “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them… Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars.”

Tomorrow we celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who spent his life and ministry holding us accountable to this truth, that everyone belongs. In a country founded on Christian principles, we have treated some of our citizens as if they don’t belong—as if they don’t belong to God and don’t belong to us, as fellow human beings, and sisters and brothers in Christ.

In his Letter from Birmingham Jail and The Struggle that Changed a Nation, King wrote: “In a real sense all life is inter-related. All [humanity is] caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be...This is the inter-related structure of reality.” Or we could say this is the inter-related structure of being created by the same God, abiding in relationship with God through the same Jesus Christ.

Today, Jesus also asks those who are oppressed, or disenfranchised the same question he asks us, “What are you looking for?” We could ask refugees and immigrants, people in the Black Lives Matter movement, poor rural whites and everyone who feels they don’t belong, “what are you seeking?” Like us, they are seeking meaning and purpose, love and comfort, strength and guidance; and they hope for what we assume: to be treated with justice and fairness by our institutions, to have equal opportunity, to belong as a full citizen. In an environment where divisions between us are exploited and used as the basis for hateful rhetoric and actions, how much more are we called by God to embody in our daily life, the unity we share with all people who have been created by the Word in the beginning, and are one with us abiding in Christ.

When we ground our identity, our well-being, our very life, in abiding with God in Christ Jesus, we do not need to over-identify with our own cultural group or class to feel safe and valued. On the contrary, we live from the security of our relationship with God and follow Jesus in embracing all people, and in advocating for policies that bring freedom and inclusion for all of God’s children.

As ones who abide with Christ, we attend to our individual relationship with God (the visual with this is that my right arm points straight up) and we live out this unity in just, open and equal relationships with all people whom God created (and my left arm moves horizontally across my right arm to form a cross). + This is the life Christ is looking for in us.

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God's Answer

blogpic.JesusBaptismA sermon preached on Sunday, January 8, 2017 for the Baptism of our Lord; Matthew 3:13-17, Isaiah 42:1-9, Acts 10-34-43

"What is the question, that if you had the answer, it would set you free?" Organizational guru, Peter Block asks this question in the book, The Answer to How is Yes. Block writes,

It’s the mother of all of questions—it’s a question that can only be meditated upon. Each time you answer it, you begin a different conversation… It is like a laser beam into what matters. It brings the question of our freedom front and center. 

"What is the question, that if you had the answer, it would set you free?" I suppose the question and the answer depend on what we need to be freed from. It might be different for each of us. What freedom would change your life? From what do you need to be freed so that you might more completely, fulfill the purpose God has for your life? Is it anxiety about the future or worry about those you love? Fear of failing or self-laothing? Fear of getting older, becoming incapacitated, or dying? Being unloved or alone? Controlling everyone and everything around you so that you can feel ok?

For me right now, I need to be freed from anxiety about the future. Dan and I are both working as Interim Pastors; he is at 2 churches part-time and I’m at a church in Florissant. All 3 of our contracts end on August 31st of this year, the same month our youngest child goes off to college. What’s next? We have no idea, but living in anxiety about it does not add to the quality of our life, the productivity of our days, or our faithfulness to the work we have right now. Yet, the question looms large.

I wonder if this mother of all questions is also in the background at Jesus’ Baptism in our Gospel reading today. What is the question, if Jesus had the answer, it would set him free--free to fulfill his mission from God to save us, to bring in God’s kingdom, and to fulfill all righteousness? What does Jesus need to begin his mission and ministry?

Jesus no doubt understood his mission in light of the message of the prophets. Our Isaiah passage identifies the servant of the Lord as one who will "faithfully bring forth justice…God has sent him to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness." Jesus’ mission includes reaching out to the poor and oppressed, healing those who are outcast, binding up the brokenhearted, and loving those who are rejected by society. Jesus’ mission will embody the values Peter preaches in Acts—that God shows no partiality regarding nation, culture, ethnicity or background but comes to save all people.

And if all of that weren’t difficult enough, there will be plenty of obstacles. People from his own home town will deride his authority. The religious leaders will be threatened by his teaching and his followers. Even the disciples will misunderstand the mission and try to derail Jesus from blessing children, feeding hungry people, spending time in prayer, and being faithful to his mission, even to death on a cross. His closest friends will compete for the top spots at his right and left, they will deny, abandon, and betray him.

So what is the question, that if Jesus had the answer, it would set him free to fulfill this purpose, to be ALL-IN, to completely commit himself to God’s mission for him in the world? Maybe the question is something like, Who am I? Am I in this alone? Can I really take this on? Is this really what God wants me to do? Whatever the question was, God’s voice boomed from the heaven after his baptism, giving Jesus the answer he needed to set him free: "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased." Or a better translation would be, “This is my Son the beloved, I have chosen him.”

Jesus, who is the Gospel for us, had the Gospel preached to him by God at the beginning of his ministry! You are my child. I love you. I have chosen you. I am always with you. God announces Jesus’ identity, affirms that he is precious in God’s sight and loved dearly, and is chosen for this mission in the world. There is no doubt about God’s presence with him as the Spirit of God alights upon him in the form of a dove. Jesus doesn’t have to earn God’s love by fulfilling the mission, Jesus receives God’s grace at the beginning in order to carry out the mission. It’s the answer to the question that sets him free.

It’s a pretty good answer! You are my child. I love you. I have chosen you. I am always with you. It’s an answer that enabled Jesus to remain faithful to God’s mission of healing, teaching, touching and transforming. It’s an answer that kept him strong despite all obstacles, even when they put him to death by hanging him on a tree. It’s an answer that "raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear to those who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead," as Acts says. Jesus was set free to fulfill his mission because he didn’t have to worry about WHO he was or WHOSE he was or if he was loved or if he mattered. The answer was always YES, so he was freed to say, “yes” to God—yes to God in the faces of the hungry and outcast, yes to God in tax collectors and sinners, yes to God in the Samaritan woman at the well, yes to God in healing those with leprosy, demons and blindness, yes to God in all who needed the same Gospel preached to them that God gave to Jesus: You are my child. I love you. I have chosen you. I am always with you.

It’s a pretty amazing answer. It’s an answer that will work for my question about our unknown future, and for your question, whatever that might be. It’s an answer that sets us free, no matter what our question is. God says, You are my child. I love you. I have chosen you. I am always with you.” It’s an answer that sets us free to fulfill our purpose as God’s people in our daily life. We don’t have to worry about WHO we are or WHOSE we are or if we are loved or if we matter, or if God has a purpose for us. The answer is always YES! So we are freed to say, "yes" to God in sharing our gifts and resources so others hear the Gospel of grace. Even in the midst of obstacles and an unknown future, we can trust in God’s presence and power for us everyday.

No matter our questions, through Jesus Christ, God sets us free to love and serve in the mission of the Gospel. Hold fast to God’s promise to Jesus and to us: You are my child. I love you. I have chosen you. I am always with you. It’s the answer that always sets us free to say YES to God.

Image: Baptism of Jesus by He Qi http://www.heqiart.com/

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A Personal God

blogpic.GodsgraceispersonalI was told a wonderful story by Dave, an attendee of a funeral at church the week before Christmas. We had just heard the same passage from John 14 that was read at his own mother’s funeral. At her service when Dave heard the verse, “in my Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” his heart fluttered and he wondered why. Later that week, they had cleaned out his mother’s belongings and she had a box with a Bible verse for each day. “My wife and I were miserable,” Dave said. “We were drunk all the time and our life was terrible. I asked her to open the box and read one of the cards; guess which one it was? ‘In my Father’s house are many mansions!’ I thought maybe God was trying to tell me something. I started listening to sermon tapes in the car, and I realized God wanted to have a relationship with me. So, I got sober and it changed my life.”

How is God personally communicating and reaching out to you? In the flurry of making (or avoiding) New Year’s resolutions, I wonder how our life would change if we simply paid attention to how God is showing up in our daily life—a resolution to slow down and ponder rather than to try harder to whip ourselves into shape. Jesuit priest, Fr. James Martin said God met him while he was watching PBS after terrible day. In an interview with Krista Tippett he said, “And that’s where God met me. Because that’s where I was.” In his novel, The Abbey, Fr. Martin writes, “In one person God might work through a close relationship, in another through a book, in another through prayer, in others through music, nature, dance, children, coworkers or art.”

God meets us personally, where we are. My prayer for 2017 is that like Dave and Fr. Martin, I will have the eyes to notice and the heart open to being changed.

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The God We Didn't Want: A Christmas Message

blogpic.nativityvangoghA Meditation for Christmas Eve, 2016

Perhaps you remember the opening words to the Superman TV show:
     Faster than a speeding bullet.
     More powerful than a locomotive.
     Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.
     Look! Up in the sky!
     It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s Superman!

Isn’t this the kind of God we want? A super-hero—someone to stop bad things from happening to good people. We would like God to stop the pain and evil of this world with his mighty hand and his outstretched arm, like Superman who is faster than a speeding bullet, and more powerful than a locomotive. We would settle for Spiderman, who catches thieves just like flies.

We look up in the sky this night and we don’t see superman, but instead, we see a star; a star that marks the arrival, not of a superhero God, but of a baby. There is no cape and no promise that bad things won’t happen to good people. If God does not come as a superhero to make sure that evil and difficulty stop right now, then what kind of God is this? What becomes of our faith when God is not the God we wanted? Christmas is a season when we must admit that God is not behaving the way we hoped.

I heard a story recently about another birth that also took place in difficult circumstances. Paula D’Arcy is a Christian author and inspirational speaker. She learned early on her young life that God was not a super-hero who would stop bad things from happening to her. At age 27, she was pregnant with her second daughter when a drunk driver struck and killed her husband and her first daughter who was 2 years old. She tells the story of being in the hospital  several months after this tragedy, to give birth and praying to God to please give her a natural birth, so she could experience life after so much death.

Although she wanted to trust God as the foundation of her life, in that moment, she wanted God to prove himself by granting this one desire. God had not been the superhero and wish-granter she wanted. After several hours of labor, it looked like her desire for a natural birth was not going to happen, and she was minutes from having a C-section. She prayed, what do you want from me, God? You already have everything-you have my husband, you have my daughter—what more do you want?

Paula heard God's response in her own heart. God said to her, “I want you to want me more than you want anything else. I want to transform your pain. I want you to give your whole self to me.”

Paula looked down at her hands and realized that she had been holding on to life as she wanted it and the grip of her desires had closed her off from God doing what she most needed, which was to transform her pain into healing and new life. Paula released her hands, and opened herself up to the God we do have—not a superhero, but one who has a deep and abiding relationship with us that gives us life and hope and strength when bad things do happen. She reached that moment that Mary did, and in her heart said, let it be with me according to your Word. That became a turning point in her spiritual journey as she welcomed the gift of new child and became an international force for good. 

Perhaps this is why, when God comes to dwell with us, God does not come faster that a speeding bullet and stronger than locomotive, but as an infant who needs to be loved, and held and cared for. God comes to have a relationship with us, and invites us to hold, and care and love and protect our relationship with God with the fierce devotion of Mary and Joseph or any of us holding a newborn child. God wants a relationship with us that is more important to us than anything else in our life.

The fifth verse of the hymn, In the Bleak Midwinter says it best,
     What can I give Him,
       Poor as I am?
     If I were a shepherd
       I would bring a lamb,
     If I were a wise man
       I would do my part,
     Yet what I can I give Him,
       Give my heart.

When we loosen the grip of our hands on life as we desire and plan it and begin to want our relationship with God more than we want anything else, we do receive the strength of a locomotive to handle the vicissitudes of this life, and our pain can be transformed into hope and new life as it was for Paula. So what then of the evil in the world? How will God bring healing and salvation to the world? In the 16th century, St. Theresa of Avila said it this way:

     Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

Tonight Jesus is born in our lives and hearts, inviting us to love him with all of our might, and to bear his love in the world. For through Jesus, WE are the ones through whom God’s power is made known.

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Quotation of the Week

The church does not have a mission in the world, God's mission has a church in the world.