The Other America

I’d like to say I am free of bias, but that wouldn’t be completely honest.

I am a Bruin through and through and if you love UCLA, there is one school you do NOT love – USC also known as the University of Second Choice.  We had quite a few other names for them as well, but many of them can’t be repeated in church.  How anyone could be a fan of “that other school” is beyond me.  UCLA is the #1 public university in the nation, the most applied school in the country, the second most national championships, and in the top 20 among all universities – public or private.[1] But USC is known for some things, too.  For four times the cost, you too can attend this less prestigious school and if you have trouble getting in apparently you can pay Rick Singer to help you out.  If you need a reference, just ask actress Lori Loughlin of Full House fame.[2]  But in all seriousness…USC is a horrible school.  Just kidding.  Rivalries run deep.  But if we’re not careful, friendly rivalries can turn into something more than just innocent jabs at one another and become much more insidious.  We’ve seen people take to vandalism and property damage over something as silly as a school football game.  But there’s a lot worse that can happen, too.  I still remember Giants’ fan, Bryan Stow who was beaten outside of Dodgers Stadium for no other reason than wearing a Buster Posey jersey.[3]  He was in a coma and it has taken him a very long time to recover.  I don’t know if he ever fully will.  Not long after that, there was a fan-related shooting at a Raiders-Niners preseason game where two people got gunned down.[4]  And who can forget the riots in Vancouver when the Canucks lost in the Stanley Cup?  301 people were eventually arrested, 140 people were injured, 4 were stabbed and 9 police officers were hurt.[5]  Over a hockey game. 

Rivalries are fun…unless they get out of hand

Imagine…if people can get this violent, defensive, and worked up over a ball game…

What happens when it comes to problems and issues rooted even deeper in our communities?  As we celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it’s hard not to reflect on the violence surrounding the racism that still exists in America.  Racism runs far deeper than school rivalries or baseball legacies.  Racism is fed to us, introduced to us, and perpetuated in small, insidious ways. It affects us deeply, and far too often, those of us who have to live with it learn to develop callouses over our souls to protect us from the harm that it does to our self-esteem, our sense of self-worth, and our pride.  We do such a good job of covering it up, people think it doesn’t exist anymore.  And for a while I even believed it.  “We live in a post-racial society.”  Except we don’t.  And I hate to break it to you for those of you lucky enough not to be a victim of racism or racist beliefs, but it’s still out there.  People are trying to make us aware of it so we can do something about it, but I hear others complaining that those scholars and educators and activists who are talking about it are the ones CREATING it.  It’s like when you clean up the house, but don’t have time to really do a good job and you throw half of it under the bed – it’s like, “Don’t look under there!”  If I don’t see it, it doesn’t exist.  But it does. 

There was a speech Dr. King gave 55 years ago.

It was called, “The Other America.”  And in it, he shared some very prophetic words I’d like to share again with you today.  Here’s what he said,

Now the other thing that we’ve got to come to see now that many of us didn’t see too well during the last ten years — that is that racism is still alive in American society. And much more widespread than we realized. And we must see racism for what it is. It is a myth of the superior and the inferior race. It is the false and tragic notion that one particular group, one particular race is responsible for all of the progress, all of the insights in the total flow of history. And the theory that another group or another race is totally depraved, innately impure, and innately inferior.

In the final analysis, racism is evil because its ultimate logic is genocide. Hitler was a sick and tragic man who carried racism to its logical conclusion. He ended up leading a nation to the point of killing about 6 million Jews. This is the tragedy of racism because its ultimate logic is genocide. If one says that I am not good enough to live next door to him; if one says that I am not good enough to eat at a lunch counter, or to have a good, decent job, or to go to school with him merely because of my race, he is saying consciously or unconsciously that I do not deserve to exist.

To use a philosophical analogy here, racism is not based on some empirical generalization; it is based rather on an ontological affirmation. It is not the assertion that certain people are behind culturally or otherwise because of environmental conditions. It is the affirmation that the very being of a people is inferior. And this is the great tragedy of it.

Remember, he wrote this 55 years ago and what haunts me is how relevant these words still are today.  Racism is still here.  And just like Dr. King said, it’s much more widespread than most of us realized.  The idea that one group, one race is responsible for all the good in America and none of the bad is a delusion of the self.  And Dr. King was right in another way – the logical conclusion to racism is genocide.  Now, we may not be throwing people into camps, but we are causing a much slower death by attrition.  By denial.  By refusing to make the changes necessary to provide equal opportunity for us all.  Racism is still just as insidious as it has ever been.  It’s so easy for us to think racism is gone because we had swept it under the rug for so long until someone comes along and gives us all permission to be racist once again. 

It happens in such small innocent (and not so innocent) ways.

We don’t even think about it at the time.  Like when growing up, people would comment on how good my English was.  Why wouldn’t it be?  And they said it as if it was a compliment, like I should genuinely be proud of my “good English.”  You might think, “Well, that’s not racist.  They just didn’t know.”  But would you make that same comment to a blonde hair, blue-eyed kid?  Or when people assumed I was good at math because, you know, all Asian kids are good at math (admittedly I was).  Until my cousin became a deputy in the Sheriff’s department, I was genuinely afraid of the police.  I remember taking driving lessons from both my parents and they said, “If you’re ever pulled over for a ticket, put your hands on the wheel, don’t make any sudden moves, and ask for permission before reaching over to get your driver’s license and registration.”  I remember asking why and they said, “If you make any sudden moves, they might think you’re going to reach for a gun and could shoot you.”  You can believe I never forgot that lesson.  I never even put two and two together that this might have anything to do with race until a comedian brought it up in a stand-up skit how his white friends had no fear of the police, and I asked Cassie, “Did you ever get taught that?”  And she said, “No” like it had never crossed her mind.  Racism doesn’t have to be all white hoods and burning crosses.  It can be as subtle as speaking “good English.”

Both as a church and as the people of Christ, we have to be on the alert to our own prejudices.

Whether they are as simple as a school rivalry or as complex as systemic racism in America.  We need to dig deeper to insure we are pulling up the roots of racism and not simply trimming back the weeds.  As we reflect back on Dr. King’s legacy, I can’t help but echo the words of Paul’s letter to the Galatians when he wrote: 26 So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3) It’s time we started acting like it.  Thankfully, that movement has begun.  Over the past 20 years, congregations have become more racially diverse, but we have a long way to go.  Findings by Baylor University show that while the number of diverse congregations have nearly tripled,[6] we still lag behind the ever-changing demographics of our neighborhood.  Closing that gap is important for the church to grow and recent studies bear that out.  In a study of 20,000 United Methodist churches, racially diverse churches had higher attendance levels than monochromatic churches over time[7] and as neighborhoods become more diverse, it will be important for our congregations to reach out and embrace those changes.  Which is only one reason why BMUC needs to move beyond its ethnic heritage and embrace the wider community.  Staying monochromatic doesn’t work and we are very monochromatic.[8] But other than our own survival, it makes sense.  Both geographically and Biblically.  Reaching out to our community who live within walking distance of our church would reasonably increase attendance since they live so close.  And Biblically, it’s hard to ignore that passage from Revelation: “…there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. (Revelation 7:9).”  God means for us to live in harmony with one another.  It’s how he designed us. 

Our landscape was redone to be more welcoming and invitingg

It’s hard to let go of what we are familiar with.

But we have to ask ourselves, is this what was meant to be?  Or are we created for something MORE?  We could, for many long years, stay safely inside our monochromatic bubble.  But would we then be advancing the very gospel we say we believe in?  Or would we be playing it safe, afraid of the changes it might bring about, afraid of losing our heritage, when the truth is, we would be preserving our heritage by building on the foundations laid down by those saints who came before.  Just as this church redesigned the landscaping of our building to become more inviting and welcoming, so we can redesign the landscape of our church to do the same.  Let us continue to be that neighborhood church where everyone is welcome and together we can transform lives in the name of Jesus Christ.  And to echo the words of Dr. King one last time, “And when this happens, when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:

                Free at last! Free at last!

                Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.


[1] https://www.usnews.com/best-colleges/rankings/national-universities ; http://fs.ncaa.org/Docs/stats/champs_records_book/Overall.pdf

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2019_college_admissions_bribery_scandal ; to be fair, there were students who got into UCLA using Rick’s “side door” technique (what most of us call bribery).  The vast majority however attended USC.

[3] https://www.cnn.com/2021/04/10/us/bryan-stow-giants-first-pitch-spt-trnd/index.html

[4] https://www.espn.com/nfl/story/_/id/6881597/two-shot-candlestick-park-parking-lot-oakland-raiders-san-francisco-49ers-game

[5]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2011_Vancouver_Stanley_Cup_riot#:~:text=The%202011%20Vancouver%20Stanley%20Cup%20riot%20was%20a,Finals%2C%20which%20won%20the%20Stanley%20Cup%20for%20Boston.

[6] https://www.baylor.edu/mediacommunications/news.php?action=story&story=220972

[7] https://www.baylor.edu/mediacommunications/news.php?action=story&story=222716

[8] Our membership in 2021 was 176 and of those 152 were identified as Asian.  Only 24 were multiracial or of another ethnic background.  By definitions commonly used, a diverse congregation is at least 20% or higher of some other ethnicity.

Escaping the Death Star

Han Solo started to celebrate a little early.

After escaping the Death Star, he felt pretty proud of himself.  Sure, he lost the old man, but considering they just escaped from a fortress the size of a small moon (“That’s no moon…that’s a space station”), he thought he had done pretty well.  They were even able to escape the clutches of the wing of TIE fighters that were sent after them.  The old bucket of bolts held together, and the kid wasn’t half bad.  He wasn’t Chewie, but he was definitely good in a fight.  Feeling smug, Han says, “You know sometimes I amaze even myself.”  But Princess Leia is about to throw a cold dose of reality on Han’s victory. “That doesn’t sound too hard.  They let us go.  It’s the only explanation for the ease of our escape…It’s not over yet.”  Han immediately gets defensive.  “It is for ME sister!”  But eventually, Han comes to his senses and realizes he can’t leave his friends in a lurch.  He has to see the job through, so he and Chewie take the Millennium Falcon back to the Death Star just in time to save his friend Luke from the clutches of Darth Vader.  But what if Han decided to pack it in?  What if he took the money and ran?  What if he didn’t see it through? 

You don’t get to be this good just from talent alone…

There’s always an easy way out.

But will it lead you to the results you desire?  For any venture to succeed, whether it’s defeating a galactic empire or learning how to properly cook a rack of ribs takes, among other things, perseverance.  While talent, luck, and opportunity are definitely key components, it’s often perseverance that takes us over the edge.  One of my favorite examples of this is the work ethic of Kobe Bryant.[1]  Kobe is one of the best players ever to have played in the NBA.  We can argue at length about who’s at the top of that list – Michael Jordan, LeBron James, etc., but Kobe is always in the conversation.  With 5 national championships, 18 All-Star appearances in his 20 year career, a league MVP and two-time finals MVP, his bona fides are impeccable.  And if you ever saw Kobe play in person, you’d know it wasn’t just hype or luck.  This guy had some serious talent.  But it wasn’t talent alone that made Kobe a success.  Lots of people have talent who never achieve this level of excellence.  What made Kobe truly great beyond his talent and skill is his perseverance.  He could easily have coasted to an easy payday with the talent he had, but that talent was honed and perfected by his perseverance which never waned even as his accolades grew.  To illustrate, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh told a story about their experience with the Kobe work ethic.  Bosh says, “We’re in Las Vegas and we all come down for team breakfast at the start of the whole training camp. And Kobe comes in with ice on his knees and with his trainers and stuff. He’s got sweat drenched through his workout gear. And I’m like, ‘It’s 8 o’clock in the morning, man. Where… is he coming from?'” Wade continues, “Everybody else just woke up…We’re all yawning, and he’s already three hours and a full workout into his day.”[2]

The Beatles achieved their success not only by being talented, but by their perseverance – what Malcolm Gladwell called the “10,000-Hour Rule”

Putting in the hard work is key to success.

Malcolm Gladwell called this the “10,000-Hour Rule.”  He felt that one component that made people outliers other than talent and luck was developing perseverance; that greatness was most often achieved after doing something for at least 10,000 hours and he cited the Beatles and Bill Gates as examples.  But we can take this example too literally.  To be great at cooking doesn’t just mean randomly cooking food for 10,000 hours.  At some point in our lives many of us will have done that without becoming the next Julia Child.  It’s really about a dedication to your craft – whatever it is.  To reach a level of excellence is more about dedication than time.  It’s about a persistence to carry on, even in the face of defeat and even after achieving success. 

As reported in the BBC News on January 4, 2022

Persistence is also a key component of our faith. 

We are in a dark time right now.  And I mean more than simply it being winter and rainy.  Our communities, our nation, and even our world are split between those who embrace the truth of the pandemic and those who don’t.  With over 5.4 million people dead and nearly 300 million people infected, it’s hard to understand why some people aren’t taking this more seriously, but with cases drastically on the rise, vaccinations become even more important than ever before.  Yet, almost everyone I talk to knows someone in their circle of family and friends who refuse to get vaccinated or who won’t wear a mask in a public setting.  What’s odd is that Paul seemed to predict just such a time as this. 

For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.

For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing. – (2 Timothy 4:3-8)

It’s like Paul KNEW!

He knew there’d be a time like this and he’s warning us from across the centuries.  Sadly, it’s not Paul having some sort of crystal ball into the future, but instead his understanding of the human condition.  The situation we find ourselves in now is not new.  It’s one that is repeated over and over again.  Which is sad, but true.  When it comes to gender equality, there are still people who believe women were created to be subservient to men.  When it comes to racial justice, there are still people who fail to understand systemic racism and how it affects us all in insidious ways.  When it comes to gender and sexual identity, there are still many, many people who see it as a sin or as a crime or as an abomination against God to see ourselves in a different light.  Sadly, how people are reacting to the pandemic isn’t new or different or unique, but part of the greater sickness of our world that fails to follow one simple rule – love one another.

For us to make it through this time together requires our persistence.

It’s tempting to let our guard down.  It’s not uncommon to think we’re invulnerable, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that we are not.  And it’s so easy for us to just get tired of being vigilant against this pandemic.  But now is not the time.  It’s been a long two years and while things are definitely getting better, people are still dying by the thousands every day from just the coronavirus by itself.  Estimates show nearly 6,000 people are dying worldwide with nearly 2.3 million coming down with the virus every 24 hours – and tragically that number is likely to be vastly underreported.  Still, the evidence is clear.  Get vaccinated.  Get boosted.  And be persistent in being precautious.  Recent data shows unvaccinated people are still 4 times more likely to be infected by the coronavirus even with the omicron variant.  They are 10 times more likely to become hospitalized, 17 times higher to be in the ICU, and 18 times higher to die from it.  Wearing a mask, while it can be uncomfortable is important, not only for protecting you, but for protecting those around you.  With omicron affecting both vaccinated and unvaccinated people, we need to take these precautions.  A bit of being uncomfortable is a small choice to make if it could help save people’s lives.  It is just one way for us to love our neighbor. 

McFARLAND, USA..Thomas Valles (Carlos Pratts)..Ph: Film Frame..?Disney 2015

We can get through this together.

We’ve already adapted in many ways to the pandemic.  Virtual meetings, virtual workspaces, creating more space for one another, but as Princess Leia would say, “It’s not over yet.”  Let’s continue to take those steps we need to take to help one another out.  Let’s do our part to keep our corner of the world safe and by doing so hopefully we will encourage those around us to remain steadfast in what they are doing too.  Love of neighbor continues to be the key to success and it’s our perseverance through these difficult times that we see that love come to fruition.  This is a choice we make, each and every day to love one another.  The freedom to choose is an essential component to our faith and one not to be taken lightly.  So will we choose the easy way out?  Will we be tempted like Han Solo to take the money and run?  Or will we do the hard work needed to achieve our long-term goals?  As Paul wrote to the church in Corinth: “24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. 25 Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. 26 Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. 27 No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”  Stay strong.  Stay vigilant.  And may God bless you now and always. 


[1] To learn about Kobe’s work ethic there are numerous reports of it.  Here is just one from ESPN. https://www.espn.com/nba/story/_/id/15179469/kobe-bryant-famous-pregame-shooting-routine

[2] https://www.espn.com/blog/truehoop/miamiheat/post/_/id/21385/heats-dwyane-wade-relishes-final-clashes-with-kobe

Reflections

What makes us Christians?

For those of us who say that we’re Christians, what is it that defines us as a people?  Certain things about ourselves are determined for us.  Things like our birth parents, our ethnicity, our skin color, the shape of our eyes, even the condition of our bodies to some extent.  But other things we choose for ourselves.  The people we choose to love and hold onto, our families, our spouses, our friends, and our faith.  We choose to be Christian.  But if that’s the case there has to be a way for us to determine if we are or not.  Jesus made it really simple.  Love one another.  Not sometimes.  All the time.  Love one another. 

The Pharisees were always trying to trip Jesus up.

They wanted to embarrass him, ridicule him, make him seem small in front of the crowds so people would stop following him, so they were always testing him (when they weren’t trying to kill him).  And on this one particular day after finding out that Jesus had silenced their rivals, the Sadducees, they tried to get him with this question, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”  The Law, as you probably know, was the set of rules that had been passed down for generations by the Hebrew people.  Maybe this expert was hoping he could get Jesus to make a mistake, but Jesus quickly answered the question, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” 

It’s kind of funny when you look at Jesus’ answer. 

The expert never asked what the second greatest commandment was, but Jesus thought it was important enough to package them together.  The truth is how can you truly love God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind if you don’t love your neighbor? John wrote about this in one of his letters to the church.  In 1 John 4, he writes, “20 Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. 21 And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.”  But that is a lesson far too many people seem to have forgotten.  People who claim to be Christian, yet refuse to get vaccinated.  People who claim to be Christian, but assault Asian-Americans (and elderly Asian-Americans at that) just because of how they look.  People who claim to be Christian and assert that taking away a woman’s freedom to choose is about protecting life, but then feel equally passionate about denying them food, housing, and medical assistance.  The hypocrisy of claiming to be Christian and yet clinging onto so many unchristian actions is sickening.  And if it’s sickening to us, is it any wonder why there are so many who are abandoning the church? 

The problem is people are hiding their own fears and prejudices behind the shield of Christianity.

Claiming it’s their faith that guides them gives them an out for behaving so poorly instead of owning up to the truth behind their claims.  A close examination of our faith would reveal those hypocrisies for what they are.  But most people on the outside are not familiar enough with our beliefs and our teachings to know the difference, so when someone claims faith as an excuse they think, “Well, who would want to be part of a faith that believes in THAT?”  And they would be right.  The answer is for us to get out into the world and SHOW our faith to others in tangible, real ways that reshape the conversation.  Who we are as believers in Christ should be so obvious that the next time someone claims it’s their “God-given right” to own a gun and shoot someone, it’s easy to say, “No, it’s not.”  We have to do a better job of showcasing our faith.  Not with bumper stickers or t-shirts, but with genuine compassion for our fellow human beings.  As John writes earlier in his letter, “Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth (1 John 3:18).”  Indeed, this is completely in line with Jesus’ final commandment he gave to the disciples.  When he said, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another (John 13:34-35).” It’s by our love that the world will recognize us for who we are. 

The red or “hazardous” areas were reserved for African-Americans and other people of color (from Berkeleyside.org)

When we were a very young church, we were a shelter for others in our neighborhood.

Literally, our neighborhood was a consequence of redlining by racist politicians of their day.  It’s hard to believe in Berkeley where social justice is a bastion of our community that at one time we were segregated by race in these city streets, but it’s true.  The area surrounding our church was specifically for Asian immigrants, particularly Japanese immigrants, and their families, so when the Methodist church decided to reach out to those immigrants, it only made sense to plant a church right in the middle of their community.  THAT is the hallmark of Christianity and particularly of Methodism.  Our Methodist history grew out of John Wesley’s desire to take Christianity to the people.  Others thought he was crazy to go out into the park and into public gatherings to share the good news of Jesus, but he got tired of a church that was insular and isolated.  He felt God’s call on his heart to share God’s Word any way that he could.  And if that meant taking it to the people, then that’s what he did.  He went to where the people were.  Did he make mistakes?  For sure.  Was he always right?  Not by a long shot.  But his genuine desire to share God’s love formed the foundation for our church and others like it.  It’s that belief that inspired people like Frank Herron Smith to reach out to a culture and a people very different from his own and work so hard at cultivating relationships across those barriers.  It’s why we dedicated our sanctuary to his legacy, because the love he showed was so genuine we couldn’t help but be inspired by it.  And indeed many were so inspired they followed in their footsteps to become pastors and missionaries and servants of God in their own right. 

Outreach should be invitational in a non-threatening, non-judgmental, but still faith-based way

It’s time for us to reach out to our neighborhood and be our own inspiration to others.

Gone are the days of opening up the doors and watching people come in.  Gone are the days when the church was the hub of society and the center of our social life.  People would come to church to have those water cooler talks they might not otherwise have.  You’d come to church to talk to your civic leaders or your teachers or your coach.  You’d come to find spouses and dates to the prom and buddies to hang out with.  Today that role has been taken by others who do it far better than we do.  If not Starbucks then you’ve got Facebook and Instagram and a whole plethora of other options to build culture and connection.  And people crave connection.  Human beings are created by God to crave being in community.  We’re just not exactly picky about what kind of community that is.  So the church has to continue to evolve.  We have to reach out in new ways and go beyond our doors and out into a world that needs the love of Christ more than ever before. 

We have a unique opportunity.

Our church is so fortunate to be situated in the middle of an actual neighborhood.  Most churches are located in downtown areas or on busy street corners where there is lots of traffic, and that might seem like a smart move to take advantage of being in a high traffic area, but BMUC is situated in the middle of a community.  There are families living all around us.  There are schools and houses and people living everyday lives right here where we are.  Now it’s up to us to reach out to them, to take advantage of our location, our heritage, and our resources to share the love of Christ with those right here in our neighborhood.  We already have this beautifully landscaped front area leading up to the church that’s warm and inviting, and we have this incredible lower parking lot that our entire neighborhood passes by every day.  I’m hoping we can utilized these gifts in a way that will bring attention to who we are – not to brag or boast which is certainly unchristian – but to inspire and offer something everyone needs – the love of Jesus Christ.

Our Flowering of the Cross inspired non-churchgoers to ask questions of faith

I have a passion for outreach.

And that’s because I know if the people in the church hadn’t reached out to me, I never would have developed a relationship with Jesus.  I would have been just another person who THOUGHT my life was swell.  And it was.  But my life is so much better and deeper and richer for having Christ in it.  And don’t we want that for everybody?  Wouldn’t this be a great world if everyone lived by the teachings of Christ?  Loving one another and caring for each other?  We can’t do that huddled inside the church.  We have to invite people in and we have to open up our doors and take church outside the walls.  And it has to be more than just movie nights and clean comedy.  Our goal isn’t to have them walk into the building.  That’s easy.  Our goal is to invite them to explore a relationship with God.  That’s why we do Cookies and Carols.  Everyone loves singing Christmas songs, but we try to make sure we don’t just sing standards, but also hymns and carols we would typically sing in church that talk about Christ.  That’s why we do the Easter Egg Hunt.  Not just so kids get free candy, but so we can share the story of Jesus in a non-threatening, non-judgmental but fun way (that includes candy).  And I’m hoping we can do other things that are both fun and faith-based.  This year we’re planning on doing a Blessing of the Animals in our parking lot and invite the community along.  Seems like everyone in Berkeley has a pet so why not offer to say a prayer of blessing over them and maybe offer some treats for both humans and pets alike?  These are stepping stone ways of introducing faith without being overbearing or judgmental and I hope we expand on those invitational opportunities as we grow together. 

I would also love for us to do mission work in the public eye.

Again, not to brag or pat ourselves on the back, but to do two things – one, give others outside the church the chance to participate in what we do on a regular basis and help others.  And two, to let people know the church is about more than helping ourselves, but wanting to meet the needs of our community.   The more people know us for our acts of love, kindness, and compassion, the more they’ll want to be a part of who we are.  I believe people are drawn to that kind of positive energy that comes from helping one another. 

Every church in America is worried about finances.

But if we FOCUS on that, if we make THAT the measure of success, we will fall short every time.  It is the quickest way to spell failure.  Instead, we need to focus on what we have to offer our community that might be different than what they hear about in the news and see on their screens.  If they can come to know us by the love we share, if they realize what we stand for instead of what we stand against, it will inspire them to come see for themselves what it is that has transformed our lives.  And after all, isn’t that what we are about?  Transforming lives through Christ’s love? 

The Meaning of Christmas

Christmas is a big letdown.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I love pretty much everything about Christmas.  It’s my favorite holiday of the year.  I love gift giving.  I love singing Christmas songs.  I love Christmas decorations.  I love trimming the Christmas tree.  I love Christmas parties.  And I love special Christmas food!  In fact, one of the things I miss the most about living in Georgia is Christmas breakfast with Cassie’s family.  Every Christmas morning after all the presents were opened, we would go over to Cassie’s mom’s house and have this tremendously huge breakfast!  Freshly made grits, country ham, scrambled eggs, biscuits with sausage gravy, and my absolute favorite, frozen peaches.  Weird right?  But Cassie’s grandmother would freeze these peaches when they were in season and when they thawed, they were the absolute best tasting fruit in the world.  I don’t know if she added sugar or something to them before they were frozen but they were so sweet and delicious it could almost be a sin.  And since we moved to California, Cassie has taken it upon herself to make Christmas dinner.  I remember the first time she did it she planned it out like it was one of her projects at work.  She came up with a spreadsheet timeline of exactly when each dish needed to put in the oven and for how long and how much time she would need to prep each part.  It came out perfectly.  And I didn’t have to do a thing but enjoy it.  It’s one of the best presents I get all year. But after all the presents are opened and the food is cooked and we’re sitting together on the couch with our stomachs way too full, we both inevitably look up at the beautiful, shining Christmas tree in our house and realize it all has to be put away.  There’s something weird about waking up the day AFTER Christmas.  There’s nothing left to look forward to.  It’s all over.  Now, that’s not completely true.  For my family, New Year’s Day is like a second Christmas, but I think you know what I mean.  Two months of being inundated with music and lights and commercials and TV specials and toys and gift giving and parties and suddenly…it’s…over. 

A perfectly planned Christmas dinner by Cassie back in 2011

But does it have to be?

Does it have to be over?  Why is it that Christmas doesn’t last all year?  Maybe not the lights or the music or the weather; I mean I’m a pretty big fan of summer and a person can only take so much peppermint.  But why can’t we hold on to that Christmas spirit all year long?  It certainly seems to be Biblical.  This evening, we’re going to read a passage that’s one of my favorites from Paul’s letter to the Colossians. What I love about this letter is that it typifies God’s work in the world.  As we read in 1 Corinthians, “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.  God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things – and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are.”  According to a commentary about this letter, the house church at Colossae was “the least important church to which any epistle of St. Paul is addressed.”[1] Yet, this particular letter has become one of the most important and influential for us today.  In the passage we’re going to hear tonight, Paul gives us instructions on how we should live our lives as children of Christ. 

12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. 16 Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. 17 And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. – Colossians 3:12-17

From It’s A Wonderful Life by Frank Capra

This is the kind of life we are meant to live everyday.  A Christmas life.

A life that reminds us who Christ was and what he believed in.  It’s why Paul tells us to embrace compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.  The qualities we find in abundance during the Christmas season, are exactly the qualities Christ wants us to live with all of the time.  To bear with each other, forgive each other, and love each other are the ways we are supposed to act.  We shouldn’t have to wait until after Halloween to capture the Christmas spirit.  Instead, we should be able to keep it alive all of the time in the little ways, the everyday ways we live our lives.  And when we do, this peace that Paul writes about, can become ours.  This peace that can rule our hearts and make us feel content and whole is a promise of God to us.  And the key to obtaining that peace is living this life we are called to by God.

Sometimes that seems difficult if not impossible.  But it isn’t.

It’s within our reach.  And it’s not about being perfect, because God knows none of us are.  It’s about returning over and over to this life in Christ that leads us to a transformation of our inner selves.  It’s about becoming someone new by practicing over and over the kind of person we want to be until we actually become it.  That’s what Paul means when he tells us to clothe ourselves in these traits and qualities.  It’s an action on our part that we have to consciously do, like putting on our clothes.  We have to make these choices for ourselves and do it everyday as surely as we pick out a shirt and pants or a dress or a blouse or a skirt.  That’s what I mean when I say we must lead a Christmas life.  This Christmas spirit that seems to magically come around every year is something we can choose to continue even after tomorrow when it’s time to put away the lights and decorations.  It’s a matter of making the choice to do it.

The things we do during the season are what keep us grounded in its spirit. 

So instead of waiting for 12 months to do it again, let us continue to live as if every day was Christmas.  Randomly send gifts to people simply to brighten their day.  When you see something fun or unique that a friend or family member might like, get it for them.  Take the time to wrap it up and give it to them.  Or send someone you haven’t spoken to in a long time a card and do it for no reason other than wanting to make contact.  Don’t wait for their birthday, but simply drop them a note.  Be randomly generous.  Give an extra large tip to your server at the restaurant.  Leave something extra for the person who does your hair.  Pay for the dinner of the person behind you in the drive-thru window of your favorite fast food place.  These are the kinds of things we find natural to do at Christmas.  Why not make them part of simply who we are. The point is simply this: We are called to live a Christmas life.  Not just during the month of December but all year round. We are often called an Easter people, maybe we can be a Christmas people, too. 


[1] https://bible.org/seriespage/background-colossians

And A Little Child Shall Lead Them

Close your eyes and picture in your mind the moment of Christ’s birth.

If you are like most people, you probably picture a stable with a wooden manger.  In the manger atop a bale of hay is the baby Jesus.  And surrounding Jesus are Mary, Joseph, a group of shepherds, and three wise men or kings – Caspar, Balthazar, and Melchior with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  Around the open stable are horses, sheep, camels, and goats.  And atop the stable shines a star so bright it led the wise men to this place surrounded by angels.  It’s peaceful and calm and maybe you can hear the gentle cooing of the baby Jesus.  This is the traditional Christmas picture we’ve been fed since we were little.  You see it in books, on television, in movies.  Almost assuredly, you’ll pass by someone’s house with a recreation of the birth of Jesus on their lawn with all of these things – right next to an inflatable Frosty the Snowman who was apparently ALSO present at the birth of Christ.  The truth is, most of these images have very little to do with what really happened that night. We are going to be picking up the Christmas story after the angels proclaim the good news of Jesus’ birth to the shepherds in the fields nearby.  But before that happens, many other powerful aspects of the Christmas story come into play.  Perhaps the strongest of these images is the denial of Joseph and Mary at a local inn.

“There was no room at the inn.”

It’s hard to believe that some cold-hearted innkeeper wouldn’t make room for an obviously expecting woman!  But what if we got it wrong?  What if there wasn’t a cold-hearted innkeeper AND his wife (see, we’re just going to make the story even worse now, right?)?  What if instead the Bible didn’t say “there was no room at the inn” and instead said “there was no guest room available for them?”  Could that change the context by which we judge these people?  Today, most versions (but not all) of the Bible have the word kataluma more accurately translated to “guest room.” And as Adam Hamilton pointed out in the book The Journey it made more sense that Joseph would have gone to a relative’s house to have the birth of their child, especially as they probably had little money to pay for a room at an inn.[1]  Since he and Mary were returning to Joseph’s home town, he likely had friends and relatives living there he could have gone to stay with.  But that only changes things slightly, maybe makes it worse!  His own family and friends would send them out to a barn?  The thing that’s missing here is context.  For one, it was likely that every home would have had limited space since the census forced everyone to return.  Every home would have been challenged for space as friends and family returned.  But more than that, according to Jewish custom, a pregnant woman was considered ceremonially unclean, which made anyone or anything she touched unclean as well.  Not just the people, but anything Mary touched, the walls, the floors, the bed would all be considered unclean.  In those days, being unclean couldn’t be resolved simply by washing your hands.  It took rituals and ceremonies and time spent in preparation.  Cleansing a body or a house took a lot of effort and until you did it you couldn’t go to the temple.  It might have been the only place their relatives could put them up was in a place outside the home.  So there they are, Mary, Joseph, and little baby Jesus lying in a manger. And this is what happens next. 

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

 16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

 21 On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise the child, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he was conceived. – Luke 1:15-21

The manger scene as we often imagine it today – but is it Biblical?

What is interesting to me about this story is as much what WASN’T said as what WAS said. 

There was no reference to a brightly shining star.  There was no reference to the appearance of three wise men or three kings or anyone other than the shepherds.  The stable, which we generally imagine to be a wooden barn, is never described in detail.  And there definitely wasn’t a little drummer boy present, at least not in the Biblical story.  Today, we know it was just as likely, perhaps more so, that Jesus was born in a cave.  During those times, it was common for animals to be kept in caves for shelter from the weather which would have provided better protection than a wooden barn.  We also know that wise men, and not likely kings, eventually did come to visit Jesus, but Bible experts say it could have been as late as two years later![2]  A far cry from the miraculous appearance of three kings with their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh on the night of Jesus’ birth.  Most people believe we got the image of three kings based on the number of gifts that were presented to Mary and Joseph, but if you notice, it never says in the Bible how many people were there. The word used to describe the visitors is magoi or magician which could have meant they were priests of another religion or astrologers but not likely to be kings. 

But the story as it is in the Bible is a richer story without these things.

A richer story by far than one we may have thought about before.  In fact, when we look at Jesus’ birth as it is told in the Gospels, we find out God is counter-cultural.  We find out that God is counter-cultural.  He never did things the way people expected.  God would flip expectations on their head and then exceed the imaginations of what people thought they wanted and did something even more amazing instead. This was the birth of the most powerful, most holy person in the universe, and yet look at the details of his story.  They were not details you would expect of someone like Jesus.  He was born to a father who wasn’t wealthy and didn’t hold a position of power.  He wasn’t a holy man or spiritual leader but a carpenter.  His parents were from the tiny town of Nazareth.   And when I say tiny, I mean TINY.  Hamilton said in his book the town was so small it wasn’t even mentioned among the 63 other villages associated with Galilee in the Hebrew Talmud or the 45 mentioned by the historian Josephus.[3]  In fact, there were likely only 100 to 400 people in his entire town.  100 to 400 people.  That’s it. You’d be lucky if they had a gas station and a grocery store if that town were around today.   In fact, it was such a tiny little town Nathanael insults it when Phillip tells him about Jesus.  He says in John 1:46, “Nazareth!  Can anything good come from there?” To which Phillip told him to “Come and see.”  Three verses later, Nathanael sees the light and exclaims, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.”

In the passage we read today, God didn’t announce the arrival of Jesus as we would expect.

The angels of Heaven, who did not likely float around in white robes with wings, came first to the shepherds to proclaim the birth of Christ.  Shepherds!  We just accept that as part of the story of Jesus today, but back then it would have been mind blowing!  Shepherds were considered among the lower-class in Jewish society.  They were located toward the bottom of the socio-economic ladder because they were “typically uneducated, usually poor,… and smelled like dirty sheep.”[4]  They were often looked down upon because of this but also because they would often have their animals graze on other people’s land.  Imagine how upset we get today when the neighbors’ dog or cat roams freely around our yard.  Now multiple that by the number of sheep in a flock and you get the picture.  So why on earth would God reveal himself first to the shepherds?  Why not to King Herod or to the Jewish leaders or to the high priest?  To us that would make more sense.  People would have believed right away had the high priest of the temple proclaimed the birth of the savior! 

Yet we see throughout the Bible God uses the meek and not the mighty, the lowly and not the luxurious.

God doesn’t go to the rich and the powerful.  He goes to the weak and disenfranchised.  But he also uses those who are most open, most willing, and most receptive to his message to share the good news.  The high priest would likely have cast doubt about the authenticity of the birth of Christ and we already know how King Herod reacted – with fear, trepidation, anger and resentment.  No, God went to the shepherds, to Mary, to Joseph, to a tiny town called Nazareth, and to a cave for a reason.  If you look at 1 Cornithians 1:26-31 we hear the words of Paul who sums it up so nicely.  “26 Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him. 30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. 31 Therefore, as it is written: ‘Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.’”  As we leave here this morning, let us take the time to reflect on the miracle of the Christmas story.  Not just the grace and mercy of a God who humbled himself to be amongst us.  Not just the astounding and incredible circumstances of Jesus’ birth to a virgin named Mary.  But how God comes into our lives in ways we least expect it.  God uses our weakness, our faults, and our imperfect selves to share his message of love to a broken world that seeks him.  Our story of hope rests not just in the power of God almighty, but that God chooses to use us with all our imperfections and faults and mistakes to share his Word of Love.  God knows it is within us to do this work, because after all, he created us in His image.  How will you share His story, now and everyday? In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen. 


[1] Adam Hamilton, The Journey: Walking the Road to Bethlehem, pp. 96-100.

[2] Stephen Miller, The Jesus of the Bible, p. 59.

[3] Hamilton, p. 15.

[4] Hamilton, p. 113.

The Sound of Music

There is a war on Christmas!

But it’s not being fought out there…it’s being fought right here, in the church!  Can you guess what it is? The commercialization of Christmas? The pros and cons of gift-giving? No. The war, the secret war, being fought in the church is whether or not we should sing Christmas carols before Christmas!  Shocking isn’t it?  Now most of you are probably laughing but are you laughing for different reasons?  Some of you are saying, “Well, how silly!  Of course we should sing Christmas carols before Christmas.  It’s the Christmas season!” While others of you are saying, “Well, how silly!  Of course we shouldn’t sing Christmas carols before Christmas.  It’s not Christmas.”  Which camp do YOU land in?

Timeline of singing Christmas carols in church

Regardless of what you believe, you can’t avoid it.

We hear them on the radio, in shopping malls, in elevators; it is such a natural part of the holidays that for many it wouldn’t be Christmas without Christmas songs so why wouldn’t we sing them in church?  But did you know churches only began singing joyous Christmas songs only within the past 150 years?  It happened in Cornwall, England back in 1880.[1]  1880!  To think that for nearly nineteen centuries nobody sang a song like “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” in church seems pretty incredulous.  Christmas carols would be sung in the streets, at festivals, at parties, but not in church.  If you heard music at all, it would be some kind of somber tune, usually in Latin, and about church theology.[2]  Exciting, right?  Sometimes they were celebratory, but since they were in Latin, nobody knew what they meant.  There was a hungering among people to celebrate the life of Christ through music, and so the Christmas carols we know and love sprang to life. The songs we hold as standards – “Silent Night,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” and “O Come, All Ye Faithful” – came into their current form only in the 18th century.  In fact, “O Come, All Ye Faithful” one of the most famous and dearly loved Christmas carols ever was originally written in Latin.  That was fitting since the author John Wade was a Catholic cleric and he was used to hearing songs sung in Latin.  It didn’t get translated into English until 1841 and by then the origin of the song had become so muddled it was known in some places as “the Portugese Hymn,” not after the country but after the composer Marcos Portugal.  It’s still known by that name in some places today. 

Disneyland Candlelight Processional

We tend to think of Christmas songs as being inextricable from the Christmas experience.

But when you look at the long history of the church it’s still relatively new.  Still there’s a reason we hunger to sing these songs and that hunger comes from a place deep in our hearts placed there by God.  We are wired to want to praise God and to give thanks for our blessings.  In so many different books of the Bible, we find the people of God cry out to him in song and shout to him in both praise and despair.  These kinds of expression are not only meaningful to God but to the people who do them.  We’re going to read Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus this morning where he writes specifically about this topic.  Tradition sometimes becomes so interwoven into our identity that we mistake what we like for what’s important. We can get trapped in tradition and become more focused on them than on the reason for the season in the first place.  But listen to these words from Paul. Paul is appealing to us to fill ourselves with the Spirit of God, and although he means the Holy Spirit, I don’t think he would object to saying we also need to be filled with the spirit of how and why we are created as children of God. 

15 Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, 16 making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. 17 Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. 18 Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, 19 speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, 20 always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. – Ephesians 5:15-20

Practicing for Choir Blast

Singing is central to worship.

Singing is central to worship.  Not a controversial stance, I know.  But Paul doesn’t make a distinction here about what kind of songs we should sing or when.  Those are rules that we impose for the “order and structure” of the church.  It’s kind of like praying.  I’ve had people come up to me and tell me they don’t like to pray because they don’t know how to do it.  The thing is, there aren’t any hard and fast rules to prayer just as there are not any hard and fast rules to singing.  Jesus does give us guidelines about how to pray in Matthew 6, what we today call “the Lord’s prayer,” but even then he doesn’t tell us WHAT we should pray but HOW we should pray.  And the way he teaches us to pray has the same message as Paul has about singing that we just heard.  Paul, in this passage, only gives us one guideline.  Only one.  We hear it in verse 19 when he says, “Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord…” I love that the authors who put in the verse numbers cut it off right there mid-sentence because it highlights that part.  “Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord.”  If it comes from your heart, then it honors God and that’s the only requirement for what we should sing, a song that comes from the heart.  It sums up what God expects from us in all that we do.  And just as Jesus taught us how to pray, Paul goes on to tell us our singing and praise should always point to God.  He writes, “…always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  When we have those components in place, then we know we are doing it in a way that honor God and we open ourselves up to the Holy Spirit. 

The only “right way” to sing is with this in mind.

The early church often adopted customs and traditions of the surrounding culture, sometimes to legitimize the position of the church and sometimes to make it more friendly to those they were trying to reach.  Flexibility in our traditions and approach to the Gospel is the key component to being successful in reaching others for Christ.  But that doesn’t always happen. One United Methodist minister was even quoted in USA Today as saying, “You would not sing Christ the Lord is Risen Today on Good Friday…You don’t throw in Christmas hymns for the sake of appeasing people who want to sing.”[3]  But is that something worth planting your flag over?  Is that what’s going to break apart our faith?  In our desire for “order and structure” or to keep things just the way “we like them,” we inadvertently show an unloving side of ourselves, which is the last thing we want to do during the Christmas season.  When I was in high school, I was admittedly pretty good at math.  I had always received “A’s” pretty easily.  So it came as a shock when my first Calculus test got me a C-.  Especially since I got all the answers correct.  Turns out my teacher didn’t appreciate how I did it since it was different than how she showed us.  I showed all my work, but saw the problem differently than she did and so she gave me a bad grade.  She didn’t teach me math.  She taught me that the process was more important than the result.  To do things differently was bad.  That kind of inflexibility, the inability to recognize that there may be more than one way to look at a problem, is often what portrays the church as unloving and out of touch.  If we sing songs during Advent that honor Christ and help us to remember the spirit of the season, can that really be wrong?  Do we have to be so structured that we lose out on opportunities to reach others for Christ? 

There’s nothing wrong with singing Advent songs during Advent.

Or for preferring to sing Advent songs in anticipation of Christmas.  We should honor all aspects of our journey of faith.  Pentecost, Easter, Good Friday, and Christmas are all important times to remember our history as Christians and need to be taught.  But we need to have a willingness to be flexible to reach others for Christ.  We must be willing to show love through our ability to adapt and change to the world around us.  While we should never compromise the message of Christ, we can alter the delivery if it helps others be able to see Jesus in a way that brings them closer to God.  Singing Christmas songs during this season is no more right or wrong than doing it any other way.  As we hold tightly to traditions that offer us comfort and give us order, we may inadvertently be closing the doors around us.  Keep in mind that almost all of the traditions we hold to be inviolate were created by human beings.  Advent itself was created and has changed many times throughout the history of the church.  What we consider tradition today didn’t exist at all in the early church.  In fact, Christmas didn’t exist the way it does today in the early church.  All of it is made up.  But the message of Christmas, that God came to Earth to save us from our sin and bring us closer to him, is the only truth of Christmas we need to hold on to.  For those who believe, every day is Christmas.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.


[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christmas_carol ; http://www.whychristmas.com/customs/carols_history.shtml

[2] Ace Collins, Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas, p. 53.

[3] http://www.usatoday.com/news/opinion/forum/2010-12-13-column13_ST_N.htm

Believing the Unbelievable

Otherwise Titled “Are Midi-Chlorians Real?”

How do you tell truth from fiction?

Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes…it’s complicated.  Truth can be fictionalized like we see in the movies and on television.  “Based on a true story” simply means some aspect of what you are about to see happened in some way.  On the other hand, fiction can be peppered with truth.  The Big Bang Theory is a television show based on completely fictional characters, but the science they talk about is real.[1]  When you see equations on the white board in Leonard and Sheldon’s apartment, someone has actually gone over those equations to make sure they check out.  Our concepts of truth and fiction are constantly being challenged, not just in movies and television but in real life.  As our knowledge expands, so does our understanding of the world and sometimes that means shattering long-held beliefs.  We once thought the sun was the center of the universe.  We once thought the Earth was flat.  We once thought the atom was the smallest unit of matter in the universe.  Now it’s like the size of a 3X t-shirt covering up something underneath.[2] In a world where truth and fiction are more thinly separated than we are sometimes aware, what can we believe?  What is the truth?

Ad for the original Camelot 3000 maxi-series from DC Comics

Growing up, I wanted to be a Knight of the Round Table!

Chivalry, honor, daring deeds, fighting the good fight.  These are the stuff legends are made from.  And indeed King Arthur is often considered just that – a legend, a story regarded as historical but unauthenticated or at least disputed.[3]  A legend is a story regarded as historical but unauthenticated.  While there are references to a King Arthur in legitimate records of history, they are few and far between and most historians question whether he really existed, let alone believe the fantastic tales that are told about him.  But it’s those fantastic tales that make Arthur worth believing in!  It is said that in the hour of Britain’s greatest need, Arthur will return.  Sounds a bit like our belief in the return of Jesus Christ.  So, is Jesus real or is he just a legend, too?

We can understand why people have doubts about the reality of Jesus.

Some of the stories of Jesus are so fantastic as to defy belief, one of which we are going to share this morning.  Now what we are about to hear is the story of how Mary was chosen to be the mother of Jesus.  But before that happens, we find out her cousin Elizabeth was also pregnant.  What makes Elizabeth’s pregnancy even more remarkable is her advanced age.  Yet, out of nowhere, the angel, Gabriel, comes to deliver a message of hope to the couple.  They will have a child, and this child will be the herald of the Lord, and he will be called John.  We know him as John the Baptist.  Six months into the pregnancy, the same angel goes to visit Mary and that’s where we pick up the Bible reading this morning. 

26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”

 29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

 34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

 35 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. 36 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. 37 For no word from God will ever fail.”

 38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her. – Luke 1:26-38

The story of the virgin birth has got to be one of the most unbelievable stories about Jesus.

Next to the resurrection itself it is the one most divorced from the reality we live in.  Indeed, it’s one of the reasons people have a hard time accepting Christ as real. The idea of the virgin birth is just biologically impossible!  But what do we know about the impossible?  Would anyone have thought in vitro fertilization was possible until it happened?  Today, Louise Brown, the first known IVF baby is 43 years old, married, and living in England with her husband and naturally born son.[4]  Sarah, Isaac’s mom in the book of Genesis, was 90 years old when she conceived her 1st child.  Seems impossible, but we get closer to making that a possibility even today.  A woman in India recently gave birth at the age of 74 breaking a record that was only set 3 years earlier.[5]  Is it ethically the right thing to do?  That’s a question we as a society need to wrestle with as technology continues to advance, but the limits of what is and isn’t possible grows thinner every day. We don’t know the boundaries of the impossible.

Some believe the story of Christ is just another myth.

Other religions have stories about having a miraculous birth like the one about Jesus.  The concept of the divine entering the world is not new by any means.  George Lucas used it in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace to describe Anakin Skywalker’s birth, the boy who would become Darth Vader.  When questioned about the identity of Anakin’s father, his mother Shmi simply said, “There was no father…I carried him, I gave him birth…I cannot explain what happened.” Divine intervention in the birth of a child is a powerful symbol for divine purpose, and this theme is found not just in fictition, but in other religions as well.  Both Krishna and Buddha are said to have orchestrated their own births.  The deity of Vishnu from Hinduism is said to have descended into his mother’s womb much like God made flesh in Christ, and the “Great Being” from Buddhism was said to have imparted itself into a human woman to be born as the first Buddha.  Neither one was necessarily a virgin birth but considered divine.[6]  Many stories today we consider myths do however talk about virgin births.  Perseus in Greek mythology was born to Danae who was locked in a tower all her life specifically so she could not have children and was impregnated by Zeus, the head of the Greek Gods by means of a golden shower that penetrated the tower walls.[7]  Even in Japan, the legendary story of Kintaro, the boy warrior, says that his mother Yama-uba was impregnated with a clap of thunder from a red dragon in Mount Ashigara.[8]   Even other historical figures are said to have been born by supernatural means – Pythagoras, Alexander the Great, even Plato.[9]  With so many stories of supernatural birth out there, it would be easy for the skeptic to dismiss the story of Jesus as just another fanciful tale.

For us, it’s more than just a story.

For us, it’s not just a story but historical fact.  Yes, the story of Jesus shares elements with other supernatural births, but does that mean it isn’t true?  Unlike most other myths whose only verification is the story itself, there are multiple records of the virgin birth of Jesus.  We forget that the stories in the Bible were not written by one person, but by a number of people who themselves were witnesses to one of the most amazing events in history and the birth of Christ is recorded in multiple accounts.  But apart from that, we also have evidence from the writings of the Qur’an and from the historian Josephus who attest to the birth, death and existence of Jesus.  The Qur’an even goes so far as to acknowledge the virgin birth and the miraculous deeds of Christ.  And unlike other myths and legends which change and shift over time, the story of Christ has remained told virtually the same exact way for nearly 2000 years. Those are just some of the reasons why we believe the story of Jesus is more than fiction but fact, because of the evidence in favor of the story being real. 

But no amount of evidence will ever convince some people.

Just look at how resistant people are to vaccines today and you can see first-hand how much that is still a reality even today.  To ask people to believe in someone as extraordinary as Jesus when they can’t even believe what they can see and experience with their own eyes is a hill too steep for some.  But that does not mean we cannot reach these people.  As it is written in Philippians 4:13, “I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”  Or in Matthew 19:26 where Jesus tells the disciples, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”  For most of us, Christ comes alive not in the pages of a book, but in our lives through the love of God.  Maybe it’s our parents or grandparents who reflected God’s love in their love for us.  Maybe a pastor or a teacher who was there in our time of need.  Maybe just a neighbor or friend who reached out in a meaningful way.  But it’s not the words that make Christ come alive for us but how we love one another.  As it says in 1 John 3:18, “Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” That is when Christ moves away from just being another story to the living Gospel.  It is when God becomes real in our own lives that the doubt and questions fade, and we can embrace the truth of Jesus for ourselves.  Let us commit this Christmas season to live life more closely to where Christ is leading us.  Let us be the candle in the darkness for those around us.  And let the transformation of our lives by the presence of Jesus be the strongest proof of his existence. 


[1] http://minnesota.cbslocal.com/2011/02/17/good-question-is-the-big-bang-theory-science-real/

[2] http://www.fnal.gov/pub/science/inquiring/matter/

[3] https://www.google.com/search?q=legend&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8&aq=t&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&client=firefox-a&channel=sb#rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&channel=sb&q=legend+definition

[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louise_Brown

[5] https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2019/09/06/this-year-old-woman-just-gave-birth-twins/ and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pregnancy_over_age_50

[6] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miraculous_births

[7] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miraculous_births

[8] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kintar%C5%8D

[9] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/james-d-tabor/did-paul-invent-the-virgin-birth_b_2355278.html

Festivus for the Rest of Us!

Festivus for the rest of us!

If you’re a fan of Seinfeld, that line will be quite familiar to you, especially during this time of year.  George Costanza’s father, tired of the rampant commercialization of Christmas, decided tTro make his own holiday called Festivus.  “A Festivus for the rest of us!”  Instead of a Christmas tree, there was a Festivus aluminum pole with no decorations.  There was the traditional Festivus dinner, the Feats of Strength, and my personal favorite, the Airing of Grievances where you sat around the table and told everyone how they bothered you this past year.  Even though it was meant to be a parody of the holiday season, there are people today who celebrate Festivus.  Wanting to be inclusive, one workplace decided instead of having a Christmas party, they would celebrate Festivus together.  A guy in their office felt it was so blasphemous, he tried to knock down the Festivus pole.[1]  The lead organizer said, “Grievances were aired about him.”  But he’s not the only one with a humbug attitude.  A group called The Catholic League and the New York Board of Rabbis joined together to condemn another made up holiday, Christmukkah, saying that it was “insulting” to both Jews and Christians.[2]  It’s ironic that two groups who differ so much in every other respect don’t mind coming together in outrage instead of love. 

From mediamatters.org

Anger makes strange bedfellows.

Sometimes, when we feel challenged, we become defensive. And some people are awfully defensive about Christmas.  But are we defensive for the right reasons?  There are protests when nativity scenes in public areas are being taken down.  There are protests about companies telling their employees to say, “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”  But these same people don’t seem to be too worried about global warming or that there isn’t enough food on the table for millions of people this holiday season.  We spend more airtime focused on these minor grievances than problems that are having a real impact on the lives of people around the world.  We act as if God is more concerned about celebrating Jesus’ birthday rather than honoring Jesus’ life through our actions.  And for what?  For a holiday we completely made up?  In a way, Christmas is no more “authentic” than Festivus or Chrismukkah and that includes the whole Advent season. 

LEGO Avengers Advent Calendar

Most people think of Advent as a countdown to Christmas.

And in a way it is.  But the significance of Advent is deeper than simply a calendar with treats inside. For Christians, it is a reminder of the wait of our Jewish ancestors for a savior and at the same time symbolizes our own wait for Christ’s return. It begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, but most people assume it starts on December 1st since every Advent calendar made today seems to countdown the 24 days until Christmas.  But before we start bemoaning how Advent has become commercialized, we should probably realize the early church never had an Advent season.  It wasn’t created until the 4th century after Jesus’ death and at the time it was 6 weeks long similar to Lent.  Like Lent it was considered a time of spiritual preparation. It wasn’t a hopeful time like we celebrate it now, but a time to reflect on your sins.  People would fast and because of the similarities some even called Advent a “second Lent.”  Originally, Advent wasn’t about Christmas at all.  It was the time leading up to the Epiphany, and back in the 4th century the Epiphany celebrated all the aspects of Jesus’ early life up to his first miracle of at the wedding in Cana.  Sometime during the 6th century, the focus of Advent changed to the second coming of Christ or what they refer to as the Parousia.  It would take another 1000 years before Advent became associated with the birth of Jesus at all. 

Which, by the way, didn’t happen on December 25th.

You probably know that by now, but most of us grew up associating December 25th with the birth of Jesus.  Even friends of mine who are not Christian know the reason we celebrate Christmas is to honor the birth of Christ.  But the truth is, no one knows precisely when he was born. One book I read explained it was likely Jesus was born in the Spring since the Bible refers to shepherds who were tending their flocks at night, something they would NOT have done in the dead of winter.  But no one ever wrote down when Jesus’ birth actually took place.  The Bible never describes Jesus having a birthday party and it simply was never the focus of the early church.  The two biggest events in the church calendar were Epiphany and Easter.  Christmas wasn’t even on the radar.  It wasn’t until around the 4th century that the first recorded Christmas celebrations began to occur.  The 4th century – 300-400 years after his actual birth.  Which also, by the way, wasn’t in 1 AD.  Most scholars today will tell you Jesus was likely born somewhere between 2 and 7 BC, which translated from the Latin means “before Christ.”  Because of an error in calculation, the guy who invented the counting of years as we know it today was off somewhere from 2 to 7 years.  So the first actual Christmas was not likely on December 25th, 1 AD but sometime in the Spring of 2-7 BC.  Some Christians get so defensive about when we celebrate Christmas when it was all made up to begin with.

What we need to focus on during the Christmas season is the “why,” not the “when.”

Pretty much the only thing we know definitively is that Christ was born, died for our sins, and rose again.  The rest is all stuff we made up – the date, the season, the traditions.  Even the giving of gifts did not happen on the day Jesus was born as we often believe.  The only gift given that day was from God to us in the form of a baby in a manger.  Which is the reason we celebrate. Let us be reminded of that fateful evening long ago that changed the world.

 8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

 13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
   and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
– Luke 2:8-14

This is the importance of Christmas.

The birth of Christ into the world. “Today in the town of David a savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.”  In all the hubbub of the Christmas season, it’s good to simply share in the story of the birth of Christ and be reminded of the significance of that moment when “a great company of the heavenly host appeared” saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”  When I mentioned we need to focus on the “why” instead of the “when,” this is the “why” we need to focus on – why we celebrate the season.  We celebrate the fact God humbled himself to enter into the world just as we do.  God became human to lead us, guide us, and share with us the good news of salvation that comes through him.  The good news the angel refers to is of course the birth of Jesus and as we like to say, he is the reason for the season.  Instead of getting focused on the details of Christmas or worrying about the commercialization of Christmas or if the season is losing its meaning, we need to instead focus on the meaning itself.  When we do that, when we make it clear why we celebrate the season, the rest of it will happen by itself.  There isn’t an active groundswell to undermine Christmas.  There isn’t some orchestrated War on Christmas as some conservative pundits like to argue. And we’re not losing Christmas to Festivus or Christmukkah or any other made-up holiday. If we’re losing the spirit of Christmas, it’s because we’ve forgotten the “why” of Christmas to begin with.  Christmas will be remembered not because of a manger scene on someone’s front lawn but because we keep the spirit of Christ alive in Christmas, now and all year round.    

Let me tell you a story about a friend of mine named Mark Thompson.

We went to Cerritos Elementary School and had most of the same teachers all the way up through fourth grade. Mark is coming up on his 14th birthday.  That’s right.  His 14th birthday.  And I don’t mean because he’s young at heart.  I mean literally, his 14th birthday.  If you haven’t figured it out already, Mark is a “leaper” or “leapling” as they call it.  He was born on February 29th, 1968, the same year as I was born.  Yet he is only 13 years old because of the way we keep time on the calendar.  Since his actual birth date only occurs once every 4 years, he is only one-fourth of my age.  But is he really?  We’ve lived the same number of days – actually I’ve lived less of them since my birthday is after his.  But Mark used to like to say that he’d live to be a lot older than me because he’s aging only a fourth as fast as I am.  I hate to break it to him, but he’s not really aging slower than anybody.  Just because the date of his birth only shows up on a calendar once every four years, doesn’t take away from the fact that he’s still aging like the rest of us.  We get so focused on the minutae at times that we fail to see the bigger picture.  December 25th is just a number.  Christmas should live in our hearts every day.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.


[1] http://edition.cnn.com/2009/LIVING/12/23/festivus.holiday/index.html

[2] https://usatoday30.usatoday.com/money/industries/retail/2004-12-15-chrismukkah_x.htm

Meatloaf and Other Things In the Fridge

How many of you like meatloaf?

Go ahead.  Raise your hands.  I love meatloaf.  Meatloaf is one of my favorite foods to eat.  I have lots of good memories about it; the ketchup topping that somehow made it taste both sweet and savory at the same time, eating it after it came out piping hot from the stove with a big scoop of rice on the side, family meals around the table.  And of course, no one makes it like my mom.  My mom’s version is the gold standard of meatloaf.  If I order it from a restaurant, I can’t help but compare it to hers.  You know what I like even better than my mom’s meatloaf?  Leftovers the next day.  As a kid, I used to love making a meatloaf sandwich for lunch.  Put a big chunk of it in-between two slices of bread with some mayonnaise on it.  Yum.  But as much as I like it, leftover meatloaf just isn’t something I would serve to someone else.  Not because it’s meatloaf, but because it’s a leftover.  Leftovers might be okay for ourselves, but would you ever serve leftovers to someone who was a guest in your home?  Someone you were hoping to date?  Would you serve leftovers to your boss?  There’s something about leftovers people associate with being “not worthy of my time.”  Leftovers are for “other people” once we’re done eating what we want.  Leftovers go in the “doggy bag.”  Think about it.  The “doggy bag.”  Because it’s leftover scraps of food that goes to the dogs.  Before the invention of the doggy bag, most people wouldn’t even THINK to take leftover food home.[1]  It was considered in poor taste even as late as the 1970’s.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I love leftovers.  Most of you probably do too, but there is something about them people associate with unworthiness.  So the question needs to be asked, “Are you giving God your leftovers?” 

Before you answer, think about it.

When you go to make your budget every month, you set aside money for the gas bill, the power bill, the water bill, gas for the car, food for your stomach, the rent or mortgage to pay for the roof over your head, do you also put aside money for God?  Or does God come AFTER paying the bills?  Is God simply getting your leftovers?  Let’s face it, God doesn’t need the money.  He made the whole world.  But giving to God FIRST is a sign of your obedience to God.  It’s an indication of where your heart is.  Because as we mentioned before, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  You might be thinking to yourself, well what is it I’m supposed to give to God? 

As you might expect we can find the answer in Scripture.

Let me give you some background before we get into the Scripture.  In this part of the Gospel of Mark, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Herodians, and the chief priests are ganging up on Jesus.  The funny thing is these groups other than the chief priests are all political rivals like the Democrats and Republicans.  Normally, they would be opposed to each other if for no other reason than to not be like the others.  It would have to take something that threatened all of them for them to band together in mutual opposition and that threat was Jesus.  These groups were afraid of him, including the chief priests of the temple.  Not because he can beat them up or anything, but because he speaks with such authority and conviction he is convincing people to his way of thinking, and he is gathering more and more followers every day.  So, these groups attack Jesus verbally in public forums, trying to get him to slip up and make a mistake to ridicule him and tear him down in front of his followers, but Jesus keeps answering every challenge with such skill even more people follow him.  Where we pick up in the Scriptures this morning, the Sadducees have just asked him a question about the resurrection and Jesus answers it and throws their knowledge of Scripture right back in their face and apparently, he does so with such conviction and aplomb that this teacher of the law comes forth and asks Jesus a serious question. 

 28 One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

   29 “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

 32 “Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. 33 To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

 34 When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.

When you first hear this passage, it doesn’t seem obvious what it has to do with giving.

Jesus tells us the most important commandment is to love the Lord God with ALL your heart and will ALL your soul and with ALL your mind and with ALL your strength.  This is the key to what we are supposed to give to God.  ALL – that’s the key word in this passage.  Give it ALL to God.  Because God already gave it all to us.  ALL your heart.  ALL your understanding.  ALL your strength.  We’re supposed to give it all.  Because God gave us life.  He gave us hope.  He gave us salvation through our savior, Jesus Christ.  Now, we’re supposed to give ourselves back to him.  God doesn’t want you to starve.  God doesn’t want you to give up your homes.  But he does want your heart.  All of it.  He wants those intangible things that make up the backbone of any good relationship.  Your heart, your soul, your mind.  And this teacher of the law in our passage today says it so eloquently in verse 33, “To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”  What’s so amazing about this verse is that it comes from a teacher of the law.  This was a man who made a living from burnt offerings and sacrifices.  To the Hebrew people, these sacrifices were meant as an offering of duty, devotion, and love and this teacher says it’s not the things you bring to the table that are important – it’s what’s behind the action that is.  It’s those intangible qualities of love made tangible by what we give and why we give that are important.

When we give, we are supposed to give FIRST to God – not because God needs your money. 

Not that God needs your burnt offerings and sacrifices.  But because God needs your heart. Why you give and what you give indicate your heart for God.  Are you putting God first in your life? Or are you giving God your “leftovers?”  You might think you are doing the right thing, but our actions speak louder than our words and we have a lot of words about this topic: “Vote with our feet…” “Speak with our wallets…” or this one, “Put your money where your mouth is…”  I think that one comes straight from the Bible.  It’s a variation of something John wrote to the church in one of his letters. “17 If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? 18 Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” 1 John 3:17-18.  “Let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth!”  It’s so easy to put God off.  He’s such an understanding guy.  And we tend to put off anything that doesn’t demand our attention.  But God doesn’t want you to give out of duty or obligation.  He doesn’t want you to give because you think you’ll earn a spot in Heaven.  He wants you to give from the heart and nothing says “I love you” as much as it does when we put others before ourselves.  So as you consider what you are going to give to God this year, think about how putting God first can create in you a stronger relationship with God.  God is waiting for you, but it’s up to you to respond to his call.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.


[1] http://victualling.wordpress.com/2010/06/20/the-partial-triumph-of-the-doggie-bag/

Does God Want Me to be Poor?

Does God want me to be poor?

That’s the question that challenges us today.  Does God want me to be poor?  If you have a Bible or a Bible app on your phone, please find Matthew 19:21-26.  Matthew 19:21-26.  This passage we’re about to read today is one I think troubles us as Christians because it seems to say that you can’t get into Heaven if you’re rich.  And if that’s the case, then how poor do we have to be? Do I have to live in squalor or can I afford a nice home?  If the church owns the house, am I absolved of all blame?  This guy comes up to Jesus one day and asks him what he needs to do to obtain eternal life, so Jesus tells him to obey the commandments and the man replies that he has and asks, “What do I still lack?”  And we hear Jesus’ answer in our reading this morning. 

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.”

25 When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?”

26 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

Sounds like the rich young man just get the short end of the stick.

I think it’s easy to read this and think maybe Jesus was kind of tough on him.  I mean the guy seems to be a good guy.  He doesn’t lie, cheat, or steal.  He honors his parents.  As far as we know, he loves his neighbor and not in an adulterous sort of way.  But still, he wonders what he needs to do to guarantee eternal life.  There’s something in him that still feels empty inside.  There’s still a hole in his gut and he doesn’t know how to fill it.  So he goes to Jesus and after telling Jesus he has kept the commandments he asks, “What do I still lack?”  And Jesus responds with what we read in our passage today.  He tells the guy, “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.”  Sounds like Jesus is telling him that to get into heaven he needs to get rid of all of his stuff doesn’t it?  But did you ever stop to realize Jesus doesn’t ACTUALLY answer his question? Jesus’ response isn’t, “You lack the faith that only comes with poverty.”  He says, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven,” which begs the question, can any of us BE perfect?  The answer of course is “no” so why does Jesus answer this way?

Jesus is forcing him to go deeper.

He wants him to consider that it’s more than just a set of rules that get you into Heaven.  He wants him to reflect on how his wealth is getting in the way of a closer relationship with God.  It’s why Jesus tells his disciples it’s easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.  The disciples don’t know this and are shocked at Jesus’ answer.  If this guy, who by all accounts is a good guy can’t get in, then who can?  And Jesus responds, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”  That gap between where we are and where we need to be is one made possible by relying on God.  All of that stuff gets in the way of going deeper with God, of learning to rely on God for the peace we seek.  It’s hard for us to realize how much we need God when have so much.  And the more a person has, the harder it is to see how deeply we really need God.  We start believing we can do it ourselves.  That’s what was going on with the rich young man.  Think about the question the rich young man asked, “What do I need to do to gain eternal life?”  He didn’t ask, “What can I do to please God?” or “How can I serve God better?”  He was asking what HE could do to earn salvation.  And that’s why Jesus responds the way he does.  “If you want to be perfect…” he starts out, because only the perfect person can earn their way into heaven and at our core we are imperfect people.  No amount of money can change or overcome that basic flaw we carry with us.  The key, the answer, is to put ourselves and our salvation in God’s hands.

John Wesley came up with a three-step approach to wealth management.

He summed it up this way: Earn all you can.  Save all you can.  Give all you can.  For John, there was nothing wrong with earning all the money you can if you did it in a way that honored God.  Then he proposed we save all we can.  He wasn’t advocating for stuffing our bank accounts.  He meant we shouldn’t squander our earnings.  We shouldn’t spend it frivolously.  We should be good stewards of God’s blessing.  And finally, we should give all we can.  It was this third part that was the key to the other two.  There was nothing wrong with being wealthy, but there was something wrong with being frivolous, or being stingy, or being greedy.  We are supposed to use what we have in the service of others.  No matter how much or how little, we do what we can.  Warren Buffett might have been a fan of John Wesley’s or vice versa because he and Bill and Melinda Gates began an exclusive club for billionaires called The Giving Pledge.  As reported on 60 Minutes, there are only two requirements to join – you have to have a net worth over $1 billion when you join and you pledge to give away at least half of it through charitable donations over the course of your lifetime.[1]  Bill and Melinda have already pledged to donate 95% of their good fortune away and Warren Buffett has pledged 99% of his.  Asked what he thought about leaving their fortune to their kids, he said, “I don’t really think that, as a society, we want to confer blessings on generation after generation who contribute nothing to society, simply because somebody in the far distant past happened to amass a great sum of wealth.”  Giving away vast sums of money when you have vast sums of money seems to be a no-brainer.  Who couldn’t live off that much wealth?  But Buffett explains that not everyone he talks to is on board.  In the interview he said, “I’ve gotten a lot of yeses when I’ve called people. But I’ve gotten a lot of nos, too. And I am tempted, because I’ve been calling people with a billion dollars or more, I’ve been tempted to think that if they can’t sign up for 50 percent, maybe I should write a book on how to get by on $500 million. Because apparently there’s a lot of people that don’t really know how to do it.”

Jesus wasn’t kidding when he said that wealth gets in the way of our relationship with God.

These are BILLIONAIRES who are worried they don’t have enough.  Money causes us to do some irrational things.  We’re tempted to hold on to it.  We’re fearful of letting it go.  We worry what might happen if we don’t have it.  And so it dominates our lives.  Jesus even warned us about the effects money could have in our relationship with God.  He said in Matthew 6, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” And then in what are perhaps the most famous verses on money, Paul wrote to Timothy, “Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.  For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs (1Timothy 6:10).”  So it’s not that God wants us to be poor.  It’s our love of money, our desire to be self-reliant to the point of not needing God, is what can separate us from God.  And it doesn’t have to be money.  It could be anything we have an abundance of – fame, power, Pokemon cards – it doesn’t matter.  When we live in abundance, we can become arrogant, self-righteous, and proud – and that leads us to have less reliance on God. 

To avoid this temptation, we need to follow Uncle Ben’s advice.

Not the guy who makes instant rice, but Uncle Ben from the Spider Man comics.  Ben tells a young Peter Parker, Spider Man’s alter ego, “With great power comes great responsibility.[2]”  Ben’s advice is similar to the words of John Wesley who modeled his words after Jesus who said in Luke 12:48, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”  The concept is simple.  Those who have an abundance owe it to those who do not to be good stewards of it.  To share it, to give it, to use it responsibly.  That is how we keep from letting our abundance get in the way of God, by remembering that it all belongs to Him and that we are simply caretakers of it. 

Poor and rich are relative terms.

We can be exceptionally wealthy and poor in spirit or vice versa.  Having one doesn’t mean having the other.  Only a fool believes he is poor in the face of an abundance of God’s blessings or rich in the absence of God’s presence in his life.  What we need to remember is that only one lasts forever.  The other is gone the moment we die.  The truth is God wants everyone to be rich, but rich in what matters most – our relationship with Him.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.


[1] http://www.cbsnews.com/news/the-giving-pledge-a-new-club-for-billionaires/

[2] Uncle Ben wasn’t the first to coin the phrase but it is often credited to him