Thirty Good Years

Being successful in the world takes one key ingredient.

Talent?  Yes, talent helps, but talent alone will get you only so far.  We all know of talented people who don’t end up being successful.  So is it status, money, luck, opportunity?  Well, all those things contribute to being successful, but even with all of those things, there is still one key ingredient missing.  Commitment.  Commitment is the key ingredient to success.  We see examples of this all around us.  Take the Beatles for instance.  The Beatles are one of the most successful rock and roll bands in the history of music, but did you know that before they ever hit the shores of America, John Lennon and Paul McCartney had been playing together for about seven years?  It was in 1960 when they played a gig in Hamburg, Germany.  And unlike other places they played at, in Hamburg they would play five to eight hours straight.  John once said in an interview about their time in Germany, “We got better and got more confidence.  We couldn’t help it with all the experience playing all night long…. In Liverpool, we’d only ever done one-hour sessions, and we just used to do our best numbers, the same ones, at every one.  In Hamburg, we had to play for eight hours, so we really had to find a new way of playing.”[1]  It was because of this large amount of time playing together, constantly finding new ways to challenge themselves and become better, that pushed them to a whole other level of talent and it was the difference between long-term success and short-lived fame.  It’s what made the Beatles into the Beatles instead of Dexy’s Midnight Runners.  Who is that you might be wondering?  Exactly.

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Did you know Paul and John played together for about seven years before The Beatles made it to America?

Malcolm Gladwell called this level of commitment the 10,000 Hour Rule. 

His theory is that it takes 10,000 hours honing your craft to be exceptional at whatever it is you’re doing.  Whether in sports, entertainment, or even in business, it’s that dedication to putting the hours in that makes the difference.  We often hear stories about our favorite ball players who are the first ones to practice and the last ones to leave.  We hear about superstars athletes who, even at the height of their game, will ask the coach to shag a few more fly balls, to stay late and keep working on their free throws, or to spend just a little more time studying film.  And Gladwell said it was the 10,000 Hour Rule that separated the average from the exceptional.  He put it this way, practice isn’t the thing you do ONCE you’re good.  It’s the thing you do to MAKE you good.  Practice isn’t the thing you do ONCE you’re good.  It’s the thing you do to MAKE you good.  And that’s true in every aspect of our lives – work, school, relationships, even our faith.  It takes commitment to become successful.

Commitment is something the Bible talks about as well.

The story of Ruth opens with a famine in the land of the Israelites and so Elimelek, his wife Naomi, and their two sons Mahlon and Kilion all move to the country of Moab to start a new life.  Eventually, and the Bible doesn’t tell us how long, but eventually Elimelek dies and Naomi is now a widower.  Her two sons marry Moabite women named Orpah and Ruth, but after about 10 years of marriage, both of Naomi’s sons die, too and now Naomi is all alone.  No husband or sons to take care of her and so she decides to return to Judah where she had heard that God had answered the prayers of the people and provided food.  But before she goes, she decides to release her daughters-in-law from their duty to her.  And that is where we pick up the story.

8 Then Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the LORD show you kindness, as you have shown kindness to your dead husbands and to me. 9 May the LORD grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.”

   Then she kissed them goodbye and they wept aloud 10 and said to her, “We will go back with you to your people.”

 11 But Naomi said, “Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands? 12 Return home, my daughters; I am too old to have another husband. Even if I thought there was still hope for me—even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons— 13 would you wait until they grew up? Would you remain unmarried for them? No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the LORD’s hand has turned against me!”

 14 At this they wept aloud again. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodbye, but Ruth clung to her.

 15 “Look,” said Naomi, “your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.”

 16 But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. 17 Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.” – Ruth 1:8-17

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Ruth lived up to her Biblical namesake. One of the most dedicated people in our church when I served at Palm UMC, she was always willing to help. She is second from the right.

Ruth personifies the very essence of commitment.

She has every reason to leave.  Her prospects of staying with Naomi are not good. Ruth, being relatively young or at least young enough to find another husband, could have made a good life for herself had she gone back.  Without a husband and without other resources, Naomi was looking at possible starvation or at the very least a poor, tenuous life.  But instead, Ruth chooses to stay, even though Naomi, without a husband or sons, was without land and without property.  Naomi was essentially a nomad.  Ruth says to her though, “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay.  Your people will be my people and your God my God.  Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried.”  This is the kind of commitment God seeks from us.  The kind that is faithful in both the good times and the bad, that sees things through and doesn’t give up.  It’s the kind of commitment we’re supposed to have toward God when the Bible tells us that we are to “love the Lord with all our heart and all our soul and all our mind (Matthew 22:37).”

But often we think of commitment as something negative.

Like a burden or an unwelcome task.  When we talk about commitment, we’re as likely to conjure up images of marriage as we are to being locked up in a mental institution.  It’s this kind of perception of “commitment” that makes us think of it as “lacking freedom.”  But the truth is commitment is the ultimate freedom because commitment is a choice.  Commitment is the ultimate freedom because commitment is a choice.  It’s a choice we make every day.  Like Ruth, we choose to stay in our relationships.  We choose to follow Christ.  We choose to follow our passions.  The problem is that in our disposable society we often choose NOT to commit to one another.  We choose instead to leave an escape hatch.  But when we always have one foot out the door, we are never really in it.  We’re never fully committed and thus we can never enjoy the fruits that come from commitment.

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Cassie and I on our 16th wedding anniversary!

In the book, have a little faith by Mitch Albom, Mitch and the rabbi talk about these fruits.

Mitch sees them in the relationship the Rabbi has with his wife, Sarah and talks to him about how they are truly a team.  They stick together through thick and thin.  Sarah would often joke with congregants and tell them, “I’ve had thirty wonderful years with my husband, and I’ll never forget the day we were married, November 3, 1944.”  “Wait…,” someone would say doing the math, “that’s way more than thirty years ago.”  “Right,” she would say. “On Monday, you get twenty great minutes, on Tuesday you get a great hour.  You put it all together, you get thirty great years.”  The Rabbi knew there was wisdom in his wife’s light-hearted joke.  He told Mitch.  “I think people expect too much from marriage today…They expect perfection.  Every moment should be bliss.  That’s TV or movies.  But that is not the human experience. Like Sarah says, twenty good minutes here, forty good minutes there, it adds up to something beautiful.  The trick is when things aren’t so great, you don’t junk the whole thing. It’s okay to have an argument.  It’s okay that the other one nudges you a little, bothers you a little.  It’s part of being close to someone.  But the joy you get from that same closeness – when you watch your children, when you wake up and smile at each other – that, as our tradition teaches us, is a blessing.  People forget that.” Why do they forget it? “Because the word ‘commitment’ has lost its meaning.  I’m old enough to remember when it used to be a positive.  A committed person was someone to be admired.  He was loyal and steady.  Now a commitment is something you avoid.  You don’t want to tie yourself down.  It’s the same with faith, by the way.  We don’t want to get stuck having to go to services all the time, or having to follow all the rules.  We don’t want to commit to God.  We’ll take Him when we need Him, or when things are going good.  But real commitment?  That requires staying power – in faith and in marriage.”  And if you don’t commit? I asked.  “Your choice.  But you miss what’s on the other side.”  What’s on the other side?  “Ah.” He smiled. “A happiness you cannot find alone.”

And that’s what commitment is all about.

Commitment is a happiness you cannot find alone.  Commitment is a happiness you cannot find alone.  That statement is true for marriages, for families, for friends, for faith, and for communities.  There is something about commitment to one another, a commitment to an idea or an ideal, that builds character, that helps us grow, that deepens our faith that we cannot find without it.  Commitment is a journey.  It sees us through difficulties and drives us to even greater success.  And when we commit to one another, whether that commitment is to a spouse, a friend, our families, our church or our God, we build a wealth of experiences that leads us to a happiness we cannot find alone.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

[1] Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers, p.49.

How to Love Your Neighbor

Chai gave this touching and insightful sermon on the weekend of Martin Luther King Day and challenged us to love our neighbor and gave us three solid ways to do that.

Luke 10: 25-37

The Parable of the Good Samaritan

25 Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27 He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” 28 And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

29 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

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One of the dangers of familiar passages or stories is that we think we know everything about them. The story of the Good Samaritan is one such story. We might have read or heard it many times in our lives, and if you have you know what happens; but I wonder if we have fully grasped the meaning. What we’ll do is to look at the story with fresh eyes. Even as we do that, I will share with you the aspects that have startled me or led me to think as I was re-reading it. And in the process, we will glean a few lessons for life from this famous parable.

Firstly, the context: When Jesus was walking on this planet as a human person, many people came to him and asked him all sorts of questions. Some people were genuinely interested in knowing what Jesus thought about something, whereas others merely wanted to test him. In this story we see a lawyer, an expert in the law of Moses or Torah, comes to Jesus with a seemingly genuine question to test him: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” In other words, the lawyer was asking what Jesus thinks about resurrection. And, as a Son of Abraham, the lawyer wants to know how he could possibly lose his inheritance.  Secretly, the lawyer wants to see if Jesus would add or subtract something from the law and get himself into trouble.

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Unlucky for the lawyer, Jesus didn’t fall for that, and at the same time, he didn’t discard that important existential question that the lawyer posed. Instead of answering, however, Jesus asks the lawyer what he thinks. As if he were prepared for this turn of events, the lawyer immediately responds: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus was pleased with the response and he commends the lawyer for the response. And he adds that the lawyer just needs to follow what he already knew so as to inherit eternal life. The lawyer wasn’t satisfied. He wants to justify himself, says the Scripture, so poses a further question: “Who is my neighbor?”

“Who is my neighbor?” This question stumped me. Why on earth would the lawyer ask such a question? Why not ask how he could love God with all his heart, soul, strength and mind? Or he could have asked how it is even possible to love one’s neighbor as oneself? Instead, he asks this rather intriguing question: “Who is my neighbor?” Let’s think about it: There seems to be certain logic to his question. The lawyer seems to realize that it is hard to love everyone who comes our way as we love ourselves; so he’s asking whom he could skip loving and yet inherit eternal life. In other words, the lawyer is asking who deserves his love? Could he skip loving evil and annoying people? He wants to find a loophole in the law and know whom he could eliminate from the category of neighbors. If there is such a category of people that he can avoid loving, then maybe it is possible for him to follow the law.

In response to that question, Jesus tells this famous parable of the Good Samaritan. The story is so simple and profound that it invokes a response in everyone that listens to it. A man was going down from the temple city of Jerusalem to Jericho. It is an eighteen-mile stretch of road between the two cities and the journey is arduous because of the altitude of the two cities. Jerusalem is 2,500 feet above sea level and Jericho is 825 feet below sea level. This dramatic change in altitude is exhausting to travellers and the terrain itself allowed for an ideal place for robbers to rob people. The traveller in Jesus’ story falls prey to some evil men on his way. These men rob him and then beat him until he was unrecognizable. As a final insult they strip him bare and leave him by the side of the road.

After some time, a man of God was going down the same road from the temple city toward Jericho. Perhaps he heard the faint moaning of the man who was lying by the roadside, or maybe he smelt the strange odor of blood. Whatever may be the case, when he saw the half-dead man he drew himself away in fear and disgust. Not long after that, a servant of God’s temple came upon the same sight, he too felt nothing toward the dying man and also chose to do nothing for him. They were only concerned about their reputation or perhaps they were just trying to keep their appointments or wanted to avoid any kind of nuisance in their lives.

A third man, a Samaritan, was going down the same road and came to the exact spot. Despite the stench and filth, he saw the beaten man and was moved with compassion. He came down from his donkey and cleaned the wounds of the man and covered them with oil and wine. I am sure, he clothed him with whatever clothes he could spare – even some of his own clothes. He did not stop there! He lifted the man onto his own donkey and led him to the nearest town. Remember, this was at a considerable risk to his own safety, because it slowed down his journey through dangerous territory. Yet he didn’t shy away from doing it. He went further in showing compassion. He took him to an inn and paid two denarii for the man’s stay at the inn and any care that’s given him. Then he promised to come back to pay any outstanding expenses. That’s the generosity of that Good Samaritan.

Now Jesus asks the same question that the lawyer asked him: “Who do you think is the neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer answered correctly again: “The one who showed compassion.” To this Jesus replies: “Go and do likewise.” Funny, I thought, the conclusion of the story is not: “Go and find your neighbor.” Or, “now you know who your neighbor is!” Instead, Jesus concludes the story by saying: “Go and do likewise.”

As important as it is to delve on the question of who our neighbor is, I feel that we need to focus on what Jesus is asking us to do. I think as Jesus is telling this parable, he is not only answering the question of who our neighbor is, but he is also showing us we can love our neighbors. We can in fact see hints of what love towards our neighbor may look like. Based on that hunch, I will draw at least three lessons that we can learn from this story.

Lesson # 1: Showing Compassion is a Way of Loving:

As you all know we are celebrating the life and achievements of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Remembering his legacy and leadership, I am going to borrow one of his insights on this parable. On a personal note: Dr. King has this beautiful way of inspiring people and his sermons have rekindled my spirit when I was in the lowest point during my graduate studies. There was a time when I felt that my life was useless as I was just stuck in a library reading books and not being useful to the society. During that period, the book of sermons that has lifted me up was The Strength to Love. If you haven’t read his sermons, I would highly recommend it.

Going back to the parable, in his final speech called “I’ve been to the mountaintop,” he includes a stunning commentary on the Good Samaritan. We will listen to a part of the clip from that speech now (from 3:20 until the end):

The Priest and the Levite asked: “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” The Samaritan asked: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” That’s the question to all of us this morning. When we feel the pain of those who are struggling, then we can ask the question that the Good Samaritan asked. The Good Samaritan put himself in the shoes of the man who was dying by the roadside and couldn’t help but ask what would happen to him if he doesn’t help. He was moved with compassion because he put himself in the shoes of the dying man.

In the gospels, many times we read that Jesus was moved with compassion and he does the healings and teaches folks because of that compassion. At our church too, we have been reminded time and again of the saying of Jesus: “Be compassionate as I am compassionate.” The world is hurting all around us and there in as immense need for us to be compassionate. Showing compassion is a way of loving. Being compassionate is not an end in itself; it’s just the beginning. Through that compassion flows acts of kindness.

Lesson # 2: Doing Acts of Kindness/Selfless Service is a Way of Loving.

Think about it: The Good Samaritan is on a journey, and just like the priest and the temple helper, he has his own plans. Yet, when he saw the half-dead man on the side of the road, without worrying about his own life or his own plans, he chose to serve. I note that he is considering the interruption in his plans as an opportunity to serve. It is considered a divine appointment to reach out to the one who needed his help.

First he dresses the wounds, and then he clothes him, and then he lets the man sit on his donkey, and further he pays for the inn, and finally he promises to pay any outstanding expenses. Through his acts of kindness, he is certainly going that extra mile that Jesus talks about. How can I love my neighbor? Through our acts of kindness – those are those acts of kindness that we do without any expectation. I am sure many of you might have experienced in your lives where people have gone out of their way to help. I have such a story.

It was the year 2011 and I was going to a summer institute in Philadelphia. One of my closest friends, Makito Nagasawa, and I took a train from New York City. As we reached Philadelphia, we took the local train as planned to go to our destination. We traveled happily for almost 40 minutes before the ticket collector asked us where we were supposed to go. We told him the name of the station where we thought we will be getting off. But he stopped us by saying that the train doesn’t go there. That was not the right train! We were very sure that we were on the right train, but the train conductor was right. There were three people listening to our conversation and all of them confirmed that we were indeed on the wrong train. We were confused and we didn’t know what to do. So, at the next train station, we got off the train.

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Local public transit trains in Philadelphia

The three people, who were in the train also got off the train, and chatting about us, went on their way. Soon the train also left the station and Makito and I were super confused about what to do next. Then came a stranger, actually an angel – a middle-aged African-American woman, who overheard the conversation of the three people that were in our car and came to help us. She told us we had two options: one is to go back to the station where we first boarded the train and take the right train, which would have taken approximately one and half hours. Or two: to take her offer of a ride. Without any hint of hesitation we chose the second option. It took around 30 minutes to reach our destination. Our hearts were filled with immense gratitude and except for a sincere ‘thank you’ we couldn’t do much. In fact, she didn’t expect anything in return; it was a sheer act of kindness. She didn’t care for the disruption in her plans because of the unnecessary ride that she had to give us. I don’t even know her name but still I remember her kindness. The point is: another way of loving those in need is by doing acts of kindness to them.

Lesson # 3: Striving for Holistic Healing is a Way of Loving:

There is a third way in which we can show our love to our neighbors in need. It is by striving for their holistic healing. One of the most fascinating parts of the story for me is the part where the Good Samaritan promises to come back and take care of the outstanding expenses. He did his part by nursing the wounds of the man and by putting him up at an inn for healing and paying for it. But he goes beyond and he wants to bear the extra burden to take care of the extra cost for the complete healing of the wounded man.

Holistic healing for the wounded man would mean that he’d gain his strength and would continue on his journey. Holistic healing could have many faces in our current society. I would think it would be fine to replace the word justice to holistic healing in the context of the issues in our society. Striving for justice then is a way of loving. Let me give you one example and conclude.

00 homeOne of the activities that our youth are so fond of doing is to feed the homeless people. They loving prepare the meals and we go and give those meals to those who are unsheltered. That’s a fascinating thing that our youth do and we all are proud of them. We need to remember however that homelessness has many consequences: people who are homeless have difficulty recuperating from illnesses, they are exposed to gratuitous violence, they are vulnerable to have their possessions being stolen, they experience severe social isolation and malnutrition, they are exposed to extremes of weather, they suffer from low self-esteem, and many suffer from mental illness – from distress to disorders. If we want to strive for holistic healing for homelessness, then it would require us to work on the areas that I have mentioned. (The saddest part is this: According to 2018 HUDA numbers, around 554,000 people are considered homeless in the U.S. of which 193,000 are considered “unsheltered.” While that is the case, there are 17 million vacant homes around the country. That means, for every homeless person in the U.S. there are approximately 30 vacant homes.) Feeding the homeless is indeed a way of loving our neighbors, but it’s the first step; and depending of our abilities, we need to strive to go beyond.

In conclusion, I have pointed out three ways in which we can love our neighbors: 1) Showing compassion is a way of loving; 2) Doing acts of kindness is a way of loving; and 3) Striving for holistic healing is a way of loving. Let us not be overwhelmed by the immense needs in our society, let’s start with what we can to reach out and share our love in whatever ways we can. May God help us in our endeavors to love our neighbors, Amen!

 

The Key to Happiness

If I said, I have a surefire way of making you 10-25% happier with your life would you do it?[1]

As long as it didn’t harm you or harm anyone around you and it wasn’t illegal, would you do it?  I can’t think of anyone who would so “no” to that.  The funny thing is the key to happiness in this lifetime is much more simple than you probably imagined.  So simple in fact, you will think to yourself, “Now why didn’t I do that before?”  Some of you, even after I tell you what it is, may not do it, and that’s all right.  But if you DO it, you will be happier.  Numerous studies have shown you will be happier.  In fact, you’ll be happier than if you won a million dollars in the lottery.[2]  It’s true.  Want to know what it is?  You’re going to have to wait.  We’ll get to that in a few minutes.

Last week, we began exploring life through the context of the book have a little faith.

In the book the author, Mitch Albom, follows the lives of two men who have had a powerful impact on his life – a rabbi and a Christian minister.  And through their lives he discovers answers to some of life’s hardest questions.  This week we are going to focus on the elusive quest for happiness.  How can we live a happier life?  When Mitch asked the rabbi this question, this was his answer:

“The things society tells us we must have to be happy – a new this or that, a bigger house, a better job.  I know the falsity of it.  I have counseled many people who have all these things, and I can tell you they are not happy because of them.  The number of marriages that have disintegrated when they had all the stuff in the world.  The families who fought and argued all the time, when they had money and health.  Having more does not keep you from wanting more.  And if you always want more – to be richer, more beautiful, more well known – you are missing the bigger picture, and I can tell you from experience, happiness will never come.”  So, have we solved the secret of happiness?  “I believe so,” he said.  Are you going to tell me?  “Yes.  Ready?”  Ready.  “Be satisfied.”  That’s it?  “Be grateful.”  That’s it?  “For what you have.  For the love you receive.  And for what God has given you.”   That’s it?  He looked me in the eye.  Then he sighed deeply.  “That’s it.”

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Keeping a gratitude journal is more fulfilling than winning the lottery!

That’s the key to happiness.  Be grateful.

Be grateful.  Studies show that being grateful increases your happiness anywhere from 10%-25% over a period of time.  10% to 25%!  Not just for the day or for the moment, but sustained happiness over a period of time.  Dr. Robert Emmons did an experiment where he asked people to write down once a week five things they were grateful for.  He compared their results and their levels of reported happiness and found that this simple exercise of recording your blessings increased their happiness by 25%.  Not only that, but they were more optimistic about their future, felt better about their lives, and exercised 1.5 hours more per week than those in either of the other two groups.  They did a similar exercise with a group of patients suffering from neuromuscular disorders, often a result of a delayed reaction to the polio virus.  They wanted to find out if their hypothesis held up even among people who had deeper challenges.  They found that this group also expressed more happiness and optimism than those who didn’t write down their blessings and that they even slept better than the other group.[3]  What was most astounding to me was another study done that showed over a six-month period you would be happier recording your blessings for five minutes a day than winning more than a million dollars in the lottery.  In that moment, winning the lottery seems pretty awesome, but in just six months your happiness increase is barely up 4% to what it was before, compared to 10% by people who simply journal their thanksgiving – 2.5 times happier than winning the lottery.  Want to know other ways that gratitude makes your life better?  People like you more.  You are generally healthier.  It can boost your career.  It reduces materialism and increases your spirituality.  It improves our sleep.  We live longer lives.  It makes us feel good.  It helps us to relax.  We have better marriages.  We have more and better friends.  And at work it can improve our productivity and decision making.  And those are just SOME of the benefits of being grateful.[4]

gratitudeBut gratitude seems to be going the way of the dinosaur.

If you have your Bibles with you or a Bible app on your phone, would you please go to the Gospel of Luke, chapter 17, beginning with verse 11.  Luke 17:11.[5]  More and more we seem to have an attitude of entitlement or expectation rather than thankfulness.  How many times have you opened the door for someone and they just walk through without saying anything?  How many times have you let someone in front of you while driving and they don’t acknowledge you with even a “thank you” wave?  Whatever happened to the “thank you” wave?  How absent is our attitude of gratitude?  Well don’t worry.  This isn’t something new.  In fact, even Jesus had to deal with this problem. Interestingly, this encounter with Christ happens right after Luke’s version of the mustard seed story, which is a little bit different than the one we heard last week.  But this is what happened.  If you’ll please rise for the reading of the Gospel as we share from Luke 17:11-19.  Hear now the Word of God.

11 Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance 13 and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!” 14 When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed.

15 One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. 16 He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan. 17 Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? 18 Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.” – Luke 17:11-19

Ten men all had the same affliction – leprosy.  Ten men were healed.  But only one came back.

Only one came back to give thanks.  They might have wondered why Jesus was sending them to the priest, but as they walked, the answer became obvious – to be welcomed back into society.  Only the priest could declare someone as having been cured of leprosy.  And being cured was a big deal because having it meant you were ostracized from society.  You were banished not only for fear that your disease might spread, but because people thought you were being punished by God for some sin that you had committed.  The disease was a mark of God’s wrath upon you.  So to be suddenly cured of something that had kept them away from family, friends, and the rest of society would have been a miracle to say the least.  But only one of them returned.  Maybe the others were in a hurry to get the approval of the priest.  Maybe the others never put two and two together that through Jesus, God had cured them. Maybe they never even thought about it and were just glad that it was over.  But one did.  One of them realized that this gift came from Christ and came back in gratitude.  The irony here is that it was one of the least likely person to have done so – the Samaritan.  The Samaritan people were looked down upon by the Jews.  They were considered unclean because most of them had intermarried with others in the area so the Jews looked down upon them as unworthy.  The Samaritan, more than any other, would have reason not to come back – out of spite, out of anger, out of loneliness.  But instead, he realizes who the source is of his many blessings, and comes back to give thanks.  Now, the Bible doesn’t tell us how many foreigners were in this group, but likely there were at least as many Jewish people as there were others.  But none of them came back except the one.  How much is that like us today?  We take for granted that God provides.  We take for granted that Jesus offers salvation.  And we do little to appreciate it.  Instead we get angry at God when things don’t go our way instead of being grateful for what we do have.

We live today in an age of entitlement.

People EXPECT to have things given to them.  People EXPECT to have things go right.  We live with the philosophy that I’m a good person so good things should happen to me and we equate “good things” with “things we want to have happen.”  We equate “good things” with “things we want to have happen.”  Even if we don’t do anything to deserve them.  And we get mad when they don’t.  On one of our trips to Los Angeles, my daughter Emma and I went to this little food place called Milk where they serve the best red velvet cupcakes I’ve ever tasted and these really yummy morsels called Ooey Gooey Chocolate Chip Cookies.  Don’t get me started or we’ll never get out of here.  But as we left the car and walked to the place, there was a homeless woman asking for money from anyone who passed by.  And seeing her really bothered Emma.  She felt bad that this woman was without a home and without a place to call her own, so as we walked back she asked me, “Daddy if that woman is still there, can I give her my money?”  She reached into her pocket and pulled out what little change she had, and I smiled at her and said, “Of course, honey.  That would be nice.”  And sure enough, the woman was still there, so Emma went up to her and gave her every last cent in her pocket.  I know it made Emma feel good to do what she could to help her.  Emma will often give her own money to Sunday School or the homeless or whatever else she feels compelled to give towards.  So the woman took her money, looked up at her, looked up at me, and said, “That’s it?!”  I was shocked.  “That’s it?!” she said again in a loud voice, looking at the coins.  “Can’t you do better than that?  Come on I want to go buy some stuff.”  It crushed Emma.  It made me mad.  Now, I know it wasn’t a huge amount, but this was coming from a woman who had nothing and was begging on the streets for a handout.  Yet when a little child gave her all she had, she spat on it like it was nothing.  I offered to take back the money, but the homeless woman held on to it anyway.  I guess she didn’t feel that badly about it.  Emma, however, felt horrible about it all the way home and would mention it again and again.  “Daddy, if I had more I would have given it to her.”  We talked all the way home about how we can only be faithful to God and where God leads us, but it’s up to others how they react.  Still, how ungrateful can we be?  And it made me think, are we sometimes that ungrateful toward God?

In Jesus, we have received the greatest gift of all – forgiveness.

He died bearing the sins of the world, and WE PUT HIM THERE.  He suffered because of our sinful nature.  And still asked for forgiveness on our behalf.  And because of that, we have been given a chance at eternal life with our Father in Heaven.  But do we thank God for that?  Do you take time to reflect on all of your blessings?  Or are you more like the nine lepers instead of the one – just going about your business as if somehow you deserved his grace?  We’ve talked about all the benefits that being grateful does for us, but perhaps we should acknowledge why we should be grateful.  Because God deserves it.  Because God deserves it.  Take time out of your day each day over the next month and simply spend five minutes listing the things you are grateful for.  They could be minor, they could be life-changing, but spend just five minutes each day listing the things you are grateful for.  When we take time out to be grateful, it changes our perspective on life.  It helps us to appreciate the people around us more and to appreciate the blessings we have.  We begin to look at life not as a series of things we don’t have, but instead for the many things we do.  And it changes us as well.  It changes us to be more like the one than the other nine.  It changes us to look at a child’s gift with grace and gratitude instead of spite.  And it offers to the world a better place to live.  On top of all that?  It will make you a happier person.  As a wise man once said, “It is not happiness that makes us grateful, but gratefulness that makes us happy.”[6]  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

[1] http://www.spring.org.uk/2007/09/practicing-gratitude-can-increase.php and http://happierhuman.com/benefits-of-gratitude/

[2] http://happierhuman.com/benefits-of-gratitude/

[3] http://www.spring.org.uk/2007/09/practicing-gratitude-can-increase.php

[4] http://happierhuman.com/benefits-of-gratitude/

[5] I was inspired to use this passage because of a devotional I read at Christianity Today.  Thank you to people with a heart of gratitude. http://www.christianitytoday.com/iyf/faithandlife/devotionals/9c3010.html

[6] http://blog.ted.com/2013/06/14/want-to-be-happy-be-grateful-brother-david-steindl-rast-at-tedglobal-2013/

Mustard Seeds

Wishful thinking is not the same as faith.

But we often believe it is don’t we?  We’re told in so many different ways all we have to do is have enough faith and everything’s going to be alright.  If we just have enough faith, we’ll be able to have a baby.  If we just have enough faith, we’ll win the ball game.  If we just have enough faith, we won’t be sick anymore.  All we need is ENOUGH faith.  But how much is enough?  No one ever tells us that.  It seems like it’s enough if what we want to come true comes true. And not enough if it doesn’t.  But that isn’t right is it?  Does anyone think God is that petty?  Do you imagine God in Heaven saying, “Well, if Bob had just a smidgen more faith, I would have done it, but since he didn’t, I guess he won’t get that job.”  Is that really the kind of God we follow?  When the Dodgers or the Giants don’t win the game, is it because we didn’t have enough faith, or was it because the shortstop overthrew first base and the runner scored? Was it because the pitcher didn’t have enough faith or was it because on that night he couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn?  On some level we know God isn’t that petty, that he doesn’t punish us for our lack of faith, but we’ve been taught for so long to equate faith with this power of positive thinking, that if I believe it enough it’ll come true, that it’s hard to know the difference.

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Dodgers and Giants don’t win or lose based on who prays harder

There’s a passage in the Bible that at first glance might seem to reinforce this concept of faith.

That if you simply have enough of it, God will do whatever you want.  But when you look at this passage, turn it around and look at it from all sides, you’ll see in fact it says something completely different.  If you’ll go to the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 17, beginning with verse 14, we’ll read this passage together.  Matthew 17:14.  Now this passage occurs in all three of the Synoptic Gospels – that is the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke – which is important because while all three recount many of the same events in roughly the same order, there are slight differences.  Now right before this passage, Peter, John, and James have just witnessed the Transfiguration, when Jesus goes on top of a mountain and talks with Moses and Elijah as if they were old buddies.  The three disciples are already stunned to see these legendary prophets with Jesus when suddenly they hear this voice out of the clouds, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.  Listen to him!”  And all three of them collapse to the ground.  You probably would too if the voice of God just laid witness to Christ’s divinity.  But Jesus touches them lightly, tells them not to be afraid, and they walk down the mountain.  That’s when this passage begins.

14 When they came to the crowd, a man approached Jesus and knelt before him. 15 “Lord, have mercy on my son,” he said. “He has seizures and is suffering greatly. He often falls into the fire or into the water. 16 I brought him to your disciples, but they could not heal him.”

 17 “You unbelieving and perverse generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy here to me.” 18 Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of the boy, and he was healed at that moment.  19 Then the disciples came to Jesus in private and asked, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?”  20 He replied, “Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” – Matthew 17:14-20

If you have faith the size of a mustard seed nothing will be impossible for you.

Sounds a lot like the message those self-help gurus like to spout right?  The power of positive thinking!  Just have enough faith!  And apparently the disciples came up short because Jesus tells them they have so little of it.  But if the disciples, who’ve seen Jesus perform miracles and have even performed some themselves, if even THEY don’t have enough faith, how would?  The Bible doesn’t tell us if Jesus is referring to Peter, John, and James, but they just saw and heard the impossible – Jesus talking to two dead prophets and the voice of God telling them that Jesus was his Son.  They didn’t have enough faith?  But maybe…maybe we don’t know the whole story.  When we read Matthew’s account alone, it seems like that’s exactly what Jesus is saying, that they just didn’t have enough positive thoughts, but Matthew only gives us part of the story. If you read Mark’s version, it’s longer and ends a little differently.[1]  In Mark, Jesus has the boy brought to him and the father asks Jesus to help them out if he can to which Jesus replies, “’If I can?’ Anything is possible if a person believes.” And he cures him, but this time when the disciples ask why they couldn’t drive the demon out, Jesus replies simply, “This kind can be cast out only by prayer.”  This kind can be cast out only by prayer.  Apparently, nobody had prayed for the boy.  Nobody had called on God to do the work.  They were relying only on themselves.  So in light of this, it’s no wonder Jesus would call them out and say they had little faith.  It wasn’t that they didn’t believe in THEMSELVES.  It was that they didn’t believe enough in God to turn to him in their need.

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We believe in places we’ve never seen because we have faith plus knowledge. Here’s Cassie and I in Shanghai in 2017.

When it comes to faith we have a problem with semantics.

Larry Osborne, in his book “10 Dumb Things Smart Christians Believe” described it this way.[2]  Generally, when we think of faith, we think of what this power of positive thinking.  “If I have enough faith, I can move mountains.”  But if we ask people about belief, people tend to associate belief with intellect – a process where we come to a conclusion about something based on the knowledge we have available.  Like the fact we believe India, Hong Kong, Ireland, and other countries exist even though most of us have never been there.  And when we ask people about trust, there is an action component to our belief.  “I trust you” is usually something we say right before we prove it by our actions.  Faith. Belief. Trust.  Three different words in the English language that are similar but that we associate in different ways.  Faith is emotional; belief is intellectual; and trust is actionable – yet all three share the same root Greek word in the Bible.  This is one of those instances where our ability to translate the Bible falls short and the nuance of the word gets lost.  Our understanding of faith is cut short if we only mean it as an emotional response – the power of positive thinking.   We fail to see the deeper meaning that incorporates both belief and trust.  And it is only when we understand faith as a blending of emotion, intelligence, AND action, that we understand what faith is.  Look at Hebrews 11.  If we read the entire chapter it’s a litany of faith stories.  Some end happily and miraculously, but some also end tragically and brutally and yet in verse 39 the Bible says this, “39 These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, 40 since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.”  None had received what was promised.  It makes you wonder then how do we understand faith?

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“Faith is not a skill we master, but a map we follow.” – Larry Osborne

Larry Osborne described it this way:

“Faith is not a skill we master.  It’s not an impenetrable shield that protects us from life’s hardships and trials.  It’s not a magic potion that removes every mess.  It’s a map we follow.”  Faith is not a skill we master…it’s a map we follow.  When we are hurting the most in life, it’s faith that carries us through.  Not the power to think positively, but the ability to continue as if Christ is still in control of our lives.  To behave and respond with trust that even in the darkest corners God will be with us even in this.  That’s what faith is, to put our belief in the hand of God and say, “Even if I don’t understand this, even if it hurts like nothing that has ever hurt before, I will lay this down before you and trust in you.”  That’s faith.  It isn’t a pill we take to get better.  It isn’t a cure-all for the world’s ills.  It’s a process.  It’s how we behave, act, and believe when the world around us falters. Faith defines who we are and how we behave when things DON’T work out.  It doesn’t take faith when things are working great.  It takes a LOT of faith to continue to trust in God when things are collapsing all around you.  In the end, faith is the answer to the question, “What do I do now?”  Faith is the answer to the question, “What do I do now?”

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The power of prayer can be an awesome thing – here we were so fortunate to have our church pray for us on our last Sunday

In the book, Mitch tells a story about the time when the rabbi’s daughter died at the age of four.

It was his first time back in the pulpit after the tragedy where this precious little girl died from an asthma attack, the kind that today could have been prevented, but back then had cost her life.  The rabbi stepped up to the pulpit and shared his anger at God.  He shared his tears and his loss with God.  He talked about the pain and the hurt he felt at losing his little girl.  And he talked about prayer.  He faithfully recited the words of the Kaddish, the Mourner’s Prayer in Hebrew, and as he said those words it made him think, “I am part of something here; one day my children will say this very prayer for me just as I am saying it for my daughter.”   His faith brought him comfort.  The act of saying that prayer, a prayer he must have said many times with others and now for himself, helped him to realize that we are all frail parts of something powerful.  That even when we curse God for our misfortune, we have faith that there is a power greater than ourselves that knows more than we know and even though we don’t know what that is, our faith can bring us solace even in the dark times.  He would see his little girl again one day. In the meantime his faith would help him to heal.

Faith is real.

But it isn’t some magic medicine to make the pain of the world go away.  Faith is what carries us in those times.  To reduce faith to the power of positive thinking marginalizes what it really is.  Faith is partially something we feel, something we know, and something we do.  It is greater than any one those things alone.  Faith is believing enough during the good times that we act consistently the life Christ asks us to live – to love others we don’t even like, to be kind to people who don’t even appreciate it, to help out just because it’s the right thing to do.  And faith is believing enough during the bad times to hang on to God despite what our feelings might tell us in our pain.  To know that God has something greater in store for us.  To lift up praise even in our hurt.  And most of all to turn to God when we’re not sure he’s even there through prayer and worship.  Because that is the kind of faith that honors God and shows we truly believe.  It’s the kind of faith that provides a powerful witness to all that God can do.  And it’s the only kind of faith that will truly bring you the peace of Christ in your heart when you need it the most.  Faith IS that powerful.  When Jesus tells us that faith the size of a mustard seed can move a mountain, he wasn’t kidding.  A mustard seed is one of the smallest seeds in the world.  Often only one or two MILLIMETERS in size, but it can grow into the biggest of garden plants nine or ten feet tall.[3]  And if God can put that much power in that small a package, just think of what he can do in you.  Because everything is possible for him who believes.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

 

[1] http://faithdays.wordpress.com/2010/03/10/day-22-mark-914-29-the-healing-of-a-demon-possessed-boy/ One of the sources that provided deeper introspection about this passage and about Jesus’ perspective on it. https://www.facebook.com/notes/alfred-scott/why-couldnt-the-disciples-cast-out-the-demon-from-the-boy-in-matthew-17/632227293468847 Another good passage.

[2] Larry Osborne, 10 Dumb Things Smart Christians Believe, p. 10-12.

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mustard_seed

The 12th Day of Christmas

Everything you know about Christmas is wrong!

Okay, not EVERYTHING.  But it’s astounding how much information about the most famous Christian holiday of the year has been lost to “tradition” by Christians.  Like the fact that December 25th is not likely to be Jesus’ actual birthday.  Especially if he was born outdoors. And although most nativity scenes show Jesus born in some kind of barn or stable, it’s just as likely he was born in a cave which is where many Israelites at the time kept their animals.  A cave provided more complete shelter from the weather and didn’t require much construction other than a fence.  I have to admit, when I first heard the song “Away in A Manger,” I always thought the manger referred to where Jesus was born, not the animal trough he used as a crib.  And did you know that December 25th is the FIRST day of the 12 days of Christmas?  The twelve days after Christmas are considered Christmastime.  So, on Christmas you would have received the LEAST number of gifts, not the most.  And at the end of it all, was the Christian holiday of the Epiphany.  Believe it or not, it used to be bigger than Christmas and was one of the most celebrated days of the year along with Easter and Pentecost.  But somehow, the Epiphany became nothing more than a little-known Christian observance instead of one of the most pivotal moments in the Christian calendar.  But what is it?

 

Epiphany is the day when the magi arrived to honor the Christ child.

We hear about it in the Gospel of Matthew, so if you have a Bible or a Bible app on your phone, please go to Matthew 2:1-2 and then we’ll skip ahead to read verses 9-12.  Another belief that has been perpetuated over the years is that the magi arrived on Christmas Day.  But if the star they saw in the sky was indeed the Star of Bethlehem that rose at Jesus’ birth, it would have been much later that they would have arrived.  Some speculate that it could have been as much as two years later.[1]  Adam Hamilton in his book Christianity and World Religions writes that these magi were actually Zoroastrian priests – followers of a completely different faith who believed that the stars revealed certain truths about the universe.[2]  Zoroastrianism was originated in what is now modern-day Iraq[3] – about 1,200 miles away.  That trip would have taken two to three months if they suddenly left the moment they saw the star, but it’s more likely they would’ve prepared for the journey before undertaking it.[4]  They would have had to round up their supplies, the animals, the gifts, and their families or staff.  That only three of them went on this massive journey would have been unlikely.  And where did the number three come from because it doesn’t mention it in the Bible? Nor does it say they were kings. Instead, let’s hear it from the source itself.  The story of the magi is only in Matthew’s version of the Gospel so we’ll read that passage this morning.

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Where did this version of the Epiphany come from? Why Three Kings? Did they really come when Jesus was born? Who puts their child in an open barn in the dead of winter?

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

Herod upon hearing this, became frightened because he believed like most other Jews, that the savior would come and take control of Israel.  That would mean Herod and his family would lose power if this child ever came to claim the throne.  Fearful for his crown, Herod secretly met with the magi and sent them to Bethlehem to search for the Christ child, with every intent of killing this possible threat.  The story continues.

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

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The galette des rois is a French pastry made only during the month of January to celebrate Epiphany

The Epiphany is about the revelation of Christ to the world.

And the reason this is so significant is that it proves God’s intention to include ALL of humanity in his plan for salvation.  It was the first time people outside the Israelites saw Christ and believed He was the Messiah!  It is the moment God’s covenant in Christ was extended to everyone.  Paul understood this as he proclaimed the Word of God to the Romans.  He says in chapter 3, verse 29, “Is God the God of Jews only?  Is he not the God of Gentiles too?  Yes, of Gentiles too…”  And then in Romans 10:11-13, Paul continues, “As the Scripture says, “Anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame.” For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”  Most of the Jewish people believed God was their God, that God would only be revealed to the people of Israel and that those who did not follow the faith according to Torah would never be accepted by the Lord.  Even most of the Gentile converts believed they had to become Jewish according to the law for Christ to accept them.  Men had adult circumcisions to comply with Jewish tradition and Paul had to write to the churches in Rome, Corinth, Galatia, and Colossae to tell them to stop!  Not only was it extremely painful, but it could result in infection or even death!  Paul had to overcome that gut reaction to tradition and explain that it wasn’t necessary.  Christ accepted them as they were. In Galatians 5:6 he wrote, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value.  The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.

What it meant to be a “chosen people” radically changed with Jesus.

Instead of what they had always believed to be the meaning behind those words, the Israelites found out it meant something different.  They weren’t God’s only people.  Instead they were the people God chose to reach the world.  And just as God didn’t force the Gentiles to become Jewish, God reached out to the rest of the world in ways that they understood.  He didn’t bring this collection of Zoroastrian priests to Christ DESPITE their faith in another religion, but THROUGH their faith.  It might seem like a contradiction if you read other parts of the Bible.  After all, these Zoroastrian priests relied on astrology to figure out Jesus was the Christ child.  And in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses tells the people of Israel, “Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, 11 or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. 12 Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord… (Deuteronomy 18)” Yet, God uses the priests’ belief in astrology to bring them to Jesus.  Why were the Israelites forbidden from things like astrology and other sorts of divination when it worked for the magi?  It’s because once you know Christ as Lord, to rely on these other forms of faith is to lose faith in Christ.  But to those who do not know Christ as Lord, God reaches out to them in ways they can understand.

It’s just continued evidence of God’s love for all of creation.

Epiphany is such an important part of our Christian calendar because it opened up our idea of salvation to be for everyone.  And just as God has opened up his love for us, we too can open up our love for others, for not only do we gain hope from this day, but an example of the kind of love God wants us to express to all of those around us.  Because when you understand how God loved us despite all our faults and failings and how God continues to reach out to the world despite so many who reject him, you begin to see how great God’s love is for us.  And you also begin to understand how our own prejudices set us against one another when God wants us to instead reach out in love.  We have to continually challenge ourselves to put aside our own biases and our own misconceptions about others and learn to love each other.  That is the true meaning of the Epiphany.  God’s acceptance of us all.  Dennis Bratcher summarized these thoughts in a simple but beautiful prayer that I’d like you all to join me in as we close our message today.

“Father, we thank you for revealing yourself to us in Jesus the Christ, we who once were not your people but whom you chose to adopt as your people. As ancient Israel confessed long ago, we realize that it was not because of our own righteousness, or our own superior wisdom, or strength, or power, or numbers. It was simply because you loved us, and chose to show us that love in Jesus.

As you have accepted us when we did not deserve your love, will you help us to accept those whom we find it hard to love? Forgive us, O Lord, for any attitude that we harbor that on any level sees ourselves as better or more righteous than others.  Will you help us to remove the barriers of prejudice and to tear down the walls of bigotry, religious or social?  O Lord, help us realize that the walls that we erect for others only form our own prisons!

Will you fill us so full of your love that there is no more room for intolerance. As you have forgiven us much, will you enable us with your strength to forgive others even more? Will you enable us through your abiding Presence among us, communally and individually, to live our lives in a manner worthy of the Name we bear?

May we, through your guidance and our faithful obedience, find new avenues in ways that we have not imagined of holding the Light of your love so that it may be a Light of revelation for all people. We thank you for your love, praise you for your Gift, ask for your continued Presence with us, and bring these petitions in the name of your Son, who has truly revealed your heart.  Amen”[5]

 

[1] Stephen M. Miller, The Jesus of the Bible, p.60.

[2] Adam Hamilton, Christianity and World Religions, p.27.

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zoroastrianism

[4] OpCit., Miller, p.60.

[5] http://www.crivoice.org/cyepiph.html.

As You Wish

As you wish.

That’s all Westley would ever say.  But it meant so much more.  In the film, The Princess Bride, Westley starts out as a farm boy working for Buttercup’s family and those three words were all he ever said to Buttercup.  “As you wish.”  She would ask him to do the most menial tasks like cleaning the stable or polishing her saddle or fetching her some odd thing and he would simply say to her, “As you wish.”  But as the narrator tells us, what he was really saying was, “I love you.”  If you say those three words to any fan of The Princess Bride they will know EXACTLY what you mean.  But it isn’t some secret code.  He wasn’t actually using the words “I love you” and Buttercup just heard it as something else.  His words, “As you wish,” was his way of submitting to her and it was that act of willingly giving yourself to someone that won her heart.

 

Submission is such a dirty word.

At least by our cultural standards today.  But that’s because we have often been victims of abuse by those we submit to.  Whether it’s our spouse or our boss or the government, it feels like over time we have been betrayed by the people we trust the most.  And that’s what submission is based on – trust.  When that trust is broken, our willingness to submit erodes over time until we no longer look at it as a viable option.  But when done right, submission is not only loving but freeing as well.  If you have a Bible or a Bible app would you please go to Mark 10:41. The church has done a poor job of understanding this concept for centuries.  I wish it were otherwise, but passages in the Bible telling wives to submit to their husbands have given permission for me to abuse their wives for hundreds if not thousands of years.  How we could get something so simple so wrong is unforgivable and astounding.  In Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus, he writes (Ephesians 5:22), “Wives, submit to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.”  And that’s all well and good, but for thousands of years we’ve ignored the rest of that passage which starts out with “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”  Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. A good and healthy relationship according to Paul is one of mutual submission. Mutual. Not one-sided.  Not uneven.  Mutual.  “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

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Our newest happy couple! Naomi Sanchez-Varney and Stephen Varney

As if that weren’t enough, we also ignore everything AFTER “Wives, submit to your own husbands.”

If you read the whole passage, Paul spends eight full verses on how husbands are supposed to honor their wives and treat them with more honor and respect than anyone else in the world.  Do you know how many verses he takes up talking about wives submitting to their husbands?  Three.  He has to use nearly three times as much space to tell guys the same thing he says to the women in just a few verses.  Maybe that says something about men’s capacity to understand?  For whatever reason, Paul outlines for the guys what God expects and tells them they are supposed to treat their wives with the same kind of love and sacrifice as Christ did for all of humanity.  That’s a pretty high standard to live up to but one which Paul felt women deserved.  It’s what we all deserve in a committed, loving relationship – a partner who puts our needs, wants, hopes, and dreams above their own.

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Our other newest happy couple – Chai and Callie

Sacrifice is at the heart of love.

All we have to do is look to Jesus to see that was true.  Having the heart of a servant, being willing to submit to those you love, those are attributes Jesus exhibited time and time again.  There was that moment when Jesus washed the feet of the disciples.  The rest of them were probably confused, but Peter was near horrified.  “You shall never wash my feet,” he told Jesus, but Jesus looked up at him and said, “Unless I wash you, you have no part of me.”  Finally, Peter relented and after Jesus washed their feet, he told them, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. 16 Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” Then there was the time when James and John asked Jesus if they could sit at his right and his left when he finally claimed his kingdom.  Jesus told them that was a decision for God alone to decide.  But just the audacity to ask the question made the other disciples mad and that’s when Jesus shared with them all this piece of wisdom.

41 When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. 42 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

If we want to look for inspiration for how we should love one another, we only have to look to the cross and witness for ourselves the sacrifice that Christ made for us.  He warns us how easily authority can be abused and when we submit ourselves before others, that’s exactly what we are doing – giving them authority over us and trusting that they will do what’s right.  But as Jesus points out, so many don’t do what’s right.  He talks about the rulers of the Gentiles and the high officials and how they love to boss people around and make them do what they want.  But Jesus said that to truly become great is not about who can dominate the most people.  That’s just abusing the trust people place in you.  Being great is about service and having a spirit of service to others.  And that’s what it’s all about – serving others.

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Cassie and I at our wedding in Dana Point

But even in that we can be selfish.

In The Princess Bride, Westley does whatever it is Buttercup wants him to do.  Not what he FEELS like doing.  He doesn’t say to her, “As you wish, except that. I don’t want to do that.  What about something else?”  He listens to her needs and follows through.  But that’s not always easy for us to do.  We have a hard time stepping out of our box and trying to see the world through someone else’s eyes.  Like people who don’t like Star Wars.  I don’t get that.  I just don’t.  Or worse.  People who have never SEEN Star Wars!  Gasp!  Seriously, though, it isn’t always easy for us to do.  Take for example the first and last time I bought Cassie flowers for Valentine’s Day (to be fair, I may have done it one other time in the 16 years we’ve been together but can’t say for sure).  It was about 10 months after we had first started dating and I was SO in love with her.  I was excited for our first Valentine’s Day together and I did what I thought I was supposed to do.  I bought her a dozen red roses. I had them delivered to her work so that the WHOLE WORLD would know how much I loved her.  That night she told me how beautiful they were, but said I didn’t need to buy her flowers to show how much I loved her, and I thought, “How sweet of her to say that.”  I assumed she was just being humble because what woman doesn’t like getting a dozen red roses on Valentine’s Day? So a couple of weeks later, I brought her another dozen roses, just to show her I loved her not only on Valentine’s Day but EVERYDAY.  She smiled, thanked me again, and told me again I didn’t have to do that.  I thought, “What a woman!  So humble and considerate!”  So after the THIRD time I brought her flowers… she dropped the whole humble act and just spit it out.  She looked at me and said, “Look, I wish you wouldn’t waste your money like that.  I’d rather you saved that money for our honeymoon or our wedding instead of buying me something that’s going to wilt and die in a couple of days.”  I didn’t know what to say!  This is what you’re supposed to do, right?  You buy a girl gifts, she melts in your arms, happily ever after.  That’s what’s supposed to happen.  It’s in some book somewhere.  But what I didn’t realize was that wasn’t the way to Cassie’s heart.

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The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman

It turns out she and I didn’t speak the same “love language.”

Gary Chapman wrote this great book called The 5 Love Languages which I’ve shared about in worship before and Cassie and I read it together in our Bible study group when we first started going to church together.  In it, Gary describes how each of us react differently to love.  We have different “love languages” and he categorized them as Words of Affirmation, Acts of Service, Physical Touch, Gift Giving, and Quality Time.  Most of us have more than one, but there’s usually one or two that are on the top of our list and for me, “Gift Giving” was right near the top followed by “Physical Touch.”  For Cassie, there was one language above all she connected with – “Acts of Service.”  That was what filled her love tank and still does today.  When I cooked dinner for her, helped her by mowing the lawn, take out the trash; when I DID things for her like that, she felt the most loved.  Because for her, it was the self-sacrifice of my actions that expressed love to her and made her feel complete.  Learning that she spoke a different love language really helped me to understand how best to communicate my love for her.  I have to admit, there are times I forget and fall back on what feels good for me and I have to resist those temptations.  But I try to speak her love language as much as possible.

As we think about this season of love, maybe we can challenge ourselves to think of it in a new way.

Or at least to remember that love means sacrifice.  That submission doesn’t have to be a bad thing.  And that when we love each other the way God intended it can be amazing.  But it takes trust.  I know that’s something that seems to be in short supply today, but trust like everything else is a choice.  You can choose to live your life without trust and for sure you will be taken advantage of much less frequently.  But don’t kid yourself.  It will still happen.  And the worst part is you’ll never feel quite at ease.  Or you can choose to trust, knowing that at times your trust could be broken.  But most of the time it won’t be and the life you lead you will see will have a profound difference in your life.  It may never happen, but the more we work to creating a world based on trust and love, the better off all of humanity will be.  If we become cynical and distrustful of the world, in the long run we will only poison the relationships we have.  If I’ve learned anything from The Princess Bride it’s that true love wins out, and there is not truer love than that of God for us, his children.  Trust at least in that and see where that leads you.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Starting the New Year Right!

Akemashite Omedetou Gozaimasu!

That’s Japanese for Happy New Year everyone!  Now, I realize it’s not quite the New Year yet, but with January 1st coming up in just a couple of days, I thought it would be a good idea to get ahead of the game. After all, one of my New Year’s resolutions is to stop procrastinating.  I was going to make that my resolution last year, but I decided to put it off.  This is the time of year where we spend a lot of time looking back on what’s been going on in our lives.  You can’t go on social media and not see blog posts about the “Top 10” something of 2018 or listen to the radio and hear the countdown of the year’s biggest hits.  And in our personal lives, we often reflect about how we did the past year.  We think about what went right and what we would like to improve upon.  Maybe it’s be a better parent, be a better friend, be a better student, but whatever it is, we will look at our lives and examine how we want to move forward.  And that’s a good thing.  We should reflect back once in a while and see where we have room for improvement.  If any of you have made the resolution to come to church more often, or become more involved, that’s a great commitment for more reasons than you probably realize.  And if you know someone you think would benefit from coming to church, here are some facts that might convince them it’s a smart idea to join you.

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Interesting thing I discovered is most of these polls have a limited selection of options. When asked about God, most people mention God’s importance to them, but many polls don’t even have a religious component.

Coming to church regularly helps to …

    • increase your average life expectancy by 8 years
    • become 4 times less likely to commit suicide
    • rebound from depression 70% faster
    • spend less time being depressed
    • and statistically improve your odds of feeling that you have a “very happy” life

By bringing your children or grandchildren with you, you have helped them…

    • dramatically reduce their risk for committing a crime
    • improve their attitude at school
    • increase their school participation
    • significantly reduce their use and risk from alcohol, tobacco and drugs
    • reduce their risk for rebelliousness
    • reduce the likelihood that they would binge drink in college
    • provide them with a life-long moral compass
    • and, believe it or not, wear their seatbelts more often.[1]
Why go to church?
There are lots of reasons why we should go to church and here are just a few

But even if there were not all of these statistical reasons to come to church, even if I didn’t have facts and figures to back up why coming to church is a smart and healthy thing to do, I’d say it’s still the right thing to do because faith is not a solo project. Faith is not a solo project.  Our faith is something we develop in community as we are about to read in our passage today. If you’ll please go to Hebrews 10:19 in your Bibles or your Bible app we’ll begin there this morning.  In this passage, the writer has just finished writing about how people used to offer sacrifices to God in hope of cleansing themselves and starting life anew.  But that obviously didn’t work because day after day, year after year, the priests continually offered sacrifices to God to cleanse themselves over and over again, but now…now that God has written his law on our hearts as we heard in Jeremiah, now that God has written a new covenant with us, we are cleansed in his sight.  We are covered in forgiveness.  And that is where we enter the Scripture.

19Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, 20by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, 21and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. 23Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. 25Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. – Hebrews 10

Seems that even as early as 70 AD, the church had a problem with worship attendance. 

And they didn’t even have Sunday morning football to worry about.  This letter was written only about 40 years after the death of Christ and Paul already feels the need to tell people to stay true to the church.  People were already deciding they didn’t need to bother with going to church and Paul wanted to encourage not to let up now.  Lots of people today could use that pep talk.  Lots of people question whether church is even relevant any more.  You can listen to sermons via podcast.  You can sing worship songs on your iPhone.  And you can even donate through a mobile app.  Who needs to actually step foot in a building?  According to the current research, only 23% of Americans both profess faith in Christ and attend church as an active participant.[2]  Only 23%.  The sad part is “active participant” is defined as someone who comes only once a month.  On any given weekend, 17.5% of Americans can be found in a Christian church.  You might think, “Well, maybe they’re going to other churches,” but that’s not it either.  When you add in all the other religious groups, the number only goes up by 2%.[3]  We, as Americans, have decided to devote our time elsewhere.

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Christmas Eve worship with our living Christmas tree

But we are NEEDED in the church as much as we need to be there.

When we took our membership vows, we promised to give our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness to God and to this church.  And when we say presence, it means presence in the body of Christ.  Presence means participating in this community of faith.  Because even though we could sing praises to God in our showers; even though we could listen to sermons in our car; and even though we can give our offerings by mail or even on our phones, worship is more than that.  Worship is more than the sum of its parts.  It means fully and whole-heartedly giving of yourself to this time together.  Of being fully present in worship, of being aware of those around you and what is happening. Presence means more than simply attendance.  It means more than sitting in a chair or giving your offering to God.  It means really being present for one another.  It means sharing in fellowship and community because our Lord Jesus Christ told us that where two or more gather in his name he will be there.  It means engagement in the community.  Because worship is many things, and it is not just about us.  Worship is many things, it is not just about us.  It never has been.  It’s about the body of Christ.  And at different times and in different ways we contribute to the faith development of those around us, whether we are conscious of it or not.

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Inside the Sanctuary at Roswell UMC at one of our events

We often dub the success or failure of a worship experience by what we get out of it.

But not every sermon was written for you.  Not every song was played for you.  Not every prayer was said just for you.  Some weeks you’ll get more out of the message than other weeks.  Some Sundays you’ll be profoundly moved by the Word of God or by a song we’ve sung.  But even in those weeks when you didn’t connect to the sermon or the music, YOU may still have an important role to play. Maybe you’ll notice that person in the pew who needs a loving hand.  Maybe you’ll notice that first time visitor who is feeling awkward and alone.  Maybe you’ll be sitting next to someone who is having doubts about God.  Maybe you’ll be the person they need.  That happened to me when I was serving at Roswell UMC. It was a rare occasion when I wasn’t either involved in worship or teaching a Sunday School class or something, but on this one particular Sunday, I wasn’t doing any of those things. I planned to simply show up, experience, and be a part of worship.  Now, on those rare occasions, I usually sit up front or near the front, but because I had been talking to someone outside I was a bit late and decided to sit in the next to last row.  There was only me and one other woman in the pew and she was sitting pretty far away from me.  I noticed she had a diaper bag, so I guessed that her little one was in the nursery and sure enough, she was.  When it was time for the greeting, I made it a point to walk over to her and say “hello.”  She turned to me and said, “Hi, I’m so glad you were sitting here.  I’ve been meaning to talk to you.”  I couldn’t help but wonder if she meant me specifically or just one of us since we had five full-time elders on staff.  But she literally meant me.  She had seen me and my family when coming to worship and noticed we were a mixed-race family and she was too.  She wanted to ask me privately if this would be a welcome place for her child who was a blend of Asian and Caucasian heritage and she knew I could relate.  I was able to set her concerns at ease and not long after she became a member of the church and we had the chance to baptize her child. It always felt to me as if this was one of those moments when God placed me in that place at that time for someone else. To be honest, I couldn’t remember a bit about the sermon or any of the songs we sung, but I have always remembered that woman and her family.  Maybe you’re here for the same reason.  Maybe you’re here to help someone else.  Or maybe someone is here to help you.

We come to church for the promise of a better life.

But that better life starts here and now.  It starts with each one of us, here today, offering ourselves to God as a living sacrifice for his will.  To allow God to use our presence to serve his Kingdom.  And while there are lots of benefits for us to be in worship, perhaps the biggest benefit is the community of Christ that surrounds us and that we are a part of.  We made a promise when we joined this church to give of our prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness.  Fulfill that promise today and everyday for the Lord and Savior who gave his life for you.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

[1] Neil MacQueen, www.sundaysoftware.com/stats.htm

[2] David T. Olson, The American Church in Crisis, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 29-30.

[3] The American Church Research Project.