Monday, November 27, 2017

Names for The Messiah: Wonderful Counselor

Luke 2:39-52   (NRSV)

When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he said to them. Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart.

And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.




While today is not the first Sunday in the season of Advent, Matt and I are beginning our look at some of the names given to Jesus the Messiah by the early Christian community.

The names that we are going to focus on are the ones found in the prophet Isaiah's text that the early church came to understand as referring to Jesus.

But those are not the only names that were ascribed to Jesus.

Throughout the Gospels titles are given to Jesus to help the early followers (and us as well) to understand just who Jesus was and is.

The author of Matthew composed the gospel with a Jewish audience in mind, so he goes to great lengths to "prove" who Jesus is by linking him up to the Hebrew Bible.

If you have never read Matthew carefully you may want to take another look.

It is written in five sections --- Just like the Torah of the Hebrew Bible
and the purpose of the book is to demonstrate that Jesus is the NEW lawgiver --- where the Torah showed Moses as the lawgiver.
In Matthew's birth story just like Moses, Jesus has to be hidden because the Empire wants to kill him   
                   Pharaoh slaughters all the children
                   Herod does the same
          Jesus must go to Egypt so that he can return (like Israel did in Hebrew Bible)

Matthew goes to great lengths to prove to his readers that Jesus is the Messiah that was predicted in the Jewish scriptures --- what we often call the Old Testament

Luke, in his birth stories, is not as interested in demonstrating that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah --- but rather that Jesus is the Messiah that has been anticipated since the beginning of time.

Again --- a quick look both Matthew and Luke illustrate this

Mathew's genealogy wants to prove that Jesus is of the lineage of David --- thus it goes back to Abraham (the father of the Jews) and includes King David.

But where does Luke's genealogy take us back to?
          Luke want to show that Jesus is a son of Adam

Luke's Jesus is not just the Jewish Messiah --- Jesus is the Messiah for all.

But both are influenced by the oracle that is found in Isaiah chapter 9 that will be the focal point for our preaching this advent season.

Isaiah writes
The people who walked in darkness
    have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
    on them light has shined.
. . .
For a child has been born for us,
    a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
    and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
    and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
    He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
    from this time onward and forevermore.

These words are familiar because we read them each and every Advent Season, but more than that we know these words from George Frideric Handel's famous MESSIAH.

In the summer of 1741, George Frideric Handel was a 56-year old composer and suffering from poor health following a stroke and in considerable financial difficulty, he was at the low point of his musical career.

Charles Jennens had sent a copy of his libretto to Handel and twenty-four days later, George Frideric Handel had finished the Messiah, the most famous oratorio ever written.

We all know the majesty and triumph of The Hallelujah Chorus that concludes this masterwork.

It is in the twelfth song of the first movement that Handel captures the exuberant, joy of Isaiah 9:2-7. 

Titled "for unto us a child is born" Handel lays out for us our four titles for Jesus.

While the early church came to understand that Isaiah was predicting the future Messiah --- Jesus --- it is clear that the author did not intend it that way.

Isaiah, in the 8th century (BCE), was writing most likely to celebrate the birth of a new royal prince in Jerusalem --- or the coronation of a new king.

Isaiah was filled with hope that this new king would usher in a new age --- an age filled with peace and prosperity.

The people had been living in a difficult time --- they were as Isaiah wrote --- a people who lived in deep darkness.

But with this new king --- light would shine upon them.

And he gives this new king four rather lofty titles
          Wonderful Counselor
          Mighty God
          Everlasting Father
          Prince of Peace

We will look at each of these titles and how they have shaped how we understand Jesus and our expectations for him

WONDERFUL COUNSELOR
Handel misunderstood the Hebrew and he put a comma between wonderful and counselor thus creating two titles.
But in the Hebrew it is meant as one

This new king will be a Wonderful Counselor
          A counselor of great wonders

This word counselor refers to governance or the ability to execute policy

Isaiah is rejoicing that God has raised up a new king who will initiate policies and practices that will dazzle in effectiveness and benefit the entire kingdom.

This morning is Christ the King Sunday --- a relatively new addition to our liturgical calendar.  This is the last Sunday of the ecclesiastical year --- Advent begins a new cycle.

We celebrate Christ the King to remind us that Jesus is the king of our lives and the universe

It seems very appropriate that we begin this series today since all these titles given by Isaiah are filled with royal imagery.

Just as Isaiah wrote during a time of distress for the Jewish people --- the Assyrian Empire was growing stronger and stronger
Jesus entered the world that was controlled by the Roman Empire and their oppressive practices

Luke clearly identifies this issue in the opening of his Gospel:
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered.

Walter Brueggemann in his book "Names for the Messiah" writes:
The larger drama of the Gospel exhibits the way in which King Jesus takes issue with the royal power of Rome and subsequently with every regime of power that imagines it is ultimate and absolute.  The power of King Jesus is intrinsically revolutionary and subversive against every repressive regime.

So in Isaiah, the early church got a glimpse of what this promised king should look like and how he would oppose the evil empirical power of Rome.

The early church believed that Jesus will bring about a new regime of peace and well-being that will displace the Roman order of violence and extortion.

The saw in King Jesus the manifestation of these four royal titles that the oracle of Isaiah had announced.
          Wonderful Counselor
          Mighty God
          Everlasting Father
          Prince of Peace

Jesus, as a wonderful counselor, will bring about extraordinary plans and policies.
          And he will do this by re-ordering the life of the Jewish people

Brueggemann suggest that the early church saw five things in Jesus that helped them identify him as the Wonderful Counselor of Isaiah chapter 9

Jesus was wise.

Throughout the Gospels people are asking where Jesus gets his wisdom from.

He is proclaimed for his wisdom as a child
          The familiar story of the visit to the temple
As well as an adult

Roman power was seen as foolishness but the authority and the path of Jesus was seen as wise and extraordinary

Jesus was extraordinary

Jesus displayed an authority that was unlike anyone else's
Mark 1:22    (NRSV)
They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.

His teaching was presenting a totally different world-view --- a new way to look at the world.

Jesus' teaching and actions were full of wisdom

His healings demonstrated his wisdom and power

Jesus, when John the Baptist's disciples come to ask on behalf of John, Jesus says to them:
“Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.

What Jesus was doing was never seen before and could not be explained

Jesus challenged the empire

All that Jesus was doing was a huge threat to the Empire.
          He was seen as dangerous and subversive

If you are not sure about this go and read the beatitudes found in Matthew's Gospel.
Jesus turns the world upside down and offers a whole new paradigm

Jesus is not killed because he was a nice guy who went around healing people --- he was executed because he was threatening a revolution.

Mary anticipated this when in her song she proclaimed:
Luke 1:51-53    (NRSV)
He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and sent the rich away empty.

But maybe the most important thing this Wonderful Counselor did was: Jesus invited us to join him on his mission

Before Jesus is executed by Rome, this wise, transformative King invited his followers to continue his way of subversive astonishment and transformation of the world.

And we are invited to do the same.

We have been called to a new vocation.

We are invited to be a part of this new Kingdom --- one that wants to turn the world upside down.

The words of Isaiah held out hope for his generation.
          And hope for ours.

God was not abandoning Israel to invasion and disaster, but was promising that in spite of the prospect of war there was a glorious future ahead.

Jesus also entered into a difficult and dark world.

But like this promised King from Isaiah, Jesus offers a new path.

The question remains --- are we willing to follow the wonderful counsel of King Jesus?
Are we willing to challenge the status quo and seek God's kingdom rather than our own?
If we are to do that --- we must take up the light of Jesus and use it to dispel the darkness that surrounds us


May Jesus be the Wonderful Counselor for your life --- and may you have the courage to follow the plan and counsel that he gives to you.  Amen.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Learning To Give Thanks

Habakkuk 3:17-19     (NRSV)

Though the fig tree does not blossom,
    and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails,
    and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold,
    and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
    I will exult in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength;
    he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
    and makes me tread upon the heights.




Many of us seem to go through life as if we expect it to be a fairy tale
that everything is going to work out perfectly.

I think you know what I mean:

·         There is only one person in the world who would be the perfect spouse for me --- so I just need to look a little harder and I will find them

·         Life should be like the books that we read --- or the movies and TV shows that we watch --- filled with sex and adventure.

·         The lottery and the casinos fill us with the dream --- “If only I win the lottery, then my life would be so much better.

We sometimes want --- no even expect --- that our lives should be lived out like a fairy tale. 
We want our lives to include the phrase: “They lived happily ever after.”

The only problem is --- that is not the way life works.

Our lives are not fairy tales
          The things that we want to happen and expect to happen
                   Don’t always come true

Instead it seems to me that our lives are more like the fairy tales found on the old Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons of my childhood --- do any of you remember them?

They were called FRACTURED FAIRY TALES.

If you remember --- the ones that began with a fairy struggling to open a very large book, and in the end get smashed by the book.
          FRACTURED FAIRY TALES

If you never had the opportunity to watch them there is good news --- you can find a number of them on YouTube – and they are hilarious because nothing ever seems to work out in those fairy tales
          Nothing goes perfectly
          Nothing is “happily ever after”
As a matter of fact --- these fairy tales are a heck of a lot like our lives.

I am preaching on LEARNING HOW TO GIVE THANKS so that I can hopefully learn how better to give thanks.

Sure, it is easy to give thanks for:
          Nancy
          Jessica & Sam, Lindsey and Haley
Nancy’s and my parents
Our siblings and their children

My friends
This wonderful church

But I would be lying if I didn’t admit that there are many things in my life that I find it difficult to give thanks for --- and it is those things that I constantly struggle with.

Habakkuk, is an interesting book in the Hebrew Scriptures, I am sure that you looked up the passage this week in preparation for this morning, but just in case you had a hard time finding it the book is located right next to Nahum.
Of course you have all read Nahum, haven't you?

Nahum was the name of my dog when Nancy and I got married.
You would have thought she would have run for the hills  . . .

But the truth is Nahum is truly a wonderful name, but nobody ever had any idea why I came up with it. 
          Nahum in Hebrew means comforter or consoler

Do me a favor --- don't waste your time going to read the prophet Nahum, because you would question why anybody would name their dog after such a terrible prophet. 
It is a mean book: Nahum seems to be angry with everybody, but Habakkuk is different. 
Habakkuk is a book of hope and joy. 

Habakkuk is searching for the same thing that you and I are always looking for. 

An answer to that question: "Why do bad things happen to good people?" 
Why does it happen", Habakkuk asks.  "Why?  It doesn't make any sense! 

And he poses this question to God in the first chapter when he asks:

(Habakkuk 1:13  NRSV)
Your eyes are too pure to behold evil,
    and you cannot look on wrongdoing;
why do you look on the treacherous,
    and are silent when the wicked swallow
    those more righteous than they?

Habakkuk struggled with that issue ---- he struggled with it and what is more, he got an answer. 

It is the same answer that you and I get, not always the answer that we want, but it is the answer that we get. 
That God is God, and we cannot fully comprehend nor understand God. 
                   Not always a very satisfactory answer

But even more important, what Habakkuk finds out is that the most important thing is to trust God and keep our faith.
And a part of keeping that faith is giving thanks! 

Giving thanks not only in times of good fortune, when it is easy for us to give thanks; when our table is full of food, when our children are healthy, when there is no war --- but he says: we must also learn to give thanks in times of sorrow, when expectations don’t pan out, when things don’t go the way that we expected or wanted --- when our lives become fractured.

I have thought a lot about giving thanks --- how to deal with thanksgiving, and what that all means ---- and as I reflected on my life, I have had numerous things happen to me that have helped me to better understand what it means to give God thanks.

Let me share a few.

A friend of mine, when I was a student at Duke
we were roommates together at Annual Conference at Lake Junaluska, NC. 
We stood up together to be ordained as deacons in the United Methodist Church.  And after it was over, we talked about how we would get together over the summer, the conference was in June and we had a couple months of summer left --- but we never did. 
We talked, and laughed and had a wonderful time together. 

We shared some of our deepest joys and dreams over being ordained, and beginning our ministries.  

When I went back to Duke that fall I found out that Brent had dropped out ---he felt that the ordained ministry wasn't the calling that he had received. 

And to be honest with you --- that bothered me deeply --- for here was somebody who I had shared all of my joys and dreams of going into the ministry --- here was somebody who had all the gifts and graces to be a wonderful minister, and yet he decided it wasn't for him.

Brent and I finally had the opportunity to talk about it --- and he said to me: "You know, I made a deal with God. I promised God that I would go into the ordained ministry for ten years, if only God would love me back.  And do you know what I realized.  God loves me anyway. I don't have to be an ordained minister for ten years for God to love me."
And I was somehow able to say: Thanks!

Thanks be to God!
For Brent had found something out --- and even though it hurt me at the time --- Brent found out something even more important --- that God's love exists for all of us, if only we would open our eyes to it!

It has been a long time now, and I don't know if you even remember Rev. Weir? 
          But this story has stuck with me through the years.

Rev. Weir was held hostage in Lebanon, and when he was finally released it was interesting to hear his comments on what gave him the strength to carry on. 

He said, what enabled him to continue to live was the ability to give thanks --- to give thanks over things that we would see as trivial. 
          To give thanks over receiving some fruit. 
To give thanks to being chained by only one leg to the radiator instead of two.
To give thanks for a shower
and most of all, to give thanks for each and every day that he was alive. 
Despite the fact that he was held hostage, not knowing where he was, not knowing what his fate was to be, Rev Weir was able to give thanks, thanks to God, that he could continue in his service.

Last week was the 32nd anniversary of the death of my brother Stewart. 

Every year, as I approach the 11th of November, I struggle with giving thanks.

Why?
Why did Stewart a 24 year old, full of life, full of love
Why did he have to die?

I was in my last year at Duke when Stewart became ill
At the two little churches that I served in rural North Carolina they had a rather unusual practice on Sunday mornings.  They alternated each week who had worship first.
          1st & 3rd Sunday it was Richfield UMC
          2nd & 4th it was New Mt Tabor
                   (And you think our changed schedule is confusing . . .)
One little problem --- some months had 5 Sundays
They solved the problem by not having worship on 5th Sundays
So four times a year, I could head north and spend the weekend with my family
I was a full time student at Duke and would commute 110 miles each way to school.
I had no money --- and the months that had a 5th Sunday, on the 4th Sunday, as I greeted the congregation following service, people would put money in my pockets and say to me "Go Home". 
I am so thankful for those loving congregations --- they will never fully know the impact that they had on me.

It was late in the afternoon of November 9th, 1985
I was getting ready for a lock-in (at the parsonage) with the youth from the two churches.
My telephone rang and it was a collect call from my dad
          Father's don't call their student children collect
He was at the hospital and the doctor told him that if I planned on coming home before Stewart died --- I needed to leave immediately

How can one give God thanks ---over something like this?

But even Jesus Christ, who shows us what it means to give thanks, did it at a time of sorrow. 

We all know the story.

On the night that He was betrayed, Jesus took bread, and after giving God thanks he broke the bread and gave it to his disciples, and after the supper was over he took a cup, again he gave God thanks, and gave the cup to his disciples.

We know that story ---but we tend to forget one important part --- Jesus knew what was coming --- he knew he was going to be crucified and killed.

Jesus knew that his ministry on earth was about to come to an end --- and yet, even knowing that --- even knowing how he was going to die, a most horrible death --- Jesus was able to give thanks and rejoice in God.

A phenomena that I find interesting is that when most people come in to see me for counseling, the generally come in saying one thing.
More often than not, they are upset about the things that they do not have.  It is extremely rare that someone will come in thankful for all the blessings that they have received.   We live life in the --- if only
          if only I had this
          if only (fill in the blank)
          . . .  IF ONLY . . .  then my life would be better.

Paul wrote to the church at Thessaloniki:
(1 Thessalonians 5:16-18   NRSV)
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

Give thanks to God in all things . . .

The text does not say that we should give God thanks FOR all things ---- rather it says we should give God thanks IN all things!

Personally I like the International Children's Bible version even better:
(1 Thessalonians 5: 16-18 ICB)  Always be happy.  Never stop praying.  Give thanks whatever happens. That is what God wants for you in Christ Jesus.

We do not need to give God thanks FOR the bad things in life --- but we do need to thank God.
We need to thank God that God was, and is, with us during those hard, fractured moments of our lives.

On Sunday, November 10th, following services Nancy and I got in my car and started a painful journey home.  We knew that Stewart would probably have died before we arrived --- it was a long sad journey.

We arrived at my parent's house early in the morning of the 11th --- and 45 minutes after we arrived --- Stewart crossed the horizon to the next chapter.

I don't give God thanks for the cancer that killed Stewart. 
I don't give God thanks that Stewart died.

I give thanks that Stewart lived!
I give God thanks that God gave me Stewart and that I got to spend 24 wonderful years with him --- too short --- yes!
          But God blessed me with it! 
And for that I say THANKS!

Did you listen to what Habakkuk says in the third chapter?
(Habakkuk 3: 17-19 NRSV) 
Though the fig tree does not blossom,
    and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails,
    and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold,
    and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
    I will exult in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength;
    he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
    and makes me tread upon the heights.

God makes my feet like hinds feet. 

A hind, a female deer, a deer that is able to climb the mountains, sure footed because its back foot follows in the exact spot of its front foot. 
Not falling when there is no room for error. 

God makes my feet;
God makes your feet the exact same way. 

God sent Jesus to be our example and the way for us to follow --- and even in times of sorrow, Jesus was able to give God thanks.

Learning to give thanks is not something that is easy for me, because I have learned that regardless of my faith, regardless of my thanksgivings, that does not prevent evil from happening, it does not prevent injury form occurring, or sickness from striking those that I love. 

But I know that through my faith --- through my attempts to follow the high places of God --- that I am still a child of God's, and that I am called to follow as best I can, pausing to give thanks, even when it does not seem appropriate or easy to do.


God makes my feet like hinds feet; God gives me that ability to go forward even when it doesn't seem that I can go on.  THANKS BE TO GOD!

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Book of Joy: Compassion

Matthew 9:9-13     New American Standard Bible (NASB)
As Jesus went on from there, He saw a man called Matthew, sitting in the tax collector’s booth; and He *said to him, “Follow Me!” And he got up and followed Him.

Then it happened that as Jesus was reclining at the table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were dining with Jesus and His disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to His disciples, “Why is your Teacher eating with the tax collectors and sinners?” But when Jesus heard this, He said, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire compassion, and not sacrifice,’ for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”


Her name was Margaret
We were in the middle of a Bible Study when suddenly a man appeared at our classroom door.
Since we were in the middle of a Bible Study and I was the teacher --- I have to admit that I decidedly did not show compassion.
After the man left --- Margaret turned to me and said four words that have stuck with me for close to twenty years --- HOW DO YOU KNOW?

What of course she was saying was: How do I know that wasn’t Jesus that I had just turned away?

The Dalai Lama says: "On this planet, over the last three thousand years, different religious traditions developed. All these traditions carry the same message: the message of love. So the purpose of these different traditions is to promote and strengthen the value of love, compassion. So different medicine, but same aim: to cure our pain, our illness. As we mentioned, even scientists now say basic human nature is compassionate.”

Did you hear that?

To me that is a powerful and profound statement ---- "scientists now say basic human nature is compassionate.” 

I hear those words and wonder ---- is that really true?  Is our basic instinct to care and connect with others? 

When I turn on the TV or open the newspaper that is not what I see.

I see violence and hatred and anger

What exactly is compassion?

In his book: A Fearless Heart: How the Courage to Be Compassionate Can Transform Our Lives, Thupten Jinpa offers this definition.
"Compassion is a sense of concern that arises when we are confronted with another's suffering and feel motivated to see that suffering relieved."
"Compassion is what connects the feeling of empathy to acts of kindness, generosity, and other expressions of altruistic tendencies."

When you open up the stories about Jesus you should be struck by one thing --- whenever Jesus encountered somebody his attitude was one of compassion toward them.

In the first chapter of Mark's Gospel Jesus encounters a man with leprosy and we are told that he healed him because he was moved with compassion.

The Sermon on the Mount is an attempt by Jesus to get us to change the way that we view the world --- to change our attitudes into attitudes like his. 
          An attitude of love and compassion

The Gospels are filled with story after story of Jesus compassion

There is of course the story of the prodigal son
          or the feeding of the 4000
          or the ten lepers
          or the woman caught in adultery
          or the Good Samaritan
Do I need to go on? Because of course I could

But two stories really grabbed at me this week.

They are both found in the ninth chapter of Matthew's Gospel.  Actually the whole chapter is so typical in that it is example after example of the compassion of Jesus.

The chapter opens with Jesus crossing the Sea of Galilee and returning to Capernaum.

While there a paralyzed man is brought to Jesus and an interesting exchange takes place.

Seeing the paralyzed man Jesus says to him: "Your sins are forgiven" 
Some in the crowd didn't like what he said and Jesus says to them:
“Why are you thinking evil in your hearts? Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—then He said to the paralytic, “Get up, pick up your bed and go home.”

He then sees Matthew --- a tax collector at work and he invites him to follow him.
And our story this morning takes place in which Jesus is attacked for hanging around with sinners.
          And he tells us very clearly what his ministry is all about.
I desire compassion, and not sacrifice,’ for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Jesus states clearly that he isn't into legalism or judgment --- he wants his followers to live a life of compassion.

He then shares the parable of the wineskins --- calling us to be creative and adaptive to the world we live in.

Then we have a story about a synagogue official whose daughter died --- and Jesus heads off to his house.

Along the way Jesus encounters a woman who has been bleeding for twelve years and he heals her.  Her bleeding made her unclean and thus should not have had an encounter with Jesus or any pious Jew --- but he had compassion toward her.

Jesus comes to the official's house and is told the daughter is dead --- but he brings her back to life.

Then Jesus encounters two blind men and he touches their eyes and restores their sight.

Then Jesus meets a demon possessed man and he cast the demon out.

All because he had compassion for them

I am tired already!

And, if that wasn't enough Matthew then tells us:
Jesus was going through all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness.

Seeing the people, He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd. Then Jesus said to His disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Therefore beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest.”

This is just one chapter in the Gospel of Matthew --- every action of Jesus is one of compassion towards those that he met.

I think something else is important here that I want to come back to in a moment.

Even the early followers of Jesus understood that at the core of their being they were to be people of compassion

In the letter to the Colossians, Paul explains what qualities we are to have as disciples of Christ. 

I love the way that Eugene Peterson translates this in the Message (Col 3:11-14)
Every item of your new way of life is custom-made by the Creator, with his label on it. All the old fashions are now obsolete. Words like Jewish and non-Jewish, religious and irreligious, insider and outsider, uncivilized and uncouth, slave and free, mean nothing. From now on everyone is defined by Christ, everyone is included in Christ.

So, chosen by God for this new life of love, dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline. Be even-tempered, content with second place, quick to forgive an offense. Forgive as quickly and completely as the Master forgave you. And regardless of what else you put on, wear love. It’s your basic, all-purpose garment. Never be without it.

To be a follower of Jesus means that we are to be clothed in compassion.

That is the way Jesus lived --- that is the way he wants us to live.

But how do we do that --- How do we live a life clothed in compassion?

Compassion isn't easy.  But going back to the opening statement made by the Dalai Lama, science does suggest that it is innate.

James Doty writes:
Stephanie Brown, professor at SUNY Stony Brook University and the University of Michigan, has shown that the act of experiencing compassion and helping others actually leads to tremendous mental and physical well-being for us as well. While survival of the fittest may lead to short-term gain, research clearly shows it is survival of the kindest that leads to the long-term survival of a species. It is our ability to stand together as a group, to support each other, to help each other, to communicate for mutual understanding, and to cooperate, that has taken our species this far. Compassion is an instinct. Recent research shows that even animals such as rats and monkeys will go through tremendous effort and cost to help out another of its species who is suffering. We human beings are even more instinctually compassionate; our brains are wired for compassion.

The problem is --- even though we are wired for compassion --- we have also learned to turn away from opportunities to be compassionate.

Desmond Tutu writes: "Our human nature has been distorted."

We fear compassion because we’re afraid of experiencing the suffering, the vulnerability, and the helplessness that can come with having an open heart. 

Psychologist Paul Gilbert suggests that many people are afraid that if they are compassionate they will be taken advantage of, that others will become dependent on them, and that they won’t be able to handle others’ distress.

So we rationalize and justify and often turn the other direction

At the Gathering of Men's retreat this weekend we looked at how Meridian Street is engaged in acts of compassion and how we can make a kingdom difference in the name of Jesus --- but the question was raised --- how do we make an impact without becoming overwhelmed by all the need?

The Princeton philosopher Peter Singer has a great example of this.

He talks about somebody who's walking past some water and sees a child drowning. And this person happens to be in very fancy clothes - let's say an Armani suit or some very expensive shoes. And the question is, if you're the only one there and the only one capable of saving the child and there's no time to spare, should you, in fact, ruin your suit, should you ruin your shoes and save the life? Let's say that you would lose $200 doing that. And almost everybody would say, of course, the child's life is worth more than the $200.

And then Peter Singer turns around and says, well, what if we could demonstrate that there's a child's life halfway around the world and that $200 would be sufficient to save that life? Why aren't you spending the $200?

And of course, lots of us don't.

The child in the pond who's drowning feels very real to us and feels like our responsibility in ways that the child halfway around the world or even two miles away does not.

I want to go back to that passage from Matthew's Gospel for a moment.

Jesus was going through all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness.

Seeing the people, He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd. Then Jesus said to His disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Therefore beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest.”

Did you hear what Jesus says to us?

He has compassion on the people because they didn't have anyone who was willing to lead them and they he says to his disciples (he says to us --- his disciples)
“The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

Jesus demonstration of compassion becomes an invitation to you and me to become people of compassion.

Compassion is the center of who Jesus is --- and thus it is to be at the core of who you and I are to be.

Rodney Stark, a religious sociologist wrote the book: The Triumph of Christianity.  In it he asks a rather basic question from a historical sociological perspective: How did Jesus change the world?

He argues that what separates Jesus from the ancient world was his revolutionary emphasis on compassion and mercy.

Stark writes: 
In the midst of the squalor, misery, illness, and anonymity of ancient cities, Christianity provided an island of mercy and security ….. It started with Jesus ….

In contrast, in the pagan world, and especially among the philosophers, mercy was regarded as a character defect and pity as a pathological emotion: because mercy involves providing unearned help or relief, it is contrary to justice ….

[Thus] humans must learn "to curb the impulse [to show mercy]"; "the cry of the undeserving for mercy" must go "unanswered."

"[Showing mercy] was a defect of character unworthy of the wise and excusable only in those who have not yet grown up."  This was the moral climate in which Christianity taught that … a merciful and compassionate God requires humans to be merciful and compassionate.

Compassion is to be at our core.

So let me end with a little challenge.

I came across a wonderful podcast from NPR on compassion.  And at the end of the show, Shankar Vedantam invites his audience --- and I am inviting you to do the same.
He asks:
What would you do if you had to spend one day beaming compassion into the world? It could be something small - acknowledging a stranger. It could be something big - changing the direction of another person's life.


Give it a try --- and beam compassion and let me know what you experience.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Do You Want To Be Forgiven: Book of Joy

(John 20:19‑31 NRSV)  When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." {20} After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. {21} Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." {22} When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. {23} If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." {24} But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. {25} So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord." But he said to them, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe." {26} A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." {27} Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe." {28} Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!" {29} Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe." {30} Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. {31} But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.



Today we continue our journey through the Book of Joy, this morning we look at the pillar of forgiveness.

The reality is you're going to be hurt in life. 
          by things people say about you,
          by things people do to you,
          even by things that people think about you. 

Some of these hurts are still fresh because many of you have been hurt very deeply.

My message this morning is pretty simple. 

First, we're going to look at "Why in the world should I ever forgive anybody who hurts me?"
And then we're going to look at how we can learn to forgive. 

Because until we learn to forgive (and be forgiven) we will never fully experience JOY.

Let me share with you a couple of reasons why we should forgive others.

1.  BECAUSE GOD HAS FORGIVEN YOU

This to me is the most important thing I will say today.
God has already forgiven you.

The problem is, I am not sure that we really believe in a God who is willing to forgive us. 
          I want God to forgive me
          But I am not so sure I want God to forgive the person who hurt me.

We tend to believe in a God who wants JUSTICE, and justice for most of us means that a price must be paid.

So if someone wrongs us --- a price must be paid.
          At the very least they have to be sorry.

But throughout the New Testament, the message of Jesus is we must forgive (period!)
          Not forgive if they ask
          Not forgive if they are sorry

          JUST FORGIVE

In Ephesians 4:32 Paul writes:
"Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you." 

But if I don't really believe that God has already forgive me
          I'm going to have a tough time forgiving anyone else. 

If you are one of the people who have a hard time forgiving others, you probably have a hard time letting go of hurt, you have a hard time of forgiving a grudge, the possibility is that you yourself don't really feel forgiven.

If I don't feel forgiven, I don't want you to feel forgiven. 
If I don't feel grace, I'm certainly not going to be very gracious to you. 
If I don't feel set free from the things I've done wrong, I certainly don't want you feeling forgiven about the things that you have done wrong to me. 

I need to realize that I'm living in the presence of God's love and grace because God has forgiven all the things I deserve to be punished for.  God's forgiven me.  When I remember that, it makes me want to be a little bit more forgiving.

You will never have to forgive anybody more than God has already forgiven you.  God will always forgive you more than you forgive anybody else. 
God has already forgiven me and you.

2.  BECAUSE RESENTMENT DOESN'T WORK

Actually it's very self destructive. 
It's counterproductive. 
Resentment always hurts you more than anybody else. 

If anybody in the Bible has the right to be resentful it was Job. 

But three times in the book of Job we're told that resentment doesn't work. 

Job 5:2
"To worry yourself to death with resentment would be a foolish, senseless thing to do." 
It's foolish and it's senseless.  It's illogical, it's irrational, it's dumb. 

The author of Ecclesiastes (7:9) writes: "It's foolish to hold a grudge." 

No matter how resentful you are, no matter how bitter you are toward that person who hurt you: (mother, father, ex-husband or wife, that person at school, that former friend who betrayed you) all the resentment in the world is not going to change the past. 
It's not going to change anything. 
It's stewing without doing. 
All the resentment in the world will never solve the problem.  All the resentment in the world, in fact, never hurts that person, it just hurts you.

Research has shown over and over, that the single most destructive emotion is resentment, bitterness, being unforgiving. 
When you hold on to resentment, you only hurt yourself. 

3.  BECAUSE GOD IS CLEAR, IF I FAIL TO FORGIVE OTHERS, I WILL NOT BE FORGIVEN

Jesus says it like this in Matthew 6:14-15 (the Message)
there is a connection between what God does and what you do. You can’t get forgiveness from God, for instance, without also forgiving others. If you refuse to do your part, you cut yourself off from God’s part.

Jesus is saying we cannot receive what we're unwilling to give.
That's just the way it works. 

I've talked to many people over the years about letting go of hurt. 
I've heard this many, many times, "You just don't understand. 
          You don't know my hurt. 
          You don't know how that parent hurt me. 
          You don't know how for years and years I was abused." 
You're right.  I don't know. 

But God says: for your own sake you need to learn to let go.  You're not helping the situation by holding on to the hurt.  When you hold on to a hurt, you're still allowing somebody in the past to continue to hurt you.  That's your choice.  They can't continue to hurt you unless you choose to allow it. 

So how does one forgive?

Our story begins this morning with the disciples hiding — scared to death — that the fate that has happened to their friend Jesus is going to happen to them also.  They had given up everything that they had to follow this man Jesus — they banked their whole lives on him — and now — now Jesus is dead

They obviously did not believe Mary Magdalene’s insistence that Jesus had risen from the dead. Their fear and unbelief left them literally separated from the community, secluded in a locked room, much like fear and unwillingness to forgive can separate us from our own families and communities. Then, Jesus appears, wishing them peace.

There is a great story in the Book of Joy:
Anthony Ray Hinton spent thirty years on death row for a crime he did not commit.  He was working in a locked factory at the time of the crime that he was accused of.  When he was arrest in Alabama, he was told by the police officers that he was going to jail because he was black.

Anthony Ray Hinton spent 30 years in a five-by-seven cell in solitary confinement, allowed out of the cell for only one hour a day!

Can you imagine the anger — the bitterness that had to go through Anthony Ray Hinton's mind every single day that he spent in solitary confinement?

Forgiveness is hard!

I don’t know what else to say!

How do I let go of the anger that I hold toward those who have wronged me?

How do I accept forgiveness from somebody that I have wronged?

How do I accept God’s gift of forgiveness to me?

Let’s go back to our story:

The disciples are hiding in a locked room — thinking that it's over — their dreams — their hopes — everything had died with Jesus on that cross.

Suddenly — what must seem to them as a ghost comes into the room — right through the locked door — and when this “ghost” speaks to them he says “peace be with you”.

Now I don’t know much — but what I do know is that the disciples did not feel peace at that moment!

Jesus says to them again: “Peace be with you.  As the father sent me, so I send you.”  But this time he does something more: Then he took a deep breath and breathed into them. "Receive the Holy Spirit," he said.  "If you forgive someone's sins, they're gone for good. If you don't forgive sins, what are you going to do with them?"

When Jesus breathed on them, and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit” — the disciples physically felt the breath of God on them, and then they heard the command to accept the Spirit.



As soon as he gives them the Spirit by deed and word, Jesus provides instructions on what to do with it:
they have the power of forgiveness, as well as the choice of whether or not to use it (John 20:23).

WOW!

The good news is that you have received that same gift from God. 

It is a free gift from God.

We have that same choice today.

We can forgive — or we can continue to hang on to the hurts and frustrations that hold us locked into our room — afraid!

Remember Anthony Ray Hinton?

During his time on death row, Hinton became a counselor and friend not only to the other inmates, fifty-four of whom were put to death, but to the death row guards, many of whom begged Hinton’s attorney to get him out.

When a unanimous Supreme Court ruling ordered his release, he was finally able to walk free. “One does not know the value of freedom until one has it taken away

When Hinton was interviewed on the show 60 Minutes, the interviewer asked whether he was angry at those who had put him in jail. He responded that he had forgiven all the people who had sent him to jail. The interviewer incredulously asked, “But they took thirty years of your life—how can you not be angry?”

Hinton responded, “If I’m angry and unforgiving, they will have taken the rest of
my life.”

Unforgiveness robs us of our ability to enjoy and appreciate our life, because we
are trapped in a past filled with anger and bitterness. Forgiveness allows us to move beyond the past and appreciate the present.

Hinton is a powerful example of the ability to respond with joy despite the most horrendous circumstances. As he was driving in a taxi in New York, he said, “The world didn’t give you your joy, and the world can’t take it away. You can let people come into your life and destroy it, but I refused to let anyone take my joy. I get up in the morning, and I don’t need anyone to make me laugh. I am going to laugh on my own, because I have been blessed to see another day, and when you are blessed to see another day that should automatically give you joy.

“I don’t walk around saying, ‘Man, I ain’t got a dollar in my pocket.’ I don’t care
about having a dollar in my pocket, what I care about is that I have been blessed
to see the sun rise. Do you know how many people had money but didn’t get up this morning? So, which is better—to have a billion dollars and not wake up, or to be broke and wake up? I’ll take being broke and waking up any day of the week. I told the CNN interviewer in June that I had three dollars and fifty cents in my pocket and for some reason that day I was just the happiest I have ever been. She said, ‘With three dollars and fifty cents?’ I said, ‘You know, my mom never raised us to get out there and make as much money as we can. My mom told us about true happiness. She told us that when you are happy, then when folks hang around you they become happy.’

“I just look at all the people who have so much but they are not happy. Yes, I did
thirty long years, day for day, in a five by seven, and you have got some people that have never been to prison, never spent one day or one hour or one minute, but they are not happy. I ask myself, ‘Why is that?’ I can’t tell you why they are not happy, but I can tell you that I’m happy because I choose to be happy.”

God is here today — he has walked through those back doors and what he desires more than anything else is to breathe on you his breath of life — his breathe of forgiveness.

What you do with it is up to you, but Joy is found when we let go of the hate and bitterness and learn to forgive.

So quickly, let me give you a couple of suggestions on how to forgive.

First, recognize that we are all imperfect.

When we are filled with anger and bitterness toward somebody, we tend to lose our perspective about them. 

When we're filled with resentment and bitterness and hurt, we tend to dehumanize the offender. 
          We treat them like an animal. 
          We demonize them. 
          We forget that they're a human being too. 

The truth is we all sin and are capable of hurting others. 
Every one of us have intentionally wronged other people in our lives. 

Recognizing that we are all imperfect can help set us on the path of forgiveness, because we are all in need of forgiveness.

Second, let go of your right to get even.

This is the heart of forgiveness.  This is what forgiveness is all about. 

James Dobson once said: “Forgiveness is not taking the revenge your entitled to.” 

The second step in forgiveness and what forgiveness really is, is when I say, "I give up my right to get even with you.  You deserve to be hurt back but I'm not going to do it.  You deserve to be retaliated against, but I'm not going to do it.  You deserve to be punished, and I deserve to get even, but I'm going to give up that right." 



Your resentment doesn't work. 
Your resentment keeps you from being forgiven. 
Your resentment keeps you unhealthy. 

How often do I have to do that?  How often do I have to release my right to get even with the person who's hurt me?  As often as the hurt memory comes back.  Every time you start to get resentful again, you have to do it again. 

Forgiveness is not a onetime shot where you say, "You're forgiven" and you never think about it again.  If you've ever been deeply hurt you know that doesn't work.  You can forgive a person and really mean it and five minutes later -- or five seconds later -- feel the pain again and think, "I don't know if I want to forgive them or not."  You do it over and over. Forgiveness is not a one shot deal.  It's a repeated act of saying, "I give up my right to get even."

Jesus taught this.  "Peter asked, `Lord, how often should I forgive someone who sins against me?  Seven times?' [Peter thinks he's being real generous here!]  `No,' Jesus replied, `seventy times seven!'" 
In other words an infinite number.  Don't even try to count it. 
Every time you remember that hurt you must forgive them again and again until you know that you've released it. 



Third, respond to the evil with good.

How do you know when you've fully released someone? 
          When you can understand their hurt and when you can pray for them.

Luke 6, "Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who mistreat you. 

There's no way you can do that on your own power. 
Humanly speaking, you don't have enough love and forgiveness and joy in your life from the human standpoint to continually forgive everybody who's hurt you. 

The only way you can do that is if you get Jesus in your life and He fills you with His love and His peace and His forgiveness because human love runs out. 

If you want to experience the freedom of forgiveness, there's a fourth step and you have to take this one too. 

Fourth, You have to move on.



Stop focusing on the offense. 
Stop focusing on the hurt. 
Stop focusing on the person who has offended me. 

Instead begin to focus on moving forward in your life.

As long as you continue to focus on that person who has hurt you they control you. 

Back when I started Celebration Church I lead numerous Divorce Recovery Workshops.  One women who came through the program was elderly (probably my age now) --- in talks with her, her divorce seemed like it was fairly recent (my guess in the prior year or two).

At the last workshop, I would lead the participants on a guided meditation, inviting them to say to the person who hurt them all the things that they wish that they had said --- and then say goodbye.

Later, in talking with this woman, she shared how for the first time she felt freed from her anger.  That for thirty years, her ex-husband was still hurting her because she had refused to let go and move on.

Until she let go, she was allowing him to continue her pain, anger and unhappiness.

One of the most powerful prayers in the Christian tradition is what we call the Lord's Prayer.  Have you ever really paid attention to what you say?

What I dislike about the Lord’s Prayer the most is when is says: that God will forgive me my sins only to the extent that I forgive others their sins against me.

I would probably be more comfortable if the line went, "Forgive us our sins BETTER THAN we forgive those who sin against us."

But that is clearly not what it says — nor what Jesus intends.

Jesus knows that the only way we can find joy is to let go and move on. 
And that is forgiveness.

Let me close with these words, written at least three thousand years ago and eventually called Psalm 103:



GOD is sheer mercy and grace;
          not easily angered, he's rich in love.
He doesn't endlessly nag and scold,
          nor hold grudges forever.
He doesn't treat us as our sins deserve,
          nor pay us back in full for our wrongs.
As high as heaven is over the earth,
          so strong is his love to those who fear him.
And as far as sunrise is from sunset,
          he has separated us from our sins.
As parents feel for their children,
          GOD feels for those who fear him.