I first heard about this book on Rob Bell’s podcast, the Robcast. He interviewed the author and I was compelled to read it.
What is it about wonder and mystery that draws us in? What is it that curates our desire for something that moves us to a point of seeking more and wanting to explore the unknown?
Nate Staniforth has lost himself. His life as a magician has left him exhausted, and yet it is all he has ever known and he cannot imagine doing anything else. While reading many books on magic, he recalls hearing of the stories of magicians in India that truly went to the depths of wonder and left people wanting more. This is what he desired for his own magic. Not just simple illusions that he has mastered, like card and coin tricks, but true magic that leaves all in awe.
I’ll have to admit that while reading his memoir, I was left wondering where God was present. While God is never named, mystery and wonder is. Can God be found in the mystery and wonder of magic tricks or illusions? To simply say no to this, would leave us discounting a God that is present in and among everything.
Nate’s journey toward self-discovery leads down some interesting roads where he meets some very interesting people and encounters an India he never would have imagined in the poverty and trash, and yet many of the people seemed very happy. There is a poem that is given to him by someone he has met which he shares. Perhaps it could begin to give a glimpse into what magic truly is.
Bless the magician for knowing something I don’t. The appearance and disappearance of the artifacts of this material world give me an island moment of unknowing, A mystery that gives me relief from the consuming need to question everything, and then to answer it.
March 24, 2019
Once upon a time a psychology professor walked around on a stage while teaching stress management principles to an auditorium filled with students. As she raised a glass of water, everyone expected they’d be asked the typical “glass half empty or glass half full” question. Instead, with a smile on her face, the professor asked, “How heavy is this glass of water I’m holding?”
Students shouted out answers ranging from eight ounces to a couple pounds.
She replied, “From my perspective, the absolute weight of this glass doesn’t matter. It all depends on how long I hold it. If I hold it for a minute or two, it’s fairly light. If I hold it for an hour straight, its weight might make my arm ache a little. If I hold it for a day straight, my arm will likely cramp up and feel completely numb and paralyzed, forcing me to drop the glass to the floor. In each case, the weight of the glass doesn’t change, but the longer I hold it, the heavier it feels to me.”
As the class shook their heads in agreement, she continued, “Your stresses and worries in life are very much like this glass of water. Think about them for a while and nothing happens. Think about them a bit longer and you begin to ache a little. Think about them all day long, and you will feel completely numb and paralyzed – incapable of doing anything else until you drop them.”
Quite often, when we hear the word change, we get that uneasy feeling in our bodies. We become tense, or possibly get butterflies wondering what that “change” may be. We get caught up in our stress and worries yet fear change and what that may mean. However, Jesus calls us to a life of change. He does not want us to be stagnant in our practices and wants us to encounter the triune God in new and exciting ways every day.
In the gospel lesson for this Sunday, Jesus calls us to change. Twice in the gospel lesson Jesus calls for those that are listening to him to repent. He is simply telling them to seek forgiveness and to return to God. He is well aware of the sins that they partake in every day and his call for them to repent is done with great love so that they will come to know the love of God which is greater than anything else. To repent though, means to change. Not only are they to return to God and seek the forgiveness that comes in repenting, they are also called to stop sinning. They are called to change their life and start following Jesus.
He follows this call to repentance with the parable of the barren fig tree. Its placement seems odd, yet let’s see how we can tie the call to change with the fig tree. There are many times in our lives that we attempt something new and it simply does not work. We try to change and then we wonder if it truly made a difference. Just maybe, we are not giving it enough time to germinate. To begin growing. Just maybe, God is still at work and we must be patient. Remember, God does not work on our timeframe.
I recall one such time in my first congregation when I got frustrated and did not let a new ministry germinate. I sensed God calling me to start a new cross-generational worship that seemed to be almost dead on arrival when it kicked off. Don’t get me wrong, there were people that showed up. However, I was disappointed, because my expectations were not met. I expected something grand and glorious. However, after three months in, I decided to pull the plug. I was not much different from the man that owned the fig tree and wanted to cut it down because it was not bearing any fruit.
How quick we are to cut off those things that we see no purpose or production coming out of. Isn’t this the practice in the business world today? It is all about the bottom line. In this season of Lent, we talk about letting go, but also, we must contemplate when is the proper timing to let go of something. We must discern it and ask ourselves, is it something that is pulling us further from God, or is it something that we can simply let be and see if life will come out of it?
When we are called to change, that does mean letting go. Letting go of the way that we used to be. Letting go of something that draws us away from God. Letting go of something that may be holding us back. It could be thoughts, fears, expectations, practices. The call to change brings us to a different point in our lives. It could be scary. It could come with anxiety. It could come with questions.
In the parable of the fig tree, the gardener tells the owner of the tree to give it some more time before coming and looking for fruit. Did you know that it could take up to six years for a fig tree to bear fruit? Perhaps it has not had the proper nutrients fed to it. Perhaps there have been other factors that have led to it not producing. Perhaps, it just needs time to germinate and to absorb everything around it.
Change is very much the same. It takes time. Yes, you may see some immediate results when you begin to change something. To fully live into the change takes time and living through some difficult times of transition. When we start a new ministry, we should not expect it to be perfect right away. It takes time to plant the seed and for it to germinate. We may have one image in our mind of what success may look like, and God may have another. Sure, we would love to have this sanctuary full every Sunday morning, but are we planting seeds with people and letting those seeds take root? Or do we just think someone else will do it or it will happen on its own and it will somehow all of a sudden be the way it used to be?
When we let go of the past and repent, we are telling God that we are willing to change. We are willing to be in a relationship with the very creator of life. We are willing to open our hearts and minds to the mystery that is unknown. Jesus bears this loving relationship for us through his life, from birth to baptism, to his life of ministry and ultimately his willingness to succumb to death on a cross so that we know the depths that God is willing to go, to redeem creation and share God’s love. The ultimate change that takes place is in the resurrection, and that is the promise we are walking towards this Lenten season.
Let us pray. Patient God, may we let go of things in
the past that distract us from your very word. You call us to live a life
following Jesus and in him may we cultivate a life of change where we begin to
embody Christ. Amen.
March 17, 2019
I have shared in the past that I grew up in a town very similar to Richmond. The one thing that I was thankful for was that I was encouraged to read many books and these books would take me to places I could only dream of traveling to in real life. That is the amazing thing about the power of books. In those books I encountered diversity that I would not see in greater detail until heading off to college.
One of those books that brought me into a world very different from my own was To Kill a Mockingbird. Maycomb, Alabama was very different than Charlotte, Michigan and I was pulled in by the characters, Scout, Jem, Dill, Boo, and even Atticus. Atticus Finch had an air about him, one that was even more impressive if you have seen the movie starring Gregory Peck. Atticus was an example of courage for his children as he defends Tom Robinson against fraudulent charges of rape. His defense of an African American man catches the sleepy little town by surprise, and he disregards their expectations for him. Despite the anger directed towards him, he steps boldly forward in simply defending another human being.
The courage that Atticus portrays is reflective of the same courage that Jesus has when stepping up to Herod. Jesus lets go of the expectations that others have for him and cultivates the courage needed to move forward in his way towards the cross.
The expectations that are in place for Jesus are far from what his plans are as he walks the countryside healing the people. He has not come into the world to crumble Rome. He has not come in to the world to make everything perfect right away. He does not deny being the Messiah. However, the Messiah that many people are expecting is a conquering one that does not do so through death on a cross.
He also surprises others by stepping beyond what a person from the village of Nazareth may do and shocks them that he comes from such a village. In the gospel this morning, a group of Pharisees expect him to move on because Herod wants to kill him. He does not cede to their expectations because he has a mission that is leading him to Jerusalem.
I am sure that everyone has had the experience of undue or unwanted expectations placed upon them. They come at us from all directions. When we are young, we think that they come from our parents and teachers. As we get older, we sense those expectations from bosses, peers, and even possibly family members. Those expectations can be overwhelming. One way to sort through the many expectations is by discernment and prayer. Jesus lets go of the expectations that are placed on him by others and as we follow him, we can find peace in the letting go of undue expectations as well.
Through letting go of the expectations that are placed upon him, Jesus moves forward in courage. A courage that is evident in every step he takes closer to the cross. The research professor and author Brené Brown, talks and writes a lot about courage. She writes,
“Courage is a heart word. The root of the word courage is cor – the Latin word for heart. In one of its earliest forms, the word courage meant “To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.” Over time, this definition has changed, and today, we typically associate courage with heroic and brave deeds. But in my opinion, this definition fails to recognize the inner strength and level of commitment required for us to actually speak honestly and openly about who we are and about our experiences — good and bad. Speaking from our hearts is what I think of as “ordinary courage.”
During this season of Lent, you are encouraged to find those things that you may like to cultivate within your life. Those things maybe practices that will draw you closer to God. Practices that you can build into habits that go well beyond Lent. Some of you last week wrote on the back doors those things that you are cultivating and letting go. Last week you had the opportunity to talk to your neighbors about what you were going to let go. This week I am going to give you a couple of minutes to speak with a neighbor about what you may like to cultivate in this season of Lent.
Hopefully after having a week to think about this, you are starting to focus on certain practices in your life that either need to be cultivated or even may need to be let go.
By letting go of expectations, Jesus radically breaks into the world in a way that no one had even expected. He steps forward in a courage that is bound up in the Trinity that was present from the very beginning of time. It is an example for us to be vulnerable and throughout we find courage. A courage that is full of determination. Jesus’ courage to move towards the cross should give us hope as we return to God this season of Lent.
Let us pray. Courageous God, we look towards you as the shining light amid the darkness of our own Lent. May you be ever guiding us as we let go of undue expectations and begin to cultivate a courage that is founded in you. Amen.
March 10, 2019 Lent 1
The first spring following my families move to Richmond brought grandiose plans of a wonderful thriving garden in the backyard of the parsonage. Vern came over and tilled the ground for us and by the time he was completed, we probably had at least 200 square feet of space for a wonderful garden. We marked the garden all out and planted seeds. We put a fence all the way around the garden so that the many rabbits roaming around the yard would stay out. Since it was the first year, it required a lot of tender loving care to weed it and water it. The weeds seemed to like the water much more than the plants did. Then we went on vacation!
We came home to an enclosed jungle! Okay, maybe it was not quite that bad. I still manage to harvest some radishes, cucumbers, tomatoes, zucchini, and even a bit of lettuce. The corn did not turn out. Neither did the watermelon or cantaloupe. We would try again the following year and scale it back a little. Last year we decided that it was just too much work! It takes a lot of patience to prepare and cultivate a garden. There are many challenges and temptations that come along the way.
On this first Sunday of Lent, Jesus enters the wilderness. He is tempted and holds fast in his faith. During this season of Lent, you are going to be asked to let go of the things that weigh you down and to cultivate those areas in your life that bring growth.
The temptations that are waved in front of Jesus’ face this week are very powerful. They are temptations that pull people into power that is hard to let go of. What if we could turn a stone into a loaf of bread, or simply anything to feed ourselves? Could this be a blessing to those in countries that have the constant threat of famine. Jesus had been fasting for 40 days! He had to be hungry. I am sure the thought of a loaf of bread would have made his mouth water.
Imagine standing on the highest peak wherever you were and being able to see off in the distance for miles and miles. What if someone promised to you that it could all be yours if you just turned away from God and turned your worship towards evil, idols, or even material possessions? Does not sound too far from the truth for some today, does it? How quick we are to turn away from God for something that is newer, brighter, or shinier.
The third temptation of Jesus is the promise of invincibility. This seems to come to us more often when we are young and stupid! Now, don’t try this at home, but one attempt at this for me was when I thought I could run across the pool cover on my parent’s pool in the middle of winter. I may have been trying to show off for the next-door neighbor, and fortunately, I got all the way to the other side before my foot just barely broke through the ice frozen on top.
It is these temptations that Jesus walks away from after fasting for 40 days. He lets go of them so that he can move forward into the ministry that God is calling him to. A ministry that had been established from the very beginning of time.
Many people have used Lent as a time to fast from something as a discipline. I encourage you this year to let go of something. Not just for Lent, but for good. It could be something that distracts you away from God. A great definition of to let go is to relinquish your grip on something. As we do so it provides us the opportunity to return to God.
While Jesus let go of the temptations after his 40 days in the wilderness, it was also a sign of growth. His time of fasting in the wilderness revealed his great faith in God the Father which prepared him for his ministry ahead. A ministry that would lead to growth in his disciple’s faith as well.
Unlike me trying to cultivate a garden, Jesus was much better in cultivating a faith that laid the foundation for all of us to follow. The term to cultivate usually is used in farming as I am sure many of you know. We can also use it to refer to our lives and today to our faith. To cultivate means to prepare and then foster growth. To cultivate also means to labor, care for, study, refine, or encourage. All of these can relate to our faith and its growth as we draw closer to God this Lenten season. It takes work and we must be intentional.
As you noticed, there is also room for you to write on the doors what you are going to cultivate over these next forty days. After his time of testing in the wilderness, Jesus let go of the temptations and cultivated his faith as he drew closer to God.
How are you going to draw closer to God this season?
Let us pray. Lord, we return to you, asking for forgiveness this season of Lent. In this time of preparation, may we be guided by the Holy Spirit to let go of those things that weigh us down and be drawn to those things that cultivate our commitment to you. Amen.
March 6, 2019 Ash Wednesday
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Isn’t it amazing the extremes that some people will go to get noticed?
I am sure that within the last twenty years the desire to get noticed and make a name for oneself has probably increased. Due to the growth of the internet and social media outlets, anyone can put themselves out there with the hopes of being seen or followed by others. You can flaunt your life all over Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, and many others too numerous to name. You can put your profile out there in the hopes of finding a date! You can post videos of almost anything to YouTube with the hope that it becomes viral.
Viral is a good word, because viruses infect and can cause damage to something that is healthy. An unmonitored use of social media can lead to a false misrepresentation of self and misguided actions. It is easy to get caught up in an alternate reality and forget that we can be seen by others! The impression we give others reflects our priorities. Most importantly, God sees us no matter the impression we are giving people. Are we acting with ourselves in mind, or are we living out the call of Jesus Christ?
This passage we hear from our gospel lesson this evening may make you squirm in your seat a little. Especially given the fact that we will soon get up and be marked with the sign of a cross on our foreheads. So much, for not letting our piety be seen by anyone else! You better be careful when you are fasting to not look dismal either. That could be hard too, if you decided to give up coffee or chocolate for Lent!
This teaching from Jesus on Ash Wednesday is part of the Sermon on the Mount where he has a prolonged oration on how to conduct yourself as a believer of God. I think that the tension that he creates is intentional so that people will start truly thinking about their actions and will begin to contemplate on his Word. We do not get to hear of the crowd’s reactions to his preaching, but I am sure that there are some slack-jawed faces out in that crowd finding it hard to believe what he is saying. Perhaps some of them even decided to get up and walk back home.
Those same words strike us hard today! It is easy to be easily distracted from what matters the most when we have so many other voices begging for our attention. We in turn get pulled in and start begging for attention from others by trying to get the most friends, likes, or views through our various online accounts. For those that do not post, video record, or tweet, there are other ways to get noticed as well. I am sure that you know people that have a comment for anything and everything. All they must do, is walk into a gathering of people and be loud. Unfortunately, that is multiplied when they are online.
While we may go way beyond what is necessary to get noticed, we must remember that we are already noticed! Three times in our gospel lesson Jesus reminds the disciples, “The Father sees. . .” We do not have to go out of our way to get noticed for our piety. Yet, living a pious life can draw us closer to God. Alas, that is the only reason that we should be doing so. We should not be going about and showing off how righteous and pious we are to others through our prayers, fasting, or even receiving ashes.
We do these things because we know that they draw us closer to the mercy of God. A God that created us in God’s very own image! A God that desires for us to repent and turn our lives back to the one whose image we are created.
We do not have to worry about the image that we project to the world, either in real life or on social media, because God truly knows who we are. For some, that may be a scary realization. For others, it may be a relief. This time of Lent is meant to be an intentional time to draw closer to God and it begins this evening as we remember that we were created from dust and to dust we shall return. No image is greater than the love that is seen in Christ that we can then carry out into our community.
Let us pray. God of mercy, we return to you this evening and ask for forgiveness for those times we have projected false or incorrect images that do not reflect your Son, Jesus Christ. We welcome in these next forty days as a time of possibilities to be drawn closer to you. Amen.
March 3, 2018 Transfiguration Sunday
I have a confession to make, I am an introvert!
When I am with my peers, I quite often will sit back and listen to everything that is going on and the conversations that are occurring. Now, I am not saying this to lift myself up, because I could still do a better job at listening; just ask my wife!
When I get frustrated, and I am sure you could all agree, is when people do not listen to what I am saying. So, we can all relate to this, yet when it comes to listening, we quite often fall short of truly pausing to listen to what is being said. Listening is just one of our five senses, yet it is a very important sense. For those that are hearing impaired, they learn to listen through their other senses by what they see and even feel.
We can listen with not only our ears, but also with our eyes and hands. Of course, to use the other senses takes practice and the majority of us will never come to a full ability of using all of our senses to listen.
I believe that one of the important things that Luke shares with us in our gospel is when the disciples are called to Listen to Jesus. In the call to listen to Jesus, we are changed. That change welcomes us into the wonderful mystery of God.
Did you know that the average person can speak 150 words per minute? However, the average person can listen to 1000 words per minute. So, what do you do with that extra time that you have while listening to people? Are you gazing off into the distance wondering what is on your schedule next? I will admit that I catch myself doing this when I have a lot going on and I must intentionally pull myself back into a conversation at times. To intentionally focus on a conversation takes practice. With that in mind, I want to try something. I would like you to all take a moment to relax and prepare to really listen, more intently then you are right now. I am going to read you a paragraph and I would like you to listen and take notes if you would like.
You are a bus driver. At your first stop, you pick up 29 people. On your second stop, 18 of those 29 people get off, and at the same time 10 new passengers arrive. At your next stop, 3 of those 10 passengers get off, and 13 new passengers come on. On your fourth stop 4 of the remaining 10 passengers get off, 6 of those new 13 passengers get off as well, then 17 new passengers get on. What is the age of the bus driver?
To truly listen, we must block all distractions and focus on the thing right in front of us. We can listen with our ears, but we can also listen with our eyes through watching body language and movement. Perhaps we can even feel the vibrations of what is happening around us. Today we get in trouble when we allow ourselves to become distracted with our phones, the task that we are in the middle of trying to accomplish, or the thoughts of what needs to be done next.
The disciples were nearly caught in their sleep, yet they stayed awake to see what was about to happen on that mountain top. They are amazed by everything that takes place. The sights and sounds that they see and hear are so overwhelming that they kept silent when they came down from the mountain. The appearance of Moses and Elijah had to be overwhelming, and then Jesus’ appearance transformed right in front of them. They are overwhelmed by the mystery that they are welcomed into. Not, only that, they hear a voice from the heavens, “This is my Son, my chosen; listen to him!”
Peter had been so impressed, he wanted to stay there forever. Yet, they follow Jesus back down the mountainside. The call to listen to Jesus comes as a challenge. Nearly everything that Jesus preaches and every healing that he does, appears to bring out trouble for him and the disciples. His words and actions are resistance to what is currently being practiced by the leaders in the temple. Where they have become accustom to complacency and not disrupting the good thing they have going, Jesus begins to change all of that with every word he speaks and every step he takes.
The story of the transfiguration comes to us every Sunday before the beginning of Lent. It is a sign for the disciples that points to the glory of Jesus. It prepares them for the rest of Jesus’ ministry and as Jesus is joined by Moses and Elijah, it is a sign for Jesus’ own exodus, when he will leave this earthly life through crucifixion. It is on the cross that Jesus will encounter release from this world and realize the freedom that comes in faith. It is a sign of God’s promise for us.
The words that are spoken to the disciples on the mountain are similar to the words that Jesus hears when he is baptized. The difference on the mountain top, is that the words are for all to hear. Those words are not just for the disciples. Those words come to us today in scripture and we are called to listen as well.
The listening is not a one-time thing. We do not just listen to God once and discern what we are to do with our lives or careers. To listen to Jesus Christ, is always to listen to what may be happening in and around us. It is a two-way conversation. As we pray and listen for His response, something begins to happen within our very own beings. We too are transformed. We are transformed in our listening to Jesus and in that we are called to go out and share that same message of love, grace, and freedom that is shared with us when we find ourselves in Christ.
Let us pray. God of change, may we be transformed in your love as we listen to your calling in our life. Amen.
February 24, 2019
As I was preparing for today’s sermon, I was introduced to a short story by Flannery O’Connor. For those of you that do not know who Flannery O’Connor is, she grew up in Savanah, Georgia and was shaped by the thoughts of the south in the early twentieth century.
The short story that I encountered is called Revelation, and it details the visit of Ruby Turpin and her husband Claud to the local doctor’s office. The conversation that ensues among those waiting to see the doctor are ones that you may expect to hear in the south in the middle of the twentieth century. There is also much self-talk as Ruby looks around the room and nearly rejoices that she is better than almost everyone else that is waiting. For this she is thankful, and she could not decide if she had to choose, whether she would be better off being born as white trash or from African descent. I will admit, reading this story in 2019 made me a little squeamish, yet I also remembered when it was written. The scene in the doctor’s office concludes with Ruby being attacked and called a “wart hog from hell.”
As I read this short story, I was feeling almost as confused as reading our gospel lesson from Luke. Jesus challenges his listeners by telling them the very thing that they least likely want to do. I am sure that we could agree with this. You want us to love our enemy? Offer to let someone to strike the other cheek after they have assaulted us? Give to everyone who begs? These commands seem nearly impossible.
However, the grace and love of God tips the world upside down as we are challenged to do the very things that do not appear to come naturally.
In spite of this, we are still challenged. The news as of late has been rampant with things that we should not approve of, however, we are still supposed to love those people. Those that appear racist and benefit from their own perceived superiority? How about those that sexually assault others; are they supposed to get a free ride? We can review history and point out all the ill-fit leaders that killed millions and ruled with iron fists, and yet are these are still the people that Jesus wants us to love?
It is easy for certain pastors to fill stadiums to preach sermons that are easy to listen to and sound more like self-help lectures. If Jesus were to preach like this, the course of Christianity as we know it would have been drastically changed. Jesus does not sugar coat it though. He addresses what we need, not what we want to hear. The trouble arises, when we think we are all good. Like Ruby, praise be to God that we are who we are, and we are not that person over there.
Jesus’ words should wake us up. “These words cut across the grain of the natural response to perceived enemies of those who may curse what we value. ‘Do to others as they do to us’ may not be golden, but in reality it is the rule by which life should be lived.” Jesus has set the bar too high! How can we expect to reach the commands that he has preached?
Jesus calls us to love! What if we did not look at this sermon from Jesus as commands, but rather as a promise? A promise of what is being done in this world. A promise of the kingdom of God coming and residing in our very world. A promise that we do not have to hold grudges or keep score of who did what to wrong us.
When we cannot live up to the expectations of a command, we quite often find ourselves living in fear of not being able to follow the command. Fear of what may happen to us. However, with a promise, we encounter grace and love that is unbounding. It is that same grace and love that Jesus wants us to share with others. We are to forgive. David Lose shared in his commentary this week, “each time we forgive each other, are we not interrupting the cause and effect laws of this world. I mean love deserves love, hate deserves hate, deeds both good and bad should be repaid in kind, force must be returned with force, violence begets violence, and so on and so on. And yet when you forgive, you interrupt this endless cycle and create something new.” Within that forgiveness lies the love of Christ.
The love that Jesus speaks of here does not mean a romantic love, liking, or even friendship. This love, agape, is a whole-hearted, unreserved, unconditional desire for the well-being of the other. In this love we do not hesitate. We do not worry about what it is going to cost us, and we do not worry about being paid in return. In agape love, our desire is purely in the well-being of the other. While we may dislike our enemies, because after all they are our enemies, Jesus challenges us to still desire their well being and in that, maybe a true relationship will be planted.
Ruby frets over the pronouncement by a random stranger, a perceived enemy, that she is a “warthog from hell.” A church going woman, how can someone call her such a thing. She then has a vision. A vision of a parade marching to heaven with those that she assumed were lower in importance than her getting into heaven first! She was in line as well, but at the end. How could those she looked down upon get into heaven first? It is here that Ruby found what it truly meant to love and experience the grace of God. For that, all she could hear were the shouts of Hallelujah.
pray. God of grace, you call us to love our enemies and at this we often grit
our teeth. May we immerse ourselves in your Son, Jesus Christ, to truly learn what
this means and be changed through your endless grace. Amen.
 Charles Bugg. Feasting on the Word, Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C Volume 1. (pg 382).