Just Trying to Make a Point…

Last Sunday was Easter Sunday. I thought I had a pretty good sermon. I had three points (which some folks argue is two too many!), and I thought I was well prepared to make all three points. I was wrong. I did a terrible job making my third point (judge for yourself by clicking here), so I figured I’d use this space to make the point I wanted to make Sunday.

I should have known it was not going to be a good day for preaching when I mysteriously turned a six foot white rabbit into a six foot white monkey in my opening illustration. It was pretty much down hill from there. Oh, the rabbit that mysteriously became a monkey was the pooka from the movie Harvey, starring Jimmy Stewart as Elwood P. Dowd. The premise of the sermon was a play off one line in the film–“the evening wore on” (See the clip here). Mark in his gospel uses a turn of phrase that is (to me) equally compelling–“just at sunrise” (Mark 16: 1-8).

The point? The sunrise (the resurrection) overcomes the darkness…of sin with the promise of forgiveness, of death with the promise of our resurrection, and of fear with the promise of eternal life. It was the last point where I failed to make my point (not counting the whole rabbit/monkey affair).

Here is what I said:

As the evening wore on, the darkness of death would also shadow the promise of eternal life, but just at sunrise the joy comes. The 24-hour news cycle is killing us. We hear the news, see the Facebook feeds and watch in amazement as the culture continues its steep decline. The evening appears to go on endlessly. We long for the sunrise. We wonder when will the night be over.

Are you looking for a sunrise? Turn off CNN and Fox News. Take a break from scrolling your Facebook feed, and pick up a bible. Open its pages and pray. There you’ll meet the risen Jesus, and you’ll experience the sunrise, and you’ll know a hope that never disappoints.

James Moore tells the story when The Saturday Evening Post ran a cartoon showing a man about to be rescued after he had spent a long time ship-wrecked on a tiny deserted island. The sailor in charge of the rescue team stepped onto the beach and handed the man a stack of newspapers.

“Compliments of the Captain,” the sailor said. “He would like you to glance at the headlines to see if you’d still like to be rescued!”     

Sometimes the headlines do scare us. There are times we feel evil is winning, but then along comes Easter, to remind us that there is no grave deep enough, no seal imposing enough, no stone heavy enough, no evil strong enough to keep Christ in the grave. God keeps his promises. We can’t always see it until the sunrise.

Maybe it wasn’t a bad point, but the point I really wanted to make is that the darkness of fear has overshadowed our deep theology surrounding death itself. If nothing else, the past year has shown that the church’s theology of death doesn’t extend much past the point of dying. I do have to be careful how I say this. It could too easily be politicized, and that is not my intention, at all.

It’s just that I’ve watched with some amazement over the past year as many “followers of Christ” acted as though death was absolutely the worst thing that could happen. Death, for a believer, is not the end. This life…this earthly life…isn’t all there is. The resurrection (Easter) is our reminder of the promise of eternal life.

We say in the Apostle’s Creed that we believe “…in the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.” The doctrine of eternal life is historic, orthodox Christian theology. Because of Easter we do not face death with fear, but with peace and with an assurance that Christ waits for us just beyond the veil that separates this life from the next one. Or, so the Apostle Paul taught the Corinthian church that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8).

It was also the Apostle Paul who shared his own inner conflict with the church at Philippi:

20 For I fully expect and hope that I will never be ashamed, but that I will continue to be bold for Christ, as I have been in the past. And I trust that my life will bring honor to Christ, whether I live or die. 21 For to me, living means living for Christ, and dying is even better. 22 But if I live, I can do more fruitful work for Christ. So I really don’t know which is better. 23 I’m torn between two desires: I long to go and be with Christ, which would be far better for me. 24 But for your sakes, it is better that I continue to live.

25 Knowing this, I am convinced that I will remain alive so I can continue to help all of you grow and experience the joy of your faith. 

Philippians 1: 20 – 25

Yes, I know that “eternal life” is more quality of life than quantity of life. I know eternal life is living a Christ-centered life now, but even acknowledging that fact should never diminish our understanding of the glory we shall one day share with Jesus Christ, Himself.

Embracing a broader theology of death doesn’t compel us to seek to become martyrs, nor does it cause us to take foolish chances with the gift that is this life, but it should free us from cowering in fear of death’s approach. The reality is that the death rate is 100%. If we live long enough everyone of us will die. And, we all know there are times when death does, in fact, come as a friend. The question becomes will we face death with confidence, hope and faith, or will we do so in the darkness of fear?

If we live long enough everyone of us will die.

Me? I’m going to chose to live in the confident expectation of eternal life because “just at sunrise,” hope dawned. Yes, I’m going to live today for Jesus. I’m going to love Him, and I’m going to love my neighbor, and by God’s grace, I’m going to love my enemy. I’m not going to hasten death (at least not intentionally), but I’m not going to live in fear of it, either.

It was April Fool’s Day 2007 and Vanessa and I had just dropped our daughters off for youth group at the church. We decided we needed our favorite indulgence, so we headed to the local Dairy Queen for a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup Blizzard. We had made our turn onto the Main Street of our town and as we slowed to turn into the parking lot of the Dairy Queen, I looked in my rearview mirror and saw a car quickly approaching. I shouted to Vanessa, “Hold on, they’re going to hit us!”

Hit us, they did. I’m told by folks who witnessed the event that my truck flipped four times into the parking lot of the Dairy Queen. Thankfully, Vanessa and I escaped relatively unscathed with the exception of a few scrapes and bruises, but I told Vanessa later that as we were making those flips the only thought I had was, “Death ain’t no big deal.” I’ve since thought, “That’s the most expensive ice cream I never had!”

I share that story not arrogantly, but confidently…confident in the power of the resurrection of Jesus Christ in whom I believe. That’s the point I was trying to make. I’ll not say it’s the whole point of Easter, but it is certainly one of the main points of it. And, it’s not to say that death is not a big deal. It is a big deal, but for the believer, it’s not the only deal, nor is it necessarily the worst deal.

I’m still not sure why I didn’t make the point better on Sunday. Maybe it was the rabbit that threw me off my game…or the monkey. Hopefully, I’ve made the point better here, but if not, there’s always next Easter.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Thinking Out Loud…

In the midst of Holy Week, with Lent winding down, I’m contemplating the season in which I consciously chose not to “give up” anything for Lent. No, the season didn’t begin with me receiving ashes. I didn’t chose to fast, or refrain from eating meat on Friday. I gotta’ confess…I don’t feel like I’ve missed that much in opting out of any particular Lenten observance. You may argue, therein lies the problem.

The observance of Lent hasn’t historically been a Protestant thing. I never knew of Lent in the church where I grew up. It wasn’t until I entered seminary that I was challenged to “observe a holy Lent,” as the United Methodist Book of Worship extended the invitation. I sought desperately to learn what this “holy Lent” was all about. It was more pronounced by the fact that in Junction City, KY, where I served as pastor during seminary that the Roman Catholic Church was literally next door. Yet, it was all still new to me.

I suppose it’s a good thing that seminary opened to door to all things Lenten because my first post-seminary appointment was in Morgan City, LA. Does anyone know where Morgan City, LA is located? That’s right. Deep in the heart of cajun, heavily Roman Catholic south Louisiana. There, almost everyone observed Lent. Sit down restaurants in Morgan City? During Lent you wouldn’t find meat on the menu on Friday. Catholic churches would have fish-fry fund-raisers every Friday. Lent was a real thing. I’ve sought to observe a “holy Lent” ever since.

Honestly, as I anticipate the coming of Easter Sunday, I think more about Christ’s call to new life, and not just to new life, but to a holy life. Too often, in my observances of the Lenten season, my anticipation for Easter was that I could have coffee once again, or re-engage with social media, or have a big, old juicy steak on Friday evening. It was about getting through Lent to celebrate what I could do once again. It was about going back to the old life, not living into the fullness of the new life.

I suppose it is for me that the Lord hasn’t called me to observe a “holy Lent,” but rather to observe a “holy life.” I rather believe the Lord has been calling me to instill the practices that constitute a holy Lent into my life throughout the year, not just for a season. It might just be that practicing fasting regularly (which John Wesley did, by the way) will take me deeper into the life of a disciple.

Perhaps I’m just over-thinking things here. Perhaps I’m convicted that I didn’t observe Lent this year. Maybe that’s what really has me thinking out loud. Perhaps it’s just that it’s Tuesday and I should be writing a blog and I couldn’t think of anything else to write about. I’m not sure what it is, but I am sure that if a “holy Lent” doesn’t lead to a “holy life,” then it’s been a wasted Lent, and I hope none of us have a wasted Lent.

Maybe I shouldn’t think out loud so much. Maybe I should just focus more on Easter. Yeah, that’s probably what I should do.

Until next time, keep looking up…

Jesus Needs Your Ass…Again!

So, this Sunday is Palm Sunday. Because I have several things going on this week, and in honor of Palm Sunday, I’m digging back into the archives of my previous blog, theunexpectedds.com for a replay of one of the most read blogs from that site. This post originally appeared March 21, 2013. Eight years seems like a generation ago. I’ve made a few edits, but enjoy the repeat! 😉

It really is dawning on me that I have to start preaching again every Sunday. I’m preaching this Sunday, and I’ve returned again to the lectionary to begin preparations. It should be easy, shouldn’t it? After all, it’s Palm Sunday. But, then again…it’s Palm Sunday. How does one remain fresh on a passage of Scripture that is preached every year at this same time. What is God saying to us this year that He hasn’t said for over two thousand years? Yes, I feel the pain of all my sisters and brothers who are busy preparing for their Palm Sunday sermon.

I have often sought to title my sermon and have the title serve as the “big idea” of the sermon. I try to let the Scripture guide me to the point of the message and then formulate a title around that point. That’s what I’ve been trying to do this week (while spending long hours in the Cabinet room dealing with appointments) and it’s a little more difficult because it’s Palm Sunday.

There is rich fodder in Luke 19:28-40. Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem for the final week of his earthly ministry is filled with imagery for good sermon titles, and points to make. Of course, there is the whole matter of expectations. The crowd had their expectations of Jesus. The disciples had their expectations of Jesus. The Pharisees had their expectations of Jesus. Jesus had his own expectations of what the week ahead was to be like, and he was the only one who knew what lay at the end of the week.

Imagine how our lives would be different if we expected that next week would be our last. I am reminded of what Steve Jobs said after he discovered he was dying with cancer: “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.”

Yeah. I could do something with that. I might title it “Expecting the Unexpected” or “What Did You Expect?” That could work.

I might make something out of the whole idea of Jesus as Messiah. After all, that’s what this whole scene is about, isn’t it? I mean donkeys and palm branches take us back to prophetic readings in Zechariah and the Psalms that deal with the Messiah. Jesus was making a great proclamation by choosing to enter Jerusalem this way. We could talk about that, and I could have a title like “A New Kind of King.”

Let’s see…there’s the issue of Jesus crying. How about “From Cheers to Tears”?

Or, Jesus talking to the Pharisees about the rocks crying out in praise. Maybe “The First True Rock Star”?

I think what I really like is the part about Jesus, his disciples and the donkey. That’s an interesting account. Jesus simply sends his disciples to get the colt. “Go over there and get it. You’ll know it when you see it.” And, the disciples go, and sure enough they find the donkey, and sure enough, the owners asks the disciples, “What are you doing with my ass?” I can imagine the disciples’ response being, “The Lord needs your ass.”

Well, now, that’s a loaded question, and the response is equally as loaded. I can probably get a lot of mileage out of this point. Do we all have an ass Jesus can use? Not quite sure how the folks this Sunday would respond when they show up and the title of the sermon is printed across the bulletin “Jesus Needs Your Ass.” I suspect it would be somewhat akin to the reaction of the Pharisees when Jesus came riding into town that day. Hm? Maybe I’m on to something here.

This is a confusing scene for us who live in 21st century North America. Seriously, think of it this way. Two guys walk up to your garage, jump in your brand new Ford F-150, start it up and begin to drive away. You look at them and ask, “What are you doing with my truck?” One of the guys responds, “The Lord needs it,” and you just look dumbfounded as they drive away. If you’re like me, I’m calling the police to report a stolen vehicle. Not these owners on this day.

So why would they let the disciples take the donkey? Well, there might be this whole hospitality thing going on. Remember, it’s the beginning of the Passover week, and the city is teeming with activity. Travelers from all over the ancient world are making their way to Jerusalem. Hospitality was a big thing in 1st century eastern culture. To be known as inhospitable was one of the worst things you could be. To lend the donkey was seen simply as a way to help another.

Another reason may be pride on the part of the owners. Jesus was in town. I don’t think there would have been too many folks in Bethany or Bethphage that would not have known who Jesus was. Remember again, that it was only a couple days earlier that Jesus was in town doing a little thing like raising a guy named Lazarus from the dead. Recall the scene from John 11…there are a lot of people who witnessed that miracle, and word got around pretty fast. Jesus had made quite the name for himself in that little miracle. He was a famous rabbi now. There would have been honor in allowing a famous rabbi to ride my donkey.

Then again, some have suggested that Jesus had pre-arranged this scene. Perhaps the animal belonged to Mary, Martha and Lazarus, and Jesus had already made preparations with them for the disciples to come get the donkey. I don’t believe this to be the case, otherwise, Luke, the historian, one who is intentional in giving us details, would have given us a clue that this was what had happened. Surely this was not simply some pre-arranged business deal on Jesus’ part.

Perhaps there’s another reason. Perhaps the key is found in the use of the term “Lord.” Perhaps the owners knew who Jesus was, and when the disciples referred to “The Lord,” there was little doubt in the owners minds that Jesus was who he claimed to be. If Jesus needed something they had, to offer it to him would be an act of devotion and love. No, it became an act of worship.

Here’s why I believe this is the case. Two significant pieces of evidence: One, no questions on the part of the owners. What questions would you and I ask? 

  • What are you doing with my donkey?
  • Who is “the Lord?”
  • How far will you take him?
  • Will you bring him back when you’re done?

Again, these are not details Luke is likely to omit. But he does.

The second significant piece of evidence Luke gives us is the telling of the story of the king and the ten servants immediately preceding this scene. Jesus tells the story of the nobleman who went away to be crowned king, but before he leaves he entrusts his silver to ten of his servants. Upon his return he calls the servants to give account of his silver. The first two return the king’s silver with interest. The third, because he was afraid of the king, simply returned what had been given to him. The story is about stewardship. 

Then, Luke gives a living example of the parable…a man with a donkey, offering what he has to the Jesus. It was an investment, and no small one at that. This was a valuable asset for the owners. Think about wealth in the 1stcentury…often measured by the ownership of livestock. The ass was referred to as a “beast of burden,” meaning it was used to transport things…it was the 1st century equivalent of a moving van. But, the ass was used for various tasks around the family farm and so it was also the equivalent of the modern day tractor. And, then, like Jesus does in today’s passage, people would use the ass as a means of transportation…the equivalent of a car. A moving van, a tractor, a car…a very valuable animal indeed, and here, Jesus commands a brand new one, one that has never been ridden. This was no small request on Jesus’ part. This was a sacrificial gift.

The ass was a gift given to Jesus to help usher in the Kingdom. This was the dawning of the Kingdom. This unknown, unnamed person probably had little clue what he was involving himself in, but he knew Jesus, and he trusted Jesus, and he gave to Jesus…and literally, he helped usher in the Kingdom. His gift changed the world.

What is Jesus asking for from us? What do we have to offer that will usher in the Kingdom? What resource is available to be utilized to literally carry Jesus down the road?

“Sometimes I get the impression that God wants me to give him something and sometimes I don’t give it because I don’t know for sure, and then I feel bad because I’ve missed my chance. Other times I know he wants something but I don’t give it because I’m too selfish. And other times, too few times, I hear him and I obey him and feel honored that a gift of mine would be used to carry Jesus to another place. And still other times I wonder if my little deeds today will make a difference in the long haul.

Maybe you have those questions, too. All of us have a donkey. You and I each have something in our lives, which, if given back to God, could, like the donkey, move Jesus and his story further down the road. Maybe you can sing or hug or program a computer or speak Swahili or write a check.

Whichever, that’s your donkey.

Whichever, your donkey belongs to him.

It really does belong to him. Your gifts are his and the donkey was his. The original wording of the instructions Jesus gave to his disciples is proof: “If anyone asks you why you are taking the donkeys, you are to say, ’Its Lord is in need.’”

Max Lucado, And the Angels Were Silent, pg. 54

Our resources, our time, our money, our talents, our jobs, our families, our homes…our lives are gift from God for God. What has been entrusted to you for Jesus to use? What ass is Jesus asking for?

Nah! I probably won’t use that title. A bit too shocking. A bit too much to leave to the imagination. A bit too much to be misconstrued. It’s a novel thought, though. Maybe it’s time we were a bit more shocking in our preaching. After all, it will be a shocking end to the week when Jesus rises from the grave.

My! My! My! The task of preaching on Palm Sunday and Holy Week. What’s a preacher to do? I suppose it’s time to live into the reality that Jesus needs my ass.

Until next time, keep looking up…

A Most Difficult Grace…

Easter is fast upon us. In two weeks, disciples of Jesus Christ will gather in places across the globe to celebrate the pivotal event in the life of our faith—the resurrection. Yes, we’re headed to Easter and new life—new life is the promise, not the old life redone. We experience this new life through Jesus Christ and the grace he offers us in practicing habits in our lives that bring transformation—habits such as prayer, fasting and bible study. There is one habit that sits at the heart of new life, at the heart of Easter itself. It is the habit that most reflects the life of Jesus, and it is the habit that should most reflect the heart of his disciples. It is the habit of submission.

SUBMISSION

Mention the word submission these days and minds run in a thousand directions both positively and negatively. As Richard Foster says, “Nothing can put people into bondage like religion, and noting in religion has done more to manipulate and destroy people than a deficient teaching on submission.” Foster’s statement demonstrates the power of sin to take the best teaching and turn it upside down. For this reason, it is with trepidation that I take up the task of exploring this spiritual discipline, for this is meant to be life-giving, not life-taking. If it is life-giving, it can be life-changing, and I remind us, we are headed toward Easter.

There are a ton of passages we could refer to this morning, but Ephesians 5: 20 – 21, captures the essence of “how” the habit is formed and lived out. We get stumped by the passages that follow Ephesians 5:21, but the verses that precede it actually set the context. The Apostle Paul tells us to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” What follows is perhaps the most misappropriated and misapplied passage in the Bible. The passage has been used for centuries to subject women, in many cases, to forced servitude, and to limit the status and role of women in leadership in the church. I believe it’s a terrible reading of Paul’s otherwise radical first-century teaching. That’s all I’m going to say about that matter because what is important to our understanding of submission is found in what precedes the verses we read this morning, and we find Paul’s opening imperative in verse two, where Paul says, “Live a life filled with love, following the example of Christ.” And what was his example? One of a life fully submitted to the Father—submitted even unto death.

The cross is a symbol of death. It is the symbol of Good Friday. It is the symbol of the totality of Jesus’ submission. But, may I suggest it is also the symbol of life because Jesus was as submitted to the Father’s will in life as he was in death. Jesus died as he lived. He rejected power and position, telling his disciples not to let anyone call them Rabbi or teacher (Matt. 23:8-10). He lived his submission as he took women seriously and met with little children. He lived his submission as he took a towel and basin and washed his disciples feet, and then he said, “I have given you an example, that you should do as I’ve done to you” (John 13:15). Jesus’ life and teaching were revolutionary because it turned the cultural values of the day upside-down, and ushered in a new model of leadership—servant leadership.

FREEDOM

Servant leadership undermines power and self-interest because it is rooted in self-denial. Self-denial lies at the heart of submission. Remember when Jesus said, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me” (Mark 8:34)? But do not confuse self-denial with either self-contempt or self-hatred. It is neither. Self-denial frees us to understand we don’t have to have our own way. It frees us to surrender our need to be right, or our need to win every argument. Self-denial frees us to realize that most things in life are not nearly as important as we think they are. Self-denial frees me to accept that, thank God, I’m not the center of the universe.

And, we need to know that submission is freedom for us because it is a choice. If self-denial is the foundation of submission, then we understand that submission is choosing to place ourselves under the authority of another. Forced submission is slavery. Chosen submission is sacrifice. There’s a big difference.

In the verses that follow Ephesians 5:21, Paul shares an example of how this idea of submission could be lived out. People like illustrations in the sermons I preach. Illustrations make abstract ideas a little more concrete for us. My hearers may not always remember the big idea of my sermon, but they most always remember a story if I tell one. So, to illustrate everything he’d been writing to the church in Ephesus, he uses the household relationships of husband and wife, parent and children and master slave. Read it today and the passage seems strange to us in the 21st century. It sounds oppressive, even. It’s not quite so strange or oppressive when we connect it to the concept of mutual submission—submission as a means of grace. Paul is simply laying out an illustration of how submission works in those relationships, and not just those relationships, but submission is meant to extend to EVERY relationship.

It’s a little easier to understand what submission is—choosing to place ourselves under the authority of another, to give the right of way to another, to put their needs ahead of our needs. It’s a bit more difficult to grasp the “how” of submission. What does submission look like? How do we practice this discipline so that it becomes a habit that opens us to God’s grace? Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules. Sometimes, it’s easy to determine what it needs to look like. Other times, it’s extremely hard to define. That’s why we need the Holy Spirit. Then again, if we had a book of rules for every circumstance, we’d be Pharisees, and we wouldn’t need the Holy Spirit. Let me just say, though, that submission looks a lot like service.

SEVEN AREAS OF SUBMISSION

Richard Foster, in his seminal work Celebration of Discipline, notes seven distinct acts of submission for a follower of Jesus Christ. First is our submission to the Triune God. The beginning of every day should begin with a simple prayer of submission. It can be as simple as the one prayed by E. Stanley Jones: “Lord, take me over and make me over.” A daily submission in body mind and spirit into the hands of God for His purposes can become a habit of submission, and it will be grace.

Second is a submission to Scripture. We submit ourselves to hear the Word, to receive the Word and to obey the Word, trusting the Holy Spirit who inspired the Word to interpret and apply it to our lives.

Third is our submission to our family. Freely and graciously we make allowances for each other. We give ourselves to one another, and that means surrendering our rights to the other. We also acknowledge the home is the primary incubator for developing this habit in our lives. What a transformation could take place in our world if husbands and wives could surrender themselves to this solitary discipline so that it becomes habit. It would be grace, indeed!

Fourth is our submission to our neighbors and those we meet in the course of our day. Random acts of kindness become the norm for us. No task is too small, for with each task, we have an opportunity to live in submission.

Fifth is our submission to the believing community—the body of Christ. There are opportunities to service to the body of Christ and service through the body of Christ. Submission is acknowledging that though I cannot do everything, I can do something.

Sixth is our submission to the broken and despised. In every culture there are people who are helpless and defenseless. We have a responsibility to be among them, to know them, and to do all we can to help them. Here is where we find self-denial most meaningful and transforming.

Seventh is our submission to the world. Our submission is a determination to live as a responsible member of an increasingly irresponsible world.

A story that captures the essence of practicing the habit of submission is told by author Stephen Beck. Beck tells of driving down a country road and coming to a narrow one-lane bridge. In front of the bridge, a sign was posted: “YIELD.” Seeing no oncoming cars, he continued across the bridge to his destination. On the way back, he came to the same bridge from the other direction. To his surprise, he saw another YIELD sign posted. He thought, “I’m sure there was one posted on the other side.” When he reached the other side of the bridge he looked back. Sure enough, yield signs had been placed at both ends of the bridge. Drivers from both directions were asked to give right of way. It was a reasonable and gracious way of preventing a head-on collision. When we practice submission it is a reasonable and gracious way to let the other have the right of way and to experience the life-changing grace of God in our lives and in the world.

Until next time, keep looking up…