Tuesday, January 28, 2014

8,000 hours!

I have noticed something in my ten years of ministry.
If you ask someone to talk about their faith what they talk about is the church.
They talk about when they first remember going to church, when they left the church, when they came back to the church.
They will talk about the importance of being in a community that cares for them.
This of course is appropriate.
It is in the Church that we come to know Jesus.
So it is not a bad thing that people talk about the Church when they talk about their faith.
But our faith is not dependent on the Church.
Our faith is not really about church doctrines, church practices, and church policies.
Our faith is about a relationship with Jesus.
And I notice that many people have a difficult time talking about this.
I think the Church has done a poor job of making clear to people that even though we understand Jesus through the Church, the task of the Church is to make Jesus alive and real in people’s lives.

This morning in our Gospel Jesus calls his disciples.
What is clear is that he calls them to follow him, not join a religion.
He calls them to discover the Kingdom of God that has broken into the world.
And this calling that these disciples leave everything for is an adventure with Jesus.
It is an adventure that will have exhilarating highs and unbelievable lows.
It will lead them to places unknown.
They will see and hear things that are really unbelievable.
They will learn and grow in faith.
That is what Jesus calls us all into too.
Jesus calls us to an adventure with Jesus as our guide.
Because when we follow Jesus we just don’t know what will be asked of us.
I don’t know about you but that is what I find so great about this relationship with Jesus is that we are called to do things that maybe we never thought of before.

It is important in our faith life not to have a relationship with the Church, but with Jesus.
Let me challenge all of you here this morning to consider what does it mean for you to follow Jesus?
I am not asking how can you serve the Church?
Or what is great about coming to Church?
I am asking what is great about knowing Jesus?

The reason why this is so important is because we spend very little time in Church.
Consider that there is roughly 8,765 hours in one year.
How many of those hours do we spend in church?
Well let us say that you come to worship every Sunday, and that you attend one type of Christian education class a week.
Let us assume you serve on some committee or do some service thing in the Church for an hour a week.
That is roughly 156 hours a year in Church. (You all know that my math is really not good.)
That means that we have 8,609 hours left. (of course some of that is spent sleeping.)
In other words we spend most of our time outside the Church.
And in those hours we are called by Jesus to fish for people.
We are called to live with Jesus those 8,000 hours as Jesus people, doing the things in the world that Jesus would do.
How can we do that if we don’t have a relationship with Jesus?
How can we do that if we don’t know what it means to follow Jesus?

Let me put it another way.
We tend to compartmentalize things.
We tend to say this over here is my religious self.
This over here is my home life.
This over here is my work life.
This over here is my fun life.
And perhaps this is why people talk about the Church when asked to talk about faith, because we think, “ok now I am supposed to talk about my religious life, and that happens for an hour or two a week when I am at Church.”
But really faith happens just as much in the other 8,000 hours a year we are not in Church.

Even when we hear this story of Jesus calling his disciples we think this.
They were working as fishermen, and now they are going to go off with Jesus and do some really cool religious thing.
Jesus calls them to is to fish for people.
He uses the words of their work to describe what he is asking them to do.
Not only this but what did Jesus spend so much of his time doing?
He spent time eating and drinking with people.
He spent time going into towns and healing.
He spent time out in nature talking to crowds of people.
In other words, Jesus didn’t take the disciples off to some school somewhere and have a class.
Jesus didn’t sit them down and say, here is what it means to follow me in my three point presentation.
What he did was take them into the lives of people and taught them through doing.

The question that we should be asking ourselves, those other 8,000 hours or so that we have outside of these walls, is what Jesus is up to here?
What is Jesus calling me to do this moment?
What is sacred about my day?
Religion might be a couple hours a week thing, but our faith is an every hour, every minute thing.
The other thing about Church is that it is an institution run by people.
It is really a very imperfect place.
 Even the lofty ideas that we put forward the doctrines, the theology, and the Biblical study are imperfect.
We know this because the Church is constantly adapting its teaching.
Consider that in some Churches it used to be taught that slavery was ordained by God.
Or that women should not speak in Church.
Or that homosexuality is an abomination.
Or that everybody, but a very select few righteous people, is going to hell.
This is not to say that doctrines don’t matter at all, but it is to say that they have to be tested in the grit of everyday life.
They only make sense as far as they are able to withstand what we experience when we are not in Church.
And we all have to test them against what Jesus taught us about living in the kingdom of God.
Martin Luther was not right about everything.
Neither is Pastor Jon. (Not that hard to believe)
The only thing that matters is does this help us to convey to other people God’s love.
Do I love my neighbor as myself?

What Jesus taught his disciples, and what he teaches us is that wherever there are people that are suffering, in pain, sick, poor, that is where we are called to be.
It often brought the disciples to places outside their comfort zones, just as it does for us.
Jesus taught his disciples and us that faith is not about the ending as much as it is about the journey.
It is about the ride we take when we boldly follow Jesus.
It is not about a set of rules and theological propositions it is about the wild ride we go on to discover the places where God is at work.

Today I am hoping for you to think about your relationship with Jesus.
I am hoping that you will think about what Jesus is calling you to do, and to be.
I am hoping that you will risk leaving the comforts of your home, just as the disciples did, to go on a journey that has its exhilarating highs and unbelievable lows.
It is well worth the ride.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Guilt Free

What are we doing here?
What is it that we come to see/hear this morning?
This is the question that I am always asking.
I am wondering what does it mean that there are Churches in the world?
Some people would say that they come to Church because of the people.
It is a place to come to be with others, to make friends.
The problem is that there are plenty of places to make friends.
There are book clubs, running clubs, game clubs, and a whole host of social activities that someone could be involved with.
Some people come because they want to serve others.
They want a place to be able to do good things.
The problem is there are plenty of places that have no religious affiliation that you can go to and serve.
There are boards of tons of non-profits; there are service opportunities all over the place.
You don’t have to come to Church to serve others.
The Church can include these important and great things, but that is not why we have a Church.
It is not the reason we are here this morning.
We are not here to be good people.
There are lots and lots of good people in the world who are not religious and who never (or rarely) go to Church.

We are here because of what John the Baptists testifies too this morning.
“Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
This is our mission statement.
We are here because we believe that Jesus Christ takes away the sins of the world.
Jesus takes away our sin, the sin of the criminal, the sin of our non-believing neighbor, the sin of politicians, the sin of omission, the sin of violence and hatred, the sin of selfishness.
We are here because on some level we need Jesus to take away our sin, and the sin that we experience on a daily basis.

I would like us this morning to think about one word from our Gospel this morning, takes.
John doesn’t say here comes Jesus who comes to receive the sins of the world.
But the word is takes.
It is an active word.
Meaning that Jesus comes into our lives and gets into his possession, power, and control our sin.
It is not that we give our sin to Jesus, it is not that we confess our sins, but that Jesus is the one who initiates the action.
He takes it from us.

I was thinking about how hard this is to believe.
First, it is hard to believe about my own sin.
Think of the worst thing you have ever done.
Think about the guilt you carry with because of that act.
I always say that we don’t have to go around pointing out others people’s sin because they know it and feel guilty already.
But now know that Jesus has taken it away.
Do we dare believe that this happens?
Maybe we can’t forgive ourselves for what we have done.
But Jesus has come and taken for us.
There is no other place we can come to receive that forgiveness except in Church.
If you are in a book club, that does not take away sins, it gives you an opportunity to read a book.

Second, think about the sins that someone else has done to you.
This is hard to imagine too.
We want to hold onto our grudges.
We want to believe the worse about our enemies.
We want to feel that we were the victims.
And yet Jesus takes it away.
Jesus allows room for forgiveness.
We can only get that here.
It is a divine thing to forgive.
That only comes through knowing that we are forgiven.

Third, think about all the things wrong with the world.
Think about all the violence, the crime, the easy sex, the venom that we spit at each other in television programs, and comment sections online.
Think about how we wish the world was, and how far it is from that picture of perfection.
Jesus takes it away.
Hard to believe isn’t it.
We can’t get that anywhere else.

This is the danger of faith.
It is the real challenge of being a believer of Jesus Christ.
To believe that it is possible for Jesus to take away sin.
Most of the time we want to add something to that.
We want to say, “Well Jesus will forgive our sins, if we ask for it.”
But the Gospel offers us something more radical than that.
It offers us the taking away our sin without any qualifiers.

What difference does it make?
That is a real question I think we have to wrestle with.
We know that being with other people makes a difference in our life, we know that serving others has real benefits to us.
What are the benefits of knowing that Jesus takes away our sins?

We can live without guilt.
I am not suggesting that we shouldn’t feel bad when we hurt someone else.
We should, and we should do what we can to make amends.
But this means we don’t have to stay in that spot, we can move on with life.
We can forgive others, and we can forgive ourselves.
I have found over the years the sustained guilt is not a helpful way to go through life.

It helps us to live in freedom.
Fear stops us often from speaking out, and engaging.
Fear that we might say the wrong thing, or do the wrong thing.
Knowing that Jesus takes away our sin gives us the freedom to engage in the world with all of its mess and contradictions.

As an example of this for us to think about is what it means to engage in the conversation about race in our country.
It is Martin Luther King Jr. weekend.
The legacy of Dr. King is in the belief that if we keep talking about race, and working on it that it can and will get better.
Look how far we have come.
But the Banishment of prejudice from our hearts still needs work.
We don’t really want to be part of those conversations because it might mean that we say the wrong thing.
Having difficult conversations about race is the way forward.
I know that I have had lots of conversations with black/African American friends were I have had said the wrong thing out of ignorance.
But I am glad for those conversations because I have grown and learned through them.
And there was forgiveness offered.
Knowing that Jesus takes away our sin gives us the ability to admit our sin, and for us to live without guilt from past sins.
It gives us the ability to engage in difficult conversations.

We are here because Jesus takes away the sin of the world.
That is the work of the Church.
It is our primary work.
Yes, we gather in fellowship, we speak up for justice, we serve our neighbors.
All of those things flow from the essential nature of what Jesus does for us.
Jesus helps us to live without guilt and in freedom.
Here is the Lamb of God who comes to take away the sins of the world.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Birth Stories

It was Friday afternoon and it was about to rain.
I was running around town getting ready for the men’s retreat I was going to lead that weekend.
When I came home my wife (Vicki) met me at the door and told me that I wouldn’t be going on the men’s retreat because she was in labor.
Hours later it was raining we were on the Long Island Expressway heading into Manhattan.
I was supposed to take the Queens Borough Bridge, but for some reason, I still can’t explain, I took the midtown tunnel in the middle of rush hour.
The Red Sox were supposed to play the New York Yankees that night in game three of the American League Championship series, and it got rained out.
On that night my daughter, Phoebe, was born.
That night changed my life forever.

Birth Stories are important.
Every year, on their birthdays, we tell our kids the stories of when they were born.
Each one of those stories is unique and special.
And we all have those stories about us.
They tell about how we entered the world.
In some ways I think they say something about us.
They tell us about where we come from and what is important.

Tonight we hear again the familiar birth story.
It is one that changed not just the lives of Mary and Joseph, but it changed the world.
It is the greatest story because in it we have seen the birth of God’s Son the Messiah.
As we heard sung in Phil and Joe’s duet, “he is mercies incarnation” and that is glorious and miraculous.
The parts of the story that we love are important because they tell us about what kind of God we worship and what kind of savior we have been sent.

It is no coincidence that the news first comes to shepherds, because we have a God that shows up in all lives.
And the news he brings changes those lives.
Certainly this story changed the life of the shepherds.
It gave them a glimpse into this wonderful miraculous thing that God was up to.
It gave the shepherds good news, it gave them great joy.
In this same way it changes our life too.
It brings Good News of great joy into our lives.
Life is not always filled with good news.
Some people are struggling this Christmas, maybe you are one of them.
Not everyone feels jolly and happy.
Let me suggest that in order to appreciate Christmas you don’t need to feel happy and jolly.
Feeling good is not what this story is about.
It is about hearing how God enter into the world and brought hope and love to all of us.

Part of Jesus birth story is about Mary and Joseph being forced by the Roman Empire to travel a long distance to be registered for a tax.
A couple of things about this part of the story, the Jewish people did not like being occupied by the Romans.
They didn’t like have to pay taxes to help the Roman Empire remain in power.
The shepherds in the field that night were probably not feeling very happy; they had to work at a difficult and hard job that did not pay very much.
Mary and Joseph were not rich, and had to spend the night in a stable.
These were not happy times or conditions that Jesus was born into.
But that is the point of the story that Jesus comes into our broken world and offers us salvation.
It is why we cherish it so much.

In 2004 the year Phoebe was born there was an unpopular war in Iraq, difficult economy, there were deadly hurricanes in Florida that year, the Abu Ghraib scandal was going public, and the Red Sox were about to go down 3 games to 0 in the ALCS.
It was a tough year, but really a year like most others.
For Vicki and me it is remembered as a year of great joy because we had become parents.
You see good news of God is not based on what is happening in our lives right now.
It is based on a promise that we believe in faith.
It is a promise that tells us, “no matter what our God loves and cares about us”.
Our God knows how vulnerable we are, because God experienced it when God became a baby in a manger.

You know that not all birth stories are happy.
I have had friends who have had difficulty getting pregnant, and others who have had complications during birth.
I have some friends that were unable to have children.
What can we say about these stories?
We can say that even into those situations God has brought good news of great joy for all people.
I think that is a significant phrase in the story that this good news is “for all people”.
It means even people who are not feeling the holiday spirit.

You know I have no problem with the more pagan aspects of Christmas.
I have no problems with the gift giving, putting up lights and trees, having big parties.
But what I have noticed this season is that these things don’t seem to bring people happiness.
They stress people out, they frustrate people when they can’t find the right present, and they make people feel obligated to be happy.
It seems that these things fail at so much.
On the other hand Jesus never fails to bring good news into whatever situation we find ourselves.
If we are feeling guilty for not being better parents, Jesus offers forgiveness.
If we are feeling sad because we are missing someone we love this holiday season, Jesus offers us the promise of eternal life.
If we are feeling disappointed because the world is not what it should be, Jesus offers us the promise that he has conquered the world.
If we are feeling despondent, Jesus offers us hope.
If we are feeling lost because our lives just are not that good, Jesus offers us the promise that God is going to find us.
Those are the things that the story teaches us about who and what Jesus is.

Just this week I had a woman come to my office looking for gas for her car?
She and her husband are living in their car.
As she was leaving I said, “Merry Christmas”.
She let out a huge wearied sigh.
I said, “But not in a fake way, but in a spiritual way, know that God is with you as you sleep in your car this Christmas”.
Jesus did not come in royal palace, or even a nice home, but in a feeding trough.
We can be merry not because of our station in life, but because we have a savior who knows our pain and suffering, and who is greater than our pain and suffering.

We love this story about Jesus birth.
It is an important world changing story.
It tells us a savior born in difficult times, appearing in an unlikely place, to unlikely people.
Most of all we rejoice tonight because Jesus has come into our stories and changed our lives forever. Merry Christmas!