All About It

Deuteronomy 6:4-9 I want to tell you what I’m all about. In my teens it was music.  I’ve always liked music; I can remember spending many middle-school hours listening to the radio in my room.  But in 9th grade my relationship with music changed forever, because in 9th grade I met Michelle.  During our fourth period freshman art class my new friend would slip me CDs to try by bands I’d never heard of.  My mind was blown.  As it turns out, some of the best stuff never even gets played on the radio!  Who knew?! As the year went by our friendship grew… and so did my music collection.  Once we got our driver’s licenses Michelle started taking me to concerts in small little venues downtown.  I bought my own CDs and began listening to those bands almost exclusively.  We made friends from the music scene, and my clothing started to resemble theirs:  hooded sweatshirts and big, baggy jeans and skateboarding shoes.  I put band stickers on my car and patches on my backpack. I was all about it. I honestly thought I’d be all about music forever. But in my 20s I found another love:  the outdoors. The summer before college, I worked for a backpacking ministry for the first time.  Then, as a college freshman, I discovered that my school had an awesome outdoor club.  From then on out – through college and seminary – my world became more and more about the outdoors.  I spent my summers on the Appalachian Trail; I spent my falls and springs day hiking; and winter was for snowboarding.  When...

A Love that Doesn’t Disappoint

Romans 5:1-11 This month I want to talk about love. Because it’s February, and because Valentine’s Day is on Thursday.  Because love is already on our minds (that, or the lack thereof).  And it should be on our minds, always – but not the swooning, cupid-and-his-arrows, rom-com kind of love that dominates this month.  The kind of love that should fill our hearts is more like this: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’  This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matthew 22:37-39). Jesus said “all the law and the prophets” hang on those two greatest commands.  Doesn’t that sound like a sweet deal?  I mean, there used to be 10 and now there’s just 2!  And all we have to do is love! But love isn’t easy.  It’s hard.  We know this about romantic love:  once you get beyond the meet-cute and the infatuation, things get real.  The same is true for our two greatest loves.  During the retreat or the mission trip, loving God with our whole selves is easy!  But in the regular, day-in-and-day-out, loving God first and most is a challenge.  It’s not so different with loving our neighbors:  it’s easy in theory, when we’re imagining friendly Wilson-like characters waving at us from behind white picket fences.  But what about all those really annoying neighbors, the ones that walk across our yards without speaking to us after we’ve had a long, hard day at work? Loving God and loving our...
How to Take a Leap of Faith

How to Take a Leap of Faith

Jeremiah 1:4-10 Have you ever had the sneaking suspicion, “I’m supposed to do that” – “that” being some out-of-your comfort zone, new kind of thing? Okay – that’s kind of vague. It’s hard to describe what it feels like when God calls us to do something, partly because it hits many of us differently. Very seldom does it happen like it did for Jeremiah, a James-Earl-Jones-sounding voice telling us to “GO, THEREFORE, AND PREACH!” And very seldom is the thing we’re supposed to do as epic as Jeremiah’s: taking God’s message to a whole nation. For most of us, God’s call is more like an urge or an out-of-nowhere thought. The thing we’re supposed to do can often be done right in our own neighborhoods. It can be like this: Noticing a group of people that’s underserved, and feeling like someone’s got to do something about that. Or seeing a need in your community and thinking that you’ve got a skill that could help meet that need. Or feeling like you’ve got a message in your heart and there’s a Sunday School class or a pulpit where that message needs shared. All of those can be the Holy Spirit communicating God’s call to us. Which is kind of exciting to think about. Out of love, God created us: “before I formed you in the womb I knew you,” God tells Jeremiah, and we can imagine God saying those same words to each one of us. Out of that same love, God saved us from our sin; and then, God loved us enough to make us like partners in God’s...
How to Listen to the Bible

How to Listen to the Bible

Nehemiah 8:1-10 Have you ever daydreamed through the Scripture reading in worship? Yep – me too.  And not just back when I was sitting in the pews; sometimes, I’m thinking so much about my sermon that I miss it. I don’t want to miss it.  I don’t want you to, either.  So today, we’re going to learn from the story of when Ezra read the Law to the Israelites… and it they heard it so deeply, they cried.  But first, a little historical recap to set the stage.  The southern kingdom of Judah was taken by the Babylonians in 586, destroying the Temple in the process.  For almost 50 years the Israelites lived in exile, until the Persians came to power in 537.  The Persian King Cyrus told the Israelites that they could go back home and rebuild the Temple.  That project wasn’t a quick one, but finally in 516 they were able to dedicate the Second Temple.   Today’s Scripture takes place in 458 BC – another 58 years down the road.  Ezra, a priest and a scribe, was sent to Jerusalem by the Persian King Artaxerxes.  In a letter, Artaxerxes tells Ezra, “You are sent by the king and his seven advisers to inquire about Judah and Jerusalem with regard to the Law of your God, which is in your hand” (Ezra 7:14). The implication is that they’ve been without the Law (read:  first five books of the Bible) all that time.  In Nehemiah 8 we get the story of the first reading of the Law to the people.  They say absence makes the heart grow fonder...
How to Be More Positive

How to Be More Positive

“Do all things without murmuring and arguing… …and in the same way you must be glad and rejoice with me” (Philippians 2:14, 18)   Do you want to make 2019 a better year?  A lot of us do.  So let’s talk about how to bring more positivity into the next 12 months… …by addressing the opposite. I’m taking this sideways approach because of my Methodist roots.  Our denomination started with a guy named John Wesley, a church of England priest who lived in the 1700s.  John Wesley was really… methodical… about how he lived out his faith (get it?).  Among his methods were three simple rules:  (1) do no harm; (2) do good; and (3) stay in love with God. It’s that first rule that applies here.  If we want to be more positive, then we can start by avoiding the harmful opposite:  being negative.  And the everyday way most of us are negative is by complaining. Complaining is annoying, and harmful, and counter-productive, and – did I mention, annoying?  And I speak as one with authority, because of my backpacking experience. There’s something about backpacking that lends itself to complaining.  I spent a few years leading 4.5 day backpacking excursions for youth, and let me tell you:  4.5 days is plenty long enough to hear a lot of complaining. “My feet hurt.” “How much farther?” “I smell bad.” “Why are there so many bugs?” “Why are there so few toilets?” “This water’s too cold.” “This weather’s too hot.” “Where is camp?” “There’s dirt in my macaroni and cheese.” Okay, so some complaints are legitimate.  But some complaints are...
But Now

But Now

Isaiah 43 begins with two powerful words: “But now.” They tell us that a significant change is taking place:  “Before, things were one way; BUT NOW a new thing is happening.” Jumping into the 43rd chapter of Isaiah, we can easily miss the “before.”  So go back in your Biblical memory bank – way, way back.  Remember how God built Israel into a mighty nation:  saving them from slavery in Egypt; leading them to a Promised Land; raising up kings like David and Solomon; commissioning the Temple.  Remember that for a time, Israel had all the trappings of a mighty nation:  wealth and soldiers and land and buildings.   As Israel reached its pinnacle, it began to behave like an overconfident teenager who forgets that she owes any of her success to her parents.  Israel turned away from their God to worship other gods.  They did it again, and again, andagainandagainandagain.  God sent prophets to warn them again and again… but no use. The consequence to that sin was exile – being kicked out of their own Promised Land.  The Babylonians took Jerusalem and the southern kingdom of Judah in 587 BC.  Most of God’s people were scattered across the Babylonian Empire. They were exiled.  Exile is the “before.” But now. Something new is taking place.  With the rise of Persia comes the Edict of Cyrus in 587 BC, announcing that the scattered peoples can return to their native lands.  Or, as Isaiah puts it: “I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; I will say to the north, Do not withhold;...

Following a Star

We three kings of Orient are Bearing gifts, we traverse a-far. Field and fountain, moor and mountain – Following yonder star. So:  how did the “three kings” find Jesus? The followed “yonder star,” that’s how. The wise men made their way to Jerusalem because they saw Jesus’ star rise.  They found the exact spot when the star hung right over the infant Messiah.  The star was the key; they navigated by the star to find Jesus. Which makes me think:  I would not have made a good wise man (or woman, as the case may be).  I’m not so good at that kind of orienteering.  That’s not to say I can’t get around without a GPS.  I’ve logged plenty of miles along wilderness trails.  I’m so comfortable getting around in the woods, half the time I don’t even bother to bring a map.  But that kind of trekking involves following a well-defined trail cut through a dense forest – often with white blazes to follow as extra insurance.  What I cannot do is go away from the trail and the blazes and navigate toward some far-off point.  I cannot orient myself by the night sky, picking out Orion and the Big Dipper (the only two constellations I can recognize) and charting a course accordingly. I find my path by the nearby landmarks, not by some far-off star. Which works very well, I might add.  I have very rarely gotten lost in the wilderness. But it has happened. The most dangerous failure happened out in Colorado – a place I got to call home during three years of seminary.  Hiking...

Inviting God In

Matthew 1:18-24 Let’s talk about having people over. Personally, I love having people over to our house.  I’m a social creature by nature.  My definition of “me time” is one-on-one time with a good friend.  If we have a Saturday with nothing on our family calendar, I’m perfectly content to make breakfast and piddle around the house… until about mid-afternoon, when I’m pacing around like a caged animal, wondering who can play with us.  I’m like a golden retriever or something:  if you really want to keep me happy and healthy, I need to be regularly socialized. So naturally, I love having people over! But in reality:  we don’t have people over as often as we could.  You know why? It’s a lot of work to have people over. Especially new people.  When new people come over – for reasons I cannot completely explain – I feel compelled to do cleaning that seldom otherwise happens.  Base boards must be dusted and the inside of the microwave should be scrubbed and the rugs are due to be washed and why do all our hand towels look like old rags? As much as I love having people over, we don’t do it as often as we could because that first time is just so much work. But oh, thank God for old friends! Sweet, sweet old friends who have seen my house plenty of times before.  They know that it can pass the white glove test – but they also know no one lives like that all the time, myself included.  They’ve dropped by at a moment’s notice and seen my home in its everyday potpourri...
An Explicit Welcome

An Explicit Welcome

Luke 2:1-20 On Sunday we had our children’s Christmas play, where they reminded us of a very important Christmas message: All are welcome at the manger. All, meaning everyone. I hope this isn’t the first time you’ve heard that message. You might know John 3:16 by heart: “God so loved THE WORLD that he gave his only begotten son…” Not that God loved a certain people in a certain place – but the whole world! Christ was born for everyone. Everyone should feel welcome at his manger! Everyone should – but not everyone does. — Too often, the world is like a high school lunchroom. I can clearly remember what it felt like to walk through the heavy double doors. I can hear the loud rumble of teenagers talking and trays banging and adults trying to maintain control. I remember what it felt like to stand there, wondering where to go. Sometimes, my best buddy and I got the same lunch hour. I’d go straight to “our” table and slide into the booth across from her. Isn’t it great to have a place where you know you belong? But there were semesters where we had different lunches. I got along with a bunch of other students, but I wasn’t sure if we were really friends-friends. Would they think it was weird if I walked up to their table? Would they want me to sit with them? Or would I be turned away Forrest-Gump-on-the-bus style: “Seat’s taken”? I’d stand in the lunchroom doorway with the social clock ticking, rapidly scanning the faces for a friendly one. A lot of times,...
Invitation

Invitation

Luke 3:1-6 I love getting wedding invitations in the mail. I can tell something’s up before I even open the card:  the paper is heavier than normal; the address is in a careful calligraphy; the titles are of an Emily-Post-approved formality.  Everything about it says, “This is no regular piece of correspondence; this is something special.” Then I slip my thumb under the seal and open the flap to find… another envelope!  This one has our first names on it, as if we made it past security and now we can let our hair down and have some fun.  And then, the details are revealed.  Oh, the details!  When and where for the ceremony, when and where for the reception, and juicy little tidbits like, “Black tie optional.” The happy couple did a lot of work to get that invitation to me.  Now that it’s in my hands, it’s my turn!  Preparations need to be made.  I need to find the right dress – if it’s not in my closet, it’s at a storefront, somewhere!  We might need hotel reservations or a babysitter; we certainly need to send a gift. An invitation to a really special event demands a response from us – not just an RSVP, but all the things we need to do to get ready. If this is true for a wedding… it’s certainly true for the coming of Christ. Jesus’ arrival was so special, it was someone’s full time job to make the announcement.  That living invitation was John the Baptist, born for the express purpose of making the path to Jesus straight and obvious. ...