While it was still dark

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Sermon with song April 17th Palm Sunday

A story, a song, and the message

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Leading like Jesus

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Welcome to Our Web Site


Second Baptist Church of Germantown is an exciting and intimate place to worship and serve the Lord Jesus Christ.  We’ve experienced a doubling of our membership and attendance in the last decade, enhanced our capacity to minister to children, youth and seniors, and we are a wonderful example of a multi-cultural church,  “an integrated church in an integrated community.”  Join us for worship every Sunday at 10:45 a.m.


Tuesday Bible Study-11:30 a.m. (Bring your own lunch)

Wednesday Bible Study and Good News Club

Thursday 12 Noon.  Elder Diner is back.  Join us for lunch for the nice price of $4, sponsored by the Board of Missions.


5:15 p.m. Jr. Choir Rehearsal

6:15 p.m. Teen Bells

7:30 p.m. JAM The Jesus And Me youth group meets in Hargroves Hall.


9:30 a.m. Praise Dance

10:00 a.m.  Children’s Choir in the Sanctuary

10:00 a.m.  Gospel Choir

11:00 a.m.   Sunday Bells

11:00 a.m.  Board of Christian Fellowship Meeting

11:30 a.m.  Women’s Fellowship

2:00 p.m.  Men’s Ensemble rehearsal


SUNDAY, May 15

9:30 a.m. Sunday School

10:45 a.m. Worship Service

12:45 p.m.  Deacons Meeting

12:45 p.m.  Emlen School Mentoring Project Meeting

3:00 p.m.  Scholarship Concert with the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts Choir.


Here is a link to some pictures of Rev. Flores’ recent trip to Myanmar.  He attended the Cope Centennial Jubilee, which honored 100 years since Second Baptist Church of Germantown sent a missionary, Rev. Joseph Herbert Cope, to the Chin Hills State in Burma.

And here is a link to a YouTube video of Dr. Chin Do Kham and I praying for the sick and wounded at the hospital in Tedim following a horrible bus accident in the mountains that killed 17 people.

Pastor Flores preaching at the Saturday evening session of the Cope Centennnial Jubilee, November 27, 2010.

Here are some pictures from this year’s JAM Black History Banquet.

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“I Told You!”  An Easter Sunday Sermon

Luke 24:12  Remember how he told you…

I was 10 years old when my grandfather Angel Chavez died in his sleep, so while I don’t have as many memories of him as I would like, one of the things I do remember was the voice he used when he would say with his old, Mexican accented voice, “I told you!”  Grandpa was a great, loving teaser who grew more loving with his teasing as he aged.  So when he would promise us little grandkids that he would take us for ice cream and he would drive past three ice cream places to our chagrin, until he finally pulled up to his house and we were moaning, but in his freezer he had all of our favorite ice cream, and we’d get all happy, and he’d say, “I told you.”   Or that time he said he would take us to go swimming, and he drove all over the place and we kept telling him, “No that’s not the way, there’s no pool here, you’re just teasing us, Grandpa.”  But then he would make that turn to the county lake and we’d get all excited and he’d say, “ I told you!”


Jesus had told his disciples on numerous occasions that the son of man must suffer and be rejected by the chief priests and be killed and on the third day be raised to life.  While there are various versions of what actually happened that first Easter Sunday, one of the universal themes is that the disciples, all of them, male and female, didn’t believe that Jesus was going to rise again.  That was not on their radar. The angel had to tell them, “Remember how he told you…”  For the men, it seems that fear and shame were more on their minds than anything else, as they ran and hid in the upper room for fear that the religious leaders who had gotten to Jesus might come after them, too.  For the women, along with their immense grief, that Sunday morning they were thinking about preparing the body for a proper burial and performing their ritual tasks in that process, that’s what was on their minds.  In each gospel version, what the followers of Jesus experienced was fear and dread, surprise and shock, at the learning of the savior’s body not being in the tomb on that Easter Sunday morning. John’s account says that when Mary Magdalene first saw the empty tomb, she thought someone stole the body, and that when she told Peter and John they didn’t understand that he must rise from the dead. Mark’s account says that Magdalene told the disciples and they refused to believe her. Matthew 28 says that even after Jesus had appeared to the disciples in Galilee, some still doubted.  But in not one instance in the four biblical accounts of that Easter Sunday morning did even one of his disciples remember that Jesus had told them numerous times that he would rise again on the third day until the angel according to Luke’s gospel told them, “Remember how he told you?”  I know there was a lot on their minds, grief, burial preparations, fear for their own safety and future, but not one of them was anticipating that Jesus was about to rise again even though he told them so.


Now, I have my own theories as to how this could possibly be.  I’m a husband, father, pastor, student, thespian, kinda, and each of these roles yields a certain perspective on how Jesus could have repeatedly told them he was going to be killed and rise again on the third day and how the people who loved him most didn’t know it.  First, as a husband, I’m thinking that this was a classic case of miscommunication.  Maybe he said one thing and they heard another.  “Oh, I thought you said and buy bread on the third day, not that you would be dead and raised on the third day.”  Classic miscommunication.  Maybe he told them during a playoff game, in the fourth quarter, 2:00 minutes left in the ball game, score tied, crowd going crazy, and Jesus told them, “By the way, I’m going to rise again on the third day,” but they heard, “they’ve got to raise their level of play.”  Maybe he told them in the middle of some internet search for a Broadway weekend, and when he said, “rise on the third day,” they thought he said, “I’m up for a third play.”   As a husband, I’m thinking it could have just been a classic case of miscommunication between the Lord and his followers


And you know, it still happens today.  People mis-communicating with the Lord, not getting the message he was intending, likely because we aren’t devoting our full attention to what the Lord is saying, or because the language in the bible is sometimes not the language we would use and more readily understand, or because we’re preoccupied with our own thing to really give proper attention to hit the pause button on the dvr, close the laptop computer, put the cell phone on silent and stop answering everybody else’s calls and texts while Jesus is trying to talk to us, insisting that we know how to multi-task when what we’re really communicating is that what Jesus is saying does not merit our undivided attention.  “You’re not that important to me to command my isolated, undistracted, fully committed attention.”  Classic case of miscommunication between Jesus and his followers.


Then, as a pastor, and Jesus was their spiritual leader, I’m thinking it might have been even more sophisticated than that.  It could have been that they just flat out weren’t listening.  There was a pastor who began his pastorate by preaching his first sermon on love.  The next week, he preached the same exact sermon.  The third week, he preached the same sermon again.  Four straight weeks, same thing.  Finally, a deacon came up to him and said, “Pastor, you’ve been preaching the same sermon for four weeks.  When are you going to preach a different sermon?”  The pastor said, “When y’all start demonstrating that you’ve listened to this one.”


One bible school teacher used to say that you need to announce things at least 3 times, 3 different ways to have a chance that people might catch it just once.  And I asked him why so many times?  And he said, “Because people just aren’t listening.”  I can’t tell you how many times Dot Kelly the church secretary has put announcements in the bulletin, put them in the Table Talk newsletter, had me send it out in an email, put it on the web site, and still people call her and tell her, “Are we having an early service this Easter?”  We’re not listening.


Maybe the followers of Jesus just weren’t listening.  “You mean they were following the man, committing their time and lives to him and you think they still weren’t listening to him when he said he would rise on the third day?”  Yes.  I’m a pastor.  Trust me.  Maybe they were thrilled to be following him around, seeing the miracles he performed, the people he healed, the lepers he cleansed, the walking on water.  That’s some pretty good stuff.  But when it came to actually listening to what he was saying?  The proof is in the pudding; not a one of them heard him the multiple times he told them that he would rise again.


And I gotta tell ya that the same thing is likely true today.  The popular tv preachers, the mega churches, they’re the ones talking about miracles, prosperity, walking in victory, confessing this that or the other into existence.  Millions of people are watching them every week.  Anything there about turning swords into plowshares, or loving your enemy, forgiving your sister or brother 70 times 7, judging not lest ye be judged?  Anything about the rich man and Lazarus, or the widow’s mite, or Roman oppression and occupation?  Anything in there about fleeing fornication, presenting our bodies as a living sacrifice, our bodies being the temple of the Holy Ghost, be not conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of our minds?  We’re not listening to Jesus. We want the blessings but we don’t want to learn how we can be a blessing.  We want God to do something for us but we’re not listening to what God is requiring of us.  Folks then and folks now can hang around Jesus, be identified with Jesus, hold Jesus’ words right in the palm of their hands every Sunday and still not be listening to a word Jesus is saying.


As a husband, maybe it was colossal miscommunication, as a pastor maybe it was that they just weren’t listening.  Then as a thespian, I’m thinking that they may have been listening but they just didn’t believe what he was saying.  Rev. Rebecca told us actors in the play, “Magdalene,” “you have to memorize your lines by such and such a date, and here’s some tips on how you can do it.”  So I show up on such and such a date not having heeded even one of her tips because I figure I’m smart enough to know how to do it on my own, don’t need her to tell me how to learn my lines.  And of course, I didn’t have my lines down at all.  I was listening but I wasn’t believing what she said. I’m asking folks at rehearsal, “how did you learn your lines?”  “Didn’t you follow her tips for memorizing?”  I wrote my lines on my fingers and just kept looking at them during rehearsals.


Now, you may ask, why would anyone be a follower of Jesus and not believe what he was saying?  Why would they go with him from town to town, from region to region and not believe what he was saying?  That’s ridiculous, you might think.  But again as a pastor, I see people coming to church Sunday after Sunday and they don’t believe what Jesus is saying.  They don’t believe loving their neighbor is the best way to handle marital strife.  They don’t believe turning the other cheek is an effective means of dealing with conflict.  They don’t believe God created the heavens and the earth, that the Red Sea opened up for God’s people to walk through on dry ground.  They say they love Jesus, but they don’t believe that the walls of Jericho came tumbling down at the sound of a trumpet blast, that David slew Goliath, that Esther turned a king’s heart.  Some sit in the pews every Sunday, but they don’t believe he walked on water, raised Lazarus from the dead, gave sight to the blind, cleansed lepers, and they sure don’t believe that he died and rose again on the third day with all power in his hands.  It don’t make any sense to them.  But God uses the foolish things to confound the wise.  It’s not scientifically possible.  But with God all things are possible.  It goes against the laws of nature.  But we serve a God who made the laws of nature, a God who has his own set of laws, a God who every day keeps the earth spinning on its axis, keeps the oxygen flowing, keeps the division of the sky and earth and sea.  We serve a God who never made a promise he didn’t keep, never said he’d be there without showing up on time, never made a covenant he didn’t honor, never made a vow he didn’t uphold.  This deistic tendency that is sweeping the nation of a God who exists but isn’t involved in our world, a God who is up there but cares nothing for what’s down here, a God who made us but can’t heal us, can’t touch us, can’t lift us, can’t help us, that totally flies in the face of each and every gospel account in which Jesus was crucified, died, was buried, and on the third day he rose again.  I don’t know how you feel about it, but I wouldn’t serve an unrisen savior. I wouldn’t sing about just another man who was good and got taken down.  I wouldn’t preach and teach and lead people into a relationship with an unrisen savior.  I serve a risen savior.  He’s in this world today!  I know that he is living whatever others say!  He said he would be crucified.  He said he would be buried.  He said he would rise again.  And guess what he’s saying now?  “I told you!”


Oh I tell you, now that we know he keeps his word, that he keeps his promises, that he can promise to rise from the dead on the third day and then back it up, then whatever Jesus says, whatever is in his word takes on new meaning because he proved that he can back it up, proved that if he said it he’ll do it, if he spoke it, he’ll bring it to pass. Heaven and earth may pass away, but my word, Jesus said, my word will never pass away.


He’s not just a promise maker, he’s a promise keeper.

In his word, He told you he would never leave you nor forsake you

He told you he would make you the head and not the tail

He told you I am the Lord that healeth thee

He told you there is neither male nor female

He told you can do all things through Christ who strengthens you

He told you my God shall supply all your needs according to his riches in glory.


Oh, you may be going through something right now, might be sick right now, might be in trouble right now.  But hang in there.  Because I came to church this Easter Sunday to let you know that it won’t be long before God gets ready.  It won’t be long till the windows of heaven open up and your blessing comes raining down.  And when your healing comes, when your new job comes, when he makes a way for you out of no way, when he raises up your son, when he keeps your daughter, when he patches your life back together again, when he performs your miracle, don’t be surprised when you hear the voice of our savior saying, “I told you.”  When he turns your mourning into rejoicing, when he turns your sadness into gladness, when he picks you up and lifts you up and takes you up and sets you up and holds you up, don’t be surprised when you hear the voice of our savior saying, “I told you.”


After your weeping endures for a night but your joy comes in the morning, after you come unto him all ye that labor and are heavy laden and he gives you rest, after you cast all your cares upon him and you find out that he careth for you,  after he puts our sins as far from Him as east is from west, after he blots out our transgression and remembers our sins no more, let us not be surprised when we hear our savior telling us, “I told you.”


Some others may say it differently than my grandfather.  I heard a preacher say it this way, “Am I right about it?!”  I turned on the radio one day and heard some young fella saying, “How ya like me now?!”  But I still like the way my grandfather said it, “I told you!  Jesus loves you.  I told you.  God is faithful.  I told you.  The sun shall not smite thee by day nor the moon by night.  I told you!!”



And one of these old days, when the lion lies down with the lamb, when there’s no more sorrow, no more death, when our corruptible body has put on an incorruptible body, when we have been changed in the moment in the twinkling of an eye, we’re going to hear our savior say, “ I told you.”  When we see that place that he has prepared for us, when he comes back and receives us unto himself, when we reach that city so fair, walk the streets of gold, pass through the gates made of pearls, we’re going to hear our savior say, “I told you.  I told you!”


Sunday, March 20, 2011

Following Jesus

Matthew 16:21-26  v. 24  If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me…

To be a disciple of someone is to be a follower of them, to walk where they walked, talk as they talked, do as they did, so that observers would say without hesitation, “that person is like so and so.  They look like them, dress like them, act like them, speak the same words as them and live like them.”  When I was in little league baseball one season, I was a left handed hitter and they put me at second base.  So, I took to getting in my batting stance and flapping my left wing, just like Joe Morgan of the Cincinnati Reds.  And I could hear parents in the bleachers saying, “He looks just like Joe Morgan.”  Minus the million dollar contract.

Richard Foster, who in my view is the nation’s most prolific writer on Christian disciplines, wrote, “Perhaps the greatest malady of the Church today is converts to Christ who are not disciples of Christ.”  Converts to Christ, people who claim the name of Jesus and who join the church and who might even show up to church with some regularity, converts to Christ who speak his name during many an election season and who use his name as a political slogan for which ever issue seems to support their candidate but not the other issue that might have been more powerfully addressed by our Savior but is not endorsed by our political party, converts to Christ who fill pews and sit on boards and stand in our pulpits, the greatest malady of the Church today is converts to Christ who are not disciples of Christ, or people who are not making it their life’s ambition to follow in Jesus’ footsteps, people for whom Jesus is not the center of their joy and for whom becoming like Jesus is not on their agenda.  I know it seems like a contradiction in terms, and I would affirm that notion.  For it is that contradiction that likely best explains why the church has for centuries increasingly lost credibility with so many who will not have anything to do with it.  I believe Ghandi spoke for those masses when he said that, “Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

Oh, if I can impress upon our consciousness today anything at all, it would be that Christ calls us to be followers of him.  I said it last week, and I’ll say it again, that our religion is not about following a preacher for preachers will let you down.  It is not about following a political philosophy or a social agenda.  It is not about following a theological point of view or theory or movement insofar as any of the aforementioned do not lead us to be like Christ.  For we may well be members of political parties and hold particular theological points of view such as to be identified with certain monikers. I cringe when I see it in others and even more so when I find it in myself, Christians with more allegiance to our political party than to our Jesus, Christians with more love of this world than of our Christ, when we follow more closely some social agenda and discard the unpopular teachings of our Savior.  I used to find it distastefully arrogant and somewhat self-righteous to hear some gung-ho Christian declare that they were neither a Baptist nor a Presbyterian nor a Pentecostal, but a Christian.  And yet, in this day when so many in our world cannot seem to find even a glimmer of Jesus in the lives of us who claim him as Lord, we might do well to reclaim some semblance of focus on just who it is we are supposed to be following. I heard someone from seminary once say of a sermon he had heard, “Well that sermon was not very Lutheran.”  Which prompted the thought in my mind, “I didn’t realize she was supposed to be preaching Luther.  Even Luther was trying to preach Jesus.”

Oh, I wish we could each grab hold of ourselves and shake ourselves from what distracts us from Jesus, what leads us ever so subtly astray from Jesus, what cunningly and delicately pulls our attention from Jesus. We are flocking each Sunday to sanctuaries originally built for his glory, but which have devolved into institutions where we can flex our power and enhance our ability to flourish socially.  What did Jesus say last week?  “My house shall be called a house of prayer.”  My house, Jesus said.  It’s not ours, it’s Jesus’ house.  It’s not the preacher’s house nor the trustees’ house nor the deacons’ house.  It’s Jesus’ house. Not the wealthiest member nor the most popular member nor the most attractive member’s house but Jesus’ house.  Not the old members’ house nor the new members’ house, but Jesus’ house.  Jesus is the center of our joy.  Jesus is the reason why we sing.  “Oh, how I love Jesus.”  Jesus is why we’re here.  Jesus is why we reach out.  It’s Jesus’ love that we’re sharing with the world, not our judgementalism, not our self-righteousness, not our preferences nor our philosophies, but Jesus.  It is or rather it should be like Paul said, “Follow me as I follow Christ.”  It’s about Jesus.

This is the heart of Christian discipleship, becoming like Jesus.  Rick Warren lists it as the third purpose for our lives, to become like Jesus, to be disciples of him, to truly be followers of Jesus.   One preacher I read once wrote that, “one is not required to be or to intend to be a disciple in order to become a Christian,” for, “Contemporary American churches in particular do not require following Jesus in his example, spirit and teachings as a condition of membership.”  Essentially we have, then, churches filled with people identified as Christians who are not seeking to follow Christ in any real or meaningful way.  We are too often, as another preacher put it, a group of, “undiscipled disciples.”

I’m still in the text.  Because this phenomenon of people following Jesus without actually becoming like or truly following Jesus has been around since this text was first played out on the dusty roads of Caesarea Phillipi.  Look there in verse 22, after Jesus predicted his great suffering and death and resurrection in Jerusalem, see what it says.  “And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord!  This must never happen to you.  But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!  You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”  I suppose I’m firstly amazed that Peter had the audacity to get all up in Jesus’ grill in the first place.  But when I see how so many of us are following Jesus by physically being in church but not following what Jesus said to do, it’s not that amazing at all.  In fact, it’s rather typical.  There’s Peter, hanging with Jesus, hanging with the saints, following him physically from one church to the next, but apparently for Peter Jesus was not going to call the shots.  Apparently for Peter, what Jesus said didn’t mean squat.  Apparently for Peter, he didn’t mind hanging with Jesus and hanging around those who were hanging with Jesus, but if Jesus thinks he’s going to be Lord, if Jesus thinks he gets to be the leader, if Jesus thinks he’s lord of my life, he got another thing coming.  Or maybe it was more like, “I’ll follow him, he’s groovy, he’s cool, folks flock to him, and the miracles and stuff, that’s awesome.  But soon as he says something I don’t agree with, soon as his words don’t match up with my narcissism, soon as he starts talking about suffering, soon as he gets all up in my business, I’m out.”

See, sometimes, and it may have been the case in our text as well, we get to enjoying watching Jesus do what Jesus does in our lives. We like seeing him meet our needs just in the nick of time.  We like it when we’re wondering where we’re going to get enough food to eat and Jesus shows up and brings food enough to feed four or five thousand.  We like it when he heals people’s daughters and when he gives sight to blind men and when he walks on water.  And we love it when he calls us his own, singles us out to follow him, takes us away from all our past and all our mess.  We like it when he tells us he wants to use us for his honor and glory.  But when following Jesus means trouble, when following Jesus means it gets tough sometimes, when following Jesus means sacrifice and service and maybe even some suffering for the sake of the gospel, giving of our selves, denying ourselves, that’s another story.  We like his mercy, so long as he doesn’t mess with our thing.  We like his grace so long as it doesn’t cost us anything.  We like following Jesus so long as he doesn’t lead us someplace we don’t want to go, or to do things we don’t want to do.

Oh, it goes to show you that even if we, like Peter, rightly figure out that Jesus is God’s son, if we make some form of public profession of who Jesus is, even if we come to church and sing his praises, some of us still have a problem actually following Jesus.  Undiscipled disciples.  And Jesus’ response to Peter’s getting up in his grill is revealing as well when he said, “Get thee behind me Satan!”  See, too many of us have the notion of a devil with a red suit and a pointy tail.  Not that the devil might not show up like that sometimes in life dressed in red dress or a red tie with a notable backside! But these words of Jesus show us that Satan sometimes hangs out with church folks.  Satan sometimes goes to church meetings.  Satan sometimes looks like he’s following Jesus, too.  And not to demonize whomever we’re disagreeing with in a church meeting or a board meeting or a nominating committee meeting, because Peter by all estimations was actually trying to get it right.  It goes to show us all that Satan can use some of our best intentions, some of our serious concerns, and we can get it wrong sometimes when we just don’t follow Jesus.  I know there’ve been times in my own life when I’ve had my best intentions to do what seems right and actually missed out on doing what Jesus called us to do.   Not to shake our confidence, but this is why a good doze of humility is always in order whenever we’re trying to follow Jesus.   Peter said, “God forbid it, Lord!”  He pulled the Lord aside.  Peter tried to act like he was boss. Which makes Jesus’ response to him all the more telling when he said, “Get thee behind me.”  A follower’s place was and is behind the one who is leading.  Literally in that era of biblical history, a disciple stood behind the one doing the discipling.  So what Jesus was saying to Peter was, “Remember who you are and remember who I am.  Get back in line.  Feeling yourself a little too much, get back behind and keep on following.”

It may also be worth noting that while Jesus referred to Peter as “Satan,” he still told Peter to get back in his proper position.  See, Jesus knows that all of us got our issues.  All of us have our moments when we let the devil get the best of us.  But Jesus doesn’t quit on us.  He may get a little heated with us, but he doesn’t throw us out.  He may get upset with us, may call us out when we need it, but he didn’t throw out Peter and he will not throw us out either.  He didn’t throw out the woman caught in the act of adultery, and he will not throw us out either.  He did not throw out the criminal who appealed to him on the cross at Calvary, and he will not throw us out either.  “I will no wise cast you out.”  Even when we act like the devil instead of like Jesus, even when we mess up and follow others instead of following Jesus, even when we put others ahead of Jesus in the priority of our values, Jesus still loves us.  We may get a little of the devil in us from time to time, but Jesus still calls us to, “get back in line and follow me!”

Jesus predicted his death, and all of sudden it became a little less clear whom Peter was following.  We’re supposed to be following Jesus.  I wonder sometimes, who am I really following?  Who are you following?  I know we think we’re following Jesus because we got dressed up this morning and came to church and raised a hymn. I know we think we’re following Jesus because our name is on the roll and folks in town know we go to that church with the dynamic… preacher.  But look what happened to Peter, following the miracles, following the popularity, following the love.  But when Jesus laid out a plan that involved something else, when he predicted that it was going to get hard, when he let him know that they were headed to Jerusalem, where folks didn’t like Jesus, where folks said mean and hateful things about Jesus, when he told them they were going into hostile territory, where their beliefs would not be welcomed, where they would be ridiculed for their faith, where they would be ridiculed for believing in Jesus as God’s son, Peter all of a sudden thought he would take the reigns.

Oh, isn’t that how we are?  We’ll follow when there’s miracles.  We’ll follow when there’s love.  We’ll follow when it’s morning by morning new mercies we see.  But when Jesus calls us to follow him into hostile territory, when he calls us to have faith in him in the midst of folks who disdain our faith in him, are we still going to follow Jesus?  When things don’t go the way we planned them, are we still following Jesus?  When God’s plan for our lives involves some suffering, some struggle, some difficulty, are we still following Jesus?  And it gets hard sometime.  It gets tough sometime.  And for some of us who are following Jesus, when those tough times come, all bets are off.  Well, I came to tell you this morning, didn’t come to pull no punches, didn’t come to hold back anything this morning, no hiding, no sneaking the gospel in this morning.  If we follow Jesus, some folks aren’t going to like us.  If we follow Jesus, it’s going to get tough.  If we follow Jesus, sometimes we won’t understand what Jesus is up to.  If we follow Jesus, sometimes we will feel certain that Jesus isn’t doing the right thing by you and me.  We’ll wonder where the power is, where the healing went, where the miracles and the calming of the sea and the raising of the dead went.  Anybody here know for yourself that following Jesus has left you wondering what the Lord was up to in your life?  Anybody here ever been through, I mean really been through, while following Jesus, and folks wondered why you still trusted him, why you still called on him, why you still loved him, why you still follow him?  “Follow me!”

Jesus predicted his suffering to the disciples, his death to the disciples.  But he also predicted his resurrection.  And it isn’t clear what they all had in mind by a resurrection when they heard Jesus say he would be raised again.  And given that every one of them was astonished when Jesus did get up on the third day, they likely didn’t know what Jesus was trying to tell them.  And sometimes, God does that for us, tries to tell us that it’s going to get rough but if we hang in there, the victory shall be mine.  The book of Revelation is all about that.  But many times we don’t get the hint that God is giving us.  Sometimes, all we can see is our own suffering, what we’re going through.  That’s all we can deal with, all we can fathom.  I mean, when someone else has cancer, we’re very analytical, look at the big picture.  But when I got cancer, all I can think about is the Big C.  But Jesus did have more on there than his suffering and his death.  He also told them he was going to be raised, but they didn’t hear that.  I suppose Jesus believed that if he could get his disciples to know what was coming, to know that it would get tough but if they hang in there with him, that it might be hard, but hold to his unchanging hand, weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.  He would suffer and he would die, but have faith because on the third day…  But they likely couldn’t hear it.  It was already settled in the plans of God, but they couldn’t hear it.

Let me show you what I mean.  I was driving the other day with my girls stuck in traffic on Cecil B. Moore and Broad trying to get my daughter to her speech class at Temple University.  And we were listening to the radio to the Temple men’s team playing its first round playoff game.  And the game was close when the other team hit this amazing three pointer to tie the game up with only 11 seconds left.  And my daughters and I were a little upset, worried now that Temple might not win the game.  But then I heard up the street a roar of a crowd coming from the Draught Horse restaurant where all the Temple students were assembled to watch the game.  Well, when I heard that roar, all the hooting and hollering, I figured out that the radio broadcast was on a slight delay from the television broadcast, so I told my daughter, “We won!”  And she said, “but there’s still 11 seconds on the clock and who knows who will win?”  I said, “Trust me, we won!”  And she said, “how do you know, I’m so nervous?” The radio guy started the action, “Fernandez has the ball, he’s defended, he leans, he shoots he scores!  Temple wins!!”

That’s how it is beloved, hang in there.  God’s got a plan for your life.  He already knows the end of the story.  He has it all planned out.  Follow him though it gets tough, though it gets scary.  God already knows that you are more than a conqueror through Jesus Christ if you keep on following him.  You may be nervous, may be worried, may be crying, but God’s got a plan for your victory, God’s got a plan for you to be the head and not the tail.  God’s got it all mapped out for you.  He knows.   Trust him.  Follow him.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

When Mercy Is Missing

John 8:2-11  v. 5  Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women.  Now what do you say?

I come back to this passage of scripture every so often, more often than I intended to at the outset of my ministry. But, then, I did not understand that I would be living in a society that would be so increasingly lacking in mercy.  All over the nation, in every aspect of society, from politics to labor disputes to schools to sports and even in the sanctuary of our religious institutions, what’s become glaringly obvious is that we are missing mercy.  We have become a hater nation.  We love to hate folks.  From religious extremists to arrogant athletes to political dissidents, we love to hate.  From George W. Bush to Barack Obama, from Lindsay Lohan to Mel Gibson, from Donovan McNabb to LeBron James, we love to hate.  We criticize and convict and condemn with a callousness that is nothing short of frightening.  We believe with such a rush, such a thirst for blood, every hateful thing reported in print, over the airwaves or on the internet.

And it’s sinners and saints alike.  There isn’t much of a difference these days.  Saints, statistically speaking, are just as likely to favor the death penalty as sinners, just as likely to have racist views, just as likely to believe people are guilty if they’ve been charged with a crime, and I could go on with the similarities of the social views and actions of sinners and saints.  I may have mentioned to you how I was golfing a few Summers ago in Maine right around when the Eagles signed Michael Vick.  And the New Englander with whom I was golfing, not a Christian man I would say based on how readily he confounded the English language with profanity in every sentence.  But he was livid that Michael Vick would get another chance after all the cruelty and insidious behavior he had heaped upon dogs.  And the thing is, over the years, I’ve been in the company of some bible believing, saved, sanctified and filled with the Holy Ghost and fire Christians, and some other Christians who pride themselves on their more liberal approach to religion, and have heard the same kind of venomous disdain for Michael Vick for what incredible crimes he had committed against animals.  And I got to say that as Christians, we have to at least begin to worry whenever we too closely resemble those who have not accepted the grace and mercy of our savior.  Especially when it comes to mercy.  For it was mercy that prevented us from paying for our own sins, mercy that keeps us from getting what we deserve, mercy that walls off God’s wrath and permits the blessings, the grace, the love, the hope, the joy to transform our lives.  Anyone who is in touch with God’s mercy, anyone who really remembers what God did by sending Jesus to die on the cross for our sins, whose reality is ever confronting what we would have been like without God’s mercy preventing us from our own self-destruction, we ought to have mercy and be merciful and offer mercy to others.  We who know what a difference mercy has made in our lives!  Folks who used to be ensnared in the trappings of sin, folks who were lifted from the depths of our own depravity, whom Jesus loved while we were yet sinners, the church, Christians, followers of Jesus, we ought to know just how valuable, how rich, how marvelous are the mercies of the Lord.  David was in touch with it.  That’s why he wrote it over and over again, “For his mercies endureth forever.”  Not just his mercy, but his mercies, because we’ve messed up more than once, have we not?  I’m so glad that his mercies endureth forever!

But look what happens to religious folks, not talking about sinners now, but folks who are close to God, folks who read his word and who seek to preserve its truth and who go to worship services with regularity.  Look what happens to them, to us really, when mercy is missing.  For Christianity today bears too stark a resemblance to certain players in our text, to the scribes and the Pharisees and “all of them” who were ready to stone the woman in the text when we should be striving to be conformed to the image of the Jesus in this text.  Sometimes I think we have forgotten who the savior in our religion really is.  It’s not me.  It’s not some other preacher or some church leaders or some person you see on tv.  Our savior is Jesus.  We’re supposed to be disciples of Jesus.  We’re supposed to be following Jesus, acting like Jesus, living like Jesus.  Somebody said, “Let this same spirit that was in Christ Jesus be in you.”  But instead we justify our hate by saying that some respectable tv preacher down South said it was okay to go to war.  Or my pastor said, or my parents said.  They aren’t our savior.  They aren’t the son of God.  They didn’t die on Calvary for you and for me. They didn’t rise up from the grave with all power in his hands.  Jesus is our savior.  Jesus is the object of our praise, the foundation of our faith, the purpose of our preaching, the center of our joy.  But we miss it sometimes.  We get led astray sometimes.  Little by little, one baby step at a time, we veer off into directions that lead us to behavior that stands in stark contrast to the Jesus we say we are following.

Look what happens when mercy is missing from our religion, when mercy is missing from our character and from the distribution of our personhood.  Read this story with me again and see if we don’t too closely resemble in our own version of religion these who were missing mercy in theirs.  Look with me at verse 6.  What happens when mercy is missing.  Verse 5 says, “Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women…”  The first thing that happens when mercy is missing is we begin to siphon off the scriptures.  Have you ever actually read the law that these in the text alluded to in their condemnation of this woman?  Anybody?  I have.  It’s Leviticus 20:10.  Are you curious to hear what the verse actually says?  See that’s our problem sometimes, we trust whomever is preaching to quote a scripture without ever looking it up for ourselves to see if it’s really there.  Heck, some preacher could quote the book of the prophet Joe Pepitone, and some folks might not bother to question it, even though Joe Pepitone played first base for the Yankees back in the late 60’s.  The people of Berea in the book of Acts, look it up sometime this week.  I’m not going to spend more time on this thought, but you look it up.  Anyway, what Leviticus 20:10 says in its totality is this:  “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death.”  Well, now in John 8, something seems to be missing from both their quotation of the scripture and their physical presentation these religious folks were making to Jesus.  They only brought the woman.  They didn’t bring the man.  What happened?  Siphoning off the scriptures.

Oh beloved, be careful.  Be careful when you start twisting and contorting the scriptures, when you start cutting and pasting the scriptures, when you start misappropriating the scriptures.  The bible has been misappropriated over the centuries to justify such malicious and ungodly behaviors as the crusades, the beheading of Christians of minority theological views, the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade, the oppression and abuse of women.  It’s been misused and misapplied and misconstrued to affirm spousal abuse, child abuse, and sexual abuse.  Be careful.  Check out the whole text.  Do some study.  Don’t just take some preachers word for it.  Don’t just take some Pharisee’s word on it.  Read it for yourself.

Someone who was opposed to the Christian religion once told me that for the reasons I just stated she didn’t approve of the use of scripture and so refused to read them at all.  And I responded that’s it’s the misuse of scripture that concerns me just as much as the un-use of the scriptures.  For if we don’t apply the scriptures, we have no divine basis of God’s mandate that we love our enemies, that we love our neighbor as ourselves, that we do justice, love mercy and walk humbly before our God.  No, don’t throw the baby out with the bath water, folks.  Just because someone threw a pie in my face once doesn’t mean that peach pie isn’t still delicious.  Now, the scriptures are often more difficult and complex to navigate than a peach pie.  I’ll grant you that.  My admonishment, however, would be not to discard the scriptures but to further understand them, to better understand just what those problem verses mean and why they are there.  And to understand them in their context before giving up on the glorious meaning of them.  And not to miss out on the big picture of the drama of the scriptures, that God loves us, that God wants a relationship with us, that Jesus removed the dividing wall so that we could have a right relationship with God.  Read the whole thing.  You can’t jump in on a movie mid way through, see one scene, and think you don’t have to stick around to know how the story ends up.  You can’t tune in to a ball game and find Harvard leading Princeton by 1 with 11 seconds to go and think you know who won the game without watching the last 11 seconds.  And neither can you jump in on one verse in the book of the law, lift it up out of context, take it from its historical setting and remove it from its biblical context and think you know what God is all about.  Study it.  Research it.  Learn it.  Don’t siphon off the scriptures.   There’s more there.  There’s forgiveness there.  There’s mercy there.  There’s reconciliation there.  There’s hope there.  There’s restoration there.  Don’t siphon off the scriptures.

When mercy was missing, they were siphoning off the scriptures.  Look at verse 6 and see with me what else happens when mercy is missing.  “They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge against him…”  What I’m seeing there is that when mercy is missing, we use people as pawns.  We were in Egypt few years ago.  And one of our meetings was with Jackie Poole’s friend, Stuart Jones, who was at that time the deputy ambassador from the United States to Egypt.  And we were talking about the political situations we see in the Middle East and he told me that many times there will be an incident of a hostage taken or a protester arrested or an American citizen detained simply for political purposes.  They have a message they want to send, they want the media to go into a frenzy, they want to leverage a person’s life in the hopes of achieving some political agenda.  And it has little to do with the person or persons who were hiking and mistakenly crossed a border or with whatever crime that person may have been charged with.  And in my naivete, I said to him, “But those are people.”  And he said, “Not to them.  Many times, they’re just pawns.”

And I could not summon up some moral outrage because it happens here in this country all the time.  People being used as pawns to further causes like the death penalty, abortion, someone’s political candidacy, someone’s theological viewpoint, perspectives on sexuality, perspectives on religion.  We do it all the time.  And we forget that there is a woman there whose life is hanging in the balance.  And that’s someone’s daughter, someone’s friend, someone’s cousin, someone’s mother.  It is a common practice to neglect the humanity of those whom we hate in public life as though they don’t have spouses and families.  The last presidential election saw President Obama come to office with his wife and two daughters.  And every time I see a picture of them, I pray for them for all they’re going to go through living life in a fish bowl like that.  I’ve mentioned it before but it fits this situation how when the President was being inaugurated, former President George Bush’s two daughters wrote an open letter in the press to the Obama daughters.  And they told them things like, “Don’t believe what everybody in the press says about your dad.  You know who your dad is.”  We can be so callous sometimes.  The movie, “American President,” with Michael Douglas and Annette Bening has a scene where the political rival was trashing the reputation of the President’s girlfriend and called her some unseemly names, one of which evoked the response from her of, “Oh, my father heard that one.”

When mercy is missing, we can become some mean people.  We can dehumanize people so that we can feel free to heap all the hate we want on to them.  The other day, someone at a basketball game said some untoward things about LeBron James’ mother.  On so many levels, that’s just wrong.  For one, LeBron has a real, living, breathing, feeling mother that this guy doesn’t know.  And for another, I read that the man who said it was about my size, and I thought, “Dude, do you really want to be talking to a world class athlete 6’9” 250 like that?”  We dehumanize people, we use people as pawns instead of understanding their humanity when mercy is missing.

Which leads me to another lesson, going on in verse 6, where it says, “Jesus bent down and wrote with his fingers on the ground.”  And again in verse 8 after a verbal exchange ending in Jesus’ proclamation in the old King James Version, “He is without sin cast the first stone.”  In verse 8 it says, “And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground.”  Having read the siphoning of the scriptures they had done, my first thought might be that Jesus wrote the rest of the verse for them.  Some less reliable manuscripts add the phrase that he wrote on the ground their sins.  Third point, when mercy is missing, we forget our own fallibility.  Like we never did nothing wrong in our lifetimes.  Like we haven’t done what she did or worse.  I’m convinced that what keeps some of us regaling in our self-righteous condemnation of others is simply a matter of a little light being shed on our own misdeeds.  And Watch out, because everything done in secret will be brought to light. Watch out, now, because with what measure you give it will be given back to you.  Those who are so quick to condemn will quite likely be singing a different tune when the mobs come after your sins.  Those who can easily find a stone when it’s someone else’s sin are going to be praying for protection when it’s there time.  Those who have no mercy when it concerns the sins of others might become mercy’s proponents when it’s their life on the line, their children accused of a crime, their family member ridiculed and scorned in the press, their friend whose picture is plastered on the front page of the paper for all the wrong reasons.  We see mercy differently sometimes based solely on whose sins are being examined.  And when it’s not on us, when mercy is missing in our lives, we will tend to forget our own fallibility.

Last thought before we go, not only will we siphon off the scriptures, and use people as pawns and forget our own fallibility, but when mercy is missing, we miss out on ministry.  Look at Jesus with her in verses 10 and 11.  “Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are the?  Has no one condemned you?”  “No one, sir,” she said.  “Neither do I condemn you,” Jesus replied.  “Go your way and from now on do not sin.”    Now, I don’t know what became of her after Jesus refused to condemn her, after Jesus encouraged her and assisted her and gave her a second chance in life.  But I know this, that if Jesus had not ministered to her, she might never have survived what the merciless had in store for her.  And I also know that there were many others who committed sins in the bible that God showed mercy to and turned their lives around. Moses was a murderer.  David was an adulterer and a murderer.  Solomon had a sex problem.  Elijah was a whiner.  Noah was a wino.  Peter was a denier.  Thomas was a doubter.  But in every one of those cases, instead of condemnation, instead of judgment, instead of a legalistic application of laws, God showed mercy.  God sent Jesus to Calvary to show mercy on every one of them.  And because of mercy, Moses became a deliverer, David became a psalmist.  Solomon became a wise king.  Elijah spoke truth to power.  Noah built an ark.  Peter walked on water. And if it wasn’t for mercy, I don’t know where I would be.  If it wasn’t for Calvary, I don’t know where I would be.  If it wasn’t for Jesus reaching down, lifting me up, if it wasn’t for his mercy, his love, if he hadn’t ministered to me when I needed it the most, who knows where I might be?

Oh, I tell you, Jesus is rich in mercy.  Have you blown it?  Have you messed up?  Are you hurting and everyone is on your case, everyone has given up on you?  Jesus loves you.  You don’t know what God’s mercy can do for you.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

What Good Are You?  Leaves But No Fruit

Mark 11:12-14  v. 13  When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves…

The difficulties presented in this text arise from the notion that our Lord did not come to condemn the world but that by him the world might be saved.  The image of this withering fig tree, then, starkly contrasts the perception most of us understand of our savior who has at his core the qualities of redemption and salvation that have been made manifest in our  own lives.  Many of us do not like to see or read or hear or in anyway come to understand any notion of our God being at all dissatisfied with us.  We only want to know of God’s love for us, of God’s forgiveness of our sins, of our acceptance into the arms of a patient and gracious heavenly parent.

On top of that difficulty, there is the notion of injustice when we read the ending of that 13th verse and learn that it was not even the season for figs when a hungry Jesus came looking for something to eat.  Again, what we know about Jesus for ourselves, what we’ve seen in the scriptures, the justice our God executes, calling us to do justice, and the more than fair disposition of our sins at Calvary, all that seemingly flies in the face of the 11th chapter of Mark’s gospel when Jesus cursed a fig tree for having no fruit even though there was no expectation of finding ripe fruit on that tree at that time of year.  Perhaps there is nothing so appalling in a free society as an unjust judge.  We expect fairness from an arbiter of justice.  We depend on their evenhandedness, on their propensity for hearing all sides of an argument and thus dispensing justice with equanimity.  For our savior, the lover of our souls, the eternal judge of the universe, then to behave in such a fashion as to condemn a fruitless tree in the offseason of fruit production does not seem just.  And so we are inclined, then, we who would believe in Jesus’ divinity, either to sweep this text under the rug and preach and teach only from more agreeable scriptures, hoping no one notices this text.  Or we might well begin to have our doubts about all we thought we believed about who Jesus is.

I hope you’ll hang in there with me this morning, because this is one of those scriptures that if read quickly can produce an inhibited verdict in our minds that may not be faithful to its meaning.  A typical remedy for such a misunderstanding of or befuddlement with the scriptures is the further reading of the surrounding words.  Almost like a math problem, where if you look at how the others are being figured and answered, you might understand how to figure and answer the question before you.  And at least in my reading of it, such is the case with the 12th through the 14th verses.  For the very next paragraph tells the story of Jesus going into the temple and beginning to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple.  And he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves.  The meaning of this section is not lost, for its imagery lends itself to but one conclusion.  Jesus was not pleased with what was going on inside the temple.  The temple, in all its grandeur, with its external appearance requiring reverence and respectfulness, inwardly had a whole bunch of mess going on.  One came to that temple with the expectation of worshipping, of being led into the presence of God, of having one’s sins atoned, of being fed by the word of God, of being made right with God.  But what Jesus encountered when he got there was folks making money, folks charging excessive prices for elements necessary for the worship of God and the atonement of one’s sins.  What Jesus found was a scheme for the rich and powerful within that society to get more rich and more powerful at the expense of those would sincerely worship the one true God.  It was such disappointment for Jesus or anyone really to come to the temple expecting grace and mercy and love and encouragement, but to be robbed and taken advantage of and financially abused instead.  So angry was our savior that he quoted another of those texts many of us seek to avoid, “You have made this house into a den of thieves.”

So, then, having read of Jesus condemnation of what evil and misconduct and utter was going on in the temple, I trust that the actions of our savior in the chosen passage of scripture make just a little more sense, seem a little more just, and may even challenge us just a little bit this morning.  For what seems to have been the problem in the temple scenario was that what the temple looked like on the outside, the appearance of the temple, the suggested purpose of the temple outwardly was a misrepresentation of what was actually going on on the inside.  It purported to be a house of prayer but they had made it into a den of thieves.  It was purported to be a place of reconciliation between God and God’s children, but it had become a place where the rich and the poor became even more distanced from each other.  It was purported to be a place where folks deepened their love for their God, and instead folks were being taken advantage of.

Well, with this tree, this fig tree whose fruit, I read this week in the New International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, was not due to be ripe or at its best until the summer months, it had similarities with what was happening in the temple scene.  For one, the tree, it says in verse 13, was in leaf.  A fig tree in leaf meant that fruit was to be found beneath its leaves or in the early season in the leaf axils.  In December, all varieties of fig trees would shed their leaves, but by March they would all begin to sprout their leaves and would even have what was in Hebrew called taksh, and is translated as Winter fruit.  These were smaller, cherry sized figs, most of which would fall off and were often sold at market as the Winter fruit.  Those that stayed on the tree would grow to a ripe, delicate flavor by June and were called the Summer fruit.  Thus, every fertile fig tree had leaves sprouting in March which was apparently around the time when Jesus happened upon this tree as he headed up to Jerusalem just prior to Passover.  And not only would a fertile fig tree have leaves in March, but they had some taksh or winter fruit as well.  Not the larger, more desirable summer fruit, mind you, but fruit nonetheless.

So, when Jesus walked from Bethany to Jerusalem in the season of Passover that year and saw the leaves on that fig tree, while he had no expectation of finding ripe, delicious, flavorful summer fruit, he did have a realistic expectation of at least finding the smaller, still growing, winter fruit.  But there was none.  It had the outward appearance of a tree that should be giving forth fruit, but it was not.  It gave the impression that something could be found there to eat, but when you got closer, real close and took a good look underneath the leaves of the tree, Jesus found out that there was nothing there for him, nothing he could use, nothing to quench his hunger, nothing to feed his body, nothing to nourish and sustain him.  It was a misrepresentation.  Outwardly, it looked like one thing, but inwardly it was another.  Outwardly it looked healthy, but inwardly it was infertile.  Outwardly it projected a promise that one could get something there, but inwardly there was only disappointment and rejection and frustration.

And let us not miss out on this scriptural element contained at the conclusion of the 12th verse, that Jesus was hungry.  Nor should we overlook the beginning of the 13th verse, that a hungry Jesus saw in the distance a fig tree, not one right with him, not one on the side of where he was walking, but in the distance.  And that he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it.  He was hungry, and he put some effort in, went out of his way, made a little bit of a trek under the expectation, or at the very least a measure of hopefulness, that he would find something to eat on this fig tree that had the appearance of having something to eat.  It had leaves but no fruit.

Oh, have you never been disappointed by the appearances of things, the appearances of organizations, the appearances of systems, the appearances of people?  Dr. Martin Luther King said in his I have a Dream speech that the nation’s own words had led us to believe, “That all men are created equal.”  And so we have an expectation that everybody is going to be treated fairly, all of us will have the same opportunities, all of us will be on a level playing field.  But on closer inspection, when you look at the words themselves, you find that the word in play was, “all MEN,” were created equal.  Not all people, not women treated equally with men, but a disappointing inequality that still plagues and frustrates this nation’s attempts at true greatness.  A little closer look, underneath the illusional leaves of the capitol building and the White House and the Washington Monument, a still closer look at those words of our Declaration of Independence and we see that it wasn’t even just all men exclusionary of women but historically it’s also been only White men, that Black men and other ethnic minorities were not to be included in the guarantees of equality and freedom.  Leaves but no fruit.  Dr. King said that day in the summer of 1963 that he came to cash a check on these national promises but that the check had come back marked, insufficient funds.  Leaves but no fruit.

And when one thinks theologically about this nation, what our God might be up to in the design of a nation whose premise was based on equality and freedom and opportunity for all, God might well have an expectation of this great nation.  God might have an expectation that we treat the foreigner respectfully and graciously and extend hospitality and dignity to those coming to this nation.  God might expect that beneath our leafy appearance of grand hospitals and the best medical schools that he would find that we heal all who are sick like Jesus did, and not just those with good medical insurance or those with means to purchase the best care.  God might expect as he sees in the distance a nation with universities and colleges in every state and city that he would be able to find that more Black kids are in college than in prison, that he would be able to find a safe campus for women to be educated without fear of being raped and assaulted, that He would find the products of those universities emerging with the fruits of intelligence and understanding, of academic acumen and of the respectfulness of our cultural differences, that we would be producing fruits of curiosity and of stewardship of God’s creation.  Leaves but no fruit.

Jesus saw a fig tree in the distance that had the appearance of fruit, but upon closer examination, he found none there.  Anybody here ever seen someone in church, dressed nice, got a good job, maybe even doing something in the church, on a board or a committee.  But upon closer examination, after looking beyond the leaves of superficiality, you find there isn’t anything there for you?  You dated them, talked with them, gave them a chance, but all you got from them was exhausted, frustrated, a bad attitude, full of themselves, only thinking of themselves, only existing for themselves.  Ever been through that?  Leaves but no fruit.  No commitment, no generosity, no love, no concern for others, no ability to be a blessing to someone else.  But they look good.  The look like they got something.  Leaves but no fruit.

And let me bring this a little closer to the church, to the people of God in general, because that was apparently what Jesus was addressing or symbolizing with this encounter with the fig tree.  For while we are saved by grace and not by works, while Jesus died for us while we were yet sinners, Jesus is still hungry for us to produce some fruit.  Fig trees are supposed to have fruit.  And if it’s not bearing fruit, whether winter or summer fruit, what good is it?  Jesus came looking for…, no it was more than that, because he was hungry.  He needed some fruit and went to a tree that gave the appearance of having fruit.  But there was no fruit.   Oh, how many churches, housed in grandiose buildings, with stone walls and steeples, with stained glass and painted doors, with carpeted sanctuaries and padded pews.  But there’s no fruit.  What good is that?  Jesus is looking for us, needing us to produce fruit.  The world is hungry.  Jesus said if you’ve done it to the least of these, you’ve done it unto me.  And when the world comes to the church looking for joy that can only come from the salvation offered by our God, expecting the fruit of forgiveness and reconciliation, needing the hope that only comes from a relationship with the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ, too many times churches are disappointingly offering them little to nothing of what we should be.  Some preachers get so caught up in talking political agenda and dodging social stigma that they haven’t even mentioned the name of Jesus for fear of offending their parishioners.  Where is the Jesus that can save, heal and forgive?  Where is the Jesus who looked beyond my faults and saw my needs?  Where is the Jesus who came to save sinners of whom I am chief?  Where is the Jesus who reached out to the least of these, who redeemed lives, who gave folks a second chance, who turned prostitutes into preachers, tax collectors into soul winners, fishermen into fishers of men?  Where is Jesus?  Folks come to the church looking for the fruit of the gospel, looking for the fruit of the spirit, looking for love joy peace and righteousness, patience kindness, generosity, faithfulness and self-control.  And instead they get, “why you sitting in my pew?”  Instead they get, “that’s not the way we used to do it back in the day.”  Instead they get attitude, self-righteousness, holier than thou, looking down our noses.  What good is that?  Where is the fruit?  Where is the fruit of the spirit in your life and in mine?  What good are we if we look like Christians, come to church like Christians, sing song like Christians, but don’t produce any fruit?  What good are we if we have a big building, if we have a balanced budget, if we have a full sanctuary, if we don’t produce any fruit?  What good are we if we come to church on time, hear a good choir, listen to an ah-ight sermon, but then go back out into a world, a hungry world, a world in need, a world that needs Jesus, a world that needs God’s love, and we don’t have any fruit?

Jeremiah Wright was preaching a few years ago about things he just doesn’t understand, and one of them was that he doesn’t understand church folks who don’t produce any fruit.  If you’re connected to the vine of Jesus, you should be producing some fruit.  When was the last time you invited someone to church with you?  When was the last time you offered to pray with someone or for someone?  When was the last time you offered an encouraging word to someone so that they might leave your presence feeling that they were in the presence of God?  What good are we?  How many times does the nominating committee or the missions board or the board of Christian Education have to ask you to help out, to teach kids, to tutor in the schools, to cook a meal for the homeless, to help the church increase its witness, before just once you say you can?  Just once you don’t have too much on your plate.  Just once you’re not too busy with your family or your work or your cable tv or your mistress.  What good are we?  What fruit is there in our lives that when Jesus comes seeking to be fed, when the hungry come needing to be fed, when they come needing to be blessed, needing to be encouraged, needing to hear of the nourishing love and redemptive grace of our great savior, will we have fruit for them?!

J. Herbert Cope, the missionary our church sent to Burma just over 100 years ago, had a profound affect on the people there.  He spread the gospel in a land that had not heard it to that point, and it had incredible success.  Today, in the Chin state in Burma, 90% of the population are Christians, and more than 70% of them are spiritual descendants of Dr. Cope.  To this day, when you listen to them, they refer to themselves as the fruit of Cope’s ministry.

I would consider that to be the fragrant fruit of the summer figs.  And our challenge is to produce fruit, to share the good news of Jesus Christ with everyone, at home and abroad.

Well, I know what you’re thinking.  “I can’t be a missionary, Rev. Flores.  I can’t travel to far away places and preach and sing or whatever is needed to produce that kind of fruit that Cope did.”  Well, Jesus isn’t necessarily expecting you to produce the summer fruit, but if all you have is the winter fruit of your life, if your best is to invite a friend to church, or to pray with a colleague at work, or to train up a child in the way they should go, or to mentor a child or to teach a Sunday School class or to cook a meal for the hungry or to donate pencils and paper and erasers for the school in Zambia, that’s winter fruit.  And Jesus is pleased by that.  And by this understanding, every one of us can produce fruit for Jesus.  Every one of us can serve others, can help others, can encourage others, can invite others.  Every one of us can produce fruit pleasing in the sight of our God.  It may not be the sweet and desirable nectar of the summer fruit.  But some folks have been going through the winter times of life, and they need the winter fruit that you and I have to offer.  They’re traveling a great distance to be nourished by the fruit of the Jesus that lives in us.  They’re tired, weary, cold, worn, and they wouldn’t mind the summer fruit.  But if all we have is the winter fruit, do your best for Jesus.

The old song says, “If I can help somebody as I pass along, if I can cheer somebody with a word or song, if I can show somebody how they’re traveling wrong, then my living shall not be in vain.”  It doesn’t have to be summer fruit. It doesn’t have to be 10,000 souls, great cathedrals, or to be known the world over.  It just has to be winter fruit, helping somebody, being a blessing to somebody, being good to somebody, bearing fruit for Christ.

Sunday, February 27, 2011


Song of Solomon  5:9-16    v. 10  My beloved is all radiant and ruddy, distinguished among ten thousand…

In my early reading through and reading about this book of love songs and poetry composed by King Solomon and his African beloved, I came across a phrase that I mentioned to you earlier in the series that preachers in the middle ages had become enamored with the book.  Bernard of Clairveaux alone preached 83 sermons from this song in a span of 15 years or so.  And while I chuckled at the thought of such an obsession with these lyrics of love, here I am at the conclusion of a 3 part series feeling that I have only scratched the surface of the love and commitment and the passion displayed here.  And I must say, I don’t mind the over the top mushiness of the poetry I’ve been reading not one bit.  For what struck me as I read a few weeks ago was just how much in love these two people were.  I mean, they weren’t just in love, they were in LOVE!  The kind that knocks you off your feet, makes your palms sweat, and makes your heart skip a beat at the sight of one another.  Love.  The kind that keeps you lingering in the presence of each other for just five more minutes and that pushes you to get out the door to see each other again the next day.

I’ve got to say, the more I read it, the more inspired I am by it.  For anyone doing anything increases ones effectiveness by doing so with the passion that we see in the Song of Solomon.  He doesn’t just say, “I love you,” as he keeps his head buried in the newspapers with an NCIS episode on the big screen.  She doesn’t just say, “Yeah, me, too,” as she flips another page on her Kindle without so much as a glance.  It’s not just a glance of a kiss on the cheek as they depart for their places of employment for the day, nor is it merely the fulfillment of an obligation to have dinner with one another or to talk or listen to and with each other.  Read this thing.  They were into each other.  They couldn’t wait to be together.  They loved the sound of each other’s voices and the feel of each other’s touch.  Passion.  Enthusiasm.  Energy.  Power.  That’s the stuff that greatness is made of.  That’s what separates the mere singing of a song and the ability to touch the core of another’s existence with that same song.  Passion.  It’s what turns a pen and paper into a novel that holds a generation’s imagination in its clutches.  It’s what turns spoken words into civilization-changing drama.

For an example of this, one need only to observe some of the Black History that has been on display this month and this week and this day.  For the words of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of this great nation are often read and cited.  But it was something entirely different when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. appropriately interpreted those same words on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial with a power and a passion that still rivets the nation and world to live up to those ideals.  Passion.  It’s what compelled Harriet Tubman to lead countless slaves to freedom in the underground railroad.  It’s what’s at the center of the negro spirituals, what made Jackie Robinson such a marvel, what makes the Black church experience so unique, and what makes Maya Angelou’s poetry stir the conscience of its readers.  Passion. It’s passion in what we do that inspires, that excites, that turns an ordinary day in to a unique experience, that takes an ordinary display of affection and turns it into a universally renowned collection of poetry.  Passion, doing what you love and loving what you do.  Passion.

And you can see it everyday, in every way, the difference that passion makes in an activity, in an expression, in an effort.  You see it in athletics when one competitor plays with passion and the other is merely going through the motions.  You see it in dance and art when one is performing the required actions and the other is selling it with everything they got.  I was at a party last night, Phyllis Johnson’s 80th birthday party.  And there was some dancing at the end of the night.  And I like to watch dancing, even though I’m prohibited by the females in my household from ever dancing in public.  I like to watch it because you can see the difference in enthusiasm, in passion in the dancers.  They started doing the cupid shuffle last night, and whole bunch of folks got into the line formation and started going to the right, to the right to the right, to the right, to the left, to the left, to the left, to the left.  But others, they were selling it.  They were enjoying it.   They danced like there was no one else in the room. They danced like they had something to dance about.  You know what I’m talking about?

And the thing is, we not only recognize passion in others, but we admire it, we aspire to be like that, to emulate that. Sometimes we think to ourselves, “I wish I could be like that, dance like that, sing like that.” And often we’re even turned off by those who do not display it.  Perhaps an example of this was when Michael Dukakis ran for president of the United States.  A good man, a calm man, a serious man with good ideas, a good track record as a governor.  But in one of the debates, as a way of personalizing his views on the death penalty, he was asked in a debate what penalty he would deem appropriate if someone raped and killed his wife.  And Dukakis calmly responded his standard stump speech response of why he did not believe in the death penalty.  And while I and many others think that type of questioning to be inappropriate and sensationalistic and unhelpful to the political discourse, what was absent in Dukakis’ response was any display of passion, any sense of sorrow, any sense of pain that one might feel in that given scenario.  And the nation noticed.  His lead in the polls evaporated and he eventually lost the election.

Passion.  Now, my colleague in ministry, Dr. Callahan, urged me not to leave you with an incomplete thought that may well be dangerous without due diligence.  Because passion alone, passion without reason, passion incorrectly directed and prematurely displayed can lead to all kinds of mess.  John Grisham’s latest novel, “The Confession,” thrillingly and horrifyingly portrays what happens when passion is mistaken or replaced by a lack of consideration, by a lack of reason and a lack of contemplation.  Innocent people get accused and convicted of crimes they didn’t commit, and misguided passion will have hordes of people screaming with righteous indignation for that person to be put to death.  Passion can blind us if we throw caution to the wind without considering in which direction that wind is blowing.  Some folks fall in love so hard and so fast that they never consider who the person is with whom they’re falling, never check into their character, their life’s desires, their understanding of the roles of males and females in society and in a marriage.  I read somewhere once that, “love without passion is dreary; but passion without love is horrific.”  Passion prematurely displayed will lead to a broken heart, to a broken family, to a broken soul, to wounded children, to fractured personas.  Many young people mistake passion for love.  Many old people for that matter.  I could and someday I just might preach on the dangers of misguided passions.  But for now let me just say that there’s something to be said for caution and consideration and withholding judgment.  There’s something to be said for being slow to speak, slow to judge, and quick to listen.  There’s something to be said for trying the spirits and discerning the matter and praying for guidance.

And yet, with that lesson observed, the Song of Solomon, in its passionate poetry and overflowing affirmation of love for another still speaks powerfully to our hearts and minds about the role of passion in our lives.  Both the Shulamite woman and King Solomon in their poetry were letting it all hang out.  They wore their hearts on their sleeves.  They let their true feelings be known without reservation and without qualification.  They were passionate about each other and their words depict that they gave their love everything they had.  And all caution observed, after doing due diligence, after checking the directions of the wind, after investigating a matter to a reasonable certainty, there is still no substitute for this kind of passion in life.  I mean, if you’re going to do something, do it with everything you got like the way the Shulamite woman and Solomon loved each other.  There’s a conviction in their poetry and a purposefulness in their lyrics that seems to be missing in so many areas of our lives.  For not just in our love life, but in our vocations, in our community involvement, in our parenting, in our church work, passion will elevate the quality of each area of our lives and make life so much more meaningful.  The bible says it in the book of Ecclesiastes, and I love quoting it, “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with all thy might.”  Dr. King often used two great quotes, one by Ralph Waldo Emerson who was reported to have said something to the tune of, “If a person can write a better book, preach a better sermon, or build a better mousetrap, though they make their home in the woods, the world will make a beaten path to their door.”  The other was a poem by Douglas Malloch that goes, “If you can’t be a pine on the top of the hill, be a shrub in the valley, but be the best little shrub by the side of the hill, be a bush if you can’t be a tree.  If you can’t be a highway, just be a trail, if you can’t be a the sun, be a star, for it isn’t by size that we win or fail, be the best at whatever you are.”

I recently watched the movie, “Conviction,” starring Hilary Swank, a true story about a woman whose brother was wrongfully convicted of a crime he did not commit.  And this woman was let down again and again by lawyers who were good lawyers but did not pursue the case with any sense of urgency whatsoever.  So, what did she do?  She went to college and then went to law school and then passed the bar exam so that she could pursue her brother’s case because no one would serve his cause with the kind of passion she could.  And it makes all the difference, does it not?  In a store with a salesperson who not only knows their product but is passionate about it, or in a classroom with a teacher who not only is knowledgeable about early childhood education but passionate about the development of their students, or in a church where the people and the preacher are not just Christians in name only going through the motions but who are passionate about Jesus, passionate about their love for God, passionate about loving their neighbor as themselves, passionate about pleasing God, passionate about loving mercy, doing justice and walking humbly before our God.  Some churches, their passion sometimes gets tangled up in meeting mortgage payments instead of meeting people’s needs for a relationship with Jesus Christ.  Some places, the preacher is passionate about getting a bigger congregation, not in growing his or her own congregation by reaching lost lives in the community, but by switching to the next congregation so he or she can get a bigger paycheck.  And it shows!  Our passion, to make money or to win souls for Christ.  Our passion, to gain prestige in the community or to get our hands dirty and help the least of these.  Our passion, to have the pretty people and the powerful people and the popular people in our pews or to be a welcoming and loving and receiving church where Jesus is in the pews greeting every visitor, healing every hurt, loving the unlovely, bringing hope to the hopeless, encouraging the downtrodden.  Where is our passion?!

G. Campbell Morgan, the great preacher of more than a century ago, once decried that the great need in the church was the burning of heart, the passion that comes with being in the presence of Jesus.  We have principles, he said, but we are greatly lacking in passion.  It’s why we can have churches on every street corner in a city with more than 300 murders every year.  Because churches, if we have passion, it largely is not directed toward our great savior who called us to love the lord our God and our neighbor as ourselves.

The Shulamite woman and Solomon were passionate in their love for each other.  And in the text, the companions of the Shulamite woman addressed her in a manner essentially disputing the greatness of her lover, attempting to calm her passions by reason.  “What is your beloved among another beloved?” they asked.  Why you love him so much?  Why do you speak so highly of your beloved?  Almost as though they wanted her to stop speaking so, to quench her passion for her beloved.  And the effect on perhaps many of us when we are so confronted or when we contemplate such a confrontation is that we do not display passion for the one we love.  Many of us are in relationships, in jobs, in churches, where we do not give it our all, where we do not wear our heart on our sleeves, where we hold back.  Why is that?  I mean, given the differences in personality and in the different types of displays of passion and enthusiasm.  But I think you get what I’m talking about, when we don’t tell our friends that we’re in love, that so and so is dreamy and gorgeous and so forth.  Why don’t we?  Why don’t we sing with all our heart?  Why don’t we shake it like we mean it?  Why don’t we pursue causes and perform our tasks with vigor and vitality?  Why don’t we display passion in all we do?

Well, sometimes, in the case of love, it’s because we’re afraid that the love will not be returned.  Right?  I can’t tell you how many romantic comedies I’ve seen where someone feels passionately about the other but won’t say it because they are fearful that the other person might not feel the same way.  Unrequited love.  If I tell her, “I want you to know that I love you, that I think the world of you, that I want to spend my life with you,” and she says, “Oh, that’s nice.  I just wanted to be friends.”  You’re head over heels, and she’s not.  You’re fanatical and she’s not.  Well, you got problems.  And the same holds true in other areas of life.  If I do my job with a passion, if I teach with all I got, if I counsel with passion, if I preach and pastor with all my heart, what if they call me a fanatic?  What if they don’t appreciate my passion?  Or worse, what if they don’t return that passion?

Well, maybe, I don’t know, but maybe that’s why some folks don’t stick their neck out and love God with all they got.  Maybe that’s why folks don’t put their trust in God, passionately serve the Lord, give their all to the Lord, because they might well be afraid of the Lord not loving them back.  Maybe they think they’re not good enough.  Maybe they think they got too much wrong in their life.  Maybe they’re afraid that he’s a king and who am I to love him with all I got?  But read the text, read the allegory of Solomon and the Shulamite woman and reflect on the love God has for us.  His voice is sweet.  He is the fairest of ten thousand.  Read your bible, find out that Jesus says, “I will no wise cast you out.”  He said, “Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.”  They tried to intimidate the Shulamite woman out of displaying her love for her beloved.  But she stood up with a passion and said, “My beloved is all radiant and ruddy.  My beloved is distinguished above ten thousand.”  Oh that we would stand up for Jesus like that.  Oh that we would with passion, with love, with confidence, lift our eyes to him and tell him how much we love him, tell him we’re not ashamed, tell him we don’t care what the friends think of me, if they call me a fanatic, if they call me crazy.  I’m crazy in love with Jesus, and I’ll tell the world!

Sometimes, just one more thought before we go, but sometimes we don’t employ passion because we don’t have the experience that causes passion.  Let me tell you what I mean.  You can see a choir singing a song on any given Sunday, and that song can be about our great savior, or the faithfulness of our God, or how all of our help cometh from the Lord.  And almost any choir that sings, you’ll see people who may get the pianissimo and the fortissimo correct, but who still don’t sing with any kind of passion.  Until they go through.  Until they found themselves in a hospital waiting room not being able to do anything about the crisis that has confronted them.  Or maybe they’ll be standing at a gravesite wondering how they’re going to go on without this loved one who isn’t there anymore.  But if they’ve come to know that the Lord is our help, that all of our help cometh from the Lord, if they have experienced his help in the time of trouble, if they have come to know that just when they needed his help the most is when they experienced it the best…  Then, put that person in the choir.  Give that person the lyrics, “For the Lord is thy keeper, the Lord is thy shade upon thy right hand.”  Let them sing, “My help, my help, all of my help cometh from the Lord.”  Oh, I tell you, it makes all the difference.  Passion.  Do you love him?  Do you love the Lord?  Have you been saved by him, healed by him, lifted by him, delivered by him?  Well if you have, don’t be ashamed. Don’t let the naysayers keep you down.  Don’t let anybody stop you from loving the Lord with all you got.  Let the Lord know it.  Let the world know it.  Like the Shulamite woman, “This is my beloved.  This is my friend!”

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Christianity Lite

Luke 6:27-31  “Love your enemies…”

My family and I have fallen in love with the Tony Award winning musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda called, “In the Heights,” which just closed on Broadway and is now touring here in Philadelphia.  I may have understated our passion for it, as MyWife and I have seen it now I think 8 times.  And if someone insists on buying us tickets, I guess we’ll go see it again.  But there’s a line in there that surely has become my favorites of the musical, when the Latino owner of a corner bodega store offered free diet sodas to his younger cousin.  And the younger cousin angrily responds, “Ain’t no Dominicans be drinking no diet soda.”  I got a similar reaction that Rev. Dow gave to me when I once offered him Decaf coffee.  Some of you know what I’m talking about.  Heck, I know what I’m talking about because someone once offered me a vegetarian taco and I about lost my salvation.

The idea behind decaf coffee and diet sodas and sugar free cakes and vegetarian tacos is noble, especially if we’re trying to live a healthy life and stay on this planet a little longer.  But there is no denying that something is lost in the transfer from regular to diet and decaf.  Rev. Dow once slipped me a cup of regular coffee and the flavor was such that I was certain he was slipping something into that coffee.  Diet coke doesn’t taste the same as regular coke, I don’t care what the commercial says.

And then for those of us who make those switches to decaf and diet, after a while, several things start to happen to us.  For one, we no longer crave the regular coffee or the regular soda because we’ve gotten used to the taste of the diet stuff, of the equal and the splenda and the decaf coffee.  Another thing that happens when we make the switch to diet and decaf is that both in taste and in effect, I know for me anyway, I know longer like the taste of regular Coke and regular 7-Up.  I prefer the diet drinks. And as for the effect of decaf, now that I’ve been drinking decaf all this time, if I have a cup of coffee that has caffeine in it I might be up all night bouncing off the walls.  I’m used to not having it and I prefer to go without the diet and the decaf.

Again, I have no objection to and every regard for the decaffeinization and the de-sugarizing of our lifestyles.  Lord knows we got too much hypertension and diabetes and high blood pressure and heart disease.  So I get the trend and respect its aims. However, it was with a strange sensation that I came across the haunting words of Jesus in this 6th chapter of Luke’s gospel, the sermon on the mount, and began to understand that so much of what passes for Christianity in our American culture and maybe in other parts of the world as well is not quite the same as the challenging and world changing prescription for life that our savior taught.   I was reading an excerpt by Dallas Willard that described what passes for Christianity today is really Christianity Lite, that the church in our country anyway has are watered down our Christianity, decaffeinated our commitment to Christ’s teachings, and substituted some facsimile for the real deal that Christ has called us to be.  I mean, did you read that with me?  Did you hear what Jesus was saying in this text?  “Love your enemies.  Do good to those who hate you.  If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also.”  Whoa! That’s some heavy stuff.  Many of us might be thinking to ourselves right now, “I didn’t sign up for all that.”  Some of us think that doing what Jesus said to do, living like Jesus said to live, being guided by Jesus’ most challenging teachings, hey, I just wanted to hear the choir, just wanted to sleep during the preaching, just wanted something spiritual to do on Sunday mornings.  I didn’t want all that.

Every now and then I’ll look around the neighborhood and see a church on every street corner, and reflect on the high crime rates, reflect on the poverty, reflect on the statistics that say it is more likely for urban boys to wind up in prison than it is for them to wind up in college.  I’ll look around the world and see nations of people starving, people dying from diseases for which we already have medication to cure, wars raging in every corner of the world, our nation’s armies and those of the western world involved in many of them.  I’ll look at all that and reflect, “Is anybody really loving their enemies?  Does anybody really do good to those who hate you?  Has no one ever read what Jesus said to bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you, if anyone, not just someone you trust made a mistake or someone we think has no history of ill will toward us, but if anyone strikes you on the cheek, Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Arab, American, Democrat of Republican, if anyone strikes you on the cheek…  Are we reading any of this?  Does anyone, has anyone in the history of Christianity in the world, has anyone really tried to live out the real deal, to get the real stuff, to be and do and follow all that Jesus intended for us?  I mean, I see the churches in the neighborhood.  I see the churches around the world.  I see the nations calling themselves Christian nations.  That’s not this. It has some similarities, but that’s not this.  It’s got some similar qualities, it has a label on the outside that says it’s Christianity, it has some effects that this would have, but has fewer challenges, fewer effects, less impact on the body, not as demanding on the individual or congregational or national Christianity.  Christianity Lite.  Nations that turn their backs on their own citizens in need of health care while leading off every session of Congress in prayer?  Christianity Lite.  Churches more interested in the latest gossip than in the latest ways we can extend ourselves to our community?  Christianity Lite.  Christians looking like saints on Sunday but living like sinners on Monday?  Christianity Lite.

Look at this with me.  What are we doing with Christ’s religion?  What are we doing with the teachings he gave us, with the commands is issued us, with the love that he showed to us?  I would argue that in many ways, and in too many instances, we have chosen to do Christianity Lite than to go with the real thing.  And the reason we could go so long without recognizing this, the reason Christianity Lite passes for the real thing in our churches in our communities in our personal lives in our nation, is likely the same reason Diet Coke and decaf coffee is so successful.  For one thing, we make a conscious decision that if we do the real thing, it will be detrimental to our health.  If we love our enemies, if we turn the other cheek, if we don’t retaliate toward those who injure us, if we don’t strike our known enemies before they strike us, something might happen to us.  Someone might be mean to us.  Someone might bomb us.  Someone might take what we cherish.  Someone might mess with our lifestyle and our way of life.  If we do what Jesus says, it might be detrimental to my life.  And Jesus, for those who make it a habit of calling themselves his followers without making much if any attempt to understand what Jesus was saying, Jesus said for all of us who would apply for the job, “Deny yourself, take up your cross just like I’m doing, and follow me.”  Oh, what Deitrich Bonhoeffer said continues to ring so true, “When Christ calls someone, He bids them, ‘Come and die.’”

And we don’t want to die.  We don’t want our cushy lives and our HDTV’s and our gas guzzling cars and our energy consuming lives to die.  We don’t want our freedoms to die, our rights to die, our democracy to die.  It’s not all ridiculous, you see.  There’s some method to this desire for Christianity Lite.  If we follow Jesus, we risk losing everything we are.  We risk it in a national sense, in a community sense, we risk it in a personal sense.  “If I follow Jesus, I’ll have to give up taking out vengeance on all those who offend me.  I’ll have to start praying for people instead of retaliating against people.  I’ll have to stop sleeping around with people who aren’t my spouse.  I’ll have to stop lusting after everything that moves.  I’ll have to stop judging folks who have messed up even though I’ve messed up, too, it’s just that folks don’t know it yet.  I’ll have to be merciful, and forgiving and loving instead of tough and merciless and demanding.  I’ll have to change my life.  And it’s not easy to change my life, so I’ll just change my Christianity instead and do Christianity Lite.”

What else?  What else happens to us when we switch from regular to decaf, from regular to diet soda?  Well, as with diet soda in my case, we get used to Christianity Lite, such that we have no desire for the real thing.  We’re satisfied with our beverage selection, and we don’t even think twice about the real thing.  I don’t miss coke or pepsi one bit.  I don’t miss regular coffee one bit, neither.  I like my beverages.  I don’t miss it.

Well, the same thing seems to be happening with our Christianity, that in too many cases we don’t miss the real thing whatsoever.  We like living like the devil during the week and then praying like a saint on Sunday.  We like singing God’s praises on Sunday and then neglecting God’s people on Monday.  We’re comfortable with it.  We don’t miss the real thing whatsoever.  We just go on with our lives as though nothing is wrong, no one is hurting, no one is in trouble, no one is in strife, no one is wrongfully imprisoned, no one is being tortured or persecuted or wounded or killed by bullets paid for by our tax dollars.  We like the warm blanket of freedom and the soft mattress of prosperity that has been purchased for us by the blood of other people’s children.  We don’t give it one thought, do we?  We don’t miss it.  Jesus said, “Love your enemies, give to everyone who begs of you.”  We don’t miss those things one bit.  We like the taste of our Christianity Lite and we have no need for the real thing anyway.

What else?  If we do the real Christianity thing instead of Christianity lite, it might be detrimental to our health, we won’t miss the real Christianity.  What else did we mention earlier?  Oh, yeah, I remember.  We’ll no longer even like the taste of the real thing.  I don’t even like the taste of regular Coke or Pepsi nowadays.  It’s too sweet.  I need my fake sugar.  I need my sugar substitute.  It’s not even for health reasons anymore.  It’s not because it’s good for me.  It’s because I’m used to the fake stuff.  I’m used to the substitute.  I prefer the fake stuff.

Oh, isn’t that what happens to our Christianity, too?  That we get used to a version of Christianity that makes little demands on our time, makes little request of our service, a Christianity that is satisfied with a trite offering of concern for others.  We get so used to it so that when we’re faced with a real challenge of service, a real call to our love for others, a real beckoning for the Christ within us to be a blessing to other, we’re uncomfortable with it.  We’re not used to it.  And we prefer our own Christianity Lite to the hard road of Christian service and commitment that Jesus calls us to.

I was working one summer during my college years I think it was with a trucking crew, loading furniture, moving the rich and famous of Southern California.  And one co-worker of mine was telling me because I was a preacher even then that he too was a Christian.  He told me he loved people, he was faithful to his wife, tried to be a help to others.  And one day when we got a $100 tip from one of the families we moved, he asked me what I was going to do with the extra cash.  And I told him, “Well, after I pay my tithes, I’m going to the ball game…”  And he cut me off and said, “Whoa!  No way.  I mean I love the Lord and all that hallelujah stuff, but no way he’s getting a tenth of my check.”  I told him that the bible tells us to tithe, to give the first fruits of our labor, and that God will bless us, that there are some rewards that come from being faithful to the Lord in our giving, that Jesus taught us to give and it would be given unto us.  And he told me, “Nope, no way.  I’ll go to church, but they’re not getting a dime of my check.  In fact if that’s what being a Christian is about, I’m out.”  Christianity Lite.  Totally unnerved the guy.  He couldn’t handle the truth.  He had no taste for the real flavor of Christ’s teaching, no affection for the depths of love Christ calls us to have.  And how many of us are just like that?  Pastor announces prayer meeting, and we think, “Heck no.  I aint’ coming out for an hour of my time and act like some holy roller, look like I’m talking to myself.”  Pastor announces bible study, and folks think, “No way I’m studying some ancient book written by who knows who and letting it guide my life.  I mean, what if it asks me to change?  I like the way I am.  I’m comfortable.”  Pastor announces a missions project, “I already came to church, isn’t that enough?”  Christianity Lite!  When we’re confronted with the real thing, we no longer have a taste for it, we no longer desire it, we get unnerved by it.  We prefer the fake stuff over the real Jesus, the real savior of our souls!

Let me share another Burma story with you, since it’s still the prominent thought that’s on my mind, and well it should be.  The hardest part of the trip was not the ascent and decent up and down the mountains of the Chin state, the winding unpaved roads on the edges of mile high cliffs, the differences in food that got me a little sick, the different languages, that stuff wasn’t the hardest part for me.  Not even close.  The hardest part for me was not being with MyWife.  The day before I left for Burma, we had that Steve Treat seminar, and I was sitting there next to MyWife and got a chance to breath a little.  And I reached out and held her hand like I usually do.  And I guess it hit me that in a day or so, I wouldn’t be able to just reach out and touch her hand.  And I began to get emotional.  I told her, “I think I miss you already.” And we had a tough couple of days there before I left.  We cried and held each other, and tried to figure out why were getting so emotional when we knew it would just be a couple of weeks and we would be holding hands again.  When I got on the plane to go to Burma, I think the Lord really blessed me because the strong emotions went away.  I was focused on the ministry in Burma, the opportunity to communicate God’s love to the saints who were the direct spiritual descendants of this church’s ministry.  I was getting all into it.  I was going over my notes for my sermons that I would preach, how I was going to tell them that we were all in the family of God, how the drama of scripture was unfolding before us as we spread the good news of God’s love for God’s children all over the world.  I was hyped.  That and the food on Singapore Airlines was amazing!

Anyway, on the air plane, they had telephones that I could use with my credit card.  So I called from the plane and talked to Debbie the same night I had left.  Then, in Frankfurt, Germany, we had a stop the next morning and I was able to access the internet and email MyWife.  Then, in the Singapore airport, I was able to call MyWife and talk to her and tell her how excited I was about this trip.  In Rangoon, the capital city of Myanamar, things were tough there.  My cell phone didn’t work there.  No texting.  My email account didn’t work because aol was shut down by the military government there.  There was no wi-fi in the hotel, so no Facebook no email, no skype, nothing.  The hotel didn’t have international calling on the phones. And I was starting to shake going all day without any contact with MyWife.  So late that night, Dr. Chin Do Kham took me to a seedy part of the downtown area to an internet café located on like the fifth floor of some run down old building.  But there they had a bunch of computers and I was able to call via the internet to MyWife who was at work and we talked for about five minutes.  After that, we traveled to far more remote places, most had internet cafes, but none had phones I could use that would reach the United States.  So it was Facebook chatting at internet café’s, that’s all we had.  And sometimes the internet would be down, like in Tedim, when I waited for an hour late one night and never did get through to her.  One time, I got on Facebook at noon in Burma but past midnight in Philly.  And I hadn’t talked to MyWife in a few days, so I saw some friends on Facebook who were online, and I texted them to call MyWife and wake her up and tell her I was on Facebook.  I must have texted four or five people, but eventually MyWife got online and we chatted.

Now I got to tell you, chatting with her via Facebook a world away when there wasn’t anything else was all right.  Talking with her on the phone when I was up in the air was pretty cool, too.  Even when I’m here and I get a text message from her, it’s always uplifting, I mean, unless she texts me to take out the trash or something.  But I gotta tell ya:  Ain’t nothing like the real thing. I asked one missionary about how he does it leaving his wife for weeks and months sometimes at a time, and he said, “You get used to it.”  I don’t’ know about that.  “I see your picture hanging on the wall, but it can’t see or come to me when I call your name, I realize it’s just a picture in a frame.  No other sound is quite the same as your name, no touch can do half as much to make me feel better.  Ain’t nothing like the real thing.”

Oh, saints of God, don’t be satisfied with Christianity Lite.  Don’t settle for anything less than the real thing, the real Jesus, the Jesus who loves us, the Jesus who challenges us, the Jesus who changes us, the Jesus who affects us and moves us and inspires us and leads us and guides us.  Ain’t nothing like the real thing.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Change of Plans

Acts 15:36-41  v. 38  But Paul decided not to take with them one who had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not accompanied them in the work…

It is a statistical fact that I have cited earlier in my preaching ministry that freshmen in college who have an established goal are more likely to graduate college than those who do not have an established goal.  It is also a statistical fact that college freshmen who not only have a goal but who write their goal down are more likely to graduate in four years than those who do not write down their goals.  Since I was in High school and college, the effect of goals and the study of goals has always fascinated me and many of you as well, I’m sure.  Over the years that there is a whole system of how to go about setting goals.  There are three types of goals, short range, mid-range and long range.  In the process of setting a goal, people should make a decision about what they want in life.  Effective goals should have a timeline to them, they should be measurable and they should be written down so that one can see where one stands at a given time in life with regard to one’s goals. See how we’re doing, how much progress is being made. Goals should be realistic and attainable to prevent frustration.  The attainment of a goal should be celebrated, and then new goals should be set to keep us growing and moving forward.  I use these types of strategies in my own life, in my marriage, in my ministry.

But what I have come to share with you today is that even if we have well-defined goals, goals with deadlines and timelines and with ambition and goals that are attainable and so forth, many times life throws us a curve.  Many times, things happen.  Many times, we don’t get to carry out our plans exactly the way we set out to do them.  Let me show you what I’m talking about in the text this morning, because Paul had a plan to go out and be a missionary, to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ to all the world. The church had commissioned him along with Barnabas to do this.  It was their aim in life to fulfill the prophecy of Jesus that this gospel must be preached to the uttermost part of the world.  It was a great goal, a lofty goal, and perhaps in their estimation, it was a reachable goal since the known world at that time only extended to the West to Spain, which according to Paul’s letter to the Romans was his ultimate destination.

But something happened.  As Paul and Barnabas planned to go out on a second missionary journey, something happened.  There was a sharp disagreement over what to do with the young evangelist, John also known as Mark.  Seems that on their first missionary journey back in Acts 13, young John Mark who was Barnabas’ cousin according to Paul’s letter to the Colossians left them in mid journey.  They were in Pamphylia, the text says, when without giving us the full explanation, John Mark left them and returned to Jerusalem.  Scholars surmise but not definitively that perhaps John Mark’s youth was an issue, that he got home sick and wanted to return to Jerusalem.  Others suggest that he may have gotten physically ill in Pamphylia, a region known at that time to have various ailments awaiting foreigners, maybe something akin to Montezuma’s revenge or whatever it was I experienced a month and a half ago in Burma.  Some look at John Mark’s relative youth, and suspect that perhaps he was immature, maybe he thought he knew better than the other two senior missionaries.  Could be.  Maybe he had ideas about how the missionary trip ought to go and disagreed with the two old timers who were calling all the shots.  Young people can be like that sometimes.  I went to see an Oscar Wilde play yesterday on Broadway, and Wilde, the great wit of the 19th century is quoted as saying, “I am not young enough to know everything.”  Maybe John Mark thought he knew better than Paul and Barnabas.  No one knows what happened to cause John Mark to abandon the missionary team and work in mid-journey.

But what we are sure of is that come the 15th chapter of Acts and with the prospects of a second missionary journey before them, Paul was not fond of taking John Mark for the reason of that abandonment.  It is also certain that Barnabas had a problem with Paul having a problem with John Mark.  Maybe because Barnabas was his cousin, maybe because Barnabas was an encourager by nature.  You know, some of us are more inclined to give folks a second chance than others.  I’m not sure why that is.  Sometimes I think it is because folks are not well-enough in touch with their own shame to afford mercy to others.  I’ve had several encounters with friends from across the nation lately concerning our Philadelphia Eagles quarterback, Michael Vick.  And it has surprised me how unforgiving folks are, how lacking in mercy many are.  These are folks in the church.  Folks this very hour who are singing Amazing Grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.  Some of us are not well-enough in touch with our own shame, I think.  Some of us just don’t know what it’s like to make a shame of oneself in public.  Not enough folks know about our sins to truly make us remorseful, to truly humble ourselves in the presence of the Almighty and in the presence of the rest of the world.  Jesus said, “For if you do not forgive others, neither will your heavenly father forgive you.”

It could be that Paul was not well-enough in touch with his own shame.  I doubt it, however.  I truly do not think that was the case with Paul, he who wrote so often that he was the chiefest of sinners, that while we were yet sinners Christ Jesus died for us.  It could be, but I highly doubt it.  I mean, some of us know full well that we’re sinners, that the only difference between me and the guy all the world detests as a sinner is the blood of Jesus Christ.  By grace we are saved.  If it wasn’t for the blood, I don’t know where I’d be.  The blood of Jesus that reaches to the highest mountain, flows to the lowest valley, it will never lose its power!

Maybe Paul had lost touch with his own shame, maybe not.  The biblical record tells us that some years later, Paul commended John Mark, presumably this same young evangelist now grown up, to the Colossian church to be received there.  In II Timothy, Paul on what may well have been his death bed summoned for John Mark to come to him as someone who was useful to Paul in his deathbed ministry.  That doesn’t exactly sound like the actions of someone who in Acts 15 had given up on John Mark because of one mistake, someone who was out of touch with his own humanity, someone who had forgotten what it was like to mess up and mess up badly.  Maybe a superficial reading of the 15th chapter of Acts does us a disservice, misleads us in the proper formation of Paul’s character.  We tend to do that with scriptures, read one thing, get all hyped up and neglect the rest of the biblical record which might well inform us further and in many cases contrastingly from our initial understanding.

I don’t know why Paul was insistent on not taking John Mark.  I don’t know why Barnabas was so insistent on taking his cousin either.  But what I do want to focus our attention on this morning is that the plans they had made, the plans to preach the gospel, the plans to travel to the churches they had previously visited and started, those plans had to be changed when Paul and Barnabas could not agree with any measure of agreeableness and had to part ways.  They had a split.  They had a breakup.  Things were not going the way they had originally planned.  So what happened was they had a change of plans.

Here’s what’s important to distinguish in the text and in our lives, that there is a difference between a goal and a plan.  A goal is where you want to be, whereas a plan is how you intend to get there.  A goal is what you hope to accomplish, whereas a plan is how you will accomplish it.  A goal is who you intend to become in life, but a plan is how you intend to become it.  What and how, the difference between a goal and a plan.  Paul and Barnabas both had a goal to preach this gospel to the uttermost parts of the world.  Their plan was to go on missionary trips together until they had preached to the uttermost parts of the world.  But here in the 15th chapter of the book of Acts, something happened.  Something went wrong with their plan.  Paul and Barnabas had a sharp disagreement.  And let me just drop a word here, that it is extremely difficult to preach the gospel with any kind of effectiveness when church folks keep on having all kinds of sharp disagreements.  Do you hear me?  Who wants to join a church where everyone is always in sharp contention with everybody else?  Who wants to join a church where the most important thing they’re doing is voting to throw the pastor out?  Let me clue us all in to something:  folks got enough drama in their lives Monday through Saturday.  And if they have to, they can create enough on Sunday, too, all by themselves.  They can be bad all by themselves.  They don’t need to come to church to have more drama, more fighting, more arguments, more stress, more splits, more breakups, more issues.  Paul and Barnabas had a sharp disagreement about John Mark, and because it was not their goal in life to win the disagreement, it was not their goal in life to be right and to prove the other wrong, because it was their goal in life to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to the uttermost part of the world, Paul and Barnabas had a change of plans.  They had planned to reach their goal with a plan of going together, but the disagreement meant they had to change their plans.  Same goal, same gospel to proclaim, same Jesus to lift up, same Cross, same blood that reaches and that flows.  But they had a change of plans.  “Well, if we can’t do it this way, can we find another way to reach our goal.”

And that’s what I see in the text, and that’s what I come to church this morning to tell you all, that sometimes life happens, and our plans to reach our goals get derailed.  Sometimes we plan to have a program or a project and things don’t always go the way we want.  That’s okay.  Change of plans.  Same goal, same aim, same Jesus Christ to proclaim, same mercy to show, same grace to impart, same love to embrace.  But sometimes we need a change of plans to reach our goal.  I had a friend in the ministry whose goal was to be a pastor, who set her sights on a particular church, who did everything she was supposed to do, had a killer resume, preached like nobody’s business, loved the people, visited the elderly, had it all.  But the church voted someone else in.  And I don’t know if you know how hard that can be on a pastor.  You probably know how tough it is to call a pastor, or to fire a pastor, but it’s equally tough to be a pastor who gets passed over, who misses out, who loses the church, who gets discriminated against because she’s a woman.

Oh well, she said, change of plans.  A year later God led her to another church, one without all the drama, one that cherished her unique gifts for ministry.  She’s preaching Jesus, loving the people, expanding the kingdom.  It’s not where she thought it was going to be.  Not how she thought it would be, not the plan she had set out to follow.  But she’s still reaching her goal, doing the ministry, preaching Jesus.  Sometimes, I say, sometimes, we have to have a change of plans.  Things don’t go the way we want.  Things get messed up.  But that’s all right.  Just have a change of plans, same goal, same God to serve, same Christ to love, same gospel to proclaim, and get on with it.  Paul and Barnabas had a change of plans, it wasn’t how they had originally planned it, but they kept on keeping on, pressing toward the mark of the prize of the high calling of Jesus Christ.

You know who else in this text had to change their plans?  John Mark had to change his plans.  Here he was a missionary, an assistant to Paul and to Barnabas, probably with ambition to be a preacher himself one day.  And lo and behold as a youngster on his first missionary trip, he blew it.  He messed up.  And not only did he mess up, but everybody knew he messed up.  I had some friends who weren’t preacher’s kids when I was growing up, and they’d mess up same as me, get into fights, get a bad grade, get in trouble at children’s church.  But the only difference was when I messed up, the whole church knew about it.  When I got in trouble, everybody was talking about it.  Look at young John Mark, messing up like a whole lot of folks mess up.  Only his is recorded in the bible.  centuries of Christians throughout the ages been calling to mind how John Mark messed up, how he abandoned the missionary team, how he blew it.  A whole lot of folks have blown it, but everybody knows about John Mark!

But I came to tell you young people especially but everyone of us here, that even if you were trying to serve the lord and you blew it, if you messed up and got caught, if you wrecked your marriage, if you messed up your schooling, if you got into trouble with  the law and your plans to serve the Lord, your goals in life seem so out of reach, I want you to know that it’s all right.  Just need a change of plans.  Same goal.  Same Jesus, same God.  But a change of plans.  Might have to start all over, might have to pray all night long, might not be the same as the other plan, might be a harder road to travel, folks might be talking about you, but that’s all right.  You can still do it.  You can still make it.

John Mark is amazing not only because he messed up in a very public way, but because he went on to preach with Paul, preach with Barnabas, and even preach with Peter.  The second gospel is attributed to John Mark.  And if he had gotten discouraged by his youthful mistake, if he had stopped pursuing his goal of preaching the gospel because he messed up in Acts 13, if he had moped around because his plan to travel with Paul was out of reach now, he might never have done any of those things in the ministry.  But when he messed up the first plan, he just made a change of plans and went on to serving the Lord.

You know who else had to change plans?  God, who created the heavens and the earth, created humankind in God’s own image.  And everything was good.  Eden was beautiful.  The world was at peace.  Everything God had planned was good.  But then Adam and Eve went and messed things up, let sin enter in.  God’s own children were drifting away from him.  So, God had to have a change of plans.  Had to find a way to redeem all humankind back to him.  Had to have a plan to atone for our sins, to renew our covenant.  And so it was that Jesus was born of a virgin wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.  So it was that God sent his only begotten son that whosoever believeth in him should not perish.  So it was that God changed the plan, God changed the plan.  We were apart from God, but God changed the plan.  We were lost in our trespasses and sins, but God changed the plan.  We were strangers and foreigners in the land, but God changed the plan.  Jesus is God’s change of plans.

Oh, I come to tell you, whatever you’re going through, whatever has happened as you are journeying through life, if you’ve stumbled and fallen, don’t give up.  If you messed up and you’re thinking about throwing in the towel.  If you’re taking one hit after another and don’t think you’ll be able to hang in there, God is telling us that’s all right.  We just need a change of plans.  If you can’t see your way, and it looks like you’ll never get out, change of plans.  If you’re sick and can’t get well, change of plans.  If you’re in trouble and don’t know what you’re going to do, change of plans.  If you’re down and out, change of plans.  Get back up.  Have faith in God.  God’s got a change of plans for you.


Matthew 26:47-56  v. 56 Then all the disciples deserted him and fled…

There is a word in the title that combined with the tendencies of your over-eating pastor might make one think of strawberry cheesecake or banana bread pudding or chocolate cookie dough ice cream.  That is the word “dessert,” with two ss’s.   And just for the record, it isn’t peach cobbler or ice cream sundaes or vanilla cake with chocolate frosting that is so much of a temptation to me.  At least not as much as tacos and enchiladas and macaroni and cheese and curry chicken and Tony Austin’s slow cooked smoked ribs.  Oh Lord, Tony’s ribs!!

All kidding aside, none of that is what is the topic of our consideration and meditation this morning.  In fact, on a scale of comfortable subject matters, this one which emanates from the text of our savior’s betrayal, arrest, conviction and crucifixion might well be on the extreme opposite end based on the subtraction of that one letter “s”.  For instead of remaining by the side of their Lord, instead of going through with him and offering testimony at his trial and suffering as he suffered, the text tells us that when the cross of our Lord’s crucifixion had come into view just on the horizon of their ability to foresee, all the disciples of the Lord deserted him and fled.

One thing that jumped out at me from the text was that word, “all.”  So much of this passion narrative of the Christ was a fulfillment of scriptures, from the casting of lots for his clothes to the cessation of the soldier’s blow that would have broken his bones, to the crying out of our Lord, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”  But even the fact that all of the disciples deserted him, “there is none that is righteous, no not one,” or from Isaiah 53 where it is written, “all we like sheep have gone astray and the Lord has laid upon him the iniquity of us all.”  There wasn’t a one of them then and there isn’t a one of us now if we’re honest about it who hasn’t experienced our moments of deserting the savior.  Maybe it was under the temptation to be selfish instead of to do justice, or perhaps the pressure applied by a society that encourages desertion from the teachings and ethics of our Lord Jesus and acquiescence to sin and debauchery, or some other such reluctance on our part to produce the fruit of the spirit and instead yield forth the fruit of the flesh.  But all of us have deserted the Lord at one time or another.  All of us have chosen our will over God’s will at some point.  All of us have sinned, Paul put it, and come short of the glory of God.

But what I think is pertinent in understanding the disciples’ desertion and our own desertion from the Lord is that it’s not easy following the Lord.  Jesus said as much when he beckoned to his followers, not to pick up your new car and fancy lifestyle but to pick up your cross, deny yourself and follow me.  What was imminent and clear when the temple Police had arrested Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane that night was that Jesus was going to suffer excruciatingly at the hands of people who made it their business to make people suffer excruciatingly.  The disciples knew that the Jewish leaders would do their level best to have the Roman government pronounce a sentence of death, that the Roman soldiers would be granted their moments of madness to whip and beat and bloody our savior, to mock him in the midst of such torturous infliction of pain such as you and I could not begin to imagine.  With our Constitution and our rights and our protections and guarantees against certain forms of harsh treatments, we’re not accustomed to the barbarity and the utter ridiculousness of how the ancient Romans treated those convicted criminals who were deserving of death.

We can’t fathom it, but the disciples could.  They knew that Jesus was in trouble, that he was about to endure something so horrific, something so grotesque and bloodied, as one from whom others hide their faces, one prophet wrote.  And they, too, his closest followers, his companions in ministry, they didn’t want to see it.  Certainly there was a self-interest involved as well, that these disciples did not want to suffer a similar monstrosity themselves.  Certainly, that was a very real possibility that they too would be condemned by association, that a mob mentality might erupt and they might be swept away in the vengeance of that hysteria and suffer the same fate as their Lord.  They might die, too.  They might suffer, too.  It is why that ancient proverb and prophesy was so true, because if you smite the shepherd, the sheep may be dumb but they’re not that dumb.  They’re not sticking around to see if they’re gonna get it next.  They ran.  They fled.  They deserted the Lord, and it isn’t that difficult to understand why.

In fact, it makes our own desertions of the Lord as his modern day disciples in America all that more shameful given that no one is threatening us with bodily harm when we are tempted to betray our savior, when we hold back our offerings so we can spend it on ourselves instead, whenever we desert him no one is holding a whip to our backs and nailing our hands to a wooden cross.  When we’re ashamed of Jesus before others, when we sneak around and do things we hope nobody ever finds out instead of doing what Jesus calls us to do, living in integrity and humility and authenticity, when we desert him, nobody is threatening us with a cat of nine tails or to pierce our sides with a spear.  Yet, we are still inclined to desert the Lord in our time, in our way.  Oh, we have our concerns of what might happen to us in a metaphorical sense but in real ways as well, what society might think of us, how we might suffer the rejection of our friends, how we might be tortured by their ridicule and mockery because we are people of faith.  To be sure, folks will despise us, call us names, question our sensibilities.  From time to time, we might risk losing a job or not getting a job if we do not stand up for Jesus.  We have our concerns.  We have our anxieties about what might happen to him if we take up our cross and follow him, if we cling to the old rugged cross.  And it is that motivation that causes us to blow it, to desert him, to fail him, to let him down, to not live for him, to not stand up for him, to not proclaim him like we should.  It’s at another level, but it’s basically the same concept: if we follow Jesus, if we stand by Jesus, if we proclaim our loyalty to Jesus, there are negative ramifications that we too might suffer.

And so the disciples deserted him. It may be our tendency to dismiss the rest of the story, like we do with romantic comedies.  They spend the entire movie telling us how the couple got together, and when they finally do, that’s the end of the movie.  But that’s not the end of the story.  Anybody who has ever been married knows that’s not the end of the story.  That’s just the beginning of the roller coaster ride, just the beginning of the difficulties to be endured and triumphs to be enjoyed and sicknesses to be nursed and agonies to be overcome.  “All the disciples deserted him and fled.”   Well, then, what did they do?  What became of those disciples when they deserted him?  What did they do in their desertion?  And while all of them deserted him and fled, each of their responses to the desertion was unique.  It was not a universal thing, how they handled their desertion of their Lord.  And neither is ours, if we look at ourselves.  We’re going to look at just three sets of disciples in this passion narrative who deserted the Lord, whom the scriptures give to us to examine, and see what their desertion looked like.  Who knows?  Maybe we’ll see what our desertion looks like while we do it.

Firstly, I want you to turn with me in your bibles to Luke chapter 22 and the 54th verse, Luke’s version of the subsequent episode in the story of our Lord’s death.  It says there, “Then they seized him and led him away, bringing him into the high priest’s house.  But Peter was following at a distance.”  He had deserted the Lord, but he was still following at a distance.  At a distance, perhaps he thought no one would know he was a believer in Jesus Christ.  At a distance, maybe nothing associated with Jesus, none of the charges nor the punishments, none of the suffering and ridicule, none of the whippings and the carrying of a heavy cross, at a distance maybe none of that would stick to him.  At a distance.  Still following Jesus, still watching him closely, still concerned with his cause and his person and his outcome.  Still following, still listening, still searching, but at a distance, in a way that no one would know he was with Jesus.  At a distance where he could not be accused of being one of his, where no one would recognize him for having seen him hanging around Jesus, in the darkness, in the shadows of the evening’s gloom, where he would not be known as a Christian and could say and do and act however would best disassociate himself from any resemblance of a follower of Jesus.  Yet still following.

I am fond of that old joking, self-deprecating phrase, “I resemble that remark.”  Does this resemble us?  Following Jesus at a distance?  Going to church on Sundays, but then when Monday comes around, nobody knows we’re a Christian, nobody recognizes us as a saint of God, nobody would accuse us of being a person of faith, a person who lives for Christ, who believes in the saving work of the blood of Jesus.  Is that us?  Going places and doing things and saying things that would suggest we have nothing to do with Jesus.   But then showing up on Sunday mornings, following Jesus, listening to Jesus, singing about Jesus.  But from a distance.  We believe, but only from a distance.  We don’t want folks to know.  We don’t want folks at work to know.  We don’t want folks at school to know.  We don’t want certain people in society to know that we actually do believe in Jesus, that he is the son of God, that he is the savior of the world, that he is the forgiver of my sins, the lover of my soul, my friend when I’m friendless, my help in the time of trouble, my doctor in a sick room, my lawyer in a court room.  Oh, and sometimes we’re so ashamed of him because of the consequences of enduring the derision and skepticism and mockery of a society that is less and less receptive to the idea that there is a higher power, that there is a God who sits high and looks low.  Gardner Taylor told the story of one man who approached him to intimidate him and his faith and said, “I am a good person but I do not believe in the existence of God,” as though he was one of the leading intellectuals of Athens.  And because of that concern for our standing amongst the those we admire, or those we fear, many of us like Peter, we would rather lie about our Lord than to deal with the consequences of a society that finds that type of faith and commitment to Christ to be out of touch, old school, a thing of the past, bizarre.  We would rather lie, deny that we go to church, deny that we can’t go out with them that night because we’re going to bible study, deny that we don’t stay out late on Saturday nights because we have to get up early for Sunday School.  We’ll lie, deny the Lord, deny our faith, deny that when we needed him the most, Jesus was there for us.  Deny!

Peter when he deserted the Lord followed him at a distance.  And look at what happened.  Just for our curiosity, just for our own motivation and inspiration as we who are following at a distance might need to know what happened to one who deserted the Lord and followed at a distance.  Look at Luke 22 verse 60, when Jesus was in the home of the high priest, and Peter was among those waiting outside to see what would happen, so that we have an understanding of the close proximity of these persons in this scene.  It says, “But Peter said, “Man, I do not know what you are talking about!”  At that moment, while he was still speaking, the cock crowed.  The Lord turned and looked at Peter.  Then Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said to him, “Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times.”  And he went out and wept bitterly.”  Oh, have we not wept when we realized we have denied the Lord, when our shameful acts have been brought to light, when we realized all that God has done for us and how little we have done in return?  Have you wept?  I know I’ve wept, when I let him down and then came to church and saw that old rugged cross.  When I’ve made my mistakes, hurt someone deeply, stumbled and fell, wounded those I’m supposed to be caring for.  I’ve wept.  The conviction of our sins, the shame of seeing the face to face confrontation of my denials and my Lord, of my sins and his blood, of my shame and his glory, of my selfishness and his nails.  Oh, how I’ve wept.  Forgive me lord!  I’m sorry Lord!  I blew it lord.  Have you wept?!

Any others who deserted the Lord?  It said that all the disciples deserted him.  One of them followed at a distance.  But there were others.  Turn with me to John chapter 19, the 25th verse.  There it says, “Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.”  They deserted the Lord and fled, but something happened as they fled.  As Jesus was being tried on trumped up charges with false witnesses giving false testimony, as they argued and persuaded and yelled and shouted for Pilate to have Jesus crucified, something happened to these women.  Maybe when they learned that he had been beaten and whipped and mocked and forced to carry his own cross through the streets of the city, something happened to these women.  Oh I don’t know.  Maybe they thought like the words of that old hymn, “was it for crimes that I had done he groaned upon that tree?”  Something happened.  “For me they pierced his side, for me they  opened the fountain, the crimson cleansing tide…” Oh I don’t know, maybe someone said, “but after all he has done for me, after what I went through, how he stood by me.  After I was filled with demons and Jesus came and filled me with his Holy Spirit.  I must go back.  I can’t let him die alone.  I can’t let him think that I’ve forgotten how good he’s been.  I must tell Jesus that I love him.  I must tell him how grateful I am for all he’s done for me!”  Something happened to them, and those who were deserters decided like that one leper who was walking away when he realized that the Lord had healed him, he said, “I must go back and thank him.  Thank you Jesus.  For your healing, for your saving blood, for your forgiveness, for your redemption, for your salvation!”  Thank you!

When disciples desert, sometimes they follow at a distance, sometimes they turn back and get to the cross of Jesus.  But one more example of when these disciples deserted.  Turn to Luke 24 verse 13.  See there with me, “Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jeusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them.”  See, some of the deserters kept deserting, kept walking away from the cross, kept walking back to the city where they used to be, to the life they had before the Lord, to the way they used to do things.  And while they didn’t follow at a distance, while they didn’t turn back and get to Calvary for the cleansing flow, the miracle of miracles is that while they were walking away from Jesus, Jesus was walking toward them.  They forsook Jesus, but Jesus didn’t forsake them.  They, oh who am I kiddin, WE go our own ways, do things we used to do, walk away from Jesus, stray from Jesus, but thanks be to God that Jesus still loves us, still comes after us, still calls out our names.  What did the song say?   He walks with me and he talks with me.  When I’m right and when I’m wrong, when I’m weak and when I’m strong.  Jesus still loves me!

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Those who have not seen

John 20:24-29  v. 29 Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe…

I usually love approaching this text on Thomas, whose moniker with great fidelity has been passed along through the centuries as Doubting Thomas.  I love it because Thomas displayed similar attitudes of doubt and uncertainty that are readily present in many a person so labeling him with that derogatory term.  I love it because Thomas wanted proof rather than just accept some new doctrine, some new theology, some new interpretation of the scripture.  Thomas was not opposed to employing and employing well the mind that God had given him.  Thomas may well represent the intellectual aspect of our person, the inquisitive, curious dimension that seeks to understand one’s faith, whose study deepens one’s belief, whose relentless research reveals the depth and breadth of God’s majesty and grandeur in all facets of creation.  A Thomas spirit would have been valuable when the punch was being served down in Jonestown.  A Thomas spirit would have been an asset in that crowd that followed David Koresh.  A Thomas spirit, an inquiring mind, a Thomas spirit, those who pursue study and research before hitching their faith system to a wild and reckless religious claim, a Thomas spirit, those whose faith is informed by their study, whose heart is not detached from their mind, whose spirit is not disengaged from their intellect, a Thomas spirit, who respect tradition but who pursue knowledge and understanding, a Thomas spirit, those who use all of our being that God has gifted us to employ, who love the Lord their God with all their heart, all their soul, all their mind, all their strength.  A Thomas spirit is not a bad thing to have, necessarily.  It’s in part what pushes us to push our young people to study, to further themselves in the world of academia, to prepare their minds along with the preparation of their spirits.  It’s why we have a scholarship fund.  Jesus told his disciples to be wise as serpents but harmless as doves.  And too often Christians of more recent memory have discarded the one in favor of the other rather than put to good use the one in service of the other.  Young people, I want you to know that there is no distinction, no dividing wall, no separation of education and salvation, or of science and faith, or of intellectual pursuits as opposed to spiritual pursuits.  God is not afraid of us studying this world with scrutiny and with curiosity, with questions and with skepticism.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: God is not afraid of our questions, of our inquiries, of our studies, of our research.  It may well be that God is waiting for us to know more about him by knowing more about what God created.  Young people: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your mind, with all your soul and all your strength.  Love him with all you got.  Love him with your grade point average and love him with a consistent prayer life.  Love him with a Bachelor’s degree and love him by being faithful to worship services.  Love him with an Ivy League pedigree and love him with a reputation for serving the less fortunate.  Love him with everything you got.

I usually love approaching this text concerning him who was labeled, Doubting Thomas.  There is that portion of the scripture in verse 24 where Thomas, one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.  And I thought about preaching on that, how there is such a benefit, such a strength to be gained, such a renewal of spirit that can be experienced, such an experience of the miraculous that can only be gathered when you are with the sisters and the brothers in the faith.  There are many benefits to getting alone, to experiencing quiet, to listening to the still small voice of God.  But there are any number of blessings to be enjoyed only in the presence of our sisters and brothers.  Thomas was missing when Jesus appeared to the disciples.  Thomas stayed home when Jesus showed up.  Thomas was alone when the others were praying together and Jesus did something amazing.  You don’t want to miss out on the move of God.  Even if you’ve been discouraged, even if you’re down in the dumps, even if you’re wondering what’s going on, get to church.  Get with the saints of God.  Get with those who will pray for you, with those who have been through what you been through, those who know how bad it hurts.  Don’t stay home.  Get to church.  Don’t stay home in your confusion. Get to bible study.  Get involved in the church.  Get involved in an outreach program.  Get with the saints, the sisters and brothers who know what you’re going through and who will pray you through, who will hold your hand until Jesus shows up.

I usually love approaching this text about him whom they call Doubting Thomas.  I was aiming at something similar for this week’s sermon on this text when a series of events in my personal life, in the life of my family in California interrupted and laid siege to my thoughts and prayers, and re-translated this text for me through the lenses of bewilderment and lack of understanding of what in the world God was doing.  That 29th verse, where Jesus said, “Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  I’m going to have to ask you to cut me some pastoral slack today, and my hope is that what God has not allowed to release my heart this week will not only directly impact me and speak what God has spoken to me, but that there might be someone here who might know a little of what I’m talking about.  Who knows, maybe we can invert the Thomas experience of staying in our spiritual sadness and miss out on God, and instead in our gathering together this morning we might find strength through the words of Jesus.

Let me share with you my personal context through which I perceive this text.  I have a huge family in California, a huge one in Texas as well, and others scattered here or there in other places.  One family unit, my Tio Elias and Tia Rachel Flores, for whom my daughter is named, has been through some interesting times recently.  And I’m going to confine my references to cousins and uncles and aunts to just that nuclear family this morning.  About a year and a half ago, my Tia Rachel, who is getting up there in years now, was diagnosed with cancer in her hip, and the doctors told her that there was nothing more they could do for her.  They told her she had six months to live, maybe less. But my Tia Rachel is a praying woman.  I went to visit her two Christmases ago with my wife and girls, and she was weak in body, laying in a hospital bed that my cousin Isaac had placed downstairs in his guest bedroom.  She was weak in body, mind you, but not in spirit, not in mind, and not in voice.  And she’s a praying woman.  She’s a woman that the demons see and tremble.  And we prayed that Christmas in 2008, first me and then her, and my God did she pray!  She said in her prayer, “The doctors have told me I only have 6 months, but they don’t know my Doctor.  They don’t know what you’ve done for me.  They don’t know what you can still do for me.”  Lordy, if I didn’t come out of there saying to myself and MyWife, “If I was cancer I wouldn’t mess with her.”  They had given her six months to live, and today that was almost a year and a half ago that they gave her only 6 months to live.  Last Fall, the doctors pronounced her cancer free.  I saw her this past week and she was strong in spirit, mind, body, you name it.  A miracle of God.

And let me just say, I still believe in miracles.  My family is a product of miracles.  My mother is a miracle.  My aunt is a miracle.  My dad is a miracle.  My father in law is a miracle.  I am a miracle.  My family is a product of miracles.  Back in the day, one of my aunts had tuberculosis, the doctor took x-rays and showed the lungs filled with the disease.  And she went to church and the preacher prayed for her and told her, “just for me, go back to the doctor and ask him to take some more x-rays, just for me.”  And those second x-rays showed no sign of tuberculosis. The doctor juxtaposed one x-ray to the other, the one with tuberculosis and the other that had no sign of it. We’ve seen it.  We’ve seen the miracle working power of God in our lives.  We’ve seen God rescue the family from all kinds of mess.  I may have a degree from the University of Southern California and another from Princeton, but I still believe in miracles because I’ve seen them for myself.

In the context of this scripture there are four types of people.  One of them are those who have seen and have believed, those who have seen God work in their lives and have believed in God as a result.  I am one such person.  I have been blessed to see the grace of God in my life.  I have seen God open up doors for me.  I have seen God put me through college, put me through graduate school.  I have seen God get me a job when I absolutely positively had to have a job.  I have seen God bless me with a wonderful, intelligent, spiritual, Christ-like woman that everybody keeps asking me, “how in the world did you get her?  What you got on her?”  I have been blessed by God.  I have seen God bless me with two wonderful children, healthy children.  I have seen it.  God has kept me, God has protected me, God has watched over me, God has loved me, God has forgiven me, God has saved me.  I have seen it for myself, the blessings of the Lord, the hand of God moving in my life, directing me, guiding me, shepherding me.  I have seen, and therefore I believe.  God healed my mother of cancer, twice.  God healed my father of heart disease.  I have seen and therefore I believe.  And I know I’m not the only one.  Got many stories here, many saints here, folks who can testify that they have seen God’s hand in their lives, seen God bless them, seen God heal them, seen God lead them.  There are four types of people in the context of this scripture this morning.  One of them is those who have seen and have believed.  The disciples saw the resurrected Jesus and because of that, they believed.

The second type of person is the person who has seen and has not believed. And there are those.  In Matthew 28 the scripture tells us that even after Jesus had appeared to them, there were still some among the 11 disciples who still doubted.  And I got to tell you, there are still folks today who have seen the blessings of the Lord in their lives and still do not believe.  They got good health, reasonable wealth, doing just fine by the grace of God.  They have a good marriage, a good set of children, luxurious lifestyles, plenty of toys, but they still do not believe.  People walking around with the blessings of the Lord in their lives and still don’t go to church, still don’t bow before the presence of the Almighty, still don’t praise him, still don’t serve him, still don’t love him.  Folks who are consuming all God’s blessings, breathing up God’s air, eating up God’s food, drinking up God’s water, using up God’s Earth, never blessing anyone in return, never showing gratitude in return, never displaying a sense of stewardship and gratefulness for all God’s done, for life and health and strength.  They spend their existence receiving and never giving, asking and never acknowledging, consuming and never distributing.  Shame!  Shame!  These are folks who have seen the hand of God at work in their lives, seen their loved ones recover from cancer, seen their marriages survive catastrophic circumstances, and still don’t go to church, still do not believe!  I don’t understand how someone can look at the intricate workings of the human body, study DNA and the ramifications of knowing the blueprint of life to that depth, or those who study the heavens and the stars and the constellations and the atmosphere, or whatever the dimension of science one might pursue and do NOT come away asking, “when I consider the heavens, the works of thy hands, what are humans that thou art mindful of us?”  I don’t know how you come away and NOT declare, “How great thou art!”  I don’t know how you come out of a classroom with more knowledge of the universe without lifting your head up and saying, “Thank you, Lord!  The earth rotates on its axis and nothing but you is holding it up.  You positioned us just the right distance from the sun, with just the right gravitational pull, with just the right layers of atmosphere to give us life, to sustain life.  Thank you Lord.  For by him all things exist, and through Christ all things consist!”  I don’t understand it, but there are those who have seen and still do not believe.

Let me move on to the third type of person from the context of this scripture.  There are those who have seen and have believed, those who have seen and have not believed.  And then there are those who have not seen and have not believed. Maybe you’re one of these today, someone who prayed and prayed and did not see God answer your prayer, did not get what you asked for, had your heart broken because you hoped and believed and it didn’t come to fruition.  You did not see the miracle working power of God for yourself, in your life, in your circumstance, in your sickness, in your family.  And the result of your deductions was that you did not believe in God, did not give your heart to Christ, did not base your life on the teachings of Jesus because you did not see God’s power at work for yourself.  Thomas was one such person until he actually saw the Lord, and thus he would have continued to be one who had not seen and did not believe.  I’ve known many a person who lost faith in Christ, stopped coming to church, blamed God for not healing their loved one, blamed God for not rescuing their marriage, blamed God for not allowing them to keep that job they loved, blamed God for their economic calamity.  I’ve seen folks who used hurricanes and earthquakes tsunamis and wars and humanity’s inhumanity to humanity as a reason or an excuse for why they don’t believe.  They say, “if there is a God, how could he let that happen?  How could there be such poverty, such hunger, such murder, such rape, such abuse in the world if there was a God?”  They have not seen and therefore they do not believe.  They haven’t seen justice, haven’t seen hope, haven’t seen love, haven’t seen Jesus, and therefore they have not believed.

And I understand that.  I truly do.  I mean, I can argue with everyone of them about what goodness there is in their lives, what hope and what faith and what love there is, even in the face of injustice, in the presence of poverty, in the midst of war.  My psychology professor declared in my freshman year of college that human beings were at our core evil and always would be because of the example he gave of modern day sex and slave trafficking.  And I can understand it.  But the ills of life have a blinding capacity for many so that they can’t see the goodness of God right next to them.  We go through one bad experience, and not to minimize it, but we tend to forget the lifetime of goodness that God has bestowed.  There was a woman in the bible who endured great trials and great tribulation and declared to her husband, “Curse God and die.”  But Job said to his wife, “Shall we receive the good at the hand of the Lord and not receive the bad?”  There are some who have not seen the hand of God in their lives, who didn’t get the miracle, who didn’t have the easy life, who didn’t get the American dream, and for many of them that’s their rationale for not believing.

But then Jesus said to Thomas in what would be Jesus’ final beatitude, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  I told you about my Tia Rachel and how God healed her of cancer.  Well, 25 years ago her son Moises married his wife, Crystal.  And Crystal and Moe were just the best.  I could go on all day long about their love, and I didn’t mind at all when Moises did go on this past Thursday.  He could have talked about their love for twice as long as he did and I would have loved every minute of it.  Because love like that is a miracle in itself.  But less than a year ago, Crystal was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.  She knew right away that it was bad; her best friend is a nurse and helped her read the reports that told her it didn’t look good.  But Crystal, like my tia, was a praying woman.  Heck, her mother in law is a praying woman, and her mom is a praying woman.  And we come from a family of miracles.  But it was this past Easter Sunday when my tia and tio were summoned out of church to go by Crystal’s bedside because it didn’t look like she was going to make it.  And Tia Rachel prayed and believed God for a miracle, and the pain subsided, the heart rebounded, things looked better, and perhaps they were going to see another miracle.  But it was not to be, even when a praying woman asked, even when the faithful called on the Lord, even when we trusted and believed because we had seen it before, we had seen God do great things.  But Crystal slipped away to her heavenly home a week ago Friday.  Our prayers for a miracle, our hopes for a wife, our hopes for a mother, for a daughter, for a sister, for a friend, we didn’t see the miracle this time.  We didn’t get what we asked for.  Moises and his daughter Lizzie and his son Moises Jr. they didn’t see it.  My cousins Rebecca and Miriam and Isaac and Marcos and Elias, we didn’t see it.  We didn’t get the miracle.  Becky said to me afterward in tears and grief, “This is the worst thing that ever happened to us.”  Miriam said in her remarks during the ceremony, “This is such an injustice.”  Moises in his tribute to his wife said, “I’m a ruined man.  She was everything to me.”  And yet, there we all were, family and friends, hearts broken and tears flowing, raising our voices to God in praise, saying, “How great is our God, How great is our God, How great is our God!”  We didn’t see the miracle we desired.  We didn’t see the resurrection power of Christ on display. But we love the Lord!  Blessed!!

Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed!  Blessed are those who didn’t get what they asked for and yet trust.  Blessed are those who wonder why, who don’t understand, who are still waiting, still hoping, still trusting.

Moises said Thursday at the conclusion of his tribute, “to know God is to love God.  And to love God is to trust God.  And to trust God is to serve God.”  Blessed are those who have not seen but have still believed. And he’s not the only one.  History is filled with examples of those who did not see but who believed.  Slaves who trusted without seeing freedom, poor folks who trusted without ever getting rich, oppressed folks who never were liberated but never ceased to praise his name.  I’ve known church members who never did get what they asked for but kept on serving, kept on working, kept on believing.

Blessed are you who have not seen!  Oh that word which communicates that of all the people there are, you’re the ones that God admires, you’re the one that God smiles when he thinks about you, you’re the one he’s proud of, you’re the ones that light up his life.  Because you trust him.  You don’t always understand him, but you love him so you trust him.  Trust him that he knows what’s best, trust him when it doesn’t make any sense, but he’s God and you love him so you trust him.  And one of these days, when we cross to the other side of Jordan, maybe like it’s just like the old folks used to say, “we’ll understand it better by and by.”  But until then, I trust you!  I trust you!  “Blessed are you who have not seen and yet have still believed.”

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Death And The Resurrection

John 21:20-23 v. 23  “So the rumor spread in the community that this disciple would not die…”

A few weeks ago, Thelma Tillman came in to the church and told us that her son had died, and that we would need to prepare a memorial service for him for what turned out to be yesterday, April 10.  Then, last weekend, Eltee Tisdale passed away after battling Alzheimer’s and diabetes for years, and we had his funeral on Friday, April 9.  Last Sunday, during Easter services in California at my brother’s church, my uncle Elias and Tia Rachel were summoned out of worship because the doctors had told my cousin Moe that his wife was at death’s door.  And she finally succumbed on Friday morning while I was preaching for Eltee’s funeral.  Last Tuesday, my good friend, Bruce Hawkins, called me and said that he needed me to preach a funeral at his parlor for a family that had no church home.  And he calls me a few times a year to help out like that because he knows I love the opportunity to preach Jesus to people.  And that funeral was Thursday.  Thus, in the aftermath of the celebration of the resurrection of our Lord Jesus, I preached at three funerals and mourned the loss of a beloved cousin and friend.  I don’t know about you, but Easter was supposed to be a season of new life, and instead people have kept on dying anyway.

A lot of us suffer in life on top of the tragic events and terminal diseases and relational heartbreaks, but added to that from the misunderstood expectations.  Sometimes, knowing what to expect makes all the difference in the world in how we handle ourselves in a less than desirable set of circumstances.  And sometimes, there is not a thing in the world you can do to prepare for it; you just have to live life sometimes, prepare the best you can, and be flexible when things are not quite the way we thought they would be.  It’s a quality in life that I’ve had instilled in me from my days as a Pentecostal preacher, when you never know when the pastor might tap you on the shoulder and say, “the guest preacher can’t make it; you’re preaching in 45 minutes.”  I used to never leave home for church without some kind of outline of a sermon that I could preach.  Now, since I’m the pastor with a stable full of associates, I figure if something goes wrong I’ll just tap one of them on the shoulder.  “You’re it!”

But some things, you just can’t prepare for no matter how you try.  I tried to talk to my children about how to ride a bike, told them to balance themselves, told them to pedal one foot in front of the other, told them to steer the handle bars straight, told them to wear a helmet.  But when they each got on their bikes with out the training wheels to support them, all kinds of thoughts ran through their minds and there was really no way of telling them what it would feel like to balance themselves, how to do it.  The English language failed me, and for that matter so did the Spanish curse words I know.  But they each eventually got up on their bikes and pedaled and maintained balance, figured it out how they were going to go forward without falling, kept on pedaling and kept on going. And all I could do was cheer them on.  I could prepare them best I could for what to expect, but some things, you just have to go through.

A case in point is on display in the aftermath of the resurrection of our lord and savior, Jesus Christ.  He arose the victor from the dark domain, the song says, emerged with the keys to death, hell and the grave, some say.  He walked through the walls into the upper room, he was whisked away from the Emmaus Road after they recognized him praying over a meal there.  They were able to put their fingers in the holes of his hands and their hands in the open piercings of his side.  Amazing stuff, no?

But what did that mean for his followers?  What were they to expect in terms of their own ability to circumvent death in this manner?  He had said that he that believeth in me shall never die.  What did that mean in the light of his resurrection from the dead?  Were they to never die?  And what about Jesus’ promised return.  There was this rumor of a story that Jesus had told John that he would never die, that he would remain until I come, the rumor went.  Did that mean that Jesus would return in the span of one lifetime?  What were they to expect concerning death in the aftermath of the resurrection of Jesus?

And to make matters more indefinable, this was a group that had previously misunderstood what to expect about Jesus on a  prior occasion.  They thought he was the one to redeem Israel, thought he was going to throw off the yolk of Roman oppression and liberate the Jewish nation from foreign occupation.  And when he was arrested in Gethsemane, convicted before Pontius Pilate, and crucified on Calvary, all them expectations went out the window.  But when he arose, all sorts of new thoughts went through their minds, none of which were clear thoughts about what to expect concerning Jesus, concerning Jesus’ second coming, and concerning their own death and resurrection.  It was all quite vexing.

Apparently, based on the writings of Paul who addressed this issue on more than a few occasions in his writings to the churches of Corinth and Thessalonica and even to Timothy, the early church had an expectation based on Jesus’ resurrection that they might not die at all, that Jesus would come for them as he had stated in John 14, “if I go away, I will come again and receive you unto myself, that where I am, there you may be also.”  So they must have interpreted that statement of Jesus combined with his other statement from John 11 spoken to Mary, “he that believeth in me shall never die,” plus the actual physical resurrection of Jesus himself from the dead, all that led them to expect that  they would never die.

The difficulty began when one by one, folks began to die, as folks are prone to do.  That’s the thing about human flesh: it tends to wear out, whether before or after the warranty.  The confusion in the first century church was rampant, which was why Paul had to write repeatedly about those who sleep, or who have died.  It’s also the context that provides impetus to a particular understanding about this 21st chapter of John and how and why it may have come to be.  The theory among many Christian scholars is that the last chapter of John’s gospel was a later addition to rest of the book itself, and there are very good reasons behind this theory, none of which, I want to insist, makes the bible any more or less God’s word.  But if you read the last two verses of the 20th chapter, it reads like a concluding statement to a gospel, or a testimony at the very least.  “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.  But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”  Sounds like he’s ready to open the doors of the church to me.  There are other more technical reasons such as the lateness of the text, near the end of the first century, and the unlikelihood in the minds of some that John would have been alive at the time of the writing.  Raymond Brown, one of the best scholar’s of the past century on this gospel, wrote some well-researched support for it actually being John who wrote it.  Yet even he looks at the 21st chapter and finds reason for considering this to be a later addition, and here’s the scenario that makes him think so:

He imagines that John was in Ephesus preaching and growing a church in the latter decades of the 1st century, and that the church there had the same anxieties about Christians dying prior to the second coming of the Lord.  But here was one of the original 12 disciples, perhaps the Beloved Disciple of whom he wrote of himself in his gospel, and he was living a very long time.  And then there was this story that John was telling his congregation of his experience with Jesus that the Lord had said of him when speaking to Peter after the resurrection, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?  Follow me!”  The first century church may have been clinging to this thought, that as all the other saints were dying before the second coming of Jesus, some as martyrs for preaching that Jesus rose from the dead, others from natural causes, but maybe it was all on this one disciple, John, who was outliving them all.  Maybe it was only about him, that Jesus would return before John died.  The possible scenario that Raymond Brown posits is that after writing his gospel to its conclusion in chapter 20 and verse 31, that John, too, died.  Perhaps panic set in amongst the early Christians now, not knowing what to make of not only all the saints of the church dying prior to the second coming of Jesus, but even John dying.  Confusion must have been rampant.  What are we to believe now?  What are we to do now?  Christians die just like sinners even after the resurrection of Jesus.  Christians suffer just like others even after the resurrection.  Christians go through trials and heartaches and misery and anguish just like those who aren’t Christians.  What now?  What do we do now?

Raymond Brown’s theory is that the community of believers in Ephesus had been taught for decades by John not that Jesus said, “he will remain until I come,” but that Jesus said to Peter, “If it is my will that he remain.”  Thus, the community of believers in Ephesus felt this story of John’s had to be added to the compilation of the other 20 chapters about Jesus that John had communicated over the years so that the early church would be comforted, would be calmed from their confusion and their added pain of dealing with a theological expectation that just had no basis in being a promise of God.  And deducing from how often Paul wrote about this subject, and how John wrote about it in the epistles and likely in the Revelation, the first century church must have had itself one huge crisis of faith on its hands when even the last disciple, the beloved disciple, had died and Jesus still had not come back.

Let me see if I can apply any of this to our modern 21st century church.  Every now and then, I come across some folks who have experienced Jesus Christ in their lives, who have been raised to walk in the newness of life with Jesus, who have become new creations in Christ, old things passed away and all things are new.  But when the first sign of trouble comes, when the first sign of the old life, the same old problems, the same old bills, the same old hangups and temptations, the same old trials come their way, 21st century saints have trouble understanding what’s going on, just like 1st century saints did.  When we’ve been reborn, renewed, revived by the resurrected savior of our souls, Jesus Christ, and then death comes knocking on our door anyway, heartache comes knocking on our door anyway, terminal diseases and untimely death and loss of jobs and inability to pay our bills comes our way anyway, 21st century Christians sometimes don’t expect that.  Sometimes we don’t expect that a God who can do anything but fail, a God who can raise up Lazarus from the dead, a God who can heal lepers and unstop deaf ears and make the lame to walk, a God who himself arose from the dead with all power in his hands, we don’t  expect a God like that to be either incapable of nor unwilling to prevent such tragedies from happening in life.

I’ve been to many a wedding, seen many a blushing bride, seen their hopes and expectations on their faces in the form of smiles and glittering eyes and longing glances.  And I’ve also been in that office with those same couples, wondering why it’s so tough, why he won’t act right, why she won’t act right.  Heck, I’ve been there myself.  I was counseling a couple recently and I was going over these types of expectations, and how every couple argues and disagrees and conflicts.  And they asked me how soon after my wedding did me and my wife start having arguments.  And I told them, soon as we finished marching up the aisle out the church…

Listen, what I want to communicate here today to you is that just because you serve a risen savior, just because you have Christ in your heart, just because you have seen his healing power at work in your life and lord knows I’ve seen him at work in mine, seen him move in your life, seen him make you a new creation in him, doesn’t mean that we still won’t hurt.  It doesn’t mean we still won’t cry.  Doesn’t mean we still won’t die.  And if we expect to stop being human just because we serve a risen savior, we’re setting ourselves up for even greater disappointment than would already be accompanying life’s difficulties as it is.  And even if I tell you what we can expect as Christians, that we’re still going to hurt, that we’re still going to have to sigh, still have to cry, still have to die, I want you to know that it’s still going to be hard even knowing that it’s coming up.

So what are we supposed to do? What encouragement is there from the Lord concerning our humanity in the face of his resurrection?  Why did the first century believers include this story in the gospel account of John, and why did the early church fathers insist that it be included in the canon of scripture for 21st century Christians to read?  What are we supposed to do when we believe in a resurrected Jesus and death keeps surrounding us?  What do we do when we serve a risen savior and we keep on going through the valley and the shadow of death?  What do we do when we fail to comprehend properly what to expect in the Christian life, what to expect concerning death, what to expect concerning following Jesus through the storms of life?

Well, I’m going to have to go back to the little story of teaching children how to ride a bicycle.  For no matter what I taught them, they were still going to have to go through it for themselves.  But when they got up pedaling, got moving forward, and the excitement of being upright on a two wheeler was setting in and like Peter they began to look to the left and to the right and worry about how they’re going to stay up, the only encouragement I could muster was, “keep pedaling!”

Oh, my sisters and my brothers, keep pedaling!  Keep believing in Jesus Christ.  Even in sorrow, keep pedaling.  Even when you don’t understand, keep pedaling.  When it hurts so much, when you feel like God’s not listening, keep pedaling.  Keep pedaling!  Keep believing in Jesus Christ.

And if I can encourage you a little as you try to keep pedaling for Jesus: The facts are still that Jesus got up from the grave.  The facts are still that he did emerge victorious from the grave.  The facts are that he did rise again.  Death couldn’t hold him down.  Roman guards couldn’t hold him down.  Conspiracies to silence his message couldn’t hold him down.  Nothing could hold him down.

Paul wrote it this way, “I do not want you to be uniformed brothers and sisters about those who have died so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.”  Thing is, we still have hope because Jesus did conquer the grave.  I may not understand what’s supposed to happen to the Christian life as we live it here.  But I’m going to keep pedaling because I have a hope in Jesus.  I may not have all the answers as to death, suffering and sorrow, but I’m going to keep pedaling because I have hope in Jesus.  I’m going to keep preaching Jesus.  I’m going to keep singing about Jesus.  I’m going to tell the world about how marvelous my savior is.

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Can’t Hold a Good God Down

Matthew 27:62-66  v. 64  “Therefore command the tomb to be made secure until the third day…”

One thing I’m seeing this year as I look at the resurrection story of our savior is that no matter how hard people tried, they just couldn’t hold Jesus down.  When he was born in Bethlehem of Judea, and Herod tried to have the baby Jesus executed, Mary and Joseph were warned by an angel to flee to Egypt, because you can’t hold a good God down.  The devil came to him in the wilderness, tempting him three different times, all of it to no avail because you can’t hold a good God down.  The crowds got angry with his preaching one day and threatened to throw him off a cliff, but Jesus walked calmly through the midst of the crowd and went on about his business because you can’t hold a good God down.  The Pharisees tried to trip him up with his words, asking difficult questions, trick questions to try to get him to mis-speak and put him at odds with either his religious community or his country, “Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to Caesar?”  Oh, I know folks like this, religious folk who are looking to trip you up.  But Jesus adeptly answered the question with a question, put them on the spot, “whose image and circumscription is on this coin?”  And when they answered, “Caesar’s,” Jesus said, “Then render unto Caesar those things that are Caesar’s and to God those things that are God’s.”   Because you can’t hold a good God down.

Then Judas, one of Jesus’ own disciples, turned on him, set him up entrapped him in the Garden of Gethsemane and the Temple Police arrested him there on charges of blasphemy.  They took him to the civil authority, to Pontius Pilate and yelled, “Crucify him!  Give us Barabbas!”  They whipped him and beat him and bloodied him and mocked him.  They led the weary savior through the streets of Jerusalem outside the city gates to the hill called Calvary and they nailed him to a tree, gambled over his garments, taunted him to come down from the cross, publicly humiliated him before his mother  who was forced to watch her own son die an ignominious death lifted up on a tree.  They buried him in a borrowed tomb, sealed it up with a heavy stone, and all thought that he was down and out, never more to rise.  And just to make sure, the text we read says that they wanted to make sure that they would never have to hear about Jesus ever again.  So they set guards outside the tomb of Jesus to try their level best to keep him from rising again, tried their best to silence the savior, tried their best to stomp out his message, tried their best to hold him down.  But even nails in his hands, even a crown of thorns in his head, even piercing him with a spear in his side, even giving him sour wine with vinegar to drink, even sealing him up in a tomb with a stone to block the entrance and securing it with guards couldn’t stop Jesus.  No matter how much they heaped on Jesus, you can’t hold a good God down.  He got up!  He arose!  Just like he said he would!  You can’t keep a good God down!  The hymn writer put it this way:  “Death cannot keep its prey!”  “Vainly they sealed the grave.”  “Death in vain forbids him rise.”  But I kinda like the hip hop way Mary J. Blige said it, “you can’t hold a good God down.”  They tried to hold him down when he was a baby, tried to hold him down as an adult during his intellectual pursuits, tried to hold him down by having him arrested and put to death.  But they never realized that you can’t hold a good God down!  The poet, William Cullen Bryant, was right when he penned his poem, “The Battlefield,” and said, “Truth crushed to the earth shall rise again.”  You can’t hold a good God down!

And let me just drop a word to you this Easter Sunday in case I don’t see you again for a while, for when you need it most, and that word is that if they couldn’t hold Jesus down, and if the same Jesus lives in you, the same power of God lives in you, the same life-force, same Holy Spirit lives in you, than my sister and my brother, they can’t hold you down neither.  No matter what you been through, how bad it’s gotten, how messed up it is, how low you might go, I come to tell you that because Jesus got up, you can get up, too.  You don’t have to stay down.  You don’t have to stay the way you are.  You may have been knocked around, knocked down, maybe even knocked out.  But get back up!  Get it together, my sister and my brother, because if there’s one thing this story tells us is that you can’t hold a good God down.

In Mary J. Blige’s uplifting appeal to those whom she called, “my sisters, my troubled sisters,” a song she called, “Good woman down,”  the lyric expresses the sentiment of encouragement to those who have been in trouble like she was, those who been knocked down like she was, those who have been abused but who refuse to lose like she did.  But Mary J. recalls how that used to be her, how it’s hard to sit back and see the same thing that happened to her happen to you.  But she got out, she got up, she made it, and so she encourages others who are similarly troubled when she writes,

“It doesn’t matter what they say or do,

don’t let it get to you,

don’t be afraid,

you can, you can, you can break through,

take what I’ve been through

to see that you can’t hold a good woman down.

Went to the same point of giving up, I thought I had enough,

went to the edge of the ledge but I didn’t jump,

my life sums it up, that you can’t hold a good woman down.”

Thing about it is that even in our text, folks were trying to hold women down then, too.  It ain’t nothing new, women being held down by abusive husbands, by a compliant social systems, by toxic relationships, by oppression, by discrimination, by unjust laws, by unfair employment practices, by their own mistakes sometimes, but it ain’t nothing new.  But the resurrection story itself provides evidence that Jesus called women who had been held down, who had been prostituted, who had been demon possessed, but Jesus set them free, and Jesus called them to preach, told them at the tomb to go tell my brothers, the essence of being ordained to proclaim the gospel of Jesus because Jesus himself ordained that they do so.  And for centuries, folks have been trying to hold good women down, down from preaching the gospel, down from being pastors of churches, down from their rightful, Christ-ordained places in the church and in society.  But the message to my sisters today, no matter what you been through, no matter where you find yourself in life, like Mary J. says, you can’t hold a good woman down.  From Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to Mary Macleod Bethune and Marian Anderson, you can’t hold a good woman down.  From Miriam, Ruth and Deborah to Harriet Tubman, Barbara Jordan and Michelle Obama, from preachers like Euodia, Syntyche and Priscilla in the New Testament, to preachers like Cheryl Wade, Eloise Scott, Robin Smith, Audrey Alston, Rebecca Irwin-Diehl, Linda Parker, Pam Smith, you can’t hold a good woman down.  Folks may continue to try, may continue to discourage, may continue to hinder and discriminate, but Mary J. is right and so is Jesus Christ, you can’t hold a good woman down.

Don’t worry my brothers, my troubled brothers.  The twelve men who followed Jesus, Luke’s gospel says that the religious authorities had so intimidated them, threatened them, trying to keep them down so that they stayed locked up in the upper room until they got the word that Jesus was alive.  In the book of Acts, every time they preached Jesus, the authorities would arrest them, killed a few of them, trying to stomp them out so the gospel of Jesus Christ would die with them.  And my brothers who made their own mistakes, who caused their own situation, like Peter, who denied the Lord, who messed up, who blew it, I want you to know there is still a word for you this morning.  Because no matter how many arrests, no matter how many persecutions, how much suffering, how many trials, how many afflictions, or how many mistakes they made themselves, no matter how they tried to hold these brothers in Christ down, you can’t hold a good man down.

Oh, saints, I told you a little earlier that they tried to hold Jesus down when he was young, and they’ll try to keep our young people down, too.  Substandard schools, inadequate health care, unkept neighborhoods, hungry children all over the country, broken families.  But I want the young people to know this morning that they couldn’t hold a good God down, and they can’t hold you down neither.  You can rise above your circumstance.  You can overcome your surroundings.  You don’t have to become just another statistic.  You can be the exception.  You can be the aberration.  You can be the miracle of your neighborhood.  Because if you have Christ in your life, you can’t hold a good God down.

They tried to challenge Jesus intellectually to keep him down, and I know I got some folks going through the academic process, struggling to make it, struggling to read all your assignments, write all your papers, pass all your tests.  But the world of academia at times can make you feel like you’re down and out, can make you feel like there’s no way out sometimes.  But I want you to know, even if you’ve made your mistakes, had a bad start, having trouble dealing with the pressure, made some bad choices, I want you to know that you can’t hold a good God down.  You can still reach your goals, still get that degree, still be a blessing to others.  Because greater is he that is in you than he that is in the world.  You can’t hold a good God down.

Even if there’s some folks here this morning who made some huge mistakes, who got in trouble, got convicted, got locked up, like Jesus they stationed guards outside your cell to make sure you didn’t get out.  You’re ashamed, you’re humiliated, you’re embarrassed.  Your family is hurt by what you went through.  Your loved ones wonder what happened to you.  Society is laughing at you.  I want you to know today that Jesus knows what you’re going through.  Jesus has been there and done that.  Jesus hit rock bottom just like you, found himself locked up, guarded all night in a borrowed tomb.  And the story of Easter Sunday morning, the story of the resurrection conveys a clear message that even if we’ve been down, even if folks have given up on us, no matter what they say or do don’t let them get to you, don’t be afraid you can, you can, you can breakthrough.  Because he lives, we can still rise again.  Because he lives, we can still have a new life.

I was blessed the other night to preach one of the 7 last words of Jesus over at Grace Christian Fellowship, It is finished.  And I post my sermon manuscripts online on Facebook right now, you know, for those of you who took advantage of the 75 degree weather and went to the shore instead, or those who went shopping Friday night for your Easter suit or dress, or perhaps for those who live on the other side of the country. Well, one of my former bible school students from California read that same sermon from yesterday and wrote to me that he had been discouraged, something went wrong, not everything worked out the way he wanted.  I’m not sure what all he went through, but he read in the sermon that it is finished, that it’s over now, that you can’t start tomorrow until today is finished.  And he thanked me for the encouragement.  And then he wrote to me one word in Spanish that I used in a sermon twenty years ago and he was there for it.  It’s a word not easily translated into English, but when you’ve been knocked down and you need to muster the courage, the strength, the faith to keep on going, we used to tell folks in Spanish, Adelante!  You can do it!  Adelante, get back up and get back in the race.  Adelante.

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Be A Blessing

Matthew 3:13-17  verse 17  And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

There are a lot of things we can choose to be in this life.  And the thing I want to encourage us all to choose today and every day hereafter is to be a blessing.  You see, we can choose to be a preacher, choose to be a lawyer, choose to be a business-person, choose to be a ballplayer, choose to be a joke teller.  But the world would be so much better if more of us would choose to be a blessing.  Lots of folks are hung up on acquiring blessings, accumulating blessings, displaying blessings, naming and claiming blessings, calling blessings that be not as though they already were.  But we’d be more like Jesus if instead of hoarding up blessings, we chose to be a blessing instead.  We can choose to be a good dresser, choose to buy a fancy car, choose to live in an upscale neighborhood, choose to live the lifestyle of the rich and famous, choose to hang with the pretty and the popular, choose to be a metrosexual male or a diva whose got it going on female.  But imagine if all of us chose to be a blessing.  We can choose to be an adulterer, choose to be a player, choose to be a hater, choose to be violent, choose to be a bad steward of the earth, choose to be mean, choose to be a trash-talker, and choose to be a smart mouth, finger snapping, in your face, talk to the hand cause the face ain’t listening, self-centered, self-absorbed, macho male or female.  But the world has so many of those already that we’re in dire need of people who choose to be a blessing instead.

I’ve been looking back over my life these past few days, thinking of all the people who could have looked down on me but instead were a blessing to me.  I can think of the people from my church back in the day who could have told me that “all them preacher’s kids are the worst kids,” but who instead chose to be a blessing to me.  I can think of the Sunday School teachers who could have talked down to me but instead took time for me and taught me the bible that I still read and still believe to this day.  They chose to be a blessing to me.  They taught me about Moses and David and Deborah and Esther and Paul and Peter and they especially taught me about Jesus.  To this day, folks ask me where I got all my bible knowledge and I tell them that I got it from a bunch of women and men at Redeemer who chose to be a blessing to me, and because of that I can now be a blessing to so many others.  Oh, I want to encourage you to be a blessing today.  You don’t know if the child you teach in VBS might someday become a preacher or a teacher, a doctor who brings healing to people and gives the glory to the God who is the true healer.  You don’t know if the child you teach in Sunday School might someday be in trouble, but they’ll remember that you taught them to memorize a verse of scripture that says, “with God all things are possible.”  Oh, I want to encourage you to be a blessing to someone today.

I can think of the preachers who came to town when I was a little boy, and who could have dismissed me as a little know-it-all kid, they could have neglected me, could have rejected me, could have disregarded me.  But instead they joked with me, they talked to me, they hugged me, they loved me, they prophesied over me, they encouraged me, they told me I could make it.  They chose to be a blessing to me.  In college and in seminary, when I walked in to the office of Dr. Isaac Canales at Fuller Seminary, when I went to Pastor Fuller’s church in South Central LA, when I sat at the feet of Dr. Grant on Tuesday nights, when I went to Shiloh in Trenton to serve under Dr. S. Howard Woodson and Dr. Buster Soaries, and when I went to the denominational headquarters to see Dr. Jesse Miranda or Rev. Calzoncit and every single one of them helped me, smiled at me, took time for me, gave advice to me, pointed me toward scholarship money, toward academic opportunities that I never dreamed of, pointed me toward awards and jobs and preaching points and pastoral openings that turned out to be life-changing for me.  They didn’t have to take the time for just another college kid, just another know-it-all seminary student, just another young preacher with a couple of sermons who thinks he can preach like Paul.  They didn’t have to help me, be invested in me, listen to me, reflect with me, share with me, enlighten me, and encourage me.  But they all chose to be a blessing to me.  And the world would be a whole lot better off if we had more folks who chose to be a blessing.  I am preaching today to encourage us all to make a conscious decision to be a blessing.  I said, be a blessing!

Some folks look for ways to be a blessing.  They’re watching and waiting and hoping for the opportunity to be whatever kind of blessing they can be.  They may not have all these spiritual gifts that get lots of attention and get you on Christian television, but they’re just trying to be a blessing.  One time, and I’ll never forget this, when I was a young college student, just fresh off a preaching tour to Texas and New Mexico, I learned that three of my dearest friends from Texas, Lucy and Paul Garcia, Sr. and Paul Jr., had been in a horrible car accident and Lucy and Paul Sr. had perished.  And perhaps I hadn’t learned how to grieve at that young age, maybe didn’t know how to be anything but concerned with my own happiness and interests.  But that shook me up.  And it was a day later in church, standing over there and worshipping, singing songs to the Lord, that’s when the loss hit me like a ton of bricks.  I cried like a baby, and rather than let anyone see me crying like that, I slipped out the side aisle and went to the lobby of the church to be alone.  But there was a lady in the church, sister ChaCha, who was watching me, waiting for an opportunity to be a blessing to me.  She wasn’t an educated woman, wasn’t a Ph.D. in counseling, wasn’t an expert in grief and loss.  She wasn’t a preacher or a prophet, not a pastor nor a priest.  But she was watching me, waiting, hoping for an opportunity to someday be a blessing to me.  And from the other side of the sanctuary she saw me slip out unnoticed in the middle of praise up the side aisle to the back lobby.  So she went up her own side aisle to join me in the lobby of the church.   And I imagine that when she got there, she saw this young preacher crying and praying, angry at God, confused, frustrated, praying things like, “how could you let this happen, God?  Where were you?  Of all the people in the world, Lord, why them?”  And sister Cha-Cha, again, not an expert in grief studies but a Christian woman who had been through some things and was still going through some things, but who just wanted to be a blessing.  She sat down next to me and held my hand and prayed with me, told God to help me, told God to love me, told God to speak to me through my pain the same way God had spoken to her through her pain.  Oh saints, you don’t have to be a preacher to be a blessing.  You don’t have to be a pastor to be a blessing.  You don’t have to be a singer to be a blessing.  You don’t have to be a counselor to be a blessing. You don’t have to be an associate pastor to be a blessing.  But you can be a blessing if you choose to be a blessing.  You don’t have to evangelize like Paul, or prophesy like Isaiah or deliver like Esther or heal like Elisha.  You don’t have to sing like Miriam or dance like David, or be judge like Deborah or weep like Jeremiah.  But you can be blessing.  I don’t remember all or maybe even much of what Sister Cha-Cha said to me after she prayed with me that day.  But what I do know is that she was a blessing to me, she tried to be a blessing to me, she tried to encourage me, she tried to help me, she prayed for me.  Somebody prayed for me, had me on their mind, took the time and prayed for me.  I’m so glad she prayed, I’m so glad she prayed, I’m so glad she prayed for me.  And the bottom line is she was a blessing to me!  Oh saints of the most high God, be a blessing today!  Be a blessing!

I’m looking at Jesus in this text, seeing him at a memorable moment in the life of a young believer, his baptism by John the Baptist in the river Jordan.  And the voice came down from heaven, the scripture says, saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  There are ways to be a blessing.  My brother Jonathan was working two jobs while I was going to college, and he would see me after a football game sometimes when every one else was going to Tommy’s to celebrate and I didn’t have any money, and he would slip me a $10 bill and say, “Consider this a scholarship.”  Be a blessing.  Sister Ruth Davila, one of the senior saints in the Spanish congregation here, she didn’t have much, but when I would come home from Princeton between semesters, she used to give me $5 and she’d say, “por un hamburger de In-N-Out.”  And she still sends me a Christmas card every year and in it is a $5 bill.  And I take it and go down to Dalessandro’s and buy a cheesesteak every year in her honor.  Different ways to be a blessing.  Sometimes giving a little money to some college student is a huge blessing.  College students never have any money anyway.  And they’re trying so hard to get through, to make it to the next level.  And whether you remember what it was like and choose to be a blessing to them, or if you never went to college but want to be a blessing to someone so they can rise a little higher than you did, travel a little farther, make it a little better for them than you had it, than be a blessing!

Sometimes we give gifts to people to be a blessing.  When my brothers and I graduated from USC, mom gave us miniature trophies of Tommy Trojan with our name, year and degree of study on it.  It showed her pride in the accomplishment, and communicated her blessing to us.  When my wife graduated Temple University after transferring three times, twice on my account to follow my pastoral call, first to Jersey where she started up at Seton Hall and then after I got her pregnant and she gave birth to our first child and she was still going to school, then we moved to Philly and she started at Temple and I got her pregnant again, and after working full time for the last year of classes, raising two kids, being first lady at the church and still graduating Summa Cum Laude from Temple, I wanted to be a blessing to her the same way my family was a blessing to each other when we graduated.  And I bought her a Temple Owl that was twice as big as my Tommy Trojan with her name and year and degree of study on it, to show her how proud I was not only of what she had done but how she had done it.  Different ways to be a blessing.  And let me get off the freeway here for just a second, but let me say that it doesn’t matter how long it takes young people.  It doesn’t matter how many detours you have to take, how many audibles you have to call at the line of scrimmage, how many timeouts you have to use up.  You keep going on.  In Spanish we have a saying, No page, sigue, sigue!  Don’t stop!  Keep on keeping on!  I come to tell you, you can make it!  Don’t give up!  Don’t let Satan stop you. You can make it.

Looking at Jesus, and how his Father was a blessing to him in Matthew chapter 3, perhaps we all learn more about how we, too, can be a blessing to each other.  Surely, I desire that all our fathers would seek to be a blessing to their children, and there is no better example of fatherly blessing than watching God as the father of Jesus.  But all of us can be a blessing today, and all of us can examine the blessing that God the father was to Jesus the Son in this text and emulate that for ourselves with all around us.

Firstly, God was there.  When Jesus was being baptized, when he went through a religious rite of passage, when he was growing up, when he was developing, God was there.   And perhaps it can’t be said enough how important it is to be a presence in the lives of young people.  One reason everybody ought to go to church even when you’re elderly is to be involved in the lives of young people, to encourage them, to watch them, to cheer them on and to be a blessing to them.  Every time I go to Springside School to see my children perform or recite or play in a game, I’m trying to be a blessing to them.  I’m letting them know that I love them and that they’re important to me, and that I’m interested in their lives and their development and their growth and their maturity.  I know I’ve got a whole lot of grandparents and uncles and aunts and moms and dads who make every effort to get out of work early, cancel a lunch engagement, schedule your week around going to some small elementary school for that class play, for that chorus concert, for that junior orchestra performance, for that lacrosse game.  And the blessing communicated, when that child comes out on stage and looks out into the audience and sees mom and dad, grandma or grandpa, uncle or aunt, pastor or church member, see them out there waving at them trying to get their attention for a wave back.  And sometimes there’s the sadness of seeing a child with no one to wave to.  At my daughter’s school, they often offer two performances, one late in the afternoon and one in the morning so that parents and family have a chance to go to one if they can’t make the other.  But at that performance when that parent can’t make it, if I know that kid even a little bit and they don’t have someone to wave to, I’ll be there calling out their name, cheering them on, clapping for them, looking for them after the performance.  Just trying to be a blessing, letting them know someone loves them, someone is cheering for them, hoping the best for them.

I try to go to all the graduations that I can so that I can communicate the blessing to my young people, that I’m proud of them, that I care about them, that I wish them well for their future.  And sometimes, the school districts don’t check my calendar before they schedule their commencement exercises, and I wind up with two graduations at the same time, and I can’t make one or the other.  Sometimes they move them indoors for inclement weather and don’t have enough tickets to let the Rev. in, and I’ll be outside the gymnasium with my wife trying to sneak in, praying for them, thanking God for them.  Sometimes, they won’t move it into the gymnasium even if it’s pouring rain, and I’ll still be out there in the stands with my family and a broken umbrella, cheering when they say their name.  And when I look at this text, and know that God had plenty of folks to watch over, plenty of people to show up for, plenty of other prayers to be listening to, to know that God made the time to be there for Jesus’ baptism, to know that he made an effort, to know that nothing could keep him from being there, he was going to be there to communicate the blessing to his son, “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.”

I was in high school my junior year, and in the last semester one of the graduating senior students went through the horrible ordeal of learning that her mother had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and was in the hospital.  And maybe graduating high school doesn’t mean much to some, but to first generation immigrants who came to this country hoping their children could have a chance at the American dream, this was big stuff.  And at that graduation ceremony, I’ll never forget it, even though she was too sick to get out of bed, that mother had an ambulance bring her from the hospital to the football field and open up the back doors of that ambulance so she could hear them call her daughter’s name and see her walk across that platform and get her diploma, so her daughter would know that her mother was there, that she was proud of her daughter, that she loved her daughter.  I’m talking about being a blessing.  Be a blessing by being there, beloved.  If you can cheer them on, if you can watch them grow, if you can pat them on the back, if you can yell their name, whatever you can do, but be there.  Be there and be a blessing.

I had a lot of uncles and aunts who used to go to my games and concerts, but you always knew when Uncle Manuel was there because he always said something that every one could hear.  “All right way to go, that’s my nephew!” Look again at the text with me and see not only that God was there and that itself was a blessing, but that God said something to Jesus.  He said, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”  Oh how many times we use our words to wound and not to heal.  To hurt and not to help.  To break up instead of bind up.  Our words are a powerful thing, beloved.  We can bless or we can curse.  We can speak death or we can speak life.  We can be nasty or we can be loving.  My admonishment, my encouragement to you today is that we’ll be a blessing with our presence and a blessing with our words.  God had prophesied many a time to the generations of stiff-necked people who rebelled against him, he had spoken disciplines to them, spoken judgment to them, spoken punishments to them. But still, after all that, after his children choosing other gods, after they followed the ethics or lack thereof of the prevailing societies, after they had abandoned the commandments that God had given them, still here is God giving his only begotten son for you and for me, so that if we just believed in him we could have everlasting life, we could be reconciled to God, we could be back in right fellowship, restored the relationship, healed the wounds and saved our souls.  When God sent his only begotten son, Jesus, he said to him “This is my beloved son in whom I am well-pleased.”  He didn’t say all the things humanity had done wrong.  He said, “this is my beloved son.”  He didn’t say, “These lousy humans have never been faithful.”  He said, “This is my beloved son.”  He chose to be a blessing.  He chose to speak life.  He chose to be positive instead of negative.  And how important it is to hear words of life instead of death.  How important to hear from your sister or your brother, fro your trustee or your deacon, from your choir director or your usher, words of encouragement, words of praise, words that pick you up, words that lift you up, words that won’t let you stay down, words that love you and words that build you.

I told you earlier about my friends in Texas, Paul and Lucy Garcia.  And I’m still very good friends with Paul Jr., we talk every month or so, email, Facebook, text.  We talked once a while ago about his parents, and he said to me that he had learned something from their death that both haunted him and that he used as motivation for the rest of his life.  See, he was only 11 or 12 years old when his parents were killed in that car accident.  And he told me that he can’t remember ever having told his parents that he loved them.  He heard them tell him all the time, and it gives him great comfort to this day.  But it troubled him that he couldn’t recall telling them.  So I asked him, “how do you deal with that?”  And he said, “I learned to make sure I tell the people I love that I love them every day.  Every chance I get, I make sure my wife knows, my children know, my sisters and brothers know that I love them.  I tell them.”  He’s being a blessing to them every time he tells them.

Oh, maybe you can’t be Yolanda Adams, singing songs that bless millions.  But everyone can be a blessing to someone.

Maybe you can’t be TD Jakes preaching sermons and writing books that bless millions, but everyone can be a blessing to someone.

If you can’t be Gardner Taylor, if you can’t be Andrae Crouch , if you can’t be Barack Obama, you can still be a blessing to someone.

If you can’t be slim, if you can’t be tall, if you can’t be cut, if you can’t have it all, if you can’t be hot, if you can’t be cool, if you can’t be fresh, if you can’t make ‘em drool, then just be a blessing to someone.

You don’t have to be Moses parting the Red Sea,

Or Joshua knocking down walls,

Or David slaying Goliath,

But be a blessing.

You may not heal lepers, give sight to the blind, make the lame walk, make the dead rise, but be a blessing.

Oh saints, make the decision today to be a blessing.  Be blessing!  Not a hater, not a nay-sayer, not a complainer.  Be a blessing!  Encourage people.  Be a blessing.  Love people.  Be a blessing.  Tell them you love them, tell them they’re wonderful.  Tell them you admire them.  Tell them how great they are.  Be a blessing.

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A Tale of Three Scholars

A Tale of Three Scholars

Acts 26:19-29  v. 24  “You are out of your mind, Paul!”  v. 28 “Almost thou persuadest me to become a Christian.”

I want you to know this morning that it’s all right to be a scholarly person who loves Jesus.  Some folks like to assert that the two cannot coexist in one person, that either you will cling to the intellectual or to the spiritual, but not both.  Some say that once you get too much learning in you, all faith in Christ will be lost.  But I come to tell you that the bible applauds people who were educated and who loved Jesus. Nicodemus was a Pharisee reared in the Pharisaic tradition who loved Jesus. Joseph of Arimathea was well-educated and well-off and he loved Jesus.  Simon of Cyrene was from an intellectually astute country famed at that time for its scientific and astronomical advances, and he loved Jesus.  The people of Berea in Acts chapter 17 were of a more noble background than those from neighboring cities, and they loved Jesus.  Educated people have long loved Jesus.  Sir Isaac Newton, Galileo, and Louis Pasteur all loved Jesus.  The Wright Brothers, George Washington Carver, and Abraham Lincoln all loved Jesus.  Martin Luther King Jr. was a Ph.D. from Boston University, C.S. Lewis authored the Chronicles of Narnia and was professor at Oxford.  J.R.R. Tolkien authored the Hobbit, and they all loved Jesus.  Adam Clayton Powell was an esteemed congressman, Thurgood Marshall was a Supreme Court Justice, and Barbara Jordan was a legendary Congresswoman from the state of Texas, and they all loved Jesus.  Former President George W. Bush loves Jesus, and so does his rival former Senator Al Gore.  Barack Obama, graduate of Harvard Law School and head of the Harvard Law Review, former Senator from the state of Illinois and now the 44th President of the United States of America, and some twenty years ago when the doors of the church were opened he walked down the aisle of Trinity United Church of Christ and professed his love for and faith in Jesus Christ.  Got baptized to demonstrate that faith and that love for Jesus.  I want you to know this morning that it’s all right to be a scholarly person who loves Jesus.  Jesus said to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.  It’s all right to study seriously and to pray fervently.  It’s all right to have your name written on the parchment as a graduate of an Ivy League school and at the same time to have your name written in the lamb’s book of life.  It’s all right to study reading, writing and arithmetic, as well as to study Faith, Hope and Love.  It’s all right to know Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln as well as to know Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  It’s all right to have on your shelves the works of Plato, Aristotle and Socrates, and to have in the center piece of your heart the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.    I come to tell you this morning that it’s all right to be a scholarly person who loves Jesus.  There is no contradiction.  It’s not either/or.  It’s not one or the other.  But it’s all right to be a scholarly person who loves Jesus.

In our Tuesday lunch time bible study, Minister Audrey Alston has been taking the saints through the book of Acts.  And we recently came across this chronological collision of three persons, well-educated persons in the 26th chapter of the book of Acts.  Education in the Greco Roman world did not consist of universities and Ph.D. programs. Education in the early centuries of the Roman Republic consisted primarily of fathers passing on family traditions and skills to their sons. After reaching adulthood at the age of sixteen, the young man came under the guidance of an older man who groomed him in public speaking and other useful skills for a career as a member of a republic.  As the Roman empire expanded and covered the rim of the Mediterranean world and beyond, Greek educational ideas and practices influenced the Roman Empire. The conquest of Greece aided this process by producing Greek slaves, some much better educated than their Roman masters. A Greek slave tutored the child in simple reading until he went to elementary school at six or seven to be taught reading, writing, and arithmetic. At twelve or thirteen the boy went to a secondary school, where he studied mostly Greek literature until the middle of the first century B.C.E. Upper-class Romans were bilingual at this time. Students read the great Roman poets Virgil (70–19 B.C.E.) and Horace (65–8 B.C.E.), the historians Livy (59 B.C.E.–17 C.E.) and Sallust (86–35 or 34B.C.E.), the comic dramatist Terence (186 or 185–?159 B.C.E.) and, of course, Cicero, whose treatises systematized Greek rhetorical instruction. The highest level of Roman education began at about the age of sixteen and focused on rhetoric.

Above all, Greco-Roman education taught rhetoric, or the art of oratorical skills, to speak clearly and persuasively, a practical skill for future leaders of self-governing societies in which the spoken word meant a great deal.  You will note in the bible, in the New Testament, that one of the distinguishing marks of the disciples was that they were from Galilee, and that it was noticeable through the way they spoke.  When Peter sat by the fire awaiting word on the trial of Jesus, someone said, “you were one of them, I can tell by your speech.”  Later, in the book of Acts, it tells us that Peter and the apostles were praised for their speech, especially because they were perceived to be unlearned men.  Rhetoric, speaking ability, the ability to persuade with one’s arguments was valued most of all in the Greco Roman system of education.

Well, in our text, we have before us three different individuals, each with the highest academic credentials of the day.  Each of them experienced an interaction with the story of Jesus, none of them sharing the same response as the others, all of which may resonate with somebody here this morning.  Firstly, there was Festus, Prefect of the Roman province of Judea.  Porcius Festus was appointed by Rome to this position, the same position held years earlier by Pontius Pilate.  Since the historians of the day do not specify the early childhood of Festus, we have to rely on the generalities of that day to get a glimpse of his learning.  Each of the Roman curators of a province was reared in the hallways of Rome, steeped in the philosophy of Cicero and in the politics of the Roman Empire.  It is likely that Festus was trained well in history, in military matters, and certainly in speech.  He was not, however, all that familiar with the ins and outs of the Jewish culture, the peculiarities of their faith and the various theological controversies of that era.  But he didn’t need to be.  He was a Roman governor, a prefect, he was large and in charge of the population over which he ruled but did not understand.  He knew Cicero, but he didn’t know Jesus.  He knew rhetoric, but he did not know resurrection.  He knew Roman law, but he did not know Hebrew scriptures.

And so, when he entered office, Porcius Festus inherited a case leftover from the previous administration of Felix Antonius, a Jewish matter dealing with their religious leaders desiring to have Paul put to death, the same way that Jesus was, by using the Roman prefect to do the dirty work.  Festus, while well-educated, was not prepared to render an intelligent verdict on the matter since he had no idea what the devil the scuffle was all about.  But luckily for him, the neighboring tetrarch to the north, Herod Agrippa the II, was in town for a visit.  And Herod knew Jewish theology, the controversies and arguments of the day, and was often summoned to give advice to Roman authorities on Jewish matters.  Festus asked Agrippa then to hear the case of Paul and to advise on how best to proceed on the matter.  It is that hearing, then, that makes up the bulk of the 26th chapter, Paul telling Agrippa his story so that Agrippa can advise Festus.  Festus, educated in the Greco-Roman tradition, well-versed in Cicero and Livy, upon hearing Paul’s story of how Jesus died on the cross and was resurrected on the third day, Festus in all his education, in all his scholarship, in all his intellect said to Paul, “Are you crazy, Paul?”  Like we said last week, scientifically, the resurrection of the dead was impossible, outrageous, and anyone who believed such a thing was a nut.  The concept of Jesus rising from the dead was beyond Festus.     When it came to Jesus, he thought Paul was crazy to believe that anyone could be resurrected from the dead.  He had no capacity to understand a God who could raise the dead, who could redeem sinners, who could have a loving and personal relationship with God’s own children.  And so Festus, while a scholar, heard about Jesus, but had no desire to understand Jesus, instead opting to mock the incredible assertions about Jesus.  He was above this type of talk, above these holy roller Christians, above the need for the crutch of the religious faith in God.  He was educated, powerful, successful.  He didn’t need this God, no matter who testified for him.  A tale of three scholars.

Our second scholar, Herod Agrippa II, is an interesting character.  He hails from the line of Herodian kings who were appointed by Rome to rule over various provinces, such as Galilee and Idumea.  The Herodian lineage is intriguing because they claimed to be from the remnants of Jewish people who did not go to Babylon as slaves back in the 6th century BC.  The Jewish people regarded the Herodians as being nothing more than Edomites, rivals of the Jewish people who rejoiced  to see the destruction of Jerusalem and the humiliation of the Jewish people.  Kinda like how many of us get happy whenever the Cowboys lose to anybody, the Edomites didn’t really like the Jews.  This heritage, then, was problematic for the Jewish people, and they did not enjoy being ruled over by the Herodian dynasty.  But for the Romans, the Herodian kings did know their Jewish culture, were very familiar with the customs, with the theology, with the religious practices, and with the current theological disagreements.  On top of this education, Agrippa was also reared in the Roman tradition.  The ancient historians Josephus and Juvenal in their records of that time write that Agrippa was sent at an early age to Rome where he was raised and educated in the Roman court under the emperor Claudius.  He thus had the same training and education as Festus, and involved in the cultural norms of the Greco-Roman world.  Agrippa thus claimed to be a Jewish man fully aware of his obligations to God, fully aware of his own traditions and cultural norms and demands concerning ethics, sexuality, and purity.  But he was also in a Greco-Roman world that didn’t share the Jewish views about such matters, that had an entirely different sense of sexual ethics, a much looser sexual ethic in general where men could have intercourse with pretty much whomever they chose whether married of not.  Choosing between his Jewish heritage and his Greco-Roman education, Agrippa seems to have straddled the line, the best he could anyway, but gave in to the norms of the educated, more sophisticated culture of the Greco Roman world.  Juvenal wrote that his sexuality even crossed the lines of Greco-Roman cultural norms when he began a sexual relationship with his sister, Bernice.  Josephus wrote this as a rumor, but Juvenal detailed how Bernice would leave her husbands and return to her brother’s home for extended stays, including in our text where she was with Agrippa when he heard Paul’s testimony about Jesus.

And so here is Agrippa, hearing about the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus perhaps for the first time in his life, but having understood the tradition of the theology that it could happen.  The Pharisees and the Saducees had long been on opposite sides on the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead, Pharisees believing in it and Saducees not believing in it.  Thus, when Paul tells his story to Agrippa about having seen the resurrected Jesus, Agrippa was in a different place than his contemporary Festus.  He knew what Paul was talking about.  He knew it was possible that Jesus had indeed been crucified and been resurrected.  He had plenty of Greco-Roman education in him, but he also had an upbringing in the Jewish faith.  And hearing about Jesus moved Agrippa.  He was so moved by the testimony of Paul that his response is understood in the Greek language in a couple of ways.  One, and most likely, he told Paul that he was being persuaded rather quickly to become a Christian himself.  Educated in Rome, seated at the highest places of Imperial authority, but being persuaded by the story of Christ.  The King James Version put that phrase in this most powerful way, “Almost thou persuadest me to become a Christian.”  But while close to conversion, he determined that he would rather be in the majority culture, go with the hip crowd, hang with the power people, than to allow his heart to yield to the persuasive testimony of the apostle that Jesus had died for his sins and had been resurrected. Perhaps this is the most heart-breaking and sad verses of all of scripture. “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.”

A tale of three scholars.  One scholar, Festus, thought the story of Jesus ridiculous.  One scholar, Agrippa, thought the story persuasive, perhaps even truthful, but chose to cling to the Greco-Roman culture and the privileges of power he enjoyed therein.  But there was another scholar in that text.  For the apostle Paul, while a Christian convert, was as well-educated as anyone in the room.  Paul was a Roman citizen, and thus enjoyed the educational training and familiarity with the cultural norms of the Greco-Roman world.  He had been well-versed in rhetoric just as Festus and Agrippa before whom he stood.  Paul had no need for someone to defend him before royalty in a legal matter; he was educated enough to defend himself. He knew how to play the game.  Not only was Paul a citizen of Rome and educated in Rhetoric, but he was a Jew among Jews as well, trained as a Pharisee, well-versed in the theological arguments of the day concerning the resurrection. In his former life, Paul had heard about Jesus of Nazareth, and by his own admission, he had determined that these Galileans were misguided at the least and subversive to the Jewish religion at worst.  So convinced was Paul that some peasant carpenter and his fishermen followers could not be the long awaited Messiah ushering in a new era of peace and power for God’s people, he decided to persecute the early church.  Luke recorded one such story of how the deacon Stephen had preached powerfully the story of Jesus Christ, and how Paul held the coats for the angry mobs that had stoned Stephen to death.  But one day, while on the road to Damascus to persecute even further the early church as it had sprung up there, something happened to Paul.  Something happened to this scholar reared in the best of the Greco-Roman educational tradition, this Jew from the tribe of Benjamin, this Pharisee of Pharisees.  Instead of assailing the notion of Jesus Christ crucified and resurrected, instead of using his vast intelligence to mock and to shame those who believed in Jesus Christ as their lord and savior, instead of  continuing his life of persecution of those who loved Jesus, something happened on that road to Damascus.  He saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining around me, the bible says.  But in reality he saw THE great light.  He saw Jesus.  Jesus talked to him.  Jesus challenged him.  Jesus revealed himself to him.  And from that day on, Paul was never the same.  And it wasn’t that Christ repudiated all that he had been, but that Christ redeemed and used all that Paul was.  He was a scholar, but he was a scholar for Jesus.  He was a Roman citizen, but he was a Roman citizen for Jesus.  He was a Pharisee, but a Pharisee for Jesus.  He was intellectually astute, philosophically sophisticated, as well-read as any citizen in the empire, but he loved Jesus.  When I was a youngster, my mother told me that of all the people in the bible she wanted us to emulate, it was the apostle Paul.  Be educated, but be a Christian, she said.  Be intelligent, but be loving.  Prepare for life and for the afterlife.  And when you preach, be able to preach to everybody, the poverty stricken and the wealthy, the educated and the uneducated, to White folks and Black folks, to all of God’s children wherever they may come from and whatever they may be going through, whatever they’ve done and wherever they are.  Be like Paul, a scholar who chose Jesus, a Roman citizen who loved Jesus, a Pharisee of Pharisees who loved Jesus.  A nobel prize winning scientist if you can, but a Christian who praises God from whom all blessings flow.  A Pulitzer prize winning writer, but a soul saved by the mercy and grace of Jesus Christ.  A holder of all the letters the institutions of higher learning can afford, but assured by the blessed assurance that Jesus is mine, oh what a foretaste of glory divine!

A tale of three scholars.  Again, I want to encourage all of us to pursue learning, to employ well the minds God gave us, to educate ourselves and to educate others.  But with all our learning, I ask you today this question that is perhaps the most significant question you will ever be asked:  which type of scholar are you?  Are you like Porcius Festus, educated in the best of that era’s schools?  Have you received your Bachelor’s degree, your Master’s degree, your doctorate?  Have you read the best literature of the day, and are well-versed in the prevailing notions of science and evolutionary theories?  Are you so arrogant in your education that you have no room in your mind to contemplate the realities of a resurrected Jesus, who died for our sins, who rose again on the third day, who loves you and who desires to bring you into a right relationship with God the father?  Have you no room in your intellect to fathom the vastness of an all-powerful God by whom all things exist?  The bible has a word for folks like Festus, who though educated conclude that they have no need for this type of God.  David said in the psalms, “the fool has said in his heart, there is no God.”  Jesus looked at the idea of well-educated people storing up for themselves treasures on this earth, and determined to instruct them with the words, “Thou fool; this night thy soul is required of thee.  What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and to lose his soul?”  Are you that scholar today, the Festus scholar who could not or would not contemplate the full extent of Christ’s love for humanity?

Or are you the Agrippa scholar, who knows what the Lord our God requires of thee but would rather be popular and in fashion with the cultural norms of the day?  Maybe you were raised in church, you learned not to lie, not to steal, not to commit adultery, not to covet.  You know better.  But this world is so filled with lust and greed, lust for sex, lust for money, coveting power and coveting possessions.  Everybody is doing it.  Our college campuses are not only a springboard for the educated but also a challenge to the ethics and faith instilled in you by the God who created you.  And you’re torn, are you not, between the God you were raised to believe in, and the culture you’ve adopted by virtue of your learning and your degrees and your high-paying jobs.  And like Herod Agrippa, you’re in the presence of someone talking about Jesus, and you know better, you know all about Jesus, and you know in your heart that Jesus loves you.  But like Agrippa, rather than yielding to the leading of the Holy Spirit, rather than complimenting your tough mind with a tender heart, rather than completing your existence with a home in the heavens, you’re holding back.  The saddest words in all the bible, the most heart-wrenching, “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.”  Almost, but not quite.  Almost in the savior’s loving arms, almost in his mercy and his grace, almost in his love and his goodness and his faithfulness.  Almost assured of everlasting life.  But not quite.  The saddest thing would be to miss out on heaven’s eternity by the distance from here to here.

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