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Valencia, California
Studying scripture and preaching the Word to draw us into deeper understanding and more faithful discipleship.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Who Me?

Luke 1:30-38Living Bible (TLB)
30 “Don’t be frightened, Mary,” the angel told her, “for God has decided to wonderfully bless you! 31 Very soon now, you will become pregnant and have a baby boy, and you are to name him ‘Jesus.’ 32 He shall be very great and shall be called the Son of God. And the Lord God shall give him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 And he shall reign over Israel forever; his Kingdom shall never end!”
34 Mary asked the angel, “But how can I have a baby? I am a virgin.”
35 The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit shall come upon you, and the power of God shall overshadow you; so the baby born to you will be utterly holy—the Son of God. 36 Furthermore, six months ago your Aunt[a] Elizabeth—‘the barren one,’ they called her—became pregnant in her old age! 37 For every promise from God shall surely come true.”
38 Mary said, “I am the Lord’s servant, and I am willing to do whatever he wants. May everything you said come true.” And then the angel disappeared.
The last couple of nights have been rough for our son, Steven. He’s been restless and fussy and mostly just wants to be held…all night.  Those aren’t my favorite nights as a mom. I love my kids but I love sleep and my own space in the middle of the night.  Lucky for my kids, I love them more, so when they struggle, or can’t sleep, or are sick, they win out.  So, Steven and I have snuggled a lot.  Like all the time.  Which sounds lovely if you think you’re just holding a sweet sleeping baby….but it’s not like that, he’s squirmy and fussy and wants to keep eating and eating—mostly for comfort, I think.  And while they’re not the nights I love or the nights I thought I was signing up for when I became a mom, they are part and parcel of the mom-job.  

Every mom deals with sleepless nights, sick kids, interrupted meals, constant chatter, boogers, spit up, diapers, throw up, tantrums and the like. It’s part of the gig. 

But then there are moms who are forced out of the norm and into the unimaginable.  There are far too many moms who have to face something terrible or tragic or tremendous—far beyond the normal… What about when you have a child who can only eat through a g-tube? or who spends countless days in the hospital? or must undergo chemo or radiation?  or is hurt in a major accident?  or battles more than every day bullying? What about when you face the sleepless nights not because they can’t sleep but because their day to day reality is harder than it should be, worse than anyone should have to deal with?  What about when you’re the mom who doesn’t make enough to put food on the table? or confronts sleeping on the street rather than living with an abusive partner? What about when you’re a mom in a war torn country? stuck in a part of the city that’s overrun with terrorists who won’t even let you out when help is available simply because of hate and spite?  What about if you’re the mom who carries her child on her back for days simply to reach a doctor who might (or might not) be able to tell you what’s wrong and causing his illness.  What do you do when you’re one of those moms?  Or maybe worst of all, what about when you’re the mom who has to lay her baby to rest, not comfortably in a bed, but in the earth? These aren’t the “normal mom things” and yet, sadly, there are so many mommas facing the abnormal that we might begin to believe that it is normal. 

There are countless moms who face the extra-ordinary, not because they want to, or because they chose to, but simply because they have to—-it’s what life handed them. (Please don’t mistake me for saying God dishes out all those things. I think there are sicknesses and circumstances that happen outside of God’s desire—things I often summarize as “life”—part of being human, but not part of what God wills for us.) 

All too often, when we watch the news or hear about the unimaginable realities parents are facing, we think, “I just couldn't do it.”

And we may not want to. We certainly wouldn’t choose to, but we could do it.  No, we wouldn’t sign up for it. No one does. But the reality is you do what you have to do and if you had to do it, you would.  Not just the moms, but the dads too, if you had to do it, you would…whatever it is.  

I think all of us deal with the unexpected.  We may have an idea of what motherhood is, or parenting is, but there’s so much more…the unanticipated…sometimes the tragic, terrible and tremendous.  There’s all the things that would have given us pause. Had we known ahead of time, we may not have signed up at all.  But once you’re in, once you’ve held your child and loved them, your threshold goes up…you’re willing to do all kinds of things that were unthinkable in your single days.  

I love the song, “Mary Did You know?”  I think it speaks to the interconnectedness of Jesus’ birth and his death. You really can’t tell the story of either one without somehow relating to the other.  But the reality is Mary had no idea. Can you imagine if she’d known? As she held her precious baby boy that one day he’d be murdered for crimes he didn’t commit.  Chosen to suffer on a cross instead of a known criminal. You think she had any idea of those things and didn’t do more to stop it?  

I mean, I’m not Mary, and I’m not the chosen one—but you can bet that if I thought my son was going to be murdered, I’d get the heck out of dodge—-I don’t really care what the justifications might have been.  

Mary didn’t know everything that lay before her or her son, but she still said yes.  It wasn’t all spelled out with a bow on top, but she still said yes.  She agreed to do what God asked even though she had no idea what on earth that would entail.  

Mary wasn’t extraordinary. She wasn’t better than any other woman. But she became extraordinary through baby steps of faith that allowed her to ultimately stand at the foot of the cross and watch the horror of her son dying. But that came from 33 years of watching him become the Man of God he was.  If you’d asked her on day one, there’s no way she would have consented.  She simply trusted God  and kept on trusting God one day at a time.  I’d bet good money she questioned and doubted and wondered what God was thinking along the way.  

Think about it. The first part of this story leaves her pregnant by someone other than her husband, Joseph, which left her as a good candidate for stoning. Joseph was led to act with grace, but what about her family? her parents? siblings? friends? neighbors?  She stood to lose a lot as she sought to be faithful to her calling. And so her best bet was to head out of town for months to avoid the gossip, threats, and ugliness.  Being God’s chosen one wasn’t easy—not even on day one—and yet Mary stuck with it.  Maybe because the good days outweighed the bad, or maybe because she had to choose faith or she would have wound up with despair.  Or maybe a mix of both. The gifts of a baby…the sweet smell, the tiny fingers and toes, the adorable little sounds, the love and snuggles can overpower the greatest trials.  There’s something about a precious baby that softens the blows of evil.  There’s something redemptive just in their presence.  And maybe that’s what kept Mary holding on, despite the unknown, despite the early threats from Herod and the need to flee, as a refugee, into Egypt.  There’s something about a child, your child, that will make you say yes to all kinds of crazy things.  They inspire you to hope for better times, to persevere through devastating trials, and to laugh when all you wish to do is cry.  

Mommas around the world hold something sacred in common—they hold love…deep abiding love that is beyond all reason.  And they hold hope…for a better tomorrow, for their children, for the world.  And that hope will give you the courage to stand in the face of unspeakable evil.  And it will give you the faith to keep saying yes to God, one step at a time.  

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Not Who You Might Think

Zaccheus is a tax collector.  We’ve heard about them before…it was 4 weeks ago when we heard about another tax collector, Levi,…they’re sinners.  They’re liars and thieves…they take from their own, skimming off the top before they pay Rome….or rather, inflating the amount due, before they hand anything over to Rome.  These guys are bad.  Do you remember Levi?  The one who was supposed to be a priest?  The family failure who not only didn’t become a priest, but became a crook?  Well, it’s another one of him.  And we all know about them.  

We really don’t need much more explanation at this point…Zaccheus was a tax collector… that means, he was a sinner of the worst kind. (sigh) another one of those people that Jesus decides to go hang around with.  And not surprisingly when it happens, everyone around them, balks saying, “seriously?!?  A sinner?!”  Three years into Jesus’ ministry and it still doesn’t make any sense…why would this guy, this rabbi, this man of God, insist on wasting his time with the sinners.

Now, while the crowd might not get it…we do.  We understand who Jesus is…he’s the one who forces us out of our comfort zone to deal with people we normally leave out of our inner circle.  We might not like it, but we get it.  But, if we dig a little deeper into the text, I think we might find something all together different.  

The scripture tells us that after Jesus calls him from the tree and invites himself over for dinner, Zaccheus tells Jesus he’ll give half of what he has to the poor and pay back anyone he’s cheated 4x’s the amount.  Now, that seems appropriate seeing as how he’s a lying scumbag.  But, there’s actually another way to look at it…2 ways actually.  

#1  Think about what Zaccheus is offering to do.  He’s going to give HALF of what he has to the poor.  AND THEN he’s going to give 4x’s what he owes to anyone he owes anything to.  Now, either he’s an incredible investor and grew the money he took from people in some incredible ways…all before the stock market or flipping real estate.  OR…he’s actually been a reasonably decent guy such that he hasn’t defrauded many people…so he’s willing to take the risk of offering 4x’s what he does owe.  MAYBE Zaccheus isn’t as bad as we thought.

or #2  there’s a translation issue from the Greek to the English.  Most of our translations say he “will give and will payback”. But the way the Greek is, there’s actually the possibility that it says “I’ve been giving half of what I have to the poor and have been giving 4x’s what I owe to anyone I’ve defrauded.”  He has been  doing these things…and, by translation, will continue to do these things…

So, it’s not that he’s some marvelous convert who has a big come to Jesus moment and his life is changed (and we all scoff under our breath doubting that anything will really change for him).  But instead, it’s this guy that we’ve known  was a sinner…a liar and a thief who doesn’t turn out to be any of those things.  We’re forced to immediately re-evaluate him for all the things we thought we knew…but really, then we have to re-evaluate us…because now we have to admit we are prejudiced.  And that recognition hurts.  We judged him based on superficial things…things we thought defined his character.  

I’m sure none of you have ever made assumptions about someone, believing you knew them, or at least knew enough, because you knew a certain something.  Well, since I’m normally one of the lead sinners in a congregation, I’ll just own it.  I’ve dealt with racism, sexism, homophobia, size-ism, classism, and age-ism…and that was just last week!  I’d like to laugh and say no, but, honestly, if I were to think about it, I’m sure I’ve pre-judged someone in each of those categories in the last 7 days and that does not make me proud.  I’ve worked for years to deal with my prejudice that you’d think I’d be a lot further along than I am, but what can I say? I’m a work in progress. 
We all learn to make these quick superficial judgments very early on in life.  In elementary school the kids make judgements based on gender. The girls think the boys couldn’t possibly be fun to play with and the boys make the same assumption.  Hopefully after a few years in class they start to see a little differently but then they adopt other judgements and classifications for one another.  
In high school we had about 550 students. And there were 4 main buildings that sat around the quad.  During break time you could find certain crowds of people in certain areas.  There were the preppy people, the nerds, the indians, the druggies, the cowboys, and the Mexicans.  Our titles were about as sophisticated as our judgements.  And most of us thought we knew people based on where they stood around the quad and the title that gave them.  And, sadly, for us, no one really tried to challenge the titles or the assumptions. I had to wait until college to be challenged on what I thought I knew about people.  
I am not proud of my prejudice, but I share about it to let you know you’re not alone, and to say that it’s worth confronting, every time it comes up.  When we make superficial judgments based on limited facts, we’re setting ourselves up for prejudice.  Before I started at UCLA, we had an on-campus orientation and were placed in various groups.  I don’t remember a lot of people from my group, but I do remember Miguel.  He was a Mexican with long dark hair in a pony tail, thick glasses, and what cholo clothes…he was a gang member from East LA.  At least that’s what I surmised from my 30 second assessment of his outfit and his hair.  To be fair, he was actually from East LA, but he wasn’t a gang member.  Now, it took me awhile to learn that since I was automatically fearful since I thought he was in a gang.  But eventually we started talking and got to one another.  Turns out Miguel had never been in a gang.  His dad was a chef and his mom was a housekeeper.  Miguel was smart and caring and one of the most tender-hearted people I had ever met.  Apparently my snap judgment was a little amiss.  
And, to highlight the irony of my prejudice, after we graduated, Miguel went to work for the Mayor of LA on his gang reduction task force.  Miguel finds creative and fun ways to engage area youth to find connection and value before they get into the gangs.  They’ve shown incredible success with their program…so much that he’s been sent around the country to train others and now he is in Honduras, where there is one of the worst gang problems world wide, training people and beginning to bring peace, and hope, and light into those communities.  

Lots of times we make snap judgements, and Jesus challenges us to see people diffferently. He is always drawing us into the deeper story and helping us see that what we know on the surface isn’t actually the whole story.  If we want to know people…we have to spend time with them, we have to get to know their story.  People are surprising.  They’re rarely everything we think they are…whether that’s kind and prim and proper because we see them well dressed and well spoken, or whether that’s rough and mean and aggressive because they look dangerous, or whether that’s lazy and a drunk because they’re dissolved and spent the night on the street.  People are more than they appear and Jesus wants us to know that.  He models what it looks like to spend time with people…even the people everyone else scoffs at, because he knows that time together is the key to relationships that change us and grow us into better people all around.  

Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Spirit of the Law

Sermon Notes

  • teaching on the sabbath in the synagogue
  • woman who has been ailing 18 years (much like the bleeding woman who suffered for 12 years)
    • She didn’t do anything more than “appear” and Jesus told her should would be healed
      • too often we get hung up thinking we have to do so much in order to earn Jesus’ healing, but instead he simply offers it….it is a gift of grace. It’s free.  It’s unmerited. Unearned.  And his gift comes before any action on her part.  
      • He heals her, touches her, and she is able to stand up and the only thing that came to mind for her to do was to praise God and worship.  18 years of staring at the floor and dirty feet and finally she can stand up and move….of course she praised God.  And there in the middle of her worship, interrupts the synagogue leader
  • Hey, wait a minute, you can’t heal on the sabbath, that’s work! you’re breaking the law!  
    • explain Sabbath Law
        • Exodus 20: Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.
      • this is a big deal and by all accounts Jesus did work and thus broke the law…but he clarifies something…which for me sheds light on sabbath law as a whole.  
        • He pushes back on the synagogue leader and says don’t you take your animals to get water…you do the work of untying and retying them?  So, you work, in order to preserve life?  
        • So, when I “worked” to preserve this woman’s life, I wasn’t really breaking the sabbath law…I was fulfilling it…I was giving life, restoring life to someone…which is the whole intent of sabbath law in the first place. Right?  
        • and the leaders while maybe humbled a little, were not willing to admit they were wrong. Instead they turned to the people…the other sick people who were ready to be blessed, touched, and restored to health by Jesus and he says, “all of you, get out of here. there are 6 other days of the week that you can be healed and fixed…pick one of those!”  
        • Clearly this guy has missed Jesus’ point. He’s so hung up on what’s “right” on what’s “lawful” that he misses the opportunity to see God at work in Jesus, redeeming, healing and restoring.  
    • UNFORTUNATELY, he’s not the only one who gets hung up on such things.  in the midst of witnessing grace, we often like to argue too.  
      • not when it’s for us of course, but when it’s for others and it breaks our rules or challenges our beliefs 
        • What about when we’re asked to serve a meal to the homeless on our family day?
        • or when a pedophile is allowed to worship?  
        • or
      • Grace interrupts the norms, it breaks the rules.  We like to think of it as sweet and beautiful and something we would all accept willingly. But the reality is, grace is something given freely to those who don’t deserve it.  a gift given freely to those who don’t deserve it.  
        • we tend to be ok with good things coming to good people, but what about when good things happen to “bad” people?  to people we think don’t deserve it?  or worse yet, to people we KNOW don’t deserve it?  
        • when blessings fall on the mean-spirited and the unkind, what do we say?  
          • THAT’S NOT FAIR!!! That’s not right.  
      • you’re likely sitting there wondering, “does she think good things should happen to bad people?”  Are you saying we supposed to go out of our way for people who don’t deserve it?  
        • well, yes and no.  It’s not exactly me speaking…but that is Jesus’ way.  He is regularly looking for the outsiders…the “bad” ones, the rule breakers and doing good things for them…even though they don’t deserve it. And if we’re supposed to be imitators of Christ, then logic would follow that we are supposed to do that same thing.  
        • It’s counter intuitive, I know.  And it doesn’t mean we don’t do good things for those who do deserve it.  But the call to offer grace isn’t about simple and sweet for the people we love, it’s about stepping out to bless someone who is an outsider (to us or to others).  
          • in practical terms it can mean stopping on the side of the road when we’re on our way to our thing to help someone in need
          • it can be helping to cover the groceries in the check out line 
          • it can be inviting the co-worker who’s always a pain to the bbq at our house
          • it can mean offering shelter to a refuge
          • it can mean sharing a meal with a hard-hearted family member
          • it can mean giving up our special coffee to buy someone a meal
          • —> sometimes we’ll know how deserving (or not) the person is, and sometimes it’s all left in God’s hands.  But it’s not about us knowing “hey, you’re not worthy, I’ll pick you to bless”.  But it is about being open and receptive to the movement of the Spirit so we can be about God’s kingdom creating work of offering grace—even when it’s inconvenient, even when it breaks our rules, even when the person doesn’t deserve it…probably most especially when they don’t deserve it. 

Sunday, September 4, 2016

You Don't Know the Cost

This scene is early in Jesus’ ministry.  He’s eating with a Pharisee and we don’t know where the Pharisee stands in regard to Jesus. We don’t know if he likes what Jesus is doing or doesn’t like it. We don’t know why he invited Jesus…was it to trap him or just to get to know him and see what this guy was really all about?  

The Pharisee, named Simon, invites Jesus to dinner and the scripture tells us they were reclining…that tells us this was a formal dinner—maybe a sabbath meal—so Simon would have or should have prepared the very best for his guests. Now, as part of this formal meal it would have been customary to wash his guests’ feet—well, not him, but a servant, and the host would have greeted his guests with a kiss and would have anointed their foreheads with oil.  It showed hospitality and respect.  

Imagine it in the modern day—you invite over someone of prestige, not a friend or a colleague, but an uppity up—say, the mayor, and when he gets there, he knocks and instead of opening the door you just show, “it’s open.”  He comes in, you say a quick hello and then you leave him to himself.  You don’t offer to take his coat, or show him a place to sit, or offer to get him anything to drink.  

Now, is that the end of the world? No.  But is it really bad manners?  Yes. Maybe not with friends or family, but with a prestigious stranger?  Yes. Simon missed the mark here.  Nevertheless, Jesus was very gracious—he just let it go—he sat on the cushion to eat with his dirty feet and dirty hands.  Maybe he gave Simon the benefit of the doubt and just assumed he was distracted.  I mean, everyone in the room knows it’s weird, but they just played along.  

That is, until this woman comes in—this sinful woman.  We don’t know what she did, only that she’s a sinner. Some people assume she’s a prostitute but the scripture never says that. She isn’t named. So she could be any woman who has committed any number of sins.  She comes in and goes straight to Jesus and begins washing his feet—not with a bucket of water, but with her tears. And not using a towel, but instead using her hair.  She’s washing his dirty, dusty, unwashed feet with her tears and her hair.  Now that may take us back a little, but in the first century it would have taken everyone back a lot.  You see—women wore their hair covered—all the time. and the only ones to see their hair were their husbands.  To uncover your hair was a sensuous thing and there she did it in front of Jesus and everybody.  and then she caressed Jesus’ feet as she wiped away her tears. The scene has just gone from awkward to a bit scandalous.  

Let’s go back to our modern scene—our mayor is sitting awkwardly holding his coat in his lap, with nothing to drink and this woman comes in and pours him her finest wine, takes his coat, and then begins massaging his shoulders.  To say it simply, things are getting a little weird.  Taking his coat would have been one thing but massaging his shoulders pushes the boundaries of decorum. 

So the host intervenes, “Wait a minute! Just what do you think you’re doing?!  How dare you?!” 

So Jesus shifts the conversation. He tries a back door approach to help Simon understand what is happening. He asks this question:  There are two debtors—one who owes 50 denarii and one who owes 500.  (a denarii was worth about a day’s wages…so one owes 2 months wages and one owes a year and a half…say, one owes about $4500 and one owes about $60,000)—both are forgiven their debts….who do you think is more grateful?  

Simon answers easily…the one who owed more.  Of course.  But Jesus’ question wasn’t really who was more grateful….the question was actually who showed more agape—who showed more selfless, abundant love?  The one who had the greater debt.  Who showed greater, more abundant, selfless love?  The one who had the greater debt.

Ok, now, look at this woman….she has washed my feet with her tears, and wiped them with her hair, and anointed my feet with oil.  You’re scandalized and insulted, but look at what she did…what did she do?  
Do you know? What did she do?  She showed great agape love.  Simon, you’re so consumed with what you know she did in the past that you can’t see who she is now.  You know she broke the law and you have that marked in stone above her name.  Her sin seems to trump her person for you.  But you know what?  You’ve missed what has happened…along the way, when you weren’t watching, she repented and has been forgiven…it’s already happened, her sins are in the past, washed away by the forgiveness she received.  Today, she’s not earning my blessing. She’s not making the sins of the past right, she's saying thank you….wholly and fully with a sign of God’s love. 

How many of us have been a bit like Simon?  We know the sins of the past and for some people that’s all we see…their record of wrongs. So when they claim their faith or sing praise to the Lord, we look on with disdain thinking, “mmm…hmmmm, how dare you?  I know what you did. You’re a sinner.”

And Jesus comes in gently and encourages us to look….not just with our eyes but with our hearts.  Do you see?  Do you know?  Their faith and their praises…that’s because of gratitude.  They aren’t pleading for forgiveness, they’ve already received it and are saying thank you.  You’re hung up on what once was and what they did back when, but they aren’t who they were.  Today they’re redeemed. They’re forgiven. They’re saved.  Don’t stand with scorn. Stand with praise.  And know that if you’re burdened by your own sins.  If your heart is heavy with shame, there is forgiveness for you too.  You don’t have to earn it.  You just have to claim you want it and I’ll forgive you.  

After explaining things to Simon, Jesus turns to the woman and says, “You’re forgiven. You’ve been saved—you’ve been redeemed and made whole. Now, go in peace.”  In essence, he’s confirming, you really are forgiven, don’t worry about what this guy says, or the next, or the next. People may try and hold the sins of the past against you. they may not want to see who you’ve become. But don’t look to them, look to me and trust, you are truly forgiven. You are redeemed and made whole. Now, go in peace.”  

And the same is true for us, once we’ve been forgiven, we find our new identity in Christ.  It doesn’t matter what other people think. It doesn’t matter if they’re still keeping tally of the past.  Jesus tells us we are forgiven.  We can go in peace.  Thanks be to God.  

Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Power of Healing

When we read the scriptures, it is often important to take a look at what stories come before and after the one we are focused on. They can often give us extra insight about the current passage.  That’s true today.  The passage right before this is about Jesus healing a leper.  The man is sick and spiritually/ritually unclean. He would have been a social outcast because of his wounds.  And he approached Jesus and said, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” To which Jesus replies, “I do choose. Be made clean.”  And then Jesus told him not to tell anyone. Jesus was sort of a comedian sometimes.  I mean really, you tell a man who was physically sick…has sores on his body—and is not allowed to have normal social interactions who is now healthy and allowed to be with people to not say anything about what happened.  Come on.  That’s just not fair. People would have noticed. They would have asked him. They would have talked about him with or without information about what really happened. And so word spread. People started talking about Jesus and becoming more and more interested in him.  
And now we come to today’s passage where Jesus was teaching—surrounded by a large crowd of Jewish leaders—not just locals but from all over—(Galilee in the north, Judea in the south, and Jerusalem—the religious center). The whole house was packed—the fact that it was at a house indicates that it probably wasn’t a formal teaching, otherwise they would have been at a synagogue—but there they were and word was out. Jesus was a teacher AND a healer.  Maybe they were asking about the leper and how he healed him. at this point in the Gospel of Luke, there wasn’t a whole lot to be talking about…we have his birth story and the flight to Egypt, we have John the Baptist talking about Jesus and then baptizing him. We have the temptation in the desert and then Jesus calling the first disciples. Those are big events in our minds, but probably wouldn’t have mattered much to the masses at that point in Jesus’ life.  And yet, something drew them to him and had them filling every square inch of that house.  And it seems likely that that something was the story of Jesus healing the leper. 
Then we see these 4 men who brought their friend to meet Jesus.  He’s on his bed and he’s there to be healed. Only they couldn’t push through the crowd. So they did what any reasonable friend would do—they climbed up on the roof—opened it up and plopped him down right in front of Jesus. Make no mistake, these friends wanted their friend to be healed and they were pretty convinced that Jesus was the man for the job. And Jesus apparently saw that in them since the story says, “because of their faith, he healed the man.”  Well, technically, he forgave the man. He said, “Man, your sins are forgiven you.”  
Now, some might ask, “Why did Jesus forgive the man, when what he needed was to be healed?”  The statement sort of indicates there’s a connection between forgiveness and healing. But making that connection can be a bit of a slippery slope since we begin to wonder…does someone always have to be forgiven before they can be healed?  (The answer to which is no…we find that right before this passage in the earlier part of Luke 5 when Jesus heals the leper and there was no mention of forgiveness or sins.) and the other question that arises is “Is the man’s paralyzation a punishment for his sin?”  We don’t have the direct answer for that right here in the scriptures, but we have it lots of other places…Jesus came to heal, to restore, to forgive and to save…not to condemn.  There are no scriptures where Jesus says, “Hey, you’re a sinner, you should suffer.”  Not one.  So let’s not read too much into all of this and go around thinking that sick people are the worst sinners.  I’m sure we all know someone wonderful who has suffered far more than their share, and on the opposite end, I’m sure we also know someone not so wonderful who could afford to suffer a little more.  (at least in our estimation).  
Ok, so back to the task at hand…”Why did Jesus start with forgiveness when what the man needed was healing?”  I think the answer is two-fold.  1) The scripture suggests there is a connection between forgiveness and healing.  Forgiveness isn’t always tied to healing, but apparently, sometimes it is.  And, 2) Jesus seems to be establishing his authority as the Son of Man and proving that he has the authority both to heal (like he did right before this with the leper) and to forgive (as he does in this passage).  He’s showing that God’s power and authority is shared with him for his work here on earth. 
Let’s go back to this man…who has now been offered forgiveness even though he’s confessed nothing and asked for nothing.  And before he can say or do anything, there’s a whole bunch of doubters in the room wondering just how Jesus gets the authority to say anyone is forgiven…he has no right…only God can do that.  (When maybe just minutes before they were asking how he could heal…when only God could do that…)  Whatever the case, the Pharisees aren’t seeing the full picture.  And Jesus can tell they’re grumbling and so he asks the most bizarre question, “which is easier to say, ‘you’re forgiven’ or ‘take up your mat and walk’?” Which is easier to say?  Like in Aramaic?  I don’t know. Is one of them hard to say?!  Is it really about the words?  It’s kind of like Jesus is saying, “come on guys, it’s semantics. I’ve already shown you I can heal. Now I’m showing you I can forgive.”  Do you really want me to say, “you’re healed, now get up and walk?”  Ok.  “You’re healed, get up and walk.”  It doesn’t make a difference in the end since I have the authority to do both. I am the Son of Man and in case you had any doubts about what that means, here’s the beginner’s lesson…it means I can heal AND forgive.  
So, what difference does any of that make for us?  Well, what was true then is also true now.  Jesus is the Son of Man who has the authority of God to both heal and forgive.  Sometimes the healing will be tied to forgiveness and other times it won’t.  Sometimes healing is offered when we ask directly, and sometimes Jesus will bless or heal through the faith and faithfulness of friends.  Sometimes we’ll doubt that he can actually do that…we’ll say it’s not possible, we’ll have too many questions to believe in the miracle. And yet Jesus persists in healing and forgiving, proving it’s not just possible, but it’s also probable.  
Now, I have to say, there are also lots of things I don’t understand and can’t explain about healing. It’s not a perfect science.  I don’t have the magic prayer or petition formula so that each person is healed just like we want when we want it.  I believe healing is possible. I believe that sometimes forgiveness is a necessary first step. I believe God hears us when we pray for our friends—that our faith is taken seriously, even if they’ve weathered so many storms that they can’t or won’t ask for themselves.  And I can’t explain when it doesn’t happen.  For a lot of us, we want to believe in the power of prayer. We want to believe Jesus can and will do these awesome things. And at the same time our hearts have been broken and our faith has been shattered when it seems God didn’t listen to our prayers. When that really amazing person suffered far more than their share even though the whole church was praying…we begin to wonder what God was thinking and what God was doing.  It can be hard to claim faith when we try to do all the right things and still don’t see the results we have asked for.  And I can’t help but wonder if that’s what happened for this man…the paralytic. Maybe he did have faith, maybe he had prayed 1000 times to be healed. Maybe everyone else around him seemed to be getting better and yet he wasn’t. Maybe he’d prayed so long and so hard and didn’t see or hear God answering that he had given up.  Maybe he’d lost hope.  And so when his friends’ faith (which may or may not have been equally strained) heard about this man named Jesus and the way he healed a leper their faith was stirred, and hope was kindled, they went back to their friend to share their hope.  Notice, he didn’t let them put him on their backs or simply carry him, he stayed on his mat and had to be taken, bed and all. Now, maybe that was the most necessary given his condition, or maybe it became necessary because he didn’t have an ounce of faith to even try for fear of being let down again.  
Faith isn’t an easy journey….there are ups and downs and everything in between.  When we go through hardship it can be extra hard to believe God cares or is willing to do anything to help us.  And yet the power of the Gospel keeps coming back…Jesus has the power to heal and forgive…his purpose is to redeem and restore. That’s his job—100%…even when we doubt it. Even when life has knocked us to our knees and we have to rely on the faith of our friends because ours is just too weak. Jesus is a healer, he’s a Savior…and that blessing, those miracles aren’t reserved for a select few…he came for the world…that means all of us.
Now, I certainly can’t guarantee the outcome, I don’t have that power or that authority, but I will say it’s worth asking…for ourselves and for our friends because the one who came to heal and forgive hasn’t given up on his power or authority.  Jesus is still in the business of redeeming and restoring. It’s courageous and risky to ask.  We don’t know how God will answer. And often, it seems, God’s reply is not our specific prayer, but that doesn’t mean God didn’t answer us.  It doesn’t mean God didn’t act.  If you have doubts, I get it; we’ve lived the ups and downs and unknowns in the last few years.  My mom has had a hard road of recovery after a hip replacement and then a fall, and now she’s facing stage 4 cancer…I’ve wondered how efficacious my prayers are.  And in the midst of her seeming lack of healing, I’ve also seen her persevere to walk after months in a wheelchair. I’ve seen her go from the ICU with sepsis to back in rehab. It may seem minor in the face of terminal cancer, but they’re still answered prayers.  And I have to take note and remember those moments as much, if not more, than the unanswered prayers I hold against God.  
The heart of the Gospel is about God’s deep abiding love for us. There will be lots of people and lots of things that try to diminish and defeat that truth in our lives.  But if we return to the scriptures, over and over again we will see God’s power at work—transforming and changing lives, reaching those on the margins, blessing the afflicted.  And, we will see the need to seek after Christ, sometimes for our own healing and forgiveness, and sometimes for our friends (or family) when they’re run down, weary, or feeling hopeless.  We are called to call on Christ. And we are invited to be the bearers of good news, offering hope, telling about this man named Jesus, and bringing the broken and the hurting to Christ in faith, just like the friends did for their paralyzed friend.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Not One of Them

Levi was a traditional name—it was that of the 3rd son of Jacob (later known as Israel) and that tribe of Jacob became the priests—known as the Levites.  They were the ones who performed the priestly duties for all of Israel.  They were the ones who bridged the gap between the people and God.  And that would have been true for all of the men in that family. Since in that time you did what you father did for work and what his father did before him and his father before him.  

So when we hear that this man is named Levi we know a bit about him.  We know he’s a Jew, from the line of Levi, son of Jacob.  His father would have been a priest, and his father before him. And Levi, the tax collector, would have been expected to be a priest too. Yet he’s not. So we know that somehow, some way, something went wrong and derailed him from that course.  We have no idea why or how, but he missed or skipped the priest boat.  And now, instead, he’s a tax collector, which happens to be one of the most despised professions in all of Israel. 

You see, tax collectors didn’t work for Israel or the temple. They worked for Rome. They collected taxes for Cesar. And the Romans were basically occupying Israel. So when you worked for Rome, you were working for the enemy…you were a traitor.  But it got worse.   Because the tax collectors sort of worked on commission…the more they taxed, the more they made. Some inflated taxes so they could line their pockets.  In any case, it wasn’t just that they were traitors for working for Rome, but that they were lying, thieving traitors who stole from their family and friends.  Needless to say, they were not held in great regard. 

Can you imagine the pain and the shame his parents felt?  I mean, not that a son is responsible for all of his parents feelings about his choices—they were his choices and he had the right to make them, but imagine their strain on their relationship.  He’s set to be in one of the most respected fields for all the Jews and instead he becomes a lying, thieving, traitor who works for Rome and steals from his people.  

Can you imagine?  

So, Levi is a let-down, a family failture. He’s rejected. He’s likely shunned. He’s considered a low-life, not just by his family but by pretty much everyone—because they don’t want to be living in a place that’s occupied by Romw and they knew they were paying a good chunk extra on taxes to pad Levi’s pockets—-Let’s just say he wasn’t going to get the good neighbor award anytime soon.  

And then Jesus comes to town and he sees Levi and says, “Follow me!” Now that sounds like a simple instruction but it’s not really about physical following--it’s about becoming a disciple. A better translation might be, “Come imitate me.” And Levi says, “Ok!”  He’s on board and excited.  He’s so excited that he wants to throw a party. Who knows how long Levi had been a tax collector and if he’d come to love it for the money and luxuries or if he hated it because of what he had to do—but what we do know is that once he had the chance to get out—he went.  Forget the money. Forget the perks. And forget being hated by everyone—he was outta there.  “Follow you? Do something different?  Ok!  And, you know…Jesus, maybe you could meet my friends too—because after we started working for Rome, we really couldn’t get out of it—no one wanted to hire us after what we’d done. No one trusted us. They didn’t really care what we’d learned or how we’d grown or even how we’d been changed—they couldn’t get past our reputations and our past.  So, um…if you’re willing to give people a second chance, I know a lot of guys who might be interested.”  Levi had received grace and he wanted to share it. 
That’s the amazing thing about grace…not only do you want more for yourself, but you really want to share it. You want other people to know the goodness that you’ve experienced.  When I was appointed to Wesley UMC in Riverside, the church I served had some homeless guys who hung out on the steps all day and would regularly stay the night.  At first they weren’t really wanted.  No one wanted them around. They didn’t want their problems. Didn’t want their drinking. Just didn’t want to deal with them. 
But they kept hanging out.  Folks really struggled to accept these men. They used drugs. They drank all day. They didn’t work.  One hadn’t paid child support in years.  One had been on the street for 17 years.  They weren’t popular…none of the homeless were.  They were seen as a problem and no one really wanted to have to be the one to deal with it.  
I can imagine they had a similarly strained dynamic with their families as Levi did with his.  To be sure, homeless and on drugs or booze was not what their parents had envisioned for them. I doubt it’s anything near what they had envisioned for themselves. And yet, that’s where they were, that’s who they had become. Rejected. Isolated. Forgotten. Despised.  
And then they began to encounter grace. They were invited to worship. They were invited to have a hot meal. They were offered a hot shower. They were given clean clothes. They were told they had a safe place to sleep.  And we began to form friendships.  We learned their names, Allen and David, and they learned ours.  And then, much like Levi, they invited their friends.  More of the homeless came to this place for grace.  Jimmy, Cuca, Carlos, and little Allen (different from the original Allen).  Then others. And still others.  Each time someone was greeted with warmth and care and got a bit of what they needed in terms of food, or clothes, shelter or care, they talked about it with their friends…and so more came.  
And people objected, just like the Pharisees…why would you waste your time on them? They are a lost cause. And we were reminded again and again that Jesus came to save the lost; and so our work continued.  
Now, it’s not that the homeless are all a lost cause or considered the worst like the tax collectors. But in them and in their stories we can see the rift between them and their families. We can imagine the rejection and isolation they experience day in and day out. And we can imagine the excitement of being noticed, known by name, invited and included just like Jesus did with Levi.  And how receiving that grace could be life changing.  But there are other ways we end up with broken relationships with family: unmet expectations, differing paths, rejection, isolation, and all kinds of challenges. And in that we can see our own need for grace—to be acknowledged, called by name, invited, and included.  And that’s just what Jesus does. It’s who he is. He is the one full of grace who calls us in from the margins, away from being outsiders and into deep meaningful relationship.  
Did you know this isn’t the last we see of Levi?  It’s pretty much the last time we hear him called by this name, but if you’ve read or heard the gospels, you probably know him quite well….do you know who he is?  He’s the disciple Jesus calls Matthew.   Yep.  He went from being a failed priest, to a despised tax collector, to a disciple of Jesus, to one of the disciples who founded the church.  How’s that for full circle?  I guess he was meant to be a godly messenger after all?!  
The power of who Jesus is compels us, it draws us in, because it’s often starkly different from what the world tells us and how the world treats us.  Grace allows us to be defined not by who we were, but who we are as called by Christ—to be who we were meant to be.  The reality is we all fail. We all go off course, somewhere along the way. We disappoint. We struggle with broken relationships.  We stand isolated and hurting. We need grace. And Jesus comes to us, as outsiders among the lost and says “Follow me.”  And we have the choice to follow him….to choose grace and acceptance, love and inclusion.  And we need to be aware that when we do that, when we follow him….it’s not on a stroll down the road, it’s imitating who he is, it’s being transformed by love and then offering transforming love to others. As we become disciples of Christ, imitators of his ways, we begin to notice and find the outsiders, the lost causes and we are to invite them to grace and inclusion in our life.  
It sounds lovely and shiny when it’s preached in a sermon. But really, it’s messy and hard.  It’s hard to find the *right* answer between helping and enabling. It’s hard to find the right answer when people stay stuck in their addiction and we are continuously called to be people of grace. What does grace look like when it’s tied to accountability? They aren’t mutually exclusive.  This week we had a man come asking for help. He’s an outsider. He’s someone who is struggling and is seemingly without family support or a network of friends to hold him up as he journeys a rocky road.  And his struggles have made him rough, and a bit brash.  Quite frankly, it would have been easier to push him out the door and say, “sorry, we can’t help you.” But we are followers of Christ….imitators of his ways, and so we are challenged to include those who seem like lost causes.  We are asked to care for them and hold them even when no one else wants to. And the particulars of what that looks like can be difficult to work out, but we are called to get into the mix of it all and listen for God’s voice and work on working it out.  

The Levis of this world are not popular.  And they aren’t necessarily easy to work with. But they are beloved and favored by God and as imitators of Christ we are called to work with them offering grace and acceptance.  

Sunday, April 3, 2016

The Easter Message Matters

Matthew 27:1-5 (TLB)
When it was morning, the chief priests and Jewish leaders met again to discuss how to induce the Roman government to sentence Jesus to death.  Then they sent him in chains to Pilate, the Roman governor.
About that time Judas, who betrayed him, when he saw that Jesus had been condemned to die, changed his mind and deeply regretted what he had done, and brought back the money to the chief priests and other Jewish leaders.
“I have sinned,” he declared, “for I have betrayed an innocent man.”
“That’s your problem,” they retorted.
Then he threw the money onto the floor of the Temple and went out and hanged himself.

Judas hit a pretty deep low…he betrayed Jesus…for whatever reason…because he was greedy?  Because he doubted Jesus would do what he said he would? Because he was tempted? Who knows…what we do know is that Judas betrayed Jesus and would forever be known as a traitor of the worst kind.  And after he did it…the reality kicked in. He did the wrong thing and he knew it.  He wanted to take it back, to fix it, to un do what he had done, but at that point, Jesus had been arrested and was condemned to death…what was done was done. There was no changing it.  He couldn’t undo the past and he likely knew he wouldn’t easily be forgiven.  And even if he moved to tim-buk-no-where to form a new life where no one knew him, this remained true: he knew what he had done.  He would have that knowledge for life.  So, he did what he knew to do, he went to repent. He offered the money back. He acknowledged his sin and he tried to make it right. And the high priests told him, “sorry, can’t help you.” 
And the pain and shame of it all was too much for him to bear.  Judas couldn’t take it.  So he threw the money at their feet and he took his own life.  Judas was overcome with guilt, and shame, and darkness.  And the saddest part is he never got to see or hear the end of the story. Judas never heard the good news—his actions, even his sins, didn’t have the final word.  Yes, Jesus died, but he also resurrected.  Even his worst action wasn’t able to overcome God’s action in the world.  Do you ever imagine how things might have been different for Judas if he had waited, if he could have seen that God was greater than the worst that anyone had to offer.  God wasn’t just greater than Judas and his betrayal, but Peter and his denial, Pilate and his complacency, the Sadduccees and Pharisees and their hypocrisy and lies, the people and their mob mentality, the beatings, the mocking, the humiliation…God overcame all of that. 
But Judas never knew. Judas never heard the good news.
Judas is the name we know.  Even if we don’t know the Bible story, we often know the name of Judas and know he wasn’t a good guy.  But apart from the individual man, there are a whole lot of people who are like Judas.  There are a whole lot of sinners—and generally, we, too, stand among them.  Any sinners in the room today?  Ok, so maybe you didn’t betray Jesus…but maybe you have lied, you’ve been greedy, you’ve lusted, you’ve been selfish, you’ve turned away from those in need, you’ve judged others…anyone? 
            Yeah, confession isn’t much fun, is it?  It’s always easier to look at someone else’s sin than to look at our own, so let’s talk about someone else for another minute.
How many of you follow basketball? And how many of you heard about what happened with D'angelo Russell & Nick Young?  Well, in case you didn't, both men play for the Lakers. D'angelo is an up & coming player and he's young.  And, he decided it’d be a good idea to video a conversation with Nick Young about Nick’s scandals and secrets and "somehow" the video got out.  It's been all over the news and if you've been watching you know things are not good for Russell...his teammates don't want to play with him, they don't want to share the locker room, they don't want to pass him the ball...by some accounts his disloyalty, immaturity, and lack of integrity indicate he should just turn in his jersey because there is no redeeming his situation--ever.
Now you might consider it a stretch because Young isn't the Messiah, but the weight of Russell's situation and Judas' are not far off. They were both part of a tight knit team, they both broke the rules of acceptability for their own personal gain, they did something they couldn't undo, others told them they are stuck to live with their consequences, and by most accounts they should just throw in the towel. Now Russell hasn’t hit the darkness like Judas did, at least not in a way that’s been reported. But I’m sure this week has been pretty rough.  
Now the danger doesn't just lie for the D'angelo Russells or the Judases of the world.  The danger lurks for each of us because the threat of darkness comes not just when we sin but when life happens--when it turns us on our heads. ..when we get the dreaded diagnosis, when we can't eek out any more love in our marriage, when we come to loathe our work,  when our kids break our hearts, when we fall into old bad habits, when we can't pay the rent,  when there's not enough money for the month,  when the abusers and manipulators in our lives keep getting their way. ..all kinds of circumstances can threaten to overtake us.  They tell us it'll never get better.  They tell us there's no hope. There's no redemption.  There's no chance.  Why bother? Just throw in the towel.  Give up!
That's what THEY say. But that’s the verdict before the cross.  But here's the thing. ..none of those things get the final word. ..you know who does? Jesus! Because he lived and died and rose again. Jesus faced the worst. He lived through all the horrible rotten things that happen in this world and he came out on the other side victorious. And he did all that, not for his own sake, but for ours. So that when we face all the horrible awful things life has to offer—by our hand or by someone else’s—we can still find hope and redemption. 
That's the power of the Gospel. ..that's why we need the Easter story...because life and struggles and sins all threaten to do us in but God interrupts,  God intervenes and says "I have the last word and the last word is life!  It's victory!  It's hope!"
Let’s listen to Romans 5 again.

Romans 5:6-11 (TLB)
 When we were utterly helpless, with no way of escape, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners who had no use for him.  Even if we were good, we really wouldn’t expect anyone to die for us, though, of course, that might be barely possible. But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. And since by his blood he did all this for us as sinners, how much more will he do for us now that he has declared us not guilty? Now he will save us from all of God’s wrath to come.  And since, when we were his enemies, we were brought back to God by the death of his Son, what blessings he must have for us now that we are his friends and he is living within us!
Now we rejoice in our wonderful new relationship with God—all because of what our Lord Jesus Christ has done in dying for our sins—making us friends of God.
Do you hear it?  The truth?  The promise?  The hope? While we were still sinners…still stuck in OUR ways, not doing it God’s way, Christ died for us. While we were still getting it wrong, not even close to getting it right, Christ died for us. Most people would question whether or not they were willing to die for a good person…a faithful person, a righteous person who has helped them, but Jesus went and died for all the fools, the folks who jumped ship, the folks who beat him and hurt him unjustly. He died for the ones who betrayed him. And he died for all of us. And since he did that for us when we didn’t even deserve it and through him we are absolved of our sin. We get a new beginning. We get a second chance.  We get forgiveness and grace and mercy.  AND we get even greater blessings.  And those blessings can blow our minds, because they come to us not as Christ’s enemies, but as his friends.  If he was willing to die for us while we were acting like enemies, imagine how much more he would do for us as his friends.  
I don't know D'Angelo, or any Laker for that matter, but I wish I could talk to him and tell him, "This may have been a stupid thing, a foolish thing to do, but it doesn't have to define you forever.  It doesn't have to have the final word.  Because of Christ and his victory over sin and death, HE gets the final word.  He calls us forgiven, redeemed and worthy.  Sure, the world will try and hold onto this. The people around you will call you names and tell you a different story, but you don't have to let them define you. You can choose to claim your identity in Christ instead.   
And the reality is, we all have that chance, we all have the opportunity to push back on the labels and stigmas of the world and instead say we are defined by something and someone much greater.  We are defined by the Risen Christ. And that is news worth sharing.