Monday, January 24, 2022

Playing to Win

It's the end of the NFL season, and college football just ended. We, in Alabama, have had the chance to see some good football all year, courtesy of the SEC.  This year, if you watched the NFL playoffs, you have certainly seen some interesting games.  I admit I usually have these games on in the background while I am doing something else.  But I did have one observation about this year's games, especially the one between Kansas City and Buffalo.

The KC/Buffalo game was one where both teams remembered the most important thing about a sporting event ... you play to win the game.  If you play not to lose, you will lose.  If you try to stand pat, you will find that standing still is both a decision and a recipe for loss.  In this particular game, both teams left all of their talent and energy out on the field.

Tony Campolo tells a story about taking his daughter on a tour of Chicago gangster Al Capone's old haunts.  The tour guide said "When he died, he had spent every penny he had ever made."  Tony's daughter said ... "Perfect timing!"

The Bible is filled with stories of investing, winning, losing and saving.  These stories come to mind as I consider the theology of "the game."  For we all are playing a high stakes game.  It is life an death ... winning and losing.  And it is choosing what is important to us. 

In Matthew 25, Jesus tells what the New Living Translation calls "The Parable of the Three Servants."  Other translations might call this the parable of the talents, but I like the thought of God looking at our three characters as servants.  In the story the master gives silver to the servants, 5 bags to the first, 2 bags to the second and one bag to the third.  The first servant immediately takes the 5 bags and invests them, earning 5 additional bags.  The second servant takes the 2 bags of silver and works to build them into 2 additional bags.  The third servant took the 1 bag of silver and placed it into a hole in the ground, earning nothing in return.  Two servants were willing to risk it all to grow the master's investment in them, while the third risked nothing, choosing to be "safe."  The master calls the first two servants "good" and "faithful."  The third servant is called "wicked" and "lazy."

As I have read and re-read this story over the years, I have preached about risk, how we all have different levels of "talents" and how God views His servants as they walk through life with what God has invested in them.  What I haven't pondered is the wording of the master's statements to each servant.  Let's give this a shot!

The third servant is called wicked and lazy ... pretty harsh for sure!  The word wicked here is (in the Greek) translated both "maliciously (intentionally) evil" and "perverse."  Why would Jesus use such terms to describe a sin of inaction?  Maybe God views our inaction (burying our giftedness) as particularly insidious!  Maybe God sees this as intentionally ignoring the purpose for which we were placed into this world.  Maybe God sees "trying not to lose" as vastly more reprehensible than "trying and failing."  Maybe God sees inaction as far worse than losing gold or silver.  Maybe all of this (this being our life in one of the most affluent places on the planet) as an audition for eternity with God.  Maybe "the game" isn't winning or losing, but is more about learning and living-out God-centered investment of ourselves!  Being wicked and lazy, in the sense of this parable, is roundly condemned throughout Scripture!  Don't be that guy (or girl)!

The first two servants are called "good" and "faithful."  I want to stress the definition of faithful here.  The Greek word can mean several things, but the two I want to stress are 1) a believer in the Gospel and 2) one who is worthy of being trusted/believed.  The first definition is pretty clear.  Faithful means that the servant doesn't just give lip service to the Gospel ... the servant is willing to place resources and life into the Gospel plan.  They are "all in" and their "game" belongs to God's plan and God's purpose.  Faithful also means that when a servant does life in this way, they are worthy of being believed.  They are true and valid witnesses of the truth of Christ.  Other people look at these servants and are encouraged, empowered and won to God's Good News!

As I recounted those unimportant football games, I thought about the sports cliche's that we all hear.  "They left it all out there in the field."  "He gave it all he had!"  I am sure you have a few you could add to my list.  But, I want to leave us with a few what-if's today.  What if there is a game more important that a sporting event, our accumulated 'stuff' or our safe/secure lives?  What if there is a purpose far more important than keeping what we have?  What if we viewed things like worship, Bible study, being in Christian fellowship, and investing in God's purposes as vastly more important than standing pat on our stuff, our wealth or our legacy?  Do we know the nature of our master?  Do we realize that in God's word risk of time, talent, leadership and love are far more precious than attributes valued by this temporal world?

One last observation ... the two servants who invested (called faithful and good) ... say nothing about how they know the master ... for their actions profess their faith and their trust.  The last servant (called wicked and lazy) says the words "I knew you" and "I was afraid."  The servant did not know the master.  The servant wasn't condemned because of fear ... but because of acting on that fear.

Our enemy isn't losing what we have.  Our enemy isn't 1) the toil of the work to earn the master a profit, 2) being fearful or, 3) making a plan that may win or lose some earthly 'game.'  The enemy is our choice when we play not to lose and when we fail to invest in God's plan and purpose.

Monday, January 17, 2022

Table

Last week I saw an interesting interview about bridging the gap of what we all see as a great political and ideological divide in America.  It is interesting that this interview happened just before two other events ... 1) one of the last Tuskegee airmen, Brigadier General Charles McGee, passed away at the age of 102 and, 2) Martin Luther King's birthday celebration on Monday, January 17th.  I lift up these events because General McGee lived his entire life watching our great nation struggle with the same divisive issues including racial tension, environmental policy differences, an increasing divide between the extremes of liberalism and conservatism, a not-so-wonderful reframing of Christianity and a rabid "we vs. they" attitude.  Dr. King experienced the same.  That "we vs. they" thing has devolved into a perverted definition of compromise that defines success as conversion to the "other" side.  I believe the General and Dr. King might reflect on their lives and wonder if much has changed.

I bring all this up to remind us that we, the Church, can play a part in bringing people together.  The interview of Dave Isay was interesting to me because 18 years ago Isay founded a group called StoryCorps and, more recently, One Small Step.  The idea is simple.  One Small Step places people with very different views into a room and asks them to talk ... just talk.  The discussions are not about politics, policies and pundits.  They are about life ... raising children, personal struggles and the challenges of being human.  It is interesting how these conversations seem to go.  It is hard to demonize a person when you are sitting at the table with them.  It is difficult to view that person as an enemy when you are both talking about frustrations with children, making ends meet and where/how you grew up.  Table brings about commonality and invites people to community.

I am not writing today to make a political or social statement.  I AM writing to ask you to reflect on 3 things.  The first is the Biblical basis for this type of conversation.  Matthew 18:15 says "if your brother sins against you, first go to that brother."  I am assuming this goes for sisters too.  But you get the point.  We (as God's people) go to table and sit down and talk.  This is Jesus' call to us.  We treat other people like people.

The other two observations are contextual to Chapter 18 of Matthew.  Everything we read in Scripture should be evaluated in its context.  And context begins and ends (often) as chapters begin and end.  The context here begins with disciples (followers) wanting to know who will be the greatest in the kingdom.  This is such a human conversation.  We become followers and might even become very enthusiastic about our faith.  Some might study, some might passionately witness and some might even get animated about God.  Then we (in our pride) begin to order how we stack up to all of those people who fail to get the point of the faith.  WE want to be the greatest!  Jesus does a wonderful job of bringing the prideful down a few notches ... "unless you become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."  Childlike faith, childlike trust of God, childlike willingness to forget wrongs might all be in play here!

Jesus accentuates His expectation of His followers by ending this chapter with a parable, the parable of the unforgiving servant.  The servant, although he had been forgiven, was unwilling to forgive another, and had the other man thrown in prison (forgetting he was also an egregious sinner).  Jesus closes this conversation with some pretty harsh words ... "This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless your brother or sister from your heart."

The bottom line here is simple ... not partisan, political or proud.  Table is a place we are called.  Table is a place where we share the common things of life.  Table is where we get off our self-importance and get into relationships.  Table is vital for Americans to sit and share life.  And table is not optional for Christians.  And forgiveness (at the table of our Lord) is an action that is vital to our faith and to our place in God's kingdom.

Soon we will be back on Wednesday nights.  You will be invited to God's table.  You can come in from the cold and from the weary world.  You can share a meal and life with others, and I hope you will move around from table to table, meeting people who are different than you.  They can learn from your life.  You can learn from their life.  And we can all share in Bible study after the meal, for God has something to say and teach.  Will you come?  Are you willing to make a start toward being in community with God's people?  If you want to have a place in God's kingdom, I hope you will read Matthew 18, be convicted by the message, and begin that journey of forgiveness that must start in God's people ... it is not optional!  You are welcome at the table! Randy

Monday, January 10, 2022

Never Been Done Before

The phrase above is an interesting one.  "Never been done before!"  That phrase can be taken in so many ways.  I wonder how God would want us to view it?  Here are some thoughts!

When I hear this phrase I think of two Scriptures.  They are Scriptures about the blessings and the struggles of ministry, and they make me think of how we (the Church) must boldly reflect our leader, Jesus.

The first Scripture is Luke 4:17-18, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for He has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free and that the year of the Lord's favor has come."  What a great word for the New Year!  Newness ... hope ... salvation ... growth ... God's 'new thing' promised by the prophets!  These things have never been done before, and they are happening because of the presence, power and proclamation of the Messiah!  Look at the words in this Scripture.  Jesus announces that God's plan for us and His people involves God's Spirit, God's anointing, God's euangelion (Gospel or Good News in the Greek), God releasing the captives, God giving sight to the blind, God freeing the oppressed and God saying that this is the year of the Lord's favor.  Jesus proclaims that these things will happen, with or without us, because God said they would happen.  I am sure that people hearing these words said ... "This has never been done before!"

Before I share the second Scripture, let me say this little phrase can (and has) been used differently than Jesus would have meant it.  I have heard this phrase in conversation about new ministries.  Those conversations were (more often than not) more negative than positive.  These little words have been used as an excuse for inaction.  We can't or shouldn't do this because "It has never been done before."  Some said it about Celebrate Recovery in January of 2013.  Some say it today when new ideas come forward, even when those ideas embrace and apply unity, grace, and all of those words in Jesus' statement ... like God's Spirit, anointing, Good News, freedom, release from oppression or God's favor.  Many want to dwell in how bad things are and are about to become.  My question for those who feel this way is ... "Do you want to live in the 'year of fear, anxiety, negativity and isolation' or do you want to live in the year of boldness, trust, hope and unity?'"  I can't answer that question for you, but I know my answer.

The second Scripture is one that challenges the Church.  Luke 14:15-24 recounts a great banquet to which many guests were invited.  But the invited guests were all caught up in their own stuff.  The Scripture says they "all began to make excuses."  Business, work and personal matters bring the invited guests to 'beg off' and ignore the invitation of the master.  The master was angry and told his servants to go out and invite the poor, crippled, blind and lame.  Then he said, "Go to the roads and country lanes and invite these people too, so that my house will be filled."  I wonder if these two Scriptures overlap in some way?  Because one could say about both, "That's never been done before?"  And we can observe that the poor, lost, isolated and marginalized do get the invitation.  We can also observe that the invited who made excuses lose their invitation.  Sounds harsh, but that is what the parable says!

I met with a group of fellow workers and friends yesterday.  We talked about Scripture.  We shared how God's word caused us to rethink how all of us do church.  We shared the command to "love one another" and Jesus' call (his last prayer) for unity.  We put in place some plans that will (God willing) come to fruition in the 2nd quarter of 2022.  They are challenging plans that will involve work, sacrifice, discomfort, patience, tolerance and lots of grace (sounds like what Jesus gives me every day!).  When these plans begin to unfold some of you will say, "That has never been done before!"  And that statement will have two basic meanings.  Some will express it as an excuse for inaction.  They will fear the difficulty and the loss of our control over the whole thing.  Others will make the statement with hope and expectation.

I'll just say this.  We (the Church) can no longer preach the message of love and unity as ideals that will only happen in heaven.  Jesus didn't command these things to be lived-out in the 'land over yonder.'  He invites us to a banquet in which He calls His faithful to leave their excuses, their resistance to His call, their isolationism and their pride at the door.  He calls for His house to be full.  "Love as I have loved you (John 13:34)."  "I in them and You in me, that they may be perfectly united, so that the world may know You sent Me (John 17:23)."  I will make sure you get an invitation to this banquet.  You must decide for yourself 1) whether you will come to the banquet and 2) how you will mean the phrase, "That's never been done before."  I look forward to gathering at the table with you!  Randy

Monday, January 3, 2022

Unlocking Newness

This week we will start the New Year by reflecting on our identity.  To begin to understand our function as God's well-made and well-designed people, we need to see what Scripture says about our creation.  I wonder if we have lost the art and purpose of this important and transcendent part of being human?  Our world and our society is built on reaction.  The blur of lyrics to a rap song.  The knee jerk reaction to a political issue.  The quick call for revenge or 'justice.'  A quick Twitter post about sports, society or someone we don't even know.  You know what I am talking about.  But what about reflection?  This is where we use our mind (the one God said we were to love Him with).  We put away childish responses and think about what we are doing.  That's what Psalm 139 is all about!  It reflects on 1) who we are as God's creation, 2) who God is to us, and 3) how God can help us to become better. 

Verse 16 of Psalm 139 sums up the answer to "who are we?"  It says we are "skillfully wrought."  Psalm 139:14 says we are "fearfully and wonderfully made."  We are intentional, not accidental.  We are formed, not mass-produced. C. S. Lewis said we are not cattle to be herded to the slaughter, we are individuals of value, we are sentient and we are made this way by God.  We are made to think and reason our way through life, yet we often take the shortcut of reaction.  Why?  I think reaction is easier.  It takes far less time and energy to just react to things.  I remember Jesus' conversation with Peter who, in response to Jesus' announcement that he would be delivered to the religious leaders and killed, said "Never Lord! ...  "This shall never happen to you! (Matthew 16:22)"  Jesus responds to Peter's reactive and short-sighted comment saying, "Get behind me Satan!"  Our creation by an intentional God calls us to think, reason and consider as we do life in this world.  Cattle react.  Animals react.  People use intelligence and reason.  We belong to a God who has given these things to us.

Who is God to us?  Psalm 139 says God is both our creator and one who gives watchful care over our lives.  God is both present (verses 1 thru 5) and observant (verses 7 thru 12).  God sees us at our best and worst. What baffles me and humbles me is that God knows all of my mess and still cares!  God's love isn't based on my performance or my righteousness!  God's claim on me doesn't diminish when I fall down and doesn't increase when I shine!  God's watch-care, presence and guidance are persistent and faithful!  We belong to a God who is all of these things to us.

How does God help us to grow?  David, in Psalm 139, does something that is difficult, unpopular but vital to growth.  David invites constructive critique.  Psalm 139:24 says, "See if there is any wicked way in me and lead me in the way everlasting."  David acknowledges God's ownership of his life and seeks God's wisdom in life.  In a world filled with seeking our passions, our mission, our purpose, David says something totally different.  "God ... take a look at me and my life and show me how I can conform to your plan (the way everlasting). David seeks God's way ... not his.  We belong to a God who has a plan and a direction, a passion and a purpose.  

We are starting a New Year.  To whom do you belong? We can decide whether this year will be new, or just a reenactment of the old year.  Psalm 139 can be a key to unlock the door of newness.  The Psalm says we are intentionally made by God.  It concludes we are both watched and cared-for by God.  And it calls us to ask for God's honest evaluation and correction.  If you want a 'new' year, it might be good to step back from reaction and step into reflection.  And while you are reflecting, listen to a God who can lead you in the way everlasting. Randy

Monday, December 27, 2021

Beginning

In the month of January, I am going to preach on 4 B words ... beginning, belonging, blessing and bride.  The first of these words, beginning, really will begin at the end.  The end of the Bible is where Jesus makes what I believe is one of the most beautiful and hopeful statements in Scripture.  Jesus, sitting on the throne in heaven, says, "Behold, I am making all things new! (Revelation 21:5)"  

Let's start our reflection today with that little word "new."  We, in the west, have a habit of reading Scripture and thinking it is written in modern-day English.  We think it is all about our little part of the planet, our needs/wants and our perspective.  As the Apostle John writes these words he has received from God, living in exile on a Greek island, near modern-day Turkey, seeing visions from God, I wonder if he is thinking about the context of America?  Probably not!  So, how does John hear these words?  That will give us some clarity about their meaning!

First, John hears, "Behold!"  It is God saying, listen up ... something important is about to come next, so stop what you are doing and listen!  My dad would say "Alright!"  When my dad said, "alright" all was not right.  We were about to hear something we had better get right the first time, because we wouldn't get a second chance to get it right.  When God says, "Behold" I think it is worthy of our time, attention and focus.

Second, let's get into our heads who is taking action here.  It is Jesus!  He is doing something that is very Jesus-like ... He is creating.  John 1:3 says, "Through Him all things were made; without Him nothing was made that has been made!"  Jesus is creating something.  And when Jesus creates, He doesn't stamp out widgets that are part of mass-production.  Jesus creates with intention.  Psalm 139 says, "You knit me together in my mother's womb (Psalm 139:13)."  Jesus is creating something worthy of our attention and of our respect.  What is He making?

The passage says Jesus is "making all things new."  Here is where we must be careful in our interpretation.  I have people tell me (as we get through and past COVID) "I just want us to get back to normal!"  My answer has always been, "I want us to finish this chapter better, stronger and more Christ-focused."  I don't want things back like they were!  Neither does Jesus!  The little word, new, is kainos. It can mean two things ... renewed like the original creation (in this case back to the Genesis creation where God said, "it is good") or qualitatively new.  Jesus' new things are of the quality, design and function that He intends.  They are not the cheap copies we have made.  They are not the fallen world that resulted with our father Adam leaving the garden in shame.  I think the best English version of this word is "redeemed to God's original intent."

In Revelation 21, all of this happens at the end of all things, but I believe God has another reason for giving us this information.  I don't think that His intent is for us to sigh and pine for the "land over yonder" or trudge through a fallen world waiting for God to eventually "zap" us into newness.  I think our clue is that prayer we pray every Sunday in worship ... "on earth as it is in heaven."

We are exiting Christmas, 2021.  While I have encountered a fairly large group of schmucks during the holidays, I have seen glimpses of intentional good behavior.  Some people let me out in traffic.  I saw a woman being kind to a flustered cashier, saying "It's all right ... I can wait."  The cashier was almost in tears seeing the kindness and patience of the woman, and she was grateful for a reprieve from the chaos.  I saw people helping a couple with a dead battery.  With the usual impatience and snarky behavior, there are glimpses of goodness, kindness and, can we says it, heaven?  Francesca Battistelli sings a song called Heaven Everywhere.  One line on the song says, "Maybe there's a little more of love, and maybe there's a little less of us."  I wonder if the newness, described in Revelation 21:5, is all about us being renewed or recreated into beings that are focused on God ... not self!  I wonder if God wants to make us new so that we can bring a little bit of heaven to earth?  I wonder if that is how we (His Church) shows the world the beauty, newness, grace, power and love of God?  I wonder if this is how we teach redemption? Randy

Monday, December 20, 2021

Journey of Love

Over the past week all of us should have heard the Christmas story.  It is proclaimed in Luke 2, and you will hear it on Christmas Eve as we gather for our Candlelight Communion (come and go from 4-6pm and the candlelight service at 6pm).  You heard it at the Community Tree Lighting Service on December 1st and at our Christmas Musical last Sunday.  I hope you listened.

Verses 4-5 of the story says, "And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, unto the City of David, which is called Bethlehem (because he was of the house of David and the lineage of David): to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child."

They went on a journey!  It was inconvenient.  I expect Mary would have liked to have her child in the comfort of family, friends and familiar surroundings.  But God-led journeys are often inconvenient and (no pun intended) taxing.  The journey was required by government regulations and the kicker it was all so they could receive a tax from the Romans.  Many people I know would have complained, balked, said they "are not under the law of the governmental authorities" and won't give up their freedom for such a pointless endeavor.  Mary and Joseph "went up."  And God and God's love was in the journey!

They went on a journey!  Many speculate on the route they travelled, but I believe they would have taken the shortest through Northern Israel, down to the south through Samaria.  Friends would have advised them to avoid the 'no count' Samaritans.  But if you follow the life of this family, the lineage of Jesus (Matthew, Chapter 1) and (later) the life of Jesus, you will not find Jesus avoiding Samaria and you will find some pretty interesting branches in the family tree of Jesus.  There is Rahab, the gentile prostitute.  There is Bathsheba, the gentile adulterer (David was also an adulterer).  The journey of love somehow seems to ignore status, race and religious background.  It seems God really does look at the heart of people.  I believe Jesus, in the womb of Mary, traveled past all of those vineyards that were part of 'the promised land,' past Jacobs well north of Jerusalem, past the valley of Armageddon (where the last battle will happen), past the opulent Herodium (a monument to Herod's kingdom) and on the little Bethlehem, called 'the house of bread.'  God's love sees the past, the present and the future and still makes a way for those who believe!

They went on a journey!  They made their way to a city that was destined (in prophecy) to be the place where God's ultimate promise unfolds in the birth, life and death of the Son of God and the Savior of the World.  The two travelers were nothing to those they passed.  They weren't important to those who rejected them in Bethlehem, sent them to a manger and consigned them to obscurity that we seem to invent for those we deem unimportant.  And there, in a stable, was born a child that would change the world!

Do you grasp the magnitude of the birth?  Do you, and your church, see that His call, His work and His plan/journey ... difficult, expensive, inconvenient, frustrating, unpopular ... is why we are here? ... to travel past the opulence of our society, to see and embrace the other oppressed people who we invite to join our journey, to recognize God's ownership of our stuff/church/mission and place our journey with Him first, to give up the popular, to submit to God's plan when it doesn't fit our politics, to love in spite of our feelings?  Does that little child change our world, or is it 'business as usual?' Are we on the journey with Jesus?  Good question!  Randy

Sunday, December 12, 2021

When Love Was Born

Mark Schultz sings a song about Christmas called "When Love Was Born."  As we come to the 4th Sunday of Advent I will share these beautiful lyrics.  On Christmas Eve the song will be sung during the service, but I ask you to read and reflect upon these words:

Starlight shines, the night is still, shepherds watching from a hill, I close my eyes, see the night, when love was born.

Perfect child, gently waits, a mother bends to kiss God's face, I close my eyes, and see the night, when love was born.

Angels fill the midnight sky, they sing Hallelujah, He is Christ, our King.

Emmanuel, Prince of Peace, love come down, for you and me, heaven's gift, the Holy Spark, to light the way, inside our hearts.

Bethlehem, through your small door, came to hope we've waited for, the world was changed, forevermore, when love was born.

I close my eyes, and see the night, when love was born.

It all started because God loved/loves us.  "God so loved the world, that He gave His one and only son, that whosoever believeth in Him, should not perish, but have everlasting light (John 3:16)."  God first loved us, and that started the unstoppable plan for God to come, live, die and save His people.  "The world was changed, forevermore, when love was born!"  It continued as God invites us to, through belief, enter His kingdom through the small door of a baby born to Mary.  We enter by choosing, loving and believing in that little child.

We light the candle of love.  But the candle is an outward sign of something deeper.  We light it to acknowledge Jesus' New Commandment, to love one another ... Jesus' greatest commandment to love God with our heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbor as much as we love ourselves.

I hope this Sunday, when you hear the music and think about the stories in the songs, you will remember the love that brings us together.  Come for the service at 10 ... one service for the whole congregation.  Stay for food at around 11:20 in the Family Life Center.  Share music, fellowship and love.  For it is the greatest gift of this season ... for God IS love!  

See you Sunday!  Randy