9 Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.
How much do we believe this?
Whether it’s in our personal lives, our careers, or the life of the church, how much do we believe this? Do we really believe God is with us wherever we go? When we are first starting out in life, in the church, in our careers, we ARE bold. We ARE courageous! Because we feel we have all the time in the world. Because we don’t have much to lose. But the more comfortable we become, the more invested we are, the less likely we are to be so bold or to be as courageous. We play it safe. The thought of losing what we have starts to weigh on us. And we start to balance that with the risk of obtaining more. Is it worth it? Even though we might not be living the life we want, or have the job we hoped, even if our church is slowly growing smaller, still….is it worth risking what we DO have for only the promise of what MIGHT be? And slowly but surely, our resolve, our BOLDNESS fades away.
Jesus knew this would be a problem for us.
And so he told a story to help us see the need to be bold for Christ in every aspect of our lives. Among Biblical scholars it’s called the Parable of the Talents and basically, it’s about these three servants who are each given a bag of gold to take care of for their master while he was gone. When the master returns, the first guy says, “You gave me five bags of gold and now I come back to you with five bags more.” And the master says, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things.” Then the next guy comes up and says, “You gave me three bags of gold and I come back with three more.” And the master says again, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things.” And then the last guy comes up and doesn’t have anything to give except the one bag he started with. He confesses he was afraid of what might happen if he lost the one bag and the master is disappointed with him – not because of the money, because he didn’t need the money, but because the last servant wasted what was given to him out of fear and doubt. He would rather keep things the way they were instead of taking a chance on a better outcome. Which servant are you more like? Which servant does God want you to be?
I have heard the “Let’s be friends” speech more often than I can count.
If I was attracted to a girl and thought she had potential, I’d ask her out – only to hear those three words every guy (and every woman, too I imagine) dreads hearing. “Let’s be friends.” In high school, a buddy of mine, Pete, asked me about that one day. He said, “Why do you do it? Why do you ask out these girls when you don’t even know if they like you or not?” And I told him, “I don’t want to live my life with regret. I don’t want to wonder, ‘What if?’ because what if one of them said ‘yes?’” And you know, one did. Our life isn’t perfect (whose is?), but I can tell you, I have no regrets. And I feel blessed for the life I have. But back then, Pete shook his head and responded, “I have to give you a lot of credit. I don’t think I could do that. I’d never ask a girl out unless I knew she would say ‘yes.’” That really surprised me, because by all accounts Pete was a good-looking guy (or so my female friends told me). He was also nice, smart, and pretty well off. In high school, he drove red Porsche 944. Here was this guy with every reason to be confident but wouldn’t ask a girl out unless he knew she’d say yes. But a lot of us are like that, maybe not about dating, but about something. Why put ourselves through the possibility of rejection or failure? And the more we are comfortable with our lives the way they are, the less likely we are to do it; to be bold, to risk giving up what we have for the hope of something more. But think of the possibilities if we succeed! We could do things we’ve never done before. We could achieve goals we never thought possible. We could see our lives change, our careers change, our church change in ways only God could have seen.
My dad had a saying, “You’ve got to spend money to make money.”
As a kid, that didn’t make a lot of sense to me. If I wanted money, shouldn’t I save as much as possible? But my dad explained it like this, “If you want to do something right, you can’t afford to do it half-way. You’ve got to do it right the first time.” And he was right. I didn’t know it at the time because I was only like 10 years old, but what my dad was trying to tell me was also Biblical. Matthew 6:21 says, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Whatever we invest in with whatever we have – our time, our money, or our talents – is an indicator of what is truly important to us. And if we are going to invest in something, if we want something to succeed then we need to use whatever resources we have toward that goal, whether that’s our career, our family, or our relationship with God. To see a return, you’ve got to invest, and you’ve got to do it whole-heartedly. “You’ve got to spend money to make money.”
Do you sometimes hold back?
Do you have doubts? Is that because you are not quite sure if things will work out? Sometimes we hedge our bets because we’re not sure of the outcome. We hold stuff in reserve just in case. But God wants us to live lives of boldness! He wants us to go out into the world and love unconditionally. He wants us to be the kind of people who give abundantly. And he wants us to trust in him freely and without reservation. If you have a Bible or a Bible app on your phone, please go to 2 Corinthians 9:6-15. 2 Corinthians 9:6-15. Those things are not easy for us to do. Children do those things easily, but as we grow up, we get hurt by people who take advantage of our unconditional love, of our abundant giving, and our willingness to trust and we start to build walls between us and the person God wants us to be. I’ll never forget this. One time when Emma and I were in LA, we stopped by this place called Milk. They served the best cookies. And as we were walking from our car to the place, we saw a homeless woman who was asking for money. Something about this woman’s plight touched Emma and as we kept walking she reached into her pocket and found 35 cents. She said, “Daddy, I want to give this to her when we go back.” I couldn’t be more proud so as we returned with our cookies in hand, Emma gave this woman all she had. And do you know what that woman did? She turned to my little girl and said, “That’s all you have? Come on! I can’t even buy a cup of coffee with that!” I was livid! Not just for the disrespect she showed my nine-year old daughter, but because she took a little piece away of that unconditional love and trust Emma had in humanity. For what? A cup of coffee? So believe me, I understand how the world chips away at us, but God challenges us to give abundantly as he made clear in this passage.
6 Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. 7 Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 8 And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. 9 As it is written: “They have freely scattered their gifts to the poor; their righteousness endures forever.”
10 Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. 11 You will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.
12 This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of the Lord’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God. 13 Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, others will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else. 14 And in their prayers for you their hearts will go out to you, because of the surpassing grace God has given you. 15 Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!
Don’t hold back!
Live boldly the life God wants for you to live! In your marriage, in your relationship with your children, in your career, and in your faith. In all of these things, invest of yourself fully. Do not be afraid of what might happen. But love unconditionally, give generously, and trust in God fully and you will know a life filled with abundance in a way you cannot experience otherwise. Living this kind of life not only opens you up to God’s work in your life, but is also an example to those around you of the power of faith. I understand that by living this kind of life, you also open yourself up to failed expectations. I get you might be taken advantage of by someone who isn’t as scrupulous. I know that living the way God asks us to live makes us vulnerable. But it’s the only way to truly open yourself up to the life God has in store for you. 11 For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. 12 Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. This is the promise of God. Spend some time in prayer this week asking God to show you where you are being challenged. What areas in your life are you retreating to the safety and comfort of the familiar? And where could you live a life of boldness that would change your life? We all have those seeds of doubt inside of us, but push past them and live boldly! The promise of God is greater than the fear that comes from failure.
Sometimes it’s just too late.
By the time we decide to do what needs to be done, sometimes it’s just too late. I was watching a video about climate change while I was earning my MA in Poli Sci at Long Beach State, and this guy was explaining how reversing the damage we’ve been doing to the earth for all of these years is like a tanker trying to turn around in the ocean. It doesn’t happen immediately. Long after we decide to change course, we continue to drift in the direction we were headed until the ship finally begins to turn. In the same way, there’s still residual damage done to the Earth years after we decide to stop harming it and only then does the planet start to heal again. The problem is we don’t know exactly how long that will take and in the meantime, we could pass the threshold of no return. Meaning even if we change course now, it might not matter. We might have done so much damage to the Earth already that the cascade effect could destroy the atmosphere, cause continual warming, or erode the incredibly thin layer that’s protecting us from the damage of the sun. We keep thinking we have time to change course and so we put off doing what we know needs to be done. Worse yet, we deny what’s happening because it would mean drastic changes to our lives and we don’t want that to happen. What we fail to realize is that whether we want it to or not, whether we acknowledge it or not, it’s happening anyway. The sobering part of it all? That video was from around 30 years ago.
Climate change isn’t the only change we don’t do anything about.
As human beings, we typically don’t like change, even when it’s better for us. People have a tendency toward the status quo. You may have heard of your body having a “set point,” meaning that your body gets used to the size and shape that it is in and any attempt to alter it is met with a LOT of resistance. That’s true not just physically but mentally, too. I remember taking a psych class at UCLA where we talked about how your brain gets used to certain patterns of behavior. The brain then creates neural pathways to make it easier to process information. But what happens once those pathways are created, we drift to those patterns of behavior, even if they are not good for us or the most efficient way of doing something. There was a study done about how people drive to work, and even when presented with a better, quicker alternative, most people didn’t go that route. They were used to the way things were. That’s called being stubborn. Just so we’re clear, Google defines stubborn as “having or showing dogged determination not to change one’s attitude or position on something, especially in spite of good arguments or reasons to do so.” At times, we almost take pride in being stubborn. We call it “grit” or “perseverance.” But those are different than being stubborn. Grit and perseverance are qualities of being steadfast in the face of adversity. Stubborn is being so unwilling to change that even when all the evidence points to the need to do so, you don’t. This is something we all struggle with and have apparently for at least 2000 years. If you have a Bible or a Bible app on your phone, please go to the Gospel of Matthew chapter 19 beginning with verse 16. Matthew 19:16.
We are a stubborn people.
And that shows up not only in our politics but in our personal lives, in our jobs, in pretty much anything human beings are involved in. About 20 years ago, I was working for a credit union down in Southern California that was considering switching over to using debit cards. Up until then it was still a relatively new technology. Most of the big banks had it, but it was just starting to become affordable for smaller institutions. At the time, I was in the marketing department and we were given the task of figuring out if it was worth it. My friend Albert did the research and in every analysis, the credit union ended up making a ton of extra money. Our investment was minimal. The risk was almost non-existent. It seemed like the perfect fit. But the CEO and the board turned it down. Turned it down flat. The reason? The CEO said he couldn’t see how anyone would want to use it. He figured he didn’t want to use it so no one would. It didn’t matter that the evidence was overwhelming people were in fact using debit cards. It didn’t matter it presented virtually no risk. It didn’t matter we could make a ton of money. His vision was short-sighted because it would mean changing the way HE did something. Despite the facts, he was too stubborn to see the opportunity before him.
I’d like to say that’s an isolated incident. But it’s not.
And we all know it. You and I have both been victims of other people’s stubbornness, and I’m sure we’ve also been the ones too stubborn to see the obvious. Two-thousand years ago, Jesus encountered the same problem when a young man with all the prospects in the world in front of him asked Jesus what he must do for eternal life. And this is what Jesus told that man.
Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”
17 “Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.” 18 “Which ones?” he inquired. Jesus replied, “‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, 19 honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’”
20 “All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?”
21 Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
22 When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.
23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” – Matthew 19:16-24
What is holding you back?
For the young man, it was the thought of giving up his wealth; giving up the lifestyle that he had grown accustomed to. That was holding him back. He had accomplished pretty much everything else he wanted to in life, like a young Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg; wildly successful at a young age. But he still felt this hole inside and wanted to know what he needed to do to fill it. He found Jesus who people had been saying was this incredibly wise man and asked him, “What must I do?” and ended up walking away sad. Because even though he had received the answer he was looking for, it wasn’t something he wanted to do. It would be easy to judge him. After all Jesus promised him eternal life if he would just give up his possessions and give them to the poor. You might think that’s a small price to pay for eternal life, but think about the mistakes you’ve made in your own life. The things you were told to do differently that you just didn’t do. Don’t drink. Don’t smoke. Eat healthier. Your friends all told you, don’t go out with THAT guy, but you did anyway. Jerk. Or your buddy told you that girl was only using you for what you gave to her, but you didn’t believe them. What a user. The list just goes on and on.
What we need to do is recognize we are all like this to some degree.
And then do our best to overcome it. We can’t afford to sit by and hope things will change. We have to be the agent of change in our own lives. Don’t wait until it’s too late to do something about it, because we never know how much time we have left. Like the tanker trying to turn around, even when we decide to change it will take time to see the results. The same is true for our churches as it is in our personal lives. The reason most churches fail to grow is because we have ceased to be relevant to the next generation. It’s because we have become stubborn, rooted, and unwilling to change. It doesn’t seem that way to us because we like what we do. For us, it works. But does it really? If it worked, wouldn’t we keep reaching new people for Christ? That’s why Thom Rainer said most unhealthy churches have little chance of turning things around. Not because it’s impossible, but because people are unwilling to do what is necessary to make a difference. We become like the young man in our reading and are unwilling to let go of the lifestyle we’ve created, even though it would lead to a better and brighter future. Even though it would lead others to Christ. We become stubborn.
We have to make a choice.
Are we too rooted or too stubborn to change? Or are we willing to do what’s needed to be done to make a difference? And in our church, are we willing to shift our culture in a way that we can reach the next generation? When I was in seminary, we read a book by a pastor and he shared something I will never forget, “the seven last words of any church are, ‘We’ve never done it that way before.’” We have to constantly challenge ourselves as individuals and as a community of believers to never be so comfortable with what WE like and what WE want that we forget the rich tapestry of life that awaits us when we are open to where God is leading. We live in a world of change and sometimes we forget that God is part of that change. Open yourself up and embrace it. And see where God is leading you next.
Thom Rainer, author of many books and an expert on church growth and decline, did an informal Twitter poll about why people didn’t return to a particular church. Mind you this is NOT scientific, but the results were worth pondering. Here are his findings (and his words condensed – you can read his full blog post here). I used Disney theme park pictures for this post because Disney does it right!
Does your church have any or all of these things? If we hope to attract people for Christ, we should take into consideration that detail is important and perception is communication. I would love to hear your ideas about how you are tackling these issues in your own context.
But (to modify a When Harry Met Sally Quote) not everyone could possibly BE a welcoming church. If everyone were truly welcoming, church attendance would be much higher than it is today. People wouldn’t just say they belong to a church, but would actually be part of the life of the church. Would you like that? Then read Thom S. Rainer’s book Becoming A Welcoming Church. This should be on your list of “must reads.”
Title: Becoming A Welcoming Church
Author: Thom S. Rainer
Publisher: BH Publishing Group
Nutshell: Challenging churches to look at themselves objectively
Thom addresses the disconnect between how churches perceive themselves and how others perceive them. Often the local church has a distorted view of how great they are, mostly because they’ve stopped looking at themselves objectively. But Thom challenges those perceptions and spells out the real life consequences of ignoring issues of safety, cleanliness, insider language, and other topics we often do unintentionally.
Visitors make judgments about a church long before they ever hear a sermon. Sometimes they make judgments based solely on your website (or lack of one). Today’s consumers (and that’s what church seekers are) start online. The web is the new front door. Greeters, signage, and visual appeal all matter to a first time visitor. It doesn’t matter if we think those matter – they do. And Thom does a great job of illustrating that point with stories from real people and their real experiences with churches.
Becoming A Welcoming Church is a quick and easy read, but one that could change the path of your church from declining to growing. Thom even includes surveys and questionnaires in the back of the book to help you get started. This is a must-read for any ministry in your church!
This is an ugly chair.
It’s okay. You can say it. This is an ugly chair. But I keep it for that very reason, to remind myself that we don’t always see the ugly chairs in our lives. This chair wasn’t always ugly. Back in the 70’s when my parents bought it, this was a very cool chair. It was considered “contemporary” and “stylish.” It used to have armrest covers and a little cover for the top part where your head leaned against it. The colors were much brighter of course. I remember it having bright, thin streaks of red mixed in with the orange. It stayed in our family living room for decades, even long after it had gone out of style, long after the colors started to fade, and long after the armrests disappeared. Eventually, my mom convinced my dad to move it into their bedroom, out of sight of the rest of the world. But get rid of it? Never. My dad loved this chair and would fall asleep in it nearly every night. After a very long while, it even got too ugly even for their bedroom and made its way to the garage where it still had a place of honor. My dad would sometimes just sit in it and watch the world go by. He’d be fiddling with something in the garage and just sit in that old chair. Even though the rest of us saw it as a beat up, ugly old chair that had served its purpose, my dad looked on it as a treasured possession. It wasn’t until 45 years later that they let me take it with me. For this very purpose. To show you an ugly chair.
I’m betting most of us have an ugly chair in our homes.
Maybe not like this, but something that’s hard to get rid of. Something we don’t want to part with even though it’s long outlived its purpose. Something that’s important to us because of its meaning or the memories it stirs up inside of us. But to the rest of the world, they see it for what it is – an ugly chair. Churches do this, too. It may not be a chair or even a physical object, but there are things we have a hard time letting go of even if they don’t work anymore. It could be the way we do worship, the way we do fellowship, the way we do Sunday School. It’s part of “what we do,” and it’s part of “what we like,” and it makes church seem like church – but to those on the outside looking in, it’s just an ugly chair. For us it makes church seem like “church,” but to those on the outside looking in, it’s just an ugly chair. Let me give you an example. Dressing up for church used to be a thing. In some places it still is. And if you didn’t come in your Sunday finest, people would look at you with either scorn or pity. Scorn for your disrespect for God or pity that you didn’t have better clothes. But where did that belief come from? How did we equate dressing nicely with respect for God? That idea came from a minister named Horace Bushnell in 1843. He wrote an article called “Taste and Fashion” where he said “sophistication and refinement were attributes of God and that Christians should emulate them.” Maybe he was a minister that had absolutely no training or ever studied the Bible because that idea runs completely counter to what James wrote in James 2:1-5:
1My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism. 2Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. 3If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” 4have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
5Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?
Dressing up isn’t Biblical and nowhere does the Bible imply that the clothes a man wears brings him any closer to God or more like God. In fact, the clothes of the disciples and Jesus himself were likely dirty from the ground as they were walking, the dust everywhere kicking up and making their clothes get covered. Yet, I’m pretty sure God loved them anyway. But one guy writes an article about dressing up for God and it somehow becomes part of “what we do” and it remains that way for over 100 years. Now, there’s nothing wrong with coming to church looking nice. In fact, it’s probably how some of you ended up with your spouse. But as times change and expectations change and the world around us changes, we have to be willing to change, too. We have to recognize when “what we do” does the opposite of what we want it to do. And then be willing to part with it.
What we need is a fresh perspective.
We have to take a step back and look at ourselves honestly – from top to bottom. Do we have ugly chairs in our lives? In our church? In our businesses? Because if we do we need to get rid of them. If you have a Bible or a Bible app on your phones, would you please go to Romans 13:8-10. Romans 13:8-10. This idea of needing to get rid of something scares us because we can’t help but take it personally. It’s like telling us that everything we’ve done is wrong. But that’s not what it’s about at all. It’s not that we’ve done anything wrong. It’s a matter of doing what works. For example, our mission as a church is to bring people closer to Christ, so if we’re driving people away or we’re not connecting them to God in a way that’s meaningful to them, can we honestly say we are fulfilling our mission? Are we serving the purpose for which churches were created? Paul’s words this morning will remind us of exactly what that mission is.
8Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. 9The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. – Romans 13:8-10
Love is the fulfillment of the law.
Paul writes about it so simply I think sometimes we forget it. We become rigid in our thinking over time. We get so caught up in routines and traditions that we can’t see they don’t work like they used to. And we become reluctant to change. Like the Pharisees and the church elders back in the early first century, we get so caught up keeping church going the way we are use to, we forget what it is all about. But Paul reminds us, it’s really about love of others. When we make the love of others our priority and our focus we are doing exactly what God wants us to do. When we love ourselves more than others, we end up turning inward and forgetting our real purpose.
Which brings us back to the ugly chair.
Andy Stanley, senior pastor at North Point Community Church in Atlanta, once put it like this. Keeping an old couch in your home is fine. Nothing wrong with holding on to memories of the way things used to be. But holding on to old couches in church life is deadly. Because to an outsider, they see the couch for what it is.  An ugly piece of furniture. Something that needs to go in the trash bin. And they don’t understand why in the world we would hold onto it. But to us…to us they are filled with memories…because that’s the way we did it and that’s the way my parents did it and by golly that’s the way my children will do it, but your kids are thinking, “Really?” And honestly, weren’t there some things your parents did in church when you were growing up that you just didn’t understand? But when you’re in it, you don’t see it that way. You see it as the way a church is supposed to be run. Our memories cloud our vision and these couches, these things that define church for us, become so draped in memories we don’t see them anymore for what they are; old, ugly couches that need to be let go. If we want people to know the living God, he can’t be draped in dead things. We have to point to the living God in ways that are relevant to people today. If want our children, and our children’s children, and their children to live a life in God, then we have to meet them where THEY are instead of where WE are and be willing to constantly examine what we do. We have to be willing to let go of our old couches to reach those who are far from God.
The challenge is recognizing what those ugly chairs are.
We have to be willing to put everything under the microscope. Odds are there will be stuff we don’t even realize are ugly chairs. Any church that is shrinking or stagnating instead of growing likely has some of them lying around. If the average age of a church just keeps going up, it’s likely some ugly chairs are sitting there unnoticed. We have to be open to change, we have to be willing to admit without shame when things are not going well. And instead of casting blame, look together for a solution to make it better. The same is true for other aspects in our lives. Is your marriage stale? Are there fewer customers coming to your business? Maybe you have some ugly chairs lying around you just haven’t seen. So we need to open our eyes. We need to be willing to look hard into that mirror and see what might be holding us back. And then do something about it. Pray about that this week. Pray about how open you are to change and if you’re willing to do the honest and hard work of looking in that mirror and doing something about it. And pray for God to help reveal to us what the ugly chairs are in our lives and see them for what they are.
 Barna p. 147.
 Paraphrase from the talk “Don’t Be That Couch” from Catalyst One Day in Atlanta 2009.
The Walk to Emmaus changed my life. I don’t know if I would be a pastor today if I had not gone. It helped me to experience the love of Christ in a real and tangible way. And it made the Kingdom of God seem to come alive on Earth if only for a weekend. Not everyone has that experience, but if you’re willing to “let go and let God,” you might just encounter the living Christ for yourself.
Gwen and Dave were two friends of ours who had known Cassie a long time. When Cassie and I were serious about our relationship, they invited us to come to their church, Alpharetta First UMC. It would eventually become our church home, too. They had already seen Cassie grow in her faith and I guess noticed a change in me as we began attending weekly and became more involved in the life of the church. So they invited us to come to a weekend retreat about faith – the Walk to Emmaus.
We decided to give it a try.
I hadn’t heard much about it before Gwen and Dave. Some people thought the Walk to Emmaus was some kind of “cult gathering” because people who had gone were so secretive about what happened during the weekend, but it was nothing like that at all. It’s like a surprise party or an awesome Christmas present. If you tell someone in advance what to expect, it’s just not the same. Or like The Usual Suspects. If you know the end, it kind of ruins the movie. I’d rather not ruin the movie.
I will tell you one thing. You are asked to surrender control for the weekend. That’s a tough one for most people. No, that doesn’t mean you’re locked up or can’t get away. What it means is that you are asked to give up your phone and your watch. That’s pretty much it. And whoever sponsors you for the weekend is the one who takes you and drops you off. So no car. Not a lot to give up, but a LOT to give up. The point is to give control over to God and not worry about things like “what time is it?” If you focus instead on the experience, you’ll gain so much more out of it. If that’s impossible for you (and for some people it is), then know you will likely not get much out of the weekend. And to be fair, you’re probably not quite ready for it, and that’s okay.
For me, I encountered the endless and boundless love of Jesus Christ at the retreat and Cassie did, too. Since I went first, I was able to attend the closing gathering for her and saw how deeply moved she was by the whole weekend. No, I didn’t “see” Jesus but instead encountered Christ through the love and devotion of the people there. That is really the only way I know how to describe it without spoiling the surprise! And you don’t want to spoil the surprise. Believe me, it’s better than Disneyland (and if you know me, that’s saying a LOT).
If you’re curious about it, please feel free to contact me and I’m happy to share more.
Part 3 of our sermon series on forgiveness. This time Minister Chai is offering his thoughts on receiving forgiveness and how hard it is to admit we need it in the first place. It means admitting we are wrong.
Luke 18:18-23 (NRSV) – The Rich Ruler
18 A certain ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 19 Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 20 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother.’” 21 He replied, “I have kept all these since my youth.” 22 When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 23 But when he heard this, he became sad; for he was very rich.
We are doing a sermon series on the theme of forgiveness and today is the last Sunday in that series and we will continue to deliberate on the theme at the upcoming church retreat.
Forgiveness is a lovely idea and a great ideal until we have to forgive someone. We all want to be forgiven and at times we even want our errors to be forgotten, but it is not that easy to forgive others, especially those that are close to us. The first Sunday in this series therefore Rev. Craig preached on what it means to “forgive others.” For some, it is easy to forgive others, but very hard to forgive ourselves. Last Sunday, Deacon Mike preached on the topic of “forgiving ourselves.” Today I have the responsibility of reminding ourselves: “What we need to be forgiven for?”
Those of you who are familiar with Cal campus, you might know that at times when you are walking on Sproul Plaza, you could find a fiery preacher preaching. Usually the sermons that are being preached are fire and brimstone kind, and more often than not, the preacher is seen condemning people of their sinful state and giving a call for repentance and forgiveness. Hardly anyone stops by and listens to those sermons. I have passed by many times without even pausing the music I was listening to. Who wants to listen to those kinds of sermons anyway? I don’t know who among us would like to hear what’s wrong with our lives and what we need to seek forgiveness for?
We all know that we are not perfect but we don’t want to be told that we are not perfect. We don’t want to hear that we need to seek forgiveness for a particular sin in our lives. I wouldn’t like someone to tell me what’s wrong with my life and that I need to seek forgiveness for either. Even today I am not going to tell you what you need to seek forgiveness for, but I’ll tell you a story of a man from the Bible and let you be the judge of your own lives.
In the Scripture portion that’s been read to us, Luke tells us of a man who was young, rich and a ruler. In other words, this man has money and power, and he has lots of energy to do whatever he wanted to do. What else does he need, right? If Indian parents who are looking for a suitable match for their daughter find this man, they would think: “This is a perfect guy. We should get him for our daughter.” Such a young ruler comes to Jesus and asks, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
I really like the question. This man seems to be genuinely seeking answers to his question. And I have no doubt that this man might have gone and asked the same question to other teachers, but he heard about this new teacher who is different from other teachers. So, he comes to Jesus and calls him “Good teacher” and asks the question: “Jesus, I have money, power, and social status, but I am not just content with this life. What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Remember the Indian parents? They would have fallen flat at this question: “Awww…. this man is religious too. This man is indeed perfect for our daughter. He not only has power and influence in society, but he is also spiritual.” What a perfect combination!
This young ruler not only has a genuine desire but he seems to be willing “to do” something about that desire. He is asking, “Please tell me, Jesus, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” As we hear the question, we get the impression that this young man would certainly do whatever it takes to inherit eternal life.
During Jesus’ ministry, there were many people who came and asked him questions. Many times those questions were not genuine; the main purpose of those questions was to trick Jesus or to put him in trouble. Once someone comes to Jesus and asks is it okay to pay taxes to Caesar? Another time, someone else comes and asks who is my neighbor? Some folks even brought a woman caught in adultery and ask Jesus if they should stone her according to the Law of Moses. There were many such questioners who came and asked Jesus tough questions, and Jesus mostly answered those questions with another question. To this young man though, Jesus isn’t answering with another question. Jesus began to answer his question. Going in line with the Jewish tradition of his time, Jesus told the man to keep the Ten Commandments. And Jesus highlighted five of those commandments that the young man should be keeping: ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother.’
The rich, young ruler proudly proclaimed that he’d been keeping those commandments since his childhood. I am sure we all agree that it is pretty hard to keep those commandments, and this man must have lived an incredible life to keep all those commandments. He is indeed working hard to keep his faith. Jesus looked into the young man’s heart and he had compassion for him. Jesus told him:
“There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
The young man heard this and became very sad, for he was very rich. He wasn’t willing to sell his possessions and distribute that money to the poor and follow Jesus. He wasn’t willing to part with his wealth, and we never hear about this man again. I thought this is a very sad ending to an amazing story of faith. This man almost got what he was seeking, but he just let it go. What a pity!
Do you remember the question for today: “What we need to be forgiven for?” Before we think about it, let me ask the question, “What does the rich young ruler need to be forgiven for?” There are at least three problem areas that he needs forgiveness for: 1) The rich young ruler has the right desire and the right question, but he wasn’t willing to follow through with the response that Jesus gave him. 2) The young ruler wants to legalistically follow the commandments but doesn’t want to consider the spirit of those commandments. 3) The rich young ruler doesn’t want to work on removing the one obstacle that’s between him and God, and consequently between him and other people. The young man needs to seek forgiveness and fix those three problem areas in his life. Let’s now delve into each one briefly and conclude.
Area 1: Having the right desire, right question, but not willing to follow through the response: There are people that we know who might be seeking the right questions but they are remaining as seekers as they don’t want to be doers. We all come to Jesus with beautiful questions, don’t we? How can I be a better person? How can I serve the community? How can I be saved? What can I do to be a disciple of Christ? How can I use my talents for the glory of God? How can I be more compassionate? How can I love my neighbor? It is great to ask those wonderful questions and come to Jesus. But following Christ is more than asking the right questions. Following Christ is more than knowing the saving act of God in Jesus. Following Jesus is to imitate him in our lives. It is to desire what he desires and do what he does. If we are only listeners of the word and not doers, then we might need to seek forgiveness and mend our ways.
It is not just individuals that need forgiveness; churches need to seek forgiveness too. There are many churches that are asking the right questions but not doing anything about those questions. They are asking: How we can be a thriving church? How we can serve the community or the world? How we can grow spiritually? How do we can be faithful disciples of Christ? As a church, we even might know the answers to those questions, but we need to ponder if we are following through those responses. If we are only interested in the questions, but not the answers, we might want to seek forgiveness and recommit ourselves for God’s work in this world.
Area 2: The rich young ruler was keeping the commandments for the sake of keeping them, but he’s missing out on the real reason why he needs to keep those commandments. The main purpose of keeping the commandments is to express our love for what God has done to us. It is not to achieve something else. What the young man is doing is to just be a doer without being mindful of why he’s doing what he’s doing. At times we find ourselves in a similar boat. We do stuff for God, but we don’t know why we are doing it, or don’t have love of God as the primary motive for our actions. If that is the case, then we need to seek forgiveness for losing our focus.
It is an area that many churches struggle with. They do a ton of things but they forget the main reason why they are doing what they are doing. Or sometimes their main motive for doing those things is not love for God, but maybe competition with other churches, or even to attract people to church. The main point that I am making here is that we need to have the right motive for the actions that we do. The motive is the love for God. If we don’t have that motive then perhaps we might need to rethink our ministry.
Area 3: There is one final thing that we need to talk about: the one thing lacking. Jesus saw that the wealth that the rich young ruler has was an obstacle him and God and he wants him to address it. The obstacle is different for different people: For some, it is wealth, for others, a job, for others, it is something else. Whatever it is, it’s an obstacle on the path to following Jesus. Unfortunately, the young rich ruler loved his riches more than following Jesus, so he went home dejected. We might be following Jesus and loving God and loving our neighbor, and we might be living exemplary lives, but it is possible to have a thing or two that come in our way to relating to God and others. We might need to seek forgiveness and ask God to help us work through that thing that’s blocking our relationship with God and our neighbors.
Friends, in conclusion, if we are just listeners but not doers of the word, if we are just doing the things that Jesus told us to do without the right motive of love, if we are doing what Jesus wants us to do but still have things that are preventing us from growing closer to God, then we need to seek God’s forgiveness. When we seek forgiveness, through the amazing grace of God, we’ll be forgiven. As the chains that are binding us from growing closer to God are broken, we can experience the joy that God alone can give us. May God help us in our pursuits, Amen!
This week we are blessed to hear from Rev. Mike Friedrich as he delivers a message about forgiving yourself in preparation for our all church retreat.
We’re in the middle of a short sermon series on “forgiveness” begun last week by Pastor Craig. Minister Chai will continue with the series next week. It’ll conclude at the all-church retreat the last weekend of this month.
As Pastor Craig talked about last week, there is a rich amount of commentary in the Bible about forgiveness. If we are to inhabit the Kingdom of God that Jesus preached about, if we’re to form the Beloved Community that Martin Luther King preached about, if we are to have the world that we pray and work so hard for, then forgiveness is a key virtue.
Without forgiveness the world would be a pretty miserable place, with everyone carrying grudges against you for your entire life. But with forgiveness, we are able to constantly reset the scale back to zero and try to move forward.
You’ll notice that Jesus says in our Scripture reading, “if another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. Jesus doesn’t say let wrong-doing slide, he says you must confront it, he says you must battle it, he says you must rebuke it. Then, if your intervention changes the offender’s heart, then you are obligated to forgive. Don’t get caught up in the battle, don’t get caught up in the rebuking, recognize when change, when repentance, has occurred. And forgive
In my brief research into all the many and extensive biblical passages regarding forgiveness, I didn’t find a single one directly talking about forgiving oneself. However, there is this favorite passage of mine, from Luke, chapter 10, verses 25-28:
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life/“ He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your should, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live. – Luke 10: 25-28
I tell everyone that writing sermons is difficult for me because I was trained at a young age to write comic books, which requires saying things as concise and succinctly as possible, because you can’t cover up the artwork with too many words. The impact of the story is diminished the more the art is obscured.
The reason I love this passage from Luke is that like a good comic book panel, it concisely boils the entire bible down to two commandments: two! love God and love your neighbor as yourself. (repeat) You can say everything else in all our holy writings is commentary.
Natural preachers, like Pastor Craig, know how to explain something in a more layered and nuanced fashion, so let’s think about this for a moment, when it comes to the question of forgiveness.
If forgiveness of others, forgiveness of our neighbors, is important in loving them, then forgiving ourselves is important in loving ourselves.
Pastor Craig talked last week about how practicing forgiveness is one way of letting go of anger, letting go of revenge. I found myself instantly nodding, again because of my comics writing history. I was the writer of IRON MAN for Marvel Comics each month for 4 years in the early 1970’s. By then the formula was pretty well established that each issue Iron Man, or the other super-heroes, would battle a super-villain with destructive powers that matched or surpassed our hero’s abilities.
The thing was, as a rule, my writer colleagues and I didn’t pay much attention to motivation for this monthly conflict. It was an easy way to start a story by the villain seeking revenge for being defeated the last time by the hero. It was easily understood by even young readers that one trait of a bad guy was their constant search for revenge. It’s forgiveness that lets us let go of revenge.
I saw online a few weeks ago a wonderful YouTube commentary on forgiveness from a leading edge pastor in Denver named Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber. In her short presentation, Pastor Nadia talked about how forgiveness is necessary for your own health because it cuts the link between yourself and the action that hurt or offended you. Otherwise you stay linked and the longer you stay linked, the more you’re infected by the hurt and the pain, to the point you become yourself more like the person who hurt you. The more you stay linked, the more you become like the person who hurt you.
This is a very valuable insight. And it occurs to me that it applies to forgiving oneself. We have all done very stupid and hurtful things in our lives and if we have a conscience, we get upset at ourselves for doing them.
Now a conscience is a good thing. It helps discern right behavior from wrong behavior and helps guide us more and more toward doing the right thing. However, if we get stuck in blaming ourselves for the wrong things we’ve done, no matter how bad they actually are, then perhaps we are continuing to infect ourselves with those bad decisions, actually making it harder to move toward the light, toward the right.
Here’s an example: all of us one way or another used fossil fuels to get here this morning (unless of course you walked or rode your bike). We all know that using fossil fuels is directly linked to air pollution and almost certainly linked to global warming. It’s not too harsh to say this is a sin against ourselves, our neighbors and our descendants. And we rebuke ourselves all the time. But we stay stuck, embedded in this huge energy system. How else do we get around? It’s literally unimaginable living with 7 billion other people without this system. Let me suggest we are more likely to take the small steps to wean ourselves from fossil fuels if we repent, meaning we turn around, and first, forgive ourselves, then act as best we can.
Forgiveness is necessary. Forgiveness of ourselves. We don’t forget what we’ve done, we continue to recognize it was wrong, but we are able to move forward.
So… now I’d like to try a little something to end today:
think back to when you were young, perhaps in high school, perhaps you’re a young adult. Remember the stupidest, most hurtful thing you did to someone else. [We’re not going to share out loud! so be truthful!]
Now imagine yourself today is able to go back in the past and talk to your younger self about that episode. Now that there’s distance, what would you say to your younger self? You can tell them that you now understand how it happened and understand how it actually hurt that person. And now tell them that it’s okay. It happened. Learn from it. Move on.
That’s what forgiving ourselves feels like.
Let us pray: Gracious God, who forgives us from the moment we take our first breath until the moment when we take our last, help us to learn how to forgive others and to forgive ourselves, so that we can better do your work in the world. Amen.
How much damage can 24 bunnies do?
Well, the people of Australia are finding out every year. In 1859, an Englishman brought 24 wild rabbits to Australia to hunt them. Don’t get me going about hunting cute, little bunny rabbits. But apparently the rabbits outsmarted the Englishman and have bred continuously since then. Today its estimated more than 200 million rabbits live across the Australian countryside costing the populace more than $500 million in damages annually. Perhaps it would have been better if that Englishman stuck to hunting rabbits back at home. Rabbits have become the most invasive non-native species to inhabit the United Kingdom. In 2010, estimated damages caused by these Easter icons was over £260 million per year! The United States isn’t free of it’s own invasive species. The kudzu plant is among the most well-known example, especially in the South. The object of many jokes, the plant itself is hardly a laughing matter. This fast-growing vine is virtually impervious to pesticides and herbicides, can grow up to a foot per day, and costs an estimated $500 million in lost crops and control costs annually. Native to Japan, the plant grew rapidly in the South where conditions were ideal for it, and without its natural predators, the plant thrived covering more than seven million acres. Richard Benyon, the minister for the natural environment in England, said, “It becomes increasingly difficult and costly to control invasive non-native species as they become more established. Taking early action may seem expensive, but this report shows that it is the most effective approach, saving money in the long run and helping our native wildlife to thrive.”
Invasive species are not restricted to the land.
In fact, we have invasive species inside of us, too. We call them bitterness, anger, hatred, and resentment. These emotions are the kudzu and bunny rabbits of the human soul. When left alone they take root, spread and steal the joy out life as easily as any known biological disease does to our bodies. In fact, studies have shown that bitter, angry people have higher blood pressure, suffer from depression more often, and are more likely to die of heart disease and other illnesses than people who are not. Being bitter and angry can literally kill you. And like Mr. Benyon said about other invasive species, early action is the most effective approach to rooting it out. Before it digs deep into your soul, before it has a chance to twist you like a pretzel, you have to get rid of it. Because if you let it fester too long, it becomes wrapped around your soul, eating away at all that connects you to God. It covers your heart in such a way that you’ll never be able to be the person God created you to be. You’ll never know the peace in your heart God wants for you.
So how do we root out that bitterness and anger before it becomes a problem?
Forgive. As if it were that simple, right? It’s not. But it is the one and only way to get rid of the bitterness, anger, hatred, and resentment that festers within us. We HAVE to learn to forgive. But before we figure that out, I think it’s useful to make clear what it means to forgive. It doesn’t mean to forget. It doesn’t mean you should instantly “get over it.” It means to let go. Allow yourself to move past the hurt. I like the way the Mayo Clinic defines forgiveness, “it involves a decision to let go of resentment and thoughts of revenge.” That last bit is what I like, “thoughts of revenge.” How many of you understand EXACTLY what they are talking about? Someone does wrong by you and you start dreaming of different ways to get back at them?
I have to be honest, I’ve done that.
Just the other day, I had a bout with Tony at the post office. I don’t know how you can be as rude as Tony was without losing your job, but he really got under my skin. I asked to speak to his supervisor and he said, “I AM the supervisor!” God help us. So I asked to talk to someone above him and he gave me a phone number to call. You can believe I called right after I left. No way was he going to get away with treating me like that! But when I called the line was busy. Maybe for the best. Because I know what Jesus would say. In fact, we’re going to read exactly what he did say this morning. If you would like to read along with us in your Bible or a Bible app, we’re going to read from Matthew 18:21-35. This is the passage where Jesus just got done telling the disciples about how to deal with someone who wrongs you. Jesus tells them to try to work it out and if that doesn’t work then bring someone with you and try again. And if that doesn’t work bring the matter to the whole church and see if they can help work it out before you give up on them. I guess Peter is listening to this and wondering exactly how many times is he supposed to try to make amends? Which is precisely what he asks Jesus. If you would please rise for the reading of the Gospel of Matthew, we’re going to hear this morning from Matthew 18:21-35. Hear now the Word of God.
21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”
22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. 23 Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. 26 At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.
29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’
30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.32 Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” – Matthew 18:21-35
Some of you are wondering if you’ve met your forgiveness limit.
I can see you calculating in your head, “Seventy-six? No, I’m sure it’s seventy-seven.” But some translations of this passage say you should forgive not seventy-seven times but seventy TIMES seven! I’ll save you the trouble. That’s 490 times! But as in most parts of the Bible, Jesus uses this to illustrate a much more important point. He wasn’t trying to actually set boundaries on forgiveness. He wasn’t saying that at 491, all bets are off or that you can be as hateful as you want. Jesus is saying that our forgiveness needs to be boundless. Again, that doesn’t mean we need to forget or put ourselves in harm’s way, but we do need to find a way to let it go. One, because God’s forgiveness of our sins is boundless and two because it is better for us. As Jesus points out in his story about the unforgiving servant, the servant had just been forgiven an enormous debt he could never hope to repay – much like how much God forgives us for all the things we do wrong every day. And yet, when someone else asks the servant for forgiveness, he chooses to not show compassion or mercy but instead subject them to the law. How can we expect the forgiveness of Christ for ourselves and not show it to others?
The other reason is its better for us.
I have found that God has a built-in reward system for good behavior. The things he asks us to do, like forgiving those who hurt us, is not just because we create a better world by doing so. God is also looking out for you. Studies show that people who are more forgiving are happier about life, are in better health, feel a greater sense of self-worth, have less chronic pain, less stress, and more energy, and live longer lives. Who wouldn’t want that? But it makes sense, doesn’t it? If we’re able to let go of the pain, if we’re able to forgive those who have hurt us, all the stress and anxiety and anger that goes along with it is what we let go of also. It allows us to move on. It isn’t easy. And if you expect forgiveness to be a two-way street you might be sorely disappointed. The choice to forgive has nothing to do with the other person. It’s all about you. Only you can choose to forgive. If the other person reciprocates and apologizes or makes restitution, that’s wonderful. But if the only way we can forgive is contingent on what the other person does we may never be able to move on. Forgiveness is a choice only you can make.
When I got home that afternoon, I was tempted to call that number back.
Tony from the post office DESERVED it after all. But as I sat there holding that phone number in my hand, I wondered if it was really worth it. If he got in trouble, maybe that would prevent him from doing the same thing to someone else, but was that REALLY my motivation? Was I “doing it for the greater good?” Or did I just want to get back at him for hurting me? I thought about it for a while as I stared at that piece of paper, crumpled it up, and threw it away. And I felt good about it. Unexpectedly, I felt good about it. Maybe because I exerted some control over a bad situation. Maybe because I got to decide not to let that anger fester within me. Maybe I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. But as I was crumpling up the paper I felt a burden being lifted from my spirit. I wish every situation was as easy to let go of as that one. I’ve had things happen to me that were a lot harder to forgive. I’m sure you have, too. But it’s important for us to let go. Sometimes, that’s a journey we have to take with someone else. Sometimes the hurt is too deep for us to do it alone. In those situations, I want to encourage you to seek out help in your journey to forgiveness. But I hope you’ll choose to take that first step. Take time this week to think about the people in your life you might need to forgive. Pray about what your next steps should be. It might be talking to that person face-to-face. It might be coming to a slow acceptance not to let that person define your life. It might be writing a letter you never intend to send, but to simply write out your thoughts and feelings. Whatever it is, pray about it this week. Is there someone in your life you need to forgive? Is there a seed of bitterness or resentment or anger that’s keeping you from being the person God created you to be? Forgiveness isn’t forgetting and it isn’t putting yourself back in a dangerous situation. Forgiveness is a choice you make to let go of the pain. If you’re willing to make that choice, God will be right there with you. Don’t let this invasive species of the soul eat away at your heart one moment longer. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
What is your favorite story?
Mine is probably The Princess Bride (outside of the Bible of course). Both the movie AND the book. I’ve read The Princess Bride cover-to-cover probably three or four times and I’ve watched the movie more times than I can count. I think I’ve got most of it memorized. How could you not with such famous lines as, “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” It’s hard not to love a story that has “Fencing. Fighting. Torture. Poison. True love… Miracles.” But of course what all great stories have in common is a story of transformation. The hero’s journey is always about starting out in one place in your life and having that life changed as a result of the story. And it’s what draws us in. People love to hear stories of transformation – either as tales of inspiration or lessons to grow from or things we really need to avoid. So naturally, the story of Jesus draws us in so deeply not just because of what Christ went through for all of us, but how the events in his life transformed the entire world.
It’s the reason the Gospels were told to begin with.
It wasn’t just a recorded history of things that happened. It was the amazing transformative story of the people of God. It’s the story of God who came in human flesh, who suffered a horrible death, and then came back to life! It’s the story of the apostles and how they were changed by what they saw and what they experienced; how they were once ordinary people who were so affected by their time with Jesus that they were willing to give their lives to share this story with others. And the purpose of all these stories can be summed up in two short verses. The apostle John wrote these words to explain the whole point of the Gospels, and in fact of the entire Bible.
30 Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31 But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. – John 20:30-31
All the stories, all the parables, all the miracles were written for one reason.
“That you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” That is the transformative power of the Gospel. THIS story can not only change your life in the here and now, but in the hereafter, too. And John tells us that these stories were just the tip of the iceberg. He writes, “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book.” And in the next chapter he writes at the end, “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.” So it makes you wonder what else Jesus did we don’t even know about! But these stories were chosen among all the ones out there to make it clear that Jesus was the Son of God, that he came for you and me and everyone else. And that his story needs to be told.
Stories have the power to change lives.
It can shape the way we think and how we understand life. And Jesus knew this. It’s why he told so many stories of his own. The power of a good story would linger in people’s minds and would often be easier to remember than just the cold hard facts. A story can get at the truth in a way that is relevant to the people who hear it. It makes it easy to remember the lesson he was trying to teach. That’s why we hear the story of the prodigal son, or the workers in the field, or the wedding banquet. Jesus wanted these lessons to really linger in people’s minds. Your story has that power, too. Whether you have had a Damascus experience like Paul or a slow realization like the two travelers to Emmaus, your story is important because it shares with others how Christ has changed your life.
Today, I thought I would tell you mine.
I grew up in a nominally Buddhist household, meaning that we didn’t go to temple or anything like that. My grandparents were Buddhist on both sides and I ended up going to a lot of funerals for a kid. My parents bought me a set of prayer beads when I was young and taught me the traditions of a Buddhist funeral, but I have to admit to not understanding the significance of any of it. When my grandmother passed away, it was the first time someone I knew well had died. I was about eight years old and I remember asking my mom what happened to her. Where did people go when they died? What happened to them? And I’ll never forget what my mom said. She said, “I believe she is in Heaven with God.”
Well, that stirred up all sorts of questions.
Who was God? Where was Heaven? Could you get there by bus? I guess my questions were getting to be more than my mom could answer because I remember by fifth grade she sent me to Sunday School for the first time – Anaheim Japanese Free Methodist Church. It was there I first heard about the life of Jesus. It was a typical Sunday School. Every week we had a memory verse and if you memorized your verse you got a stamp on the wall and once you got 50 stamps you got to go to Disneyland. Even then I was a Disney fanatic so you bet that was great incentive for me. My mom was a little worried I was spending so much time on my Bible and was afraid it would affect my schoolwork. In my defense it didn’t, but she suggested we stop going for a while which I was just fine with.
But I never went back to that church. God wasn’t done with me yet, though.
In the meantime, God kept putting people in my life who kept nudging me in my faith. I remember the first time I went to a Christian funeral. It was for my mom’s uncle. His wife and kids were the only ones I knew in our extended family who were not Buddhist and when he passed his funeral was so different. Up to that point, funerals were very sad, somber moments where afterward everyone felt better because they ate Chinese food. But here it was a celebration of his life and the ways in which he touched those around him. I remember the Lt. Governor came to speak at his funeral and talked about what an honorable man he was. Someone from the national Boys and Girls Club of America came to pay respects and to say a few words about his work with those kids. And of course his family shared about how much he meant to them. And all of that testimony really made a difference to me. Later on when I was in college, I invited my friend Lisa to come to my parents’ house for our Easter get-together and she said sure, but would I like to go to church with her? It was the first time I attended an Easter worship service (and again it was in a Methodist church coincidentally). We sat up in the balcony and something about that service stuck with me. That same desire to want to know more that I had in fifth grade started coming back.
Over and over again God kept putting people in my life who would invite me to learn more.
Two of my buddies at Disneyland, Mark and Steve, kept inviting me to church. They lured me with the promise of pretty girls, but it was the mystery of God that kept me going. Another friend of mine, Mark Adams, asked me to be best man at his wedding and it was the first time I had even a smidgen of a personal relationship with a minister. The priest wasn’t pretentious and he didn’t look down upon me, but treated me with kindness. We were doing communion at Mark’s wedding, and he asked if I was Catholic and I told him I wasn’t. He said, “Well, we just won’t tell anyone.” And even though it meant “breaking the rules,” he served me communion and that made a big impact on me. To him, I was more important than the rules. Without understanding it at the time he was exhibiting grace. And of course, Cassie, who would invite me week after week to go with her to church. Even though I would say “no” she didn’t bug me about it. She just would ask me again the next week and the next and the next, and I thought to myself, “If I want to be with her, I’d better say yes.” So I did. And Cassie’s patience paid off. Going to church I met people who were just like me. They weren’t perfect. They had problems like I had problems. The difference is when things got tough for them, they turned to Christ and one another. When things got tough for me, I had only me. I wanted to know more about the peace they seemed to have that I didn’t, a serenity about them I craved. And as I got to know them, I knew I needed God in my life in a much deeper way. And after 33 years of life on this planet, I finally surrendered my life to Christ. And it only took 33 years.
But as I look back at my own story, I realized a few things.
I realized that God was working in my life all along. I was never really alone. I sometimes felt alone, but God was there in the nooks and crannies of life. I realized God used a wide array of people to reach me. Each one was open to inviting me into a deeper faith and slowly I began to say “yes.” I’m just glad they were willing to be God’s vessels to reach me and my stubborn head. And I realized that there was something about a life in faith that cannot be substituted for with money or power or influence. People who truly trusted in Christ had a peace and a way about them that was different. They weren’t perfect. But they faced life in a way I desired. And it took a very long time, but I finally saw how much I needed God.
Every time I tell that story, I just pray I’m not boring someone to death.
But people are often captivated by it. I can’t tell you the number of times someone has thanked me for sharing my story or told me I need to write it down and tell it to more people. Maybe it’s because they see in me how much Christ has changed my life. Maybe it’s because I didn’t come from a Christian household and “found” God despite not knowing him. Or maybe it’s because they see themselves or someone they know in my shoes. And like the Bible, there is even more to my story than what I just told you. Some of it remarkable even for me. And I lived it! And each time I tell it, I am reminded of how grateful I am to God for putting these people in my life. Even if no one else heard it, my story is a reminder to me of God’s grace and love. Your story is no less remarkable. But so many of us don’t think about it. So many of us don’t ponder the difference Christ has made in our lives. Peter tells us to always be prepared to tell others why you have the faith you have, because our stories make a difference. But how can we do that if we don’t spend the time to know our story? Have you thought about why you follow Jesus or how that’s made a difference in your life? If you have, I would love to hear about it. I made you sit through mine and I’m always interested in knowing how God has worked in other people’s lives. But if you haven’t really thought about it, I want to encourage you to spend some time pondering that very thing. How has God made a difference in your life? Jesus knew that there is power in our stories. It’s why he told so many himself. And there is power in your story, too. Even if it’s just for you, spend some time and think about the difference faith has made in your journey and how that faith has transformed you. Stories have the power to transform lives. Sometimes even our own. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Size isn’t everything. Just ask Yoda.
Not my dog, Yoda, but the little green dude from Star Wars. Yoda is a Jedi Master, a wielder of the Force, and the one who trained Luke Skywalker to become a Jedi Knight. But it took some heavy convincing. Yoda wasn’t sold on Luke to begin with. Too old, too fixed in his ways. But finally he gives in and Luke actually makes some real progress, becoming more and more adept at wielding the Force. While they were training, Luke’s X-Wing starfighter sinks into the swamp and in distress Luke exclaims, “We’ll never get it out now,” as all but a small part of the wing is below the muck. Immediately Yoda chirps up and says, “So sure are you? Tried have you? Always with you it can’t be done.” After some arguing Luke says, he’ll try and Yoda exclaims, “No! Do or do not. There is no try.” But Luke can’t do it and he tells Yoda that the ship is too big. Yoda’s tells him, “Size has no meaning. It matters not. Look at me. Judge me by my size do you?” Then Yoda does what seems impossible and single-handedly lifts this gigantic starship out of the swamp. Luke looks on in awe and whispers, “I don’t believe it.” And Yoda responds, “That is why you fail.”
Luke’s failure had little to do with his ability.
He fails because he believes size is a determining factor for success. And who could blame him? Faced with such a daunting task, would we believe any differently? His ship is literally made of tons of metal and Yoda expects him to move it with just the power of the Force? Luke says to him, “Master, moving stones around is one thing. This is totally different!” And Yoda responds, “No, only difference is in your mind! You must unlearn what you have learned.” What is it we have learned that we might have to unlearn?
We are a size-oriented society.
In so many ways we equate “bigger” with “better.” In sports we value home runs over singles, the slam dunk over the lay-up, the “Hail Mary” pass over the slow march down the field. We talk about “Big Business” and “Big Money” and look at the driving influence of such wealthy entrepreneurs as the Koch brothers, Bill and Melinda Gates, and Warren Buffett. Even in the church we talk about the “size” of our congregations. Mega-churches are seen as being more “successful” because they have higher attendance, can afford big buildings and newer technology, and have large campuses. But before we buy in to the philosophy that “bigger is better” let’s not forget that Christianity, the world’s “biggest” religion was not started by the rich and powerful, but by a Jewish carpenter and his twelve, normal, everyday followers. We are so quick to believe that a task is too big or a job is too daunting because of its scope and size, but the truth is success can happen on any level.
Think back to the early church.
I mean the REALLY early church, the church before buildings and sanctuaries and fellowship halls. They not only didn’t have a regular place to meet, they didn’t have much of anything else either, but the Bible describes this group of people as being completely at peace with one another. We stress out over a lack of money, lack of resources, and lack of people, but the early church didn’t have any of those things either. What they DID have was something available to any church no matter what size they were. As we read this passage, think about the things they did have and how similar or different it is to our churches today.
42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. – Acts 2:42-47
Did you notice what the church had?
Devotion. Awe. Common belief. Giving spirit. Togetherness. Did you notice what wasn’t mentioned? Money. Buildings. Pews. Programs. None of the things we associate with the modern church. The only time they came close to talking about money was when they mentioned that the followers sold their things and gave to everyone who had need. And still “the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” Could you imagine if that were true here? Even if the Lord added to our number weekly, we would grow faster than our building could handle. All they needed were these common core attributes – devotion, which they exhibited through worship and study; an awe of God and the work he was doing in the world; common belief in Christ without fighting about the little things; a giving spirit which they showed by doing for those around them; and being together. That word is mentioned three times in this short passage. “Together.” They were together in serving the Lord. When we have those attributes, we are open to the designs of the Holy Spirit and he can do amazing things with us that we haven’t even thought of.
Size alone is not a measure of worth to God.
If God only cared about size or wealth or prestige or any of the other things the world generally measures “success” by, he never would have chosen Israel to be his chosen people. Listen again to what Moses himself told the assembled peoples of Israel in Deuteronomy, “The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your forefathers that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 7:7-8). We see in the Bible, time and time again how true this statement is; that God does not pick the mightiest or the smartest or the strongest of people to be his messengers. Often they are normal, flawed people like you and me. Take for example the story of Samuel. If you remember, God rejects Saul as King of Israel and tells Samuel to go looking for a new one. So during his search he goes to meet Jesse of Bethlehem and immediately, he thinks he’s found the new king in Eliab, Jesse’s oldest son, but the Lord hears Samuel’s thoughts and says to him in 1 Samuel 16:7, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at outward appearances, but the Lord looks at the heart.” So in a scene reminiscent of Cinderella, Samuel asks to see each of Jesse’s other sons. But as each one walks by, God says “Nope, not the one.” And after all seven of Jesse’s oldest sons walk by and having the Lord reject them all, Samuel asks “Are these all the sons you have?” and Jesse admits, “There is one more, but he’s out in the back tending the sheep.” Tending the sheep! Could there BE any more clear sign for Samuel? It was like the glass slipper fit right on this youngest son’s foot. And when the youngest son walks in, God tells Samuel, “That’s the one.” And so began the reign of King David, slayer of Goliath and long considered the greatest king of the Israeli people. David wasn’t the biggest or the oldest or the smartest nor was he free of sin, but God did say that David was a man after His own heart, and THAT’S what was important to God. His heart, not his size.
Like Yoda said, “Size has no meaning.”
We’ve seen throughout the Bible that God does amazing things with small groups of people. Gideon and his army of 300. David and his slingshot. Jesus and the 12 disciples. As Mark Twain put it, “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight. It’s the size of the fight in the dog.” That’s what matters. Are we willing to live up to the core values that Christ taught us? Because there really isn’t anything we can’t do if we are willing to go all out. If we are willing to do what’s necessary to reach people for God, we can do it. But are we willing? I think we are. I think we can definitely do it. And I believe strongly that there is a reason why all of us were brought together in this time and place. But it’s something we have to decide to do together. So when we come forward today for communion, come before Christ and lay down your doubts. Lay down your worries. Share with God those things that make it difficult for us to move forward together and pray for God’s strength and will to shine through in the days to come. Because we will only succeed if like those early disciples we are devoted, we are in awe of what God can do in us, we agree on our common beliefs, we have a giving spirit, and we do it TOGETHER.
 http://www.asails.freeserve.co.uk/King%20Eliab.htm. Rev. Andrew Sails used the Cinderella reference in a sermon on a completely different subject, but it was such a clever comparison, I wanted to use it.