Category Archives: Sermon

Seaside With Jesus: Jesus Goes Mafia Matthew 18:6-7

 

It is humorous when Disney goes Mafia. When they take one of the smallest of creatures in the film, a attic shrew, and identify him as Mr. Big, head of the crime syndicate in Zootopia. As the tiny Mr. Big commands his henchmen to “ice” Judy and Nick, and watch the floor panel removed to reveal the ocean underneath, we uneasingly laugh as those old enough to know see allusions the Marlon Brando as Don Vito Corleone…then we catch mental images of the legendary “cement shoes” and bodies being dumped in the ocean.
It is no laughing matter, though, when the Son of God starts to sound like The Godfather. Yet, that is exactly what we find as we encounter Jesus in these verses this morning. Jesus doesn’t suggest that anyone be saddled with “concrete shoes” or even a “Chicago overcoat,” Jesus, the Son of God the Father, says “If any of you put a stumbling blocks before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.” Talk about harsh…Jesus puts the mafia to shame. The question is, what gets Jesus so worked up that he sounds like the mob?
Jesus doesn’t usually sound upset and so condemning where he spends most of his life in ministry. He lives and moves and ministers among the sick and sinners that the rest of society has cast aside. He spends time with prostitutes, with tax collectors (who would have also been considered traitors to Israel), with adulterers, and other sinners. He walked with them, talked with them, ate with them, forgave them their sins, and we never once see Jesus go off on them, never once see him suggest that they ought to be sent swimming with the fishes. Yet in these few verses we hear Jesus sounding like a hitman.
So if Jesus deals with all that sin that constantly would surround him so well, again we ask, what in the world gets Jesus this worked up? There are other times that Jesus gets angry (those scenes that I often hear used as an excuse by folks who are short-tempered). Two scenes stand out. The first is when Jesus enters Jerusalem and goes to the Temple. There he finds the money changers and the livestock sales folks. Some folks see this scene and will quickly say that Jesus was upset because the people were selling goods inside the temple courtyards. I’ve heard it used that way to suggest that churches should never have any kind of fundraising efforts. That’s not the case, though. These two groups of people were needed. The money changers were there because a faithful Jew could not make a donation to the Temple using Roman coinage. The Roman coins bore the image of Caesar, meaning they were marked with a graven image. The money changers were needed to provide image free Hebrew coinage that could be used for gifts to the Temple. The husbandry folks were there because people would need to bring animals for their atonement sacrifices. Some would come from such great distances that they were unable to bring their sacrifices with them. Those that brought their own livestock from home would have to have it inspected to ensure that it was without blemish. Now, knowing the validity of the two groups presence, why would Jesus be upset at their presence? Let me put it this way, both involved money…and what does Paul’s letter to Timothy acknowledge as the root of all kind of evil? The love of money. We can just imagine the corruption that would erupt in that setting…and how that corruption would take advantage of and even hamper a believer’s ability to worship God. Now we see why Jesus would have run those folks off with a little Indiana Jones whip action…they were standing between the people and their ability to worship God freely.
Elsewhere in the Gospels Jesus confronts the Pharisees. He confronts them over all the rules and regulations, the legalistic views of the faith, that they have imposed on the people, and then have not made any effort to help them. He looks at them and says, “”woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves…Woe to you, blind guides…” Did you catch that? Because these Pharisees and scribes were making it difficult for folks to come into a relationship with God, Jesus called these religious leaders children of hell, children of satan…and later on called them blind guides and blind fools!
Then we come to today’s millstone passage. Some would suggest that this passage, when it talks about “little ones,” is warning anyone against harming any children. Why? Because in the preceding verses, when Jesus is asked about who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven he calls a little child to him, and explains the humility, openness, and acceptingness of a child are key to what it it means to experiencing the Kingdom of Heaven…a Kingdom reality that he expresses elsewhere, is as much present as it is future. However, the truth of the matter is that Jesus is not simply talking about little children, but all that are new to a relationship with God and trying to grow in their faith, the young of the faith, if you will.
Jesus warns against doing anything that might cause a person who is young or weak in the faith to stumble, to fall away from God. Jesus says that there are going to be things that cause people to stumble…that cause people to fall away or backslide. He says stumbling blocks are going to come in this world and cause folks to fall, but you best not be the one who tosses that stumbling block in front of them…. because, according to Jesus, if we were the ones that cause someone to fall away from God, a suffocating death with water filling our lungs as we sink into the depths of the sea (remembering the Dead Sea is the deepest spot on earth) would be preferable to facing God and giving account for what we have done.
What does that mean for us? It means that we are our brothers’ (and our sisters’) keeper. It means we are responsible for more than ourselves. It means that we are responsible, whether intentional or unintentional, for how our actions affect the faith of others.
Paul addresses this in both his letters to the Romans and Corinthians:
“Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for you to make others fall by what you eat; it is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that makes your brother or sister stumble.”
““All things are lawful,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other. Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience, for “the earth and its fullness are the Lord’s.” If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, out of consideration for the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience— I mean the other’s conscience, not your own. For why should my liberty be subject to the judgment of someone else’s conscience? If I partake with thankfulness, why should I be denounced because of that for which I give thanks? So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, so that they may be saved.”
Our actions have to be governed not only by how we believe, but how our actions are going to impact the faith of another. Need a real-life example?
I have a good friend Josh who is vegetarian. I don’t see anything wrong with a good bacon-cheeseburger or pepperoni pizza. In fact, sometimes I catch myself talking about how bacon makes everything taste better in front of him and have to stop myself. Why? Because Josh’s vegetarianism is an aspect of his faith journey. For him to eat meat would be cause for him to question his faithfulness to God. I know others who would laugh at his vegetarianism and suggest he needed to just get over it. I’ve argued, years back, that if I am supposed to take into account a person being a vegetarian when I am serving a meal, that they should take into account that I’m an omnivore, an equal-opportunity eater when they are serving a meal. However, that is not what Paul says, and not the point that Jesus is making. They are both saying that my thoughts and actions, about what I prepare or what I expect them to prepare, all have to revolve them. I have to place them and their faith journey above my own, because God will hold me responsible for how I impact them. That means that if Josh and his girlfriend come for a visit and I prepare a meal, I won’t be fixing shrimp or scallops and telling him that he can eat what I’ve prepared because God really has declared it okay to eat, but that I am to prepare a meal that doesn’t ask him to compromise his faith.
It means that I do not take a drink, not that I do any more, or even cook with alcohol, if there is a chance that I might influence or impact a recovering, or potential, alcoholic to take a drink, even if I believe a glass of wine with dinner is good for the heart.
It means that if the clothing or footwear that I put on, or not wear, has an impact upon someone’s faith, that I must take that into consideration when I get dressed.
It means that what movies I watch with someone, what music I listen to around someone, what conversations I have with another have to take into account the impact that it would have of their faith.
I can hear someone wanting to shout out, “But what about me? What about my rights?” (Because I’ve wanted to shout them out too). To quote Rick Warren in the first sentence of The Purpose Driven Life, “It’s not about you.” To put it plain and simple, to faithfully follow Christ, to have the same mindset as Christ who humbled himself to leave the throne room of heaven to come and live amongst us, means that we become third. (I know there are bracelets, and I think I might still have one, that say “I am second” – reminding us that God is first, but I think we ought to come up with some to pass out that read “I am third.”). God is first, those around us are second, and, for the sake of the Gospel, we are third.
May we all place ourselves third. Why? Well, partially because I would rather not have Jesus go godfather on me and suggest I tie a millstone or anchor around my neck and be thrown into the Back Sound; but primarily because I believe that to honor God the Father, we have to live like God the Son through the power of the Holy Spirit, and live our lives in such a way that we are no longer stumbling blocks, but instead stepping stones leading others closer to God and deeper in their faith.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…Amen.

 

Why Are We Who We Are? 1st Peter 2:9-10 (Wednesday Night Service)

 

How many of you have seen the movie Forest Gump?  At one point in the movie, Forrest ends up as a private in the Vietnam War.  During one of the Vietnam scenes, Forrest’s unit is ambushed.  Everyone in the unit, save Forrest, is either injured or killed.  We watch as Forrest searches frantically for his best friend, Bubba, and in the process, hauls every injured comrade, including his Lieutenant, Dan Taylor to safety.  He brings them all out of the jungle to a rescue helicopter before being shot himself.  After their evacuation, the next scene shows Forrest and Lieutenant Taylor in the medical hospital, with Taylor questioning what he is supposed to do now that Forrest has rescued him.

We’ve been on this journey for several weeks now, letting Peter remind us of who we are.  He’s reminded us that we are a chosen race—those chosen by God across ethnic lines to be His people and because God has chosen us, we know that God loves us, God sees value in us, and God has a purpose for us.  Peter’s reminded us that we are a royal priesthood…and as such we are called to stand in the gap between God and those who are out of relationship with God in order to be mediators of God’s forgiveness and blessing, often requiring us to be willing, as Christ did with His own life, to sacrifice whether it be a sacrifice of our time, reputation, finances, or even well-being.  We have also been told we are a holy nation—a people, across political lines that have given our lives over to Christ…we have been set apart and are called to be holy as God is holy, striving to be made perfect in love—growing in our complete love of God and love of neighbor.  Finally, last week we were called to remember that we are not our own, we belong to God…we are God’s own people…God has saved us and claims us and nothing, not our jobs, not our careers, not our families, not our bills, not illness nor disease, not addictions, not anything else, nothing owns us—we belong to God.

The question is why?  Why has God chosen us?  Why has God appointed us as His royal priesthood?  Why does God want us to be a holy nation?  Why has God claimed us as His own? What are we supposed to do now?  Sometimes we may feel as clueless as Lieutenant Taylor after he felt robbed of being able to die in battle as he thought his destiny was mapped out.

You see, our destiny was all mapped out.  In fact the destiny we had was not very different that the one Taylor thought he had.  He thought he was to die in battle, ambushed by the Vietnamese.  We were to die in our sin, ambushed by none other than Satan himself and our own choices.  Forrest rescued Taylor out of the darkness of the jungle, saving him from certain death.  Jesus rescued us out of the darkness of our sin, saving us from certain death.  Again, we ask, “why?  Why has God saved us?  For what purpose do we now live?”  We have the answer, and we have alluded to it many times over the course of this series, and it is found in the heart of these two verses we have focused in on for the last five weeks: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, IN ORDER THAT YOU MAY PROCLAIM THE MIGHTY ACTS OF HIM WHO CALLED YOU OUT OF DARKNESS INTO HIS MARVELOUS LIGHT.”  God has shown us mercy, because our lives were so far from him we deserved nothing short of His leaving us in our sin, and He has called us together out of our isolated, drifting lives, and given us a purpose.  God has not done it to shatter our lives and leave us clueless, at a loss, and feel like we had our opportunities stripped from us.  Neither has God done all of this so that we can just sit around and feel special, or even feel superior to those around us.  God has not done it so that we can just keep it to ourselves.  God has done all of this so that we might direct others to Him.  God has done all of this so that we might become evangelists, so that we might become proclaimers of the Gospel.

All of what we have talked about each of these weeks has pointed to that.

As chosen people, we are called, like Abraham’s descendants to be a people that lead all other nations to the throne of God.

As a royal priesthood, we stand, like the priests of old and like the High Priest of High Priests, Jesus, as those between God and those who find themselves (even if they don’t know it) estranged from God, in order to bridge the gap and lead them into a relationship with God.

As a holy nation, we, like Israel, are to be different from the nations around us, we are to be holy as God is holy, in order to show what it means to live in relationship with God.

As God’s own people, we reveal the peace that comes in knowing that nothing else in the world has a claim on our lives and thus the final word in our lives, beyond God Himself.

We aren’t left wonder what we are supposed to do with the rest of our lives.  We are not left in limbo as to what our “destiny” is.  Peter makes it very clear as to what we are to be about.  As those that God has chosen, called, and set aside as He claimed and saved us out of the darkness, He has placed before us the responsibility, actually He has blessed us with the opportunity of sharing the good news of what He has done for us with those around us.

Peter knew this personally.  He is often hailed as a hero of the faith.  We often talk about him as if he is the Super-Disciple—and he very well may have become that…but we often forget that He had his struggle before getting there.  He knew what it was like to be called out of the darkness. His first calling was from that of a fisherman, called when Jesus walked along the Sea of Tiberius in the early dawn when the fishermen would have been finishing up their work as the darkness of night drew to a close. Yet that is not the time I am referring to.  It was the end of another night of fishing where Jesus encounters and calls Peter out of the darkness.  It was after the resurrection.  Peter and some of the others had been fishing, when once again Jesus is walking along the seashore.  It is here that Jesus rescued Peter from the darkness…yet it was not the darkness of night that Peter needed rescuing from.  It was most likely the darkness that was within Peter’s soul.  Peter, we remember was very quick to speak.  Peter is the one who, when Jesus had said that he would betrayed and abandoned, had promised that he would follow Jesus all the way to the point of death.  And yet, when Jesus was arrested and tried, Peter denied even knowing who Jesus was.  He had seen the look in Jesus’ eyes after denying him that third time as the rooster crowed.  Now that the resurrection had taken place and Jesus walked among them, there is no doubt in my mind that Peter walked around with a very dark spot in his soul, the guilt and shame of that denial—knowing that Jesus would condemn him and he would find himself one of those cast into the darkness where there would be a weeping and gnashing of teeth.  Yet Jesus didn’t do that.  He called Peter aside.  Just as Peter had denied Jesus knowing Jesus three times, Jesus countered by asking Peter three times if Peter loved him, and as Peter affirmed his love for Christ, Jesus pulled Peter out of the darkness of his soul by repeating the first words that he had ever said to Peter, “Follow me.”

Freed from that darkness, Peter could do nothing but proclaim the freedom found in Christ—from the Day of Pentecost to the day of his death, both when in the good pleasure of those who accepted the Gospel and under the threat of imprisonment and the death penalty, Peter could do nothing but proclaim the freedom found in Christ—whether it be through the defense of the disciples at Pentecost or himself in front of the Sanhedrin—whether it be through a verbal defense accounting for his faith in Christ, or refusing to be intimated by authorities under threat of being jailed.

Peter calls us to do the same.  Jesus has called us out of the darkness.

Maybe we struggled with the darkness of our sin and felt like there was no hope for us, no forgiveness for us…and then realized the love of the One who loved us enough that He died for us, while we were still sinners…

Maybe we struggled with the darkness of forgiveness, not in receiving forgiveness, but in offering it, until we found strength and light in the One who looked upon those crucifying Him and said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

Maybe we struggled with the darkness of addiction, until we encountered the One who would free us from any bonds, just as he freed those bound by the demons and banished to the cemeteries—and the One who freed them from those demons, freed us from ours…

Maybe we grew up in the faith and have had to face the fact that we, like Peter have denied Christ through our own sin, and struggle with the guilt and shame of our betrayal, and given witness to Jesus’ acceptance of Peter, we realize our own acceptance by Jesus.

Whatever the darkness, it is the good news that we are compelled to share: that we have been rescued by our Savior, chosen by God, anointed to stand in the gap as His priests, made holy by His grace, and claimed as His own…and we have been commissioned to share that Good News with the world, with those who feel bound by the darkness, that the Light of the World that found and rescued us, is still amongst us to free us all from the darkness that would try and bind us, enabling us to live in His marvelous Light.

Who are we?  In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit: we “are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that [we] may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called [us] out of darkness into his marvelous light.  Once [we] were not a people, but now [we] are God’s people; once [we] had not received mercy, but now [we] have received mercy.”  Amen.

Act(s) of God Luke 13:1-5

Hurricanes and flooding in Texas, Louisiana, St. Martin, Barbuda, and Florida. An earthquake off the coast of Mexico. Tornadoes in Texas, Massachusetts, Missouri, Georgia, Illinois, and other places. Hail storms in Minnesota, Colorado, and Wisconsin. Lightning caused wildfires in Wyoming and Arizona. All natural disasters that have happened this year. Unfortunately, as men and women walk through the devastation left by some of these events, they will, either knowingly or unknowingly, making a poor theological statement. Natalie Barry in Texas, Danny Gibson in Georgia, and Janet Swenson in Minnesota will be among many who consider these events and label them as “acts of God.” Their employment gives them no choice but to make this theological assertion, regardless of their beliefs. They aren’t preachers, though…they are insurance agents. Somehow, somewhere along the line, someone decided that the best term for destruction caused by a natural disaster was to label the event as an “act of God.”
While insurance agents do not have a lot of choice in their legal terminology until a change is made, there are some who do have a choice, and they, either directly or indirectly, suggest that these natural disasters are acts of God being used to punish folks for their sin—many of them serving as ministers in churches around our nation. A couple of weeks ago, a radio evangelist, Kevin Swanson, blamed the destruction of Hurricane Harvey in Houston as a result of their “pro-homosexual mayor.” He also suggested a couple of days ago that God would put a stop to Irma if the Supreme Court would ban abortion and gay marriage. Jim Bakker declare Hurricane Harvey’s flooding was somehow God’s judgement on America…of course he also suggested that the eclipse was God plunging the world into darkness because of Obama’s eight years of presidency. Almost twenty years ago, a premier televangelist, much loved by so many people, predicted that Orlando was in danger of being wiped out by a major hurricane for flying gay pride flags…and the following year, in 1999, we saw Hurricane Floyd at one point being just two miles per hour short of a Cat 5 heading straight for Orlando, then take a sudden right turn and come straight up into Eastern North Carolina and then through Eastern Virginia where that televangelist was located.
I am not going to outright say that they do not know their scripture, but if they cared to read the words of Jesus in the Word of God, in particular, Luke 13:1-5, they might rethink their theology:
“At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’”
Here the disciples are coming to Jesus and saying, “Hey Jesus, did you see what happened to those Galileans? That had to be an Act of God, right? God judged them for being filthy Galileans…that’s what God does to all sinners…judges them and brings death and destruction to them, right?” Jesus turns to them and says, “Guys, you’ve been with me all this time and you have to ask that?” Those Galileans were no worse sinners than those in Siloam when the tower fell and killed them. It was not an Act of God either…the death of the Galileans was an act of Pilate, not an act of God…and the falling of the tower was most likely an act of poor construction, not an act of God. Jesus said, “the thing is, there are some who were sinners among those that Pilate had executed and some sinners that died when the tower fell. They died in their sin, never experiencing the forgiving mercy of God…and unless you turn and repent of your sin, you will perish in just the same way.” In other words, Jesus is saying, as he did elsewhere, “God sends the rain on the righteous and the unrighteous…weather happens,” so “stop thinking God has condemned your neighbor for the speck in their eye when you still have a plank in your own.”
All of this said, what should be our response to these disasters—to what insurance agents and poor theologians call “acts of God”? I think it is two-fold.
First, is the response that Jesus calls us to in Luke. We are not to examine the lives of those who were killed looking for a reason that they may have been punished, but to examine our own lives. We are called by Jesus to look at where we are sinful and repent. Jesus said that the folks who suffered in the disasters he addressed were no worse sinners than any of the people who didn’t die—they just failed to repent and enjoy the forgiveness that God offers and live joy-filled lives in the grace and strength of God. It’s not that deathbed conversions, or final opportunities to embrace the loving arms of Christ aren’t legitimate. The issue with waiting until a disaster is upon you to surrender your life to Christ is that we lose the joy of a full life with Christ before our end is imminent. It is the difference between facing a disaster as an unrepentant sinner when there are two options before you…death and eternal separation from God or simply death and nothingness if the person doesn’t believe that God exists; and facing the storms and possible death with the peace of someone who has surrendered their life to Christ and seeking to live out God’s will, having the assurance that neither the storm nor anything else, not even you house collapsing down upon you or being ripped off from above you, will be able to separate you from love of God found in Christ Jesus our Lord.
The second thing is to look for what are truly acts of God in connection with the disasters. Where do we see those “acts of God”?
We see acts of God in firefighters from the United States and Mexico heading to Canada to battle a dangerous wildfire.
We see acts of God in the Mississippi Braves (a farm team for the Atlanta Braves) collecting donations to respond to the Hattiesburg tornado victims.
We see acts of God in Keri Henry, use her laptop, iPhone, and social media to coordinate the rescue of hundreds of victims following Hurricane Harvey.
We see acts of God in Chris Ginter using his brother’s monster truck to rescue folks caught in those same flood waters.
We see acts of God in two men from Tennessee taking their boats to Houston to help in the search and rescue efforts.
We see acts of God in the banding together of MercyMe, TobyMac, Casting Crowns, For King and Country and others to offer a concert with all proceeds going to Convoy of Hope’s response to Hurricane Harvey.
We see the acts of God in Team Rubicon, a group of military veterans, who enter communities hit by natural disasters to help the communities recover.
We see the acts of God in the response of the United Methodist Committee on Relief as they delivered flood bucket and health kits and ready Early Response Teams…and knowing that the UMC is in for the long haul (often one of the last remaining faith-based groups that continues to help with the ongoing recovery after other groups leave town).
The acts of God are seen in those, who, as Paul says, “rejoice with those who rejoice,” such as those rescuers who help a family find a lost or trapped family member…and “weep with those who weep,” coming alongside and grieving with those who grieve the loss of a loved one.
My brothers and sisters…a tornado, earthquake, and other disaster comes along and we do truly see, not just one, but many “acts of God,” not in in the destruction caused, but in the sacrifices made, the love shared, the compassion offered, the aid given, and in the hands and feet of those who respond.
My friends…when what the insurance companies call an “act of God” hits, may we, God’s people, truly reveal to the world what acts of God look like.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Who Are We? God’s Own People 1st Peter 2:9-10 (Wednesday Night Reflection)

We are nearing the end of our reflection on “Who Are We,” as we use 1st Peter 2:9-10 to remind us of who we are: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” Next week, as we will conclude the series, we will replace the “Who” with a “Why,” however today we come to the last of Peter’s statements of who we are. We began by discovering that we are a chosen race, not due to skin color, the language we speak, or any other aspect of ethnicity, but simply because we have been chosen by God, meaning that God loves us, sees value in us, and has a purpose for us. We learned that we are a royal priesthood in the line of the High Priest of High Priests, Christ Himself, that we might mediate God’s forgiveness and blessings, often through sacrifice, to those who find themselves distanced from God. Last week we were reminded that we are a holy nation—that we are called to be holy as God is holy, that we are to rid our lives of those things that are not Christ-like, that we might grow in perfection, learning to love God and neighbor more perfectly, because God has set us aside to be different from the world. Today we learn that we are “God’s Own People.”
It is probably one of my favorite parts of the movie Finding Nemo. It is the scene where in which the seagulls crying out “mine, mine, mine, mine, mine” as they fight over Marlin and Dory. Nigel the pelican rescues them and flees with the seagulls in a massive pursuit.
How often have we felt like Dory and Marlin? No, I’m not asking if you have ever felt like a fish, though maybe you have. I’m talking about how often have we felt like we had a flock of seagulls fighting over us, pecking at us, each one trying to claim us as belonging to them?
Seagull #1 – our jobs/careers. Some of us have employers that think we belong to them. Others of us may have careers seem to own us. These employers or careers try to claim us suggesting that they are the number one thing in our lives. They expect everything else to be laid aside for the sake of our paycheck or to further our career.
Seagull #2 – our family. Maybe it is a parent or grandparent. Maybe it is a child or grandchild. Maybe it is a brother or sister, aunt or uncle, in-law, or some 2nd, three-times removed, cousin. Regardless of which relative it is, our family wants to, actually expects us to, place family as the number one thing in our lives—that everything else should fall by the wayside if they come calling.
Seagull #3 – membership organizations. Maybe it is the PTA. Maybe it is the Civitans. Maybe it is baseball team or racquetball club, or some other sports affiliated group. That group that we voluntarily became part of, with good intentions of participating and seeing the good that they do, may now decide they want all of our time and want to claim us as their own.
Seagull #4 – illness/disease/injury. Illness and disease, whether it is cancer, diabetes, schizophrenia, bi-polar, chronic pain, broken hips, amputated arms, or whatever other physical or mental impairment we may develop tries to claim us as their own. They want our entire lives to revolve around battling them, trying to overcome them. They want to limit what we can or can’t do based on those battles. They try to convince us that we cannot live a full life because of them.
Seagull #5 – debt. Who do we owe money to? Bills stack up. Creditors and collection agencies filling our mailbox and our voicemail. Maybe it was because we have chosen to spend more that we make. Maybe it was due to a medical or some other emergency. Regardless, whether it be dinnertime or Christmas morning they call remind us our money is their money. We begin to feel like they own us because we owe them.
Seagull #6 – addictions. Cocaine. Marijuana. Tobacco. Alcohol. Prescription drugs. Overeating. Shopping. Social media. Work. Each one of us will try to own us if we but give into the pressure that we cannot be happy without them—that we need them—that nothing else matters…
Seagull #7 – death. It looms there before us. We are reminded when we see the cemeteries. We are reminded when someone we love or just know dies. We hear its claim on our lives when the doctor offers a terminal prognosis. We feel its tap on our shoulders with the aches and pains our bodies endure. We see a tragic accident or a natural disaster and we know it is there trying to grab us.
Indefinitely more seagulls cry out for our lives, “mine, mine, mine, mine, mine.” You know what they are. You have heard them trying to claim you.
However, Peter reminds us that none of those seagulls can claim us. He reminds us that while God hasn’t opened up a beak with a pouch for us to jump into or scooped water into that beak to keep us alive, that God has claimed us as his own. We are God’s own people, or as another translation read, a people of God’s own possession. Rather than a pouched beak, God offers us the cross to voluntarily come to, and rather than the waters of the sea to sustain us, He claims us as His own through the waters of our Baptism.
God has claimed us and we are His. That means that we need not fear death or addictions or debt or illness and injury, for they do not own us, and cannot and will not have the final word in our lives—they cannot destroy us for God has claimed us and gives us life, eternal life with Him. That means that we do not and should not give our allegiance to membership organizations, jobs or careers, or even our own families—they are not bad, it is not wrong to be part of them, but they cannot control us, our ultimate allegiance should be to God and God alone, for as children of God, we belong to Him and Him alone—for when our jobs and careers, our clubs and organizations, and even our own families fail and disappoint us, there is only One who will always be there—who has promised to never leave and desert us—and that is the God who has claimed us as His own—who will rescue us from all the seagulls, sustain us as they chase us, and give us true, complete, and eternal life with Him.
Who are we? In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, we are God’s Own People! Amen.

Seaside With Jesus: Water Walking Matthew 14:22-33

I love watching storms. You can ask Anita. She has had to fuss at me through quite a few. I’ve shared with some of y’all, but for the rest of you to know how much I love storms, during our first hurricane, Fran, at 2 am I was standing with the backdoor of the parsonage open, with the wind blowing pine needles, leaves, and branches straight toward us, just watching the storm. I hung out under the carport during parts of both Floyd and Isabell, as I do for almost any lightning storm that I can. Even though I fell asleep right before Arthur made land fall while we were at Atlantic Beach (after Fran, Floyd, and Isabell—Arthur seemed like a mere summer storm to me), the next morning I went and spent an hour walking on the beach in the back end of the winds. When we got our first DVD player, one first movies we bought was Twister and and our first Blu-Ray player was soon followed by The Day After Tomorrow. I have sat on the front porch here watching many storms since moving to the Island. Like I said, I love watching storms…
I’m not too sure that any of the Twelve did though. Jesus had spent the day teaching and healing—then when dinner time came around, he took five loaves of bread and two fish, and catered the largest church supper I’ve ever heard of, feeding five thousand men, plus all of the women and children that were gathered there on that hillside—He began dismissing the crowds. While He was sending folks off, Jesus told the Disciples to get in the boat and head on over to the other side of Sea of Galilee, that He would meet up with them later. (Now, I’m figuring that by this time they knew not to question Jesus, because my first response would have been, “if we take the boat, how are you going to get anywhere?”) Anyway, after Jesus sent everyone off, Disciples and crowd as well, Jesus went off to pray.
So, as we read, the Scriptures shift from Jesus, alone on the mountain praying, to the Disciples in the boat, probably midway across Galilee’s waters, when a sudden windstorm popped up and began rocking the boat with wave after wave. We talked on a Wednesday night about a month ago how The Weather Channel or the National Weather Service Marine Forecast probably wouldn’t have done any good when it comes to the Sea of Galilee. It is known for it’s sudden, unexpected windstorms, funneling through the mountains and ripping up the waters. So here are the Twelve, sailing across this waters in the middle of the night when this storm erupts.
The Disciples were most likely watching this storm as it fiercely rocked their boat. We know from other accounts in Mark and John, that the storms at sea frightened the Twelve, despite the fact that four of the Twelve were fishermen. So as they held on to the sides of the boat and whatever else they could grip to keep from being washed overboard, someone saw something through all the rain and lightning. It was a figure walking across the water in the middle of the storm…heading straight from them. Someone cried out, “It is a ghost!” Then everyone started screaming…we don’t know what they were screaming. For all we know, the screams could have ranged from anything from “Lord help us!” to “Get out of here you spirit!”
Then the “ghost” spoke, “Don’t be worried…it is no ghost…it is me…Jesus.” Hearing this Peter, always quick to speak, said, “If that’s really you Jesus, command me to walk to you on the water.”
Jesus looked at him and simply said, “Come.”
Imagine Peter, eyes locked on Jesus, shift from his normally impulsive self to a very cautious man. I picture him gripping the sides of the boat tightly, never taking his eyes off of Jesus, slowly sliding one leg across the side of the boat until it touched the water, and then the other, probably just as slow; then, still supporting his body weight with all his arm strength, he cautiously lets go of the sides of the boat until he finds himself standing on the water.
Peter, out of the boat, began walking across the water toward Jesus. Then, evidently a strong gust of wind blew through, and Peter took his eyes off of Jesus and looked at the storm. Immediately he began sinking. Peter took his eyes off Jesus, looked at the storm, and started sinking. One more time, Peter stopped looking at Jesus, looked at the storm, and suddenly found himself sinking.
That’s how it works when we take our eyes off of Jesus, we sink.
What storms are we walking through?
Maybe it is a storm of illness or chronic pain…maybe we’re trying to walk through it, maybe we are walking alongside a family member going through the storm. Focused on this sickness or pain, we find ourselves sinking deeper and deeper, into depression and hopelessness.
Maybe it the storm of family conflict…maybe family members fighting, maybe we ourselves are involved in the conflict. Focused on the conflict, we can find ourselves sinking deeper and deeper, into anger, frustration, sadness, and alienation from the ones we love.
Maybe it is stormy at work, or trouble finding work…difficulty getting along with coworkers, conflicts with supervisors, business is in decline, or seemingly unending unemployment…Focused on these storms, we can find ourselves sinking deeper and deeper into hopelessness, bitterness, and depression.
Maybe it is a stormy battle with an addiction…if we are focused on how hard it is to overcome those cravings…if we keep staring at those things that seem to be calling us to give in…we will find ourselves sinking deeper and deeper into the addiction and further and further away from family and friends and everything we care about.
Maybe it is the storm of fear…we encounter those storms everywhere we turn…and if we focus on those fears…whether it is simply the fear of height or the fear of water or as complex as the fear of taking the risk of a relationship or the risk of trying something new or the fear of what might happen…we will find ourselves sinking deeper and deeper into fear…for that storm feeds on itself…
I have been there…I have found myself staring at quite a number of these storms…conflict with family, conflict with co-workers…I’ve dealt with the storms that includes strikes of lightning, attacks coming unexpectedly and striking close to home…and focusing on those storms I have found myself sinking…into depression…into fear…into bitterness…
My brothers and sisters, when we start sinking there is the potential of drowning. There is the potential of letting the storm waters grab hold of us and drag us down. And if we keep staring at the storm, that will happen…we will drown into the darkness of either constant bitterness toward everyone we encounter or complete self-loathing…it may even draw us down into the depths of the dark waters of self-injury or suicide.
Yet it doesn’t have to. When we realize that we are sinking, when we realize that the storm is overtaking us, we have to stop focusing on the storm and refocus on Jesus, like Peter crying out “Lord, save me!” When I stopped focusing on those storms with their lightning strikes, and instead started focusing on the Lifeguard of Lifeguards, I found myself rising out of the depths of that bitterness, frustration, and sadness and back above the stormy water…refocused on Jesus I found myself able to walk threw and on top of those stormy seas…for focused on Jesus, I realized I was not alone, that I could pass through the waters and they would not overtake me.
My sisters and brothers, if our focus is upon Jesus and not the storms, we will find ourselves able to walk through any storm that rages around us…no matter how loudly the thunder rolls…no matter how hard the wind blows…no matter how wet the rain is drenching us…no matter how high the waves raise over us…we will be able to walk through the storm on top of the water…and we will not drown.
And the most wonderful thing about Jesus, my friends, is that if we are in the midst of the storm, and we have taken our eyes off of Jesus, and we find ourselves sinking and drowning, we have only to call out like Peter, “Lord, save me!” and we will find him taking us by the hand and lifting us up and stilling the storm. He will bring into our lives that peace which is beyond any peace that this world can provide…as He gives us the assurance that there is no storm that can blow away His love for us and His ability to save us…
Praise be to God.
My brothers and sisters, I did not know this when I was first led to plan this message for this Sunday, but God knew…as I told folks Wednesday night, I don’t believe in co-incidences, I believe in God-incidences. There are people right now in Texas and Louisiana that have been overtaken by a literal storm…a storm that has taken lives, a storm in which many have literally drowned…but it is a storm that is still raging for many…a storm that have left many without homes, without clothes, without food, without jobs, without family members…a storm that is still seeking to pull them under despite the fact that the clouds have moved on…They need to be able to see Jesus coming to them across the waters of this storm, pulling them back above the waters. Throughout this month…through a special offering for the United Methodist Commission On Relief, we can offer the presence of Jesus, assuring the folks of Texas and Louisiana that they are not alone, and that Jesus can lift them and sustain them across these waters, we have the opportunity now and for a long time to come…to be that vision of Jesus…to be, as the Church, the living body of Christ in their midst, grabbing hold of them and lifting them from the wAters seeking to pull them under, just as Jesus continues to do for us.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Amen.

Who Are We? A Holy Nation 1st Peter 2:9,10 (Wednesday Night Reflection)

We have been seeking over the past few weeks to recapture our identity in God as an effort to answer how understanding that identity would effect our response to the events of this world. We have done this basing our understanding on 1st Peter 2: 9,10. As I began considering this series on “Who Are We,” one of the first things that stood out was the phrase “a holy nation.” Why? Well, it is because I cannot begin to tell you the number of times I have heard conversations or been part of conversations relating to our nation being “a Christian Nation.” Discussions about prayer in schools—how dare they get rid of it, we are a Christian nation. The removing of the Ten Commandments from courthouses—how dare they discuss that, we are a Christian nation. The removal of the Christian Flag and the kneeling soldier monument in King, NC—what are they thinking, we are a Christian nation. The question of whether or not a football coach can take a knee by himself at the end of a ballgame, how dare they violate his first amendment rights; we are a Christian nation after all. If it is not one issue it is another, whether it is the perception of Christian freedoms being taken away, or the allowed observance of other religions practices. This sermon is not about whether or not the United States ever has been, is, or will be a Christian nation—the original intent or our Founding Fathers or not…because Peter was not writing about the United States when he offered this description of who we, as Christians are to be. In fact, as Peter wrote, “But you are…a holy nation…”, was not writing about any geographically bound region—remember, this letter was being written to a group of Christians that were scattered about Asia Minor. This means that Peter is talking about something that extends far beyond a politically governed territory. Reviewing where we have been the last couple of weeks should help us get a grasp of what Peter was thinking.
We began by considering that we are a chosen race. We learned that this has nothing to do with the color of our skin, the color of our hair, the color of our eyes, the language we speak, or any other aspect of our ethnicity. It has to do with being chosen by God, called into a relationship with Christ. It has to do with being loved by God, being valued by God, and having a God-given purpose in life—the purpose of leading all the world to that day when every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.
Last week we considered that we are a royal priesthood. We remember that through Christ we all have access to God the Father…and that we, like the priests of the Old Testament, and like the High Priest of High Priests, Jesus Christ Himself, are called to stand in the gap between God and those who are far from God. We are called to be mediators of forgiveness, possibly even to those who do not realize they need forgiveness. We are to be mediators of God’s blessings, pronouncing God’s providential care and love, and making it real in meeting the needs of those who are in the world. And finally, as has always been connected with the role of priests, there is sacrifice—though we are not called to sacrifice livestock and produce, Christ put an end to that in the giving of His own life, but like Christ, in our role as priests in the line of the King of Kings, our sacrifice is like that of Jesus, that of our own lives.
So what does it mean, then, that we are also to be a holy nation?
For that matter, what does it mean to be holy?
To be “holy” means to be set apart. It means to be different. It means to be Christ-like.
We are called to be different.
God loves and accepts us right where we are when we encounter Him (He doesn’t encounter us, for He has knowns us since before time began). Covered and bound by sin, God loved us enough to enter into our world through Jesus. We find forgiveness through the blood of Christ as God realizes that we could never atone for our sins on our own. Washed in the blood of Jesus we are seen by God, not in our sins, but in light of the righteousness of Christ.
However, God loves us to much to leave us as sinful, but forgiven wretches…He desires that we become transformed into something beautiful. He desires that we leave the sin behind and find our lives changed, truly changed, different than they were before, different from the world around us.
Too often we make excuses. We claim that we are “only human.” We claim we are just wired this way. We claim that “only Jesus was perfect.” We claim that “this is just how God made us.”
We forget that God created us “human” and prior to the fall, there was no sin within us…that our original design was to be perfect. We forget that from Leviticus to Peter we hear God’s declaration “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” We repeatedly hear Paul talk about it telling folks to cast off the ways of the flesh and to be clothed in Christ—reminding us that there is a transformation that takes place as we come into a relationship with God. Will we be made perfect this side of the grave, we don’t know—most of us continue to struggle, but we are not to give up…we are to constantly strive to be holy…John Wesley called this striving for perfection, seeking to grow in sanctification and be made perfect in love..
Some of us want to throw our hands up and say, “I can’t. I can’t be holy. I can’t do it.” And the truth of the matter is, that is right. We can’t. None of us can. On our own. However, as God pours His Holy Spirit out upon us, we are given the strength, His strength, to become something new, something different, something holy.
Why are we called to be holy? We are we called to be different?
Because this world needs us to be. This world, as a result of sin, finds itself in growing darkness and in disparate need of something bright, something different, something holy. . God calls us to be holy in order to be the light that is needed in this darkness…in a world filled with hate, we are called to be love; in a world filled with violence, we are called to be peace; in a world filled with fear, we are called to be hope and courage; in a world filled with vengeance, we are called to be forgiveness; in a world filled with selfishness, we are called to be selfless and self-sacrificing. If we are no different than the world, if we hold onto our sin instead of being transformed, then we only add to the darkness, we become like the clouds darkening the skies, or like the moon eclipsing the sun, casting a shadow over everything. However, if we surrender to the movement of God’s Spirit within us, we will find ourselves changed, transformed, from darkness into light. We find ourselves becoming a lamp on a lampstand, a city on a hill, the light of the world.
However, this transformation is not simply about each of our individual lives. It is about our life together. We are reminded that we are a holy nation. We as a holy nation, the Church, are called to be different. We are called to be holy as a gathered people, transformed by the same Holy Spirit.
Too often we lament the church’s falling away…that attendance and membership are in decline…and study after study reveals that many who have left the church or who refuse to come are because they don’t see anything special about it…they don’t see it as being any different than the world around them. They encounter churches where petty arguing and unforgiveness are the rule of the day, where folks won’t talk to other folks, but will gladly talk about them. They encounter churches where outsiders aren’t welcomed, where differences are highlighted and ridiculed, where prejudice and hatred are practiced. They encounter judgment and condemnation. When that is the case, is it any wonder that we find more folks outside the church than inside—for if we are no different in here than the world is out there, why come? We aren’t to be about reflecting the worlds sins, but offering the life-giving, hope filled, transforming grace of God, reminding those in the world that there is something more and different than what they encounter every day.
We are called to be different. We are called to be set apart. We are called to be transformed from the world and it’s thinking. We are called to be the holy, as individuals, and as a gathered people, the holy nation that God through Peter, declares us to be. We are called together as citizens, not of the Harkers Island, not of the North Carolina, not of the United States, but as citizens, first and foremost, above everything else, of the Kingdom of Light, the Kingdom of God. It means that while we might live in the world, we are not of this world. The allegiance we pledge is to Christ above all else. To be a holy nation means that we live under the rule of our King…the King of kings—and that it is His reign that we proclaim; His grace we offer, His love we share…offering to the world what it cannot find on its own.
Who are we…a chosen race…a royal priesthood…a holy nation…
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…Amen.

Seaside With Jesus: Going All-In Matthew 13:44-46

Three ministers in a small town gathered weekly to play small stakes poker. The only problem is that the town they lived in had a “zero-tolerance” gambling policy. One night, the sheriff raided their game and took all three before the local judge.
After listening to the sheriff’s story, the judge looked intently at the first minister, “Were you gambling, Pastor”?
The pastor looked toward heaven, whispered, “Oh, Lord, forgive me,” and then said to the judge, “No, your honor, I was not gambling.”
“What about you, Reverend,” the judge asked the second minister. “Were you gambling?”
This minister repeated the first minister’s actions and replied, “No, your honor, I was not gambling.”
Finally, the judge turned to the third of the clergypersons and asked, “Were you gambling, Parson?”
The young parson looked coolly at the judge and simply replied, “With whom?”

You need to know upfront, since I have only been here two months as of yesterday, that like the United Methodist denomination we are a part of, I believe that gambling is a sin. However, that’s another sermon for another day. I offer this illustration, though, because poker playing, over the last decade, has grown in popularity. Yes, I know it has been around for a while…we see all of the old westerns with all the men, and a few women, gathered around the tables in the local tavern, playing poker. Yet, about a decade ago poker made a resurgence on the public scene, particularly a form of poker called “Texas Hold ‘Em.” The popularity of this game has grown so immense, that were and continue to be World Series of Poker tournaments on ESPN. Now here is where I have to pause. ESPN is a sports network, so I am figuring this means that poker has been declared a sport. And we all know different that all sports have different workout routines to prepare the athletes for that sport…I think I’ll sign up for the Texas Hold ‘Em workout routine.
However, as you have already figured out I have a tendency to do, I have drifted far from where I was going. You might be asking, If I have issues with gambling, why am I talking about poker in a sermon other than to rail against the evils of it. Well, it is because I think there is something that we can salvage from the Texas Hold ‘Em terminology. Specifically, what I am talking about pulling from the terminology is the phrase “all-in.” To go “all-in” in Texas Hold ‘Em means that the person is betting all of their chips, putting all their money on this one hand. Why would anyone do this? According to several experts there are three possibilities of why you would go “all-in.” First, you would consider going “all-in” when you think you have the best hand. Secondly, you might go “all-in” when you want to make everyone else think you have the best hand (and hope that they might fold because your hand is really poor). Finally, you might go “all in” when you are not going to have enough money to make it another round or two unless you win the pot, in other words, it is a desperation move.
The question may be, what does all of this, that sounds like it should be in a series entitled Saloon-side with Jesus have to do with our Seaside series? It actually has everything to do with it as our Scripture this morning reveals two stories in which Jesus describes folks going “all-in” for the Kingdom of God.
Consider again our Seaside stories from this morning.
Jesus talks about the Kingdom of Heaven being like a treasure being hidden out in a field. One day a someone comes across that treasure. We don’t know if the person was actively looking for that treasure (like a prospector who would have been in the Old West saloon playing poker) or it was somebody just strolling through the field enjoying the beauty of God’s nature. All we know is that they suddenly stumbled upon this treasure and becomes so excited about it that he goes and sells everything he has…he goes “all-in” and buys the field.
Jesus then appeals to those who business owners in His audience. He says the Kingdom of Heaven is like a merchant who has gone out searching for fine pearls. The merchant is looking and looking, and rather than finding several nice pearls he can sell at his business, he find one pearl, the most exquisite pearl he had ever encountered. Rather than taking it back and seeing what he could get for it, he went sold everything he had, he went “all-in” and bought the pearl.
Jesus says that when people encounter the Kingdom of Heaven, they encounter something that is worth more than they could ever imagine and would risk everything in order to be part of it. “But those are stories Jesus told,” someone wants to say. “There was no real treasure seeker, no real merchant. Who would really give up everything…who would really go “all-in” for God?
God’s Word is full of people who were willing to go “all-in” for the Kingdom. God spoke to Noah, who was a good man, living among a very corrupt people. God told him to build a boat. That effort caused Noah to have to go all-in. His efforts would have taken up all of his time, meaning that he put his family’s well-being at risk for he wouldn’t have time to farm or hunt if he was building this huge boat. He put his reputation on the line because he would have been ridiculed by those around him building a boat for a impending flood in a world where the first drop of rain had never fallen. However, he went “all-in” for the Kingdom and God brought Creation through the flood.
God called Abraham, though he was Abram at the time, and told him to leave your country behind…leave all your kinfolk behind…leave your ties to your earthly father behind, gather up your family and your goods, and go. I will reveal your destination in due time. Abraham didn’t miss a beat…he went “all-in” for the Kingdom, left it all behind, his security, his relationships, and any certainty he had in life. And as Abraham went “all-in” God began building the people through whom He would bring salvation into the world.
Mary went “all-in” for the Kingdom. Here she was a young teenage girl with a bright future ahead of her. She was engaged to a local craftsman whose woodworking skills would have been in high demand. Her future was secure. Then an angel appeared to her and asked her to “go ‘all-in’” with God and with the biological questions answered, she put her marriage, her future, and even her life on the line for the sake of the Kingdom…and because she did, God broke into our world through the waters of her womb and washed us all clean.
Jesus called Peter, Andrew, James, John and the others, asking them to go “all-in” and they walked away from their careers and their secure futures and followed Him.
Members of the early church after Pentecost would go “all-in” as Acts tells us that they would sell all that they had, all their possessions, and pool those resources in a common fund for the community, so that everyone had all that they needed.
Not everyone is willing to go “all-in” for the Kingdom of Heaven, even within God’s Word. Jesus encountered the rich young ruler in search of the promise of eternal life. Jesus told him that so far he had done everything correctly and that the only thing that he had left to do was to sell off all that he had, give it to the poor and follow Him. We read that the young man went away sad because he had many possessions. We never know whether that young man’s sorrow was that he was unwilling to part with his possessions, or simply the fact that he had to let all of it go—we just know joy of the person that found the treasure in the field or the merchant that found the pearl.
Going “all-in” was trouble for Ananaias and Sapphira in the Acts church. They claimed to have gone all in for the Kingdom, selling off their property and giving it to this common pool, yet they had failed to trust their brothers and sisters in Christ, and more importantly God Himself, to look out for them…and they dropped dead. Which, literally or not, is what happens when we fail to give ourselves over to God completely.
Going “all-in” with God is the only way we can truly embrace God and all that God has in store for us. We cannot hold on to hell with one hand and reach for heaven with the other…embracing God is not a side to side hug…embracing God is letting go of everything else and wrapping our arms around Him. It is going all in…it is risking everything for His sake.
And, my brothers and sisters, there is no bluffing here. When we go “all-in” with God, we have staked everything on the winning hand…for they are the hands who shaped and created this world and us…they are the hands that were nailed to the cross…they are the hands that brought us salvation and the promise of Eternal life. They are the hands that planted the treasure in that field, that pearl in an oyster…they are the hands that formed and are forming the Kingdom of Heaven…here amongst us, here through us…thanks be to God…
So I ask each of us this morning, as we conclude our Seaside stories with Jesus, are we willing to go “all-in” for the Kingdom of Heaven? After all, He went “all-in” for us.
In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Who Are We? A Royal Priesthood 1st Peter 2:9-10 (Wednesday Night Reflection)

Last week I suggested to you that one of the reasons that we see so much violence in places like Charlottesville and all the unrest that has ensued since over the issue of monuments, flags, and even army base names, stems from the fact that we have forgotten who we are. I continue to hear the arguments that we need to keep all those things in place to remember our history and remember who we are as a people. What I would suggest, however, is that more than any of that, we need to turn to God’s Word to remember who we are, for we are blessed to be Americans by birth, we are blessed even more to be Southerners by birth, but, and this ranks higher than all the rest, we are Christians by the grace of God. I think if God’s people would remember that, then regardless of what the rest of the world is doing, we would see things change.
We began trying to remember our identity last week—using 1st Peter 2:9-10 as the launch for remembering or understanding, Peter declaring, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”
Last week we examined what it means to be a chosen race. We eliminated the idea that it had anything to do with the color of our skin, our ethnicity, the language we speak, or any other physical characteristic…being a chosen race simply means being those chosen by God and with Christ all of those other worldly labels are wiped away…as Paul would say, “for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.” We realized that being God’s chosen race means that: we are loved, we have value, and we have a purpose.
Tonight we move into the next phase of our remembering. We ask Peter again “Who are we?” and hear Peter respond, you are “a royal priesthood.”
What does it mean to be found in the royal priesthood? To truly understand what it means to be a priest in service to God, we must move from 1st Peter all the way back to the origins of this understanding, and the establishment of the role of priest, to the book of Exodus.
In Exodus, we see the line of the priesthood established Aaron and his descendants. The priests were to represent the people before God, making sacrifices on behalf of their sin (because it was understood that the sin of the people prevented them from safely coming into the presence of God)…and in turn represent God to the people—mediating God’s forgiveness and blessings to those who had brought their sacrifices to atone for their sins and to offer God thanksgiving. As they fulfilled their duties, the priests would lead the people to turn their hearts and lives toward the worship, love, and service of God. In Exodus, Moses tells the people they are to be kingdom of priests—they are fulfilling the role that God promised Abraham, that Abraham’s descendants would be a nation through which the rest of the world would be blessed…
Peter, wanted the early church, persecuted and scattered throughout Asia Minor, to make the connection and know that role has been passed to them. They were called to serve as those who would come stand in the gap between God and those who found themselves estranged or separated from God. Peter was calling them to stand as a royal priesthood in the midst of all of their struggles—in many ways they were called stand as representatives of God to a people who were hostile towards God and His people.
Their role is our role as well…we are called to be a royal priesthood. We are all called as part of this—this verse is not one that is directed to clergy, but to all believers. From the time of Martin Luther, to now, this has come to be known as “The Priesthood of All Believers.” This is centered in understanding that through Christ, we have all received the blessing of direct access to the throne of God and no longer need someone to stand as that representative in between God and His people.
So, you may be saying, “Preacher, what are you getting at? We understand that you are saying that we are to be a bunch of priests…but we have no idea what that means.” My brothers and sisters, that is a good question, it is probably the same question that many of God’s people had from the Exodus onward…Aaron and his descendants struggled with fulfilling their role as priests, and the people struggled with understanding what it was to live out being a “kingdom of priests.” However, my friends, we have an advantage…if we want to see what it means to live out our lives as a royal priesthood, we have simply to look at the One who was, is, and forevermore will be the High Priest of all high priests, Jesus Christ himself.
To understand our role as a royal priesthood, we look to none other than Christ, for rather than finding ourselves in the line of Aaron and his descendants, we find ourselves in the line of the High Priest of high priests and the King of kings…we are truly members of a royal priesthood, and as such, we are called to live out the priestly role of Jesus in the world.

Priests throughout the Old Testaments were mediators of God’s forgiveness. Jesus, throughout His ministry, in a way that often found himself at odds with the religious leaders of His time, pronounced forgiveness on those who came before him in need:
“And just then some people were carrying a paralyzed man lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.”
“Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”
“Jesus straightened up and said to her, ‘Woman, were are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, sir.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.’”
Many in Jesus’ time wanted to “tote around signs” condemning those who were sinners, excluding them from community, and only worthy of God’s judgment and punishment. They ridiculed Jesus every chance they had, often berating Him for eating with prostitutes, tax collectors, and other sinners. However, we hear the words of the ultimate High Priest:
“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. God and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”
“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
This role as mediators of forgiveness becomes our role as a royal priesthood. Too often we find ourselves pronouncing God’s judgment upon those we consider unclean, the tax collectors and prostitutes of our day: the drug dealers, the murderers, the adulterers, the homosexuals, and those who have personally wronged us. Too often we want them cast away or kept away from our community for fear their sin will contaminate us. We want them changed and made perfect before they dare darken the doors of a church, some of them we may even want to declare unforgivable because of what they have done. Yet they are the very ones, just as we once were, that Jesus calls us to mediate God’s forgiveness to—to invite them into relationship and share with them the very grace of God, letting them know that they are forgiven, and calling them to a life with Christ.

Deuteronomy reveals to us that the part of the role of the priests also included being mediators of God’s blessings. They would simply pronounce God’s love and blessings upon the people…in Jesus, our Perfect High Priest we see God’s blessings poured out time after time…in the healing of the infirm, the returning of sight to the blind, the feeding of the 5000, the resuscitation of the dead, and the freeing of the possessed.
My brothers and sisters, as a royal priesthood, we are called to be mediators of the blessings of God in the same way as our Kingly Priest—to feed those who are hungry, to befriend those who are lonely or who have been cast aside, to free those who are possessed by the demons of addiction, mental illness, or poverty, to free others from the bonds of slavery and exploitation, and to offer to all of these and any we encounter the assurance of God’s love and presence in their lives—not in word alone, but through the reality of our acceptance and presence in their lives.

None of this will be easy. Nothing ever suggests to us that following Jesus will be easy. It will be difficult. We will find ourselves opposed by many—by the world and those who are bound by the religion of proclaiming judgment more than grace. As we encounter resistance, we are called to remember the key role of the priest—that of offering sacrifice. Before the priests of the Old Testament could offer forgiveness or blessings, a sacrifice had to be made, whether it be sacrifices of animals or crops. Jesus put an end to the practice of offering animals and crops by offering Himself in their place, the complete sacrifice for the salvation of all.
We will not be called upon to sacrifice goats, sheep, doves, grain, or any other part of God’s creation, for Christ put an end to those once and for all—we may, in our role as priests in the line of Christ, be called to sacrifice in line with Christ—sacrificing ourselves in order to make God’s forgiveness and blessings upon those in the world who are in need of knowing the love of Christ—it may mean sacrificing a meal out at a restaurant in order to use those funds to feed several hungry persons in our community; it may mean sacrificing free time we could use to fish, play golf, or sit and watch a movie in order a day serving in response to a disaster; it may mean sacrificing our relationship with some in order to take a stand against racism or any form of ethnic prejudice; it may mean sacrificing a secure income in order to respond to a call of God to mission or ministry.
My brothers and sisters, what a blessing it is to have been chosen by God—to be His chosen race, and to be called to serve as the mediators of His forgiveness and His blessings…we a blessing it is to be declared by God to a royal priesthood—servants of God in the line of Christ Himself.
Who are we? In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, we are a royal priesthood! Amen.

Seaside With Jesus: Mustard Seed and Yeast Matthew 13:31-33

You ever read a book, hear a story, or maybe even watch a movie, in which you get to the end of it and scratch your head and wonder, so what was that all about? I know there are some things I had to read in school when I was in high school, and even at Methodist College. However, there’s a movie that stands out in my mind above everything else. It was 1999, and while everyone else was getting worked up about Y2K, Anita and I were celebrating our sixth anniversary. We both were fans, and still are to a degree, of Nicholas Cage. Two days before our anniversary, his new movie came out, and without reading anything about it, we decided to go see it. Let me just tell you that after 2 hours, Anita and I came out wondering just what we had seen, the only thing we knew for certain was that Brining Out The Dead is about the worst date movie ever. I think by the time it was all said and done, the producers were scratching their heads wondering just why they made the movie, because it only brought $16 million of the $55 million production cost.
We continue today to encounter Seaside Stories with Jesus—listening, along with those who stood on the bank, to the stories that Jesus shared. While there are some stories that left the disciples and others scratching their heads and questioning what Jesus was talking about, causing Him to have to explain, there are many other parables that those of Jesus’ day would have easily understood. However they still leave us wondering just what we’ve heard—wondering just what point Jesus was trying to make. Today’s parables may be among those. Mustard seeds…yeast and flour. How many of y’all have ever planted a mustard seed or seen a mustard plant in person? How many of you know the equivalent of three measures of flour, and just how much bread that would make? How many of us understand the significance of Jesus’ inclusion of yeast in that parable? And if we don’t understand these things, we hear Jesus comparing God’s Kingdom to that mustard seed or to that woman making bread, and we’re left scratching our heads, wondering just what Jesus is talking about. So, let’s explore just what Jesus is talking about…
The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed…Jesus, in case the folks weren’t remembering, reminds them that the mustard seed is the smallest of all the seeds that they knew of. This isn’t the only time Jesus references the mustard seed—later as Jesus questions the faith of the disciples when they are unable to cast out a demon in His Name, He tells them that anyone with faith the size of a mustard seed could command a mountain to move and it would. So, Jesus says that Kingdom of Heaven is like that small mustard seed, that when planted, will grow, become first a shrub, then a tree. It will become something so large that birds will be able to build nests in it. Think of it, this tiny seed becomes something that, not a single bird, but multiple birds are able to come and build nests and live within.
Then there’s the woman with the three measures of flour. Three measures of flour is not three tablespoons of flour, or even three cups of flour, it is the equivalent of ten gallons of flour. Those of you who make bread—just how much bread could you make with ten gallons of flour? This woman is working with enough flour to feed 100 to 150 people (unless I’m there and she has made light rolls, then cut that number in half). However, the amount of flour is not the only surprising detail of this parable…there is also the yeast. Some of us may be thinking, “but yeast is needed for making bread, what is so surprising about that?” The issue is that yeast is not usually lifted in such a positive manner among the Hebrew people…just as in chapter 16 where Jesus talks about the yeast of the Pharisees, warning people to beware the corrupt teaching of the Pharisees. It was common to use yeast as an illustration of something that corrupts by a people who celebrated their most holy of meals, the Passover, with unleavened bread. Jesus says that the Kingdom of Heaven is like the woman using ten gallons of flour and some yeast to make a bunch of bread.
So how many of us know now exactly what Jesus was getting at when he compared the Kingdom of Heaven to a mustard seed and to the woman making enough loaves of bread to feed a multitude? How many of us are still scratching our head, wondering just whether the preacher has told us anything in the last five to ten minutes?
One of the things we have to remember, and you will hear me say this over and over again over the next 20 years, we have to read God’s Word in context. We can never safely pull a verse or two out of God’s Word by themselves and safely say that we know exactly what those verses are saying…just as we cannot safely claim to know the point of a passage of Scripture without knowing the culture in which it (such as knowing that the Hebrew people did not often have yeast on hand when making bread). So, what happens when we place these two parables back within their larger context of the stories Jesus was telling there by the sea? How does placing them back alongside the parable of the sower and the soil, where, considering a great harvest from a field of wheat was fifteen-fold, Jesus talks about the harvest from good soil being thirty, sixty, and even a hundred-fold? Or how is our understanding enhanced by Jesus telling the disciples to leave the weeds growing amongst the wheat?
When we put them all together we find several things about the Kingdom of Heaven!
First, the Kingdom of Heaven is a Kingdom of Surprises.
God’s Kingdom is revealed in ways that aren’t expected. The Jewish people were expecting their Messiah to come riding into town on the back of a white stallion to lead them over Rome and any other enemy that would encroach upon them…and yet, the Messiah came riding in on a donkey, most likely twice. The first time He came riding into the city of Bethlehem in the womb of a single pregnant teenage girl, and was later born, not in a palace, but among the livestock and laid in a feeding trough. The second time, He entered Jerusalem on the back of a donkey to the praises of the crowd at the beginning of the week, only to have the crowds clamor for His crucifixion at the hands of the Romans they had expected the Messiah to overcome. And just when everyone had given up hope that this man was the Messiah, another surprise was found as the power of the Kingdom of Heaven was revealed when the stone was rolled away and an empty tomb revealed. Praise God!
The Kingdom of God is also surprising in the fact that God doesn’t limit the revealing of His Kingdom through the channels that we would expect. As I alluded to earlier, those hearing this story would have been shocked to hear Jesus refer to a woman leavening her bread with yeast. Yeast was not a substance desired in anyone’s home within the Jewish culture. Yet Jesus compares the breaking in of the Kingdom to that which most folks would try to avoid. Yet God regularly works in those ways. God is not limited in who or what He uses to bring about His Kingdom.
Consider King Cyrus of Persia. He was not a Jew. He did not have a relationship with God. He was not among the chosen. In fact, He was a foreigner who just happened to lead the group that conquered the Babylonians. Yet it was through this gentile king and his ruling that God began restoring His people.
Before Cyrus, there was Jael the Kenite who God used to deliver His people from Sisera and the Canaanites.
Later, It was through the rulings of a non-believing Roman prefect that God first offered a second chance for His people to embrace His Son, offering them the chance to choose Jesus over Barabbas, but when they didn’t, God then brought salvation to the whole world through Pilate’s decree to have Jesus crucified.
Even today we watch God reveal His Kingdom through those we would not normally associate with the Kingdom of God.
I can’t tell you the number of congregation members that I have watched experience God’s healing touch through the work of doctors who are Hindu, Buddhist, or have no faith whatsoever.
Earlier this year I watched the Kingdom of God made visible when a group of Islamic Americans committed to funding the restoration of a Jewish cemetery that had been desecrated.
Let me be clear, I firmly believe that Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and that no one comes into a relationship with the Father and receives the gift of Eternal Life except through Jesus. However, I think Scripture repeatedly testifies to the fact God’s working is not limited to even those He calls His people…He can reveal and bring about that Kingdom through anyone and anything…consider the yeast.
Secondly, we also learn that the Kingdom of Heaven is a Kingdom of Abundance.
All too often we live and operate out of a sense of scarcity. We act as if we might never have all the resources we need to accomplish the Kingdom work that God sets before us. Why is that? I think it because some of us have experienced what it is to struggle. Some of us here lived through the Great Depression. Others of us may have lost all our investments in 2008. Some of us here have experienced homelessness. Others of us may have experienced being downsized from a business or even had a business close out from under us. Even others of us may have lost our homes and livelihood as a result of a disaster wiping them away. And so, having experienced what it is to have nothing, we try to hold tightly to everything, refusing to release our grasp, even for God’s use. Sadly, this means we are holding tighter to the memories of loss and having nothing, that holding on to the memory that if you and I are standing here today, no matter how terrible things got, God provided a way, or maybe even, God is providing a way.
The Kingdom of Heaven is a place in which there is no need, there is no want for anything, for it will be a land flowing with milk and honey…it is a land filled with all we will ever need or ever desire. The Kingdom of Heaven is revealed in crops of wheat that produce a hundred-fold from a single grain; it is revealed in a mustard seed providing places for many birds to feast and refuel; it is revealed in a single woman working out enough bread to feed 150 people; the Kingdom is revealed, as we will see in a few weeks, in a little boy, operating not out of a sense of scarcity, worried that he will have nothing to eat, but out of a sense of generosity, trusting all that He had to God, and God fed in excess of 5000 people when that little boy decided to trust all He had to Jesus. The Kingdom of Heaven is revealed when we truly realize we have everything we need, everything we truly need, and that God has provided it, so we freely release it back to Him…only to watch Him multiply it like grain multiplying 30, 60, even 100-fold or like watching that grain being baked into loaves enough to feed 150 people.
In that light, we realize that the Kingdom of Heaven is also a Kingdom that brings Sustenance and Refuge. It is being fed by the bread formed from the woman’s extravagant baking. It is finding our home amongst the trees grown from a tiny seed. It is realizing that the Lord is Our Shepherd and we shall not want…because He has provided more than we may ever need. It is realizing that we can find rest and refuge with our God for His Word promises that there is nothing, nothing, in all of Creation that can come between us and God.
Thanks be to God for a Kingdom that grows like a mustard seed and feeds like a woman baking with ten gallons of flour! May we never wonder what the Kingdom is all about! May we leave here today not scratching our heads over the parables of Jesus, but proclaiming the faithfulness of God and His Kingdom!
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit! Amen.

Who Are We? A Chosen Race 1st Peter 2:9-10 (Wednesday Night Reflection)

Who are you? who Are you? who are You?
For that matter, who am I?

You know, I have struggled with this Wednesday’s reflection as I continue to reflect on the violence in Charlottesville…the violence that continues to plague our nation, to plague our world. I have watched the responses and outrage from all sides. I have refused to respond via social media…as y’all don’t know me that well, don’t ever look for me to get involved in those debates online. I believe in using social media to communicate, to share what is going on in our lives, to share God’s Word…but I do not believe in engaging in touchy issues in that arena. Just because you don’t see me post my opinion, don’t think I’m not interested or don’t have feelings about an issue. I do…but those discussions are saved for face to face dialogue.

And yet again, I am drawn to Charlottesville…I am drawn to Dallas…I am drawn to Baton Rouge…I am drawn to Charleston…and I think the root of the problem is that we have forgotten who we are…so at the urging of the Holy Spirit…starting tonight, and for the next several Wednesday’s, we are going to take two verses of Scripture and asking, and hopefully answer the question, “Who Are We?”

In the first ten verses of the second chapter of this first letter of Peter, Peter writes the early church to remind them of who they are supposed to be. The truth of who they were, and who, as the Church, we are called to be, is summarized, I believe, in these verses: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”
So where do we start? We start with the beginning…Paul writes the Early Christian Jews…and because God’s Word is eternal, Paul is writing us, reminding us who we are…and he begins with “You are a chosen race.”
Do you know how hard it is to say those words in this day and time…in light of this past weekend? Yet, those are the words of scripture…the Word of God. Isn’t there some other way to consider the translation? In all actuality, when comparing various translations of the Bible, most, not all, but most, translate the Greek word “genos” as race in this verse. The struggle is that way too many folks have used the idea of being “a chosen race” to oppress others…for many it has become a phrase associated with evil: with Nazi Germany, with the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacists, with genocides in Bosnia, Rwanda, Cambodia, Iraq, Dafur, and other places. The idea of a “chosen race” conjures up images of people that would lift up one ethic group as superior to all other ethnicities…it lifts up the idea that those “inferior” ethnicities should be either “put in their place” or even “eliminated altogether.” We find our country reeling in the face of such claims and thinking even as we gather here tonight.
However, a couple of years ago, when I approached this text for the first time in preaching, reading commentaries and trying to get away from the word “race,” I read words that have changed the way I approach the idea of “race.” Here’s what I read, in a commentary written more than a decade ago: “Especially in a time of ongoing racial tension Christians rightly recall that as Christians (not as Caucasian, not as African-American, Hispanic, or Asian people) we are a chosen race. For Christians who take 1 Peter seriously, the line on the application that asks for race ought to be filled in: ‘Christian.’” And since I read it, that is exactly what I have done on every application or form that had a blank to fill in for the area of “race.”
To be God’s chosen race has absolutely nothing to do with ethnicity. It never has and it never will. Peter’s words simply remind us that we are chosen…that we didn’t choose God. From the very beginning it is about God doing the choosing, and God’s Word testifies to that from the very beginning.
God chose to create and give life to humanity…
God chose Noah to bring creation through the flood.
God chose Abraham, and promised to make his descendants into a great people.
God chose Moses to bring his people out of slavery in Egypt.
God chose David to bring Israel out from under the tyranny of other nations, and Solomon to build His Temple.
God chose Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Hosea, and the other prophets to proclaim His Will.
God chose Mary to give birth to the Savior of the World.
Jesus chose James and John, Peter, and Andrew, Nathanial, Matthew, and the rest of the twelve.
Jesus chose Paul with blinding light on the road to Damascus.
And the list can go on and on…including God choosing each one of us.
We are chosen…God chose each of us…we did not choose God…no matter whether we think we did or not, we did not choose God first…we simply surrendered to God’s choosing…
What does it mean for us to be God’s “chosen race,” God’s “chosen people”?
It means that God loves us…. There are times where we may feel unloved or unwanted…times where it seems that everyone else has turned away from us…God says, “I choose you…I love you…you are part of my family.”
It means that God sees value in us… When everyone else wants to declare our value is equal to what we can do, what we can proved, and when we don’t live up to their expectations, they reject us…God chooses those that the world rejects…a King out of a forgotten shepherd boy, disciples from fishermen and tax collectors, an evangelist out of a foreign woman, an apostle out of a murderer… God says, “I choose you…I love you…you are valuable to me.”
It means that God has a purpose for us… God doesn’t choose us so that we can declare that we are better than everyone else…God doesn’t choose us so that we say God loves us more than everyone else… God chooses us in order that we might remind everyone else that God chooses them too…
God chose Abram and promised to bless him, that he would be a blessing…and make his name great in order that all the families on earth might be blessed. God chose Abram to call all the world to Himself…
Jesus reminds us that we are the light of the world…A city on a hill…we are the ones chosen by God to draw the entire world to the throne of God…chosen by God to “go, therefore and make disciples of all nations….
To be the chosen race of God has nothing to do with the color of our skin, the curl of our hair, the accent in our speech or even the language that we speak…to be the chosen race of God has everything to do with God declaring through us, His love for all…and His desire for all to come into His family…that all might know that they are chosen, that they are loved, that they are valued, and that they have a purpose!
Who are you? Who am I? We are the chosen race of God, bearing the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit to the people of Charlottesville and all the world! Amen.