Riding The Storm

The disciples have been struggling for a long time. Jesus is aware of that struggle – he has been watching them since early evening. Why? Why doesn’t Jesus come earlier? Why doesn’t Jesus relieve them of their burden?

We have been there, haven’t we? We have had long night of sleeplessness, long seasons of struggle. We have had those times when we are tired, frustrated, and sore and we wonder why Jesus isn’t coming to relieve us of our torment. The reality is that Jesus doesn’t always come when we first call him. Jesus doesn’t always come when asked and relieve us of our burdens or stress or worries. Prayer is not a dog whistle that moves God to respond whenever we blow, whenever we pray.

But here is what we do know. God comes. Jesus comes. The Holy Spirit arrives, the Godhead shows up in power when we are at the end of our resources. Jesus arrives when we have persevered. Jesus comes when we have done all that we can do, when we have endured all that we can really handle. Jesus comes not according to our time, but according to God’s time. And friends, that is always the right time. There are lessons to be learned from that.

We learn that we are actually capable of more than we think. We learn that the first appearance of trouble does not have to be our last chance to survive. We learn that we are stronger than we think. We learn the value of friends helping friends. We learn lessons that we can only learn in the midst of struggle. These are not fun lessons to learn, but they are critical ones, nonetheless. Jesus comes when only the appearance of Jesus makes it possible for the disciples to survive.

Competing Values

Every culture has those that are in and those that are out. Every culture has those who bask in the glorious middle while others simply try to survive after being pushed out onto the margins. Jesus now comes to say that all are loved, that all can be recipients of God’s grace. Jesus comes and fellowships with those that had been isolated, alienated, and that there is no one for whom Jesus is not willing to die! That is such good news.

Yet the listeners of Jesus in his day do not hear this inclusivity as good news. They do not want to hear that there will no longer be Jew or Gentile, slave or free – but that we can all be one in Christ. They want to kill Jesus for that message. Friends, those people exist in our world today as well. This text reminds us that no church, no tradition, no denomination, no country can claim an exclusive hold on God. There is no demographic, economic, political, philosophical, or cultural limit to God’s love.

Finally, this story is also a tale of competing values. For his listeners, Jesus threatened a core value for them. For Jesus to say that God is at work outside the covenant people of Israel threatened a core principle that viewed Israel as being in a unique and exclusive relationship with God. When Jesus came to tell them differently; when Jesus came to elevate the notion of God’s love and grace and redemptive work to people beyond Israel’s exclusive claim on God, they just couldn’t accept it.

Friends, faith will do that to us. We all have principles and values. We all have ways of organizing our world into a set of principles and convictions that determines the choices we make. I do. My guess is that you do as well. The question is, what are we going to do when our values and principles find themselves in opposition to God’s grace and righteousness? The worshippers in the synagogue decided to shoot the messenger rather than question their conviction. What will we do when it is our turn?

Is It Really “Us” Versus “Them?”

I am a political junkie. Part of my rationalization for my vice is that, as a pastor, if I am going to be relevant in the real world I need to be aware of what is going on. I tend to be a small is better kind of guy when it comes to my views on the reach of government and institutions. One good friend commented a couple of weeks ago that I really am an institutional anarchist as we discussed denominational frustrations. By that he meant that I was far too willing to just blow up structures and start over versus adopting a slow, incremental change strategy to institutional development.

So I read way too many newspapers and I probably spend too much time reading current events news sites. I have always felt a responsibility to read opinions and position papers from advocates on both sides of an issue before I make up my mind. I like to gather and reflect over competing papers. I feel like, perhaps, my final positions have a little more integrity than simply going along with the political group think. I read progressive and conservative sites, liberal, centrist, and fundamentalist contributors. Sometimes I read gritting my teeth, but I read on regardless. I don’t want to suggest that I am somehow more informed or more enlightened in my final positions. I can still get it wrong. But I detest reading for confirmation. I think we are better than that.

Having said all this, still my reading leaves me increasingly sad these days. Not because of the variety of positions. Not because of the stridency or the tone that the authors and commentators take. I am increasingly aware of the polarization of our national conversation. I am struck by the perceived need to do away with nuance in our position casting. We are being given binary choices. We seem to need to demonize the opposition. Is that really all there is?

For example, is it really true that ALL Democrats believe (and then you can fill in the blank)? Are we supposed to believe that ALL Republicans are (again, fill in the blank)? I used to call people out on that on Facebook. But I was dismissed and my desire for doing away with the “us” versus “them” language was cast as unimportant.

Friends, I ask you to consider the following. Would our national conversation be more credible if we said some Republicans, or even many Republicans, believe (fill in the blank)? Would we have more integrity if we granted the possibility that not all Democrats are logged into some kind of monolithic political group think?

I know it take a little extra time. I know that it might reduce some of the power of our argument if we allow for the possibility that those with whom we disagree actually are well intentioned individuals who simply hold a different conviction. I think we actually gain credibility for our position if we grant good will to “the other side.”

Call me naive. Call me Pollyanna, that’s okay. I can’t help but think we could do better. We have to do better.

Nothing Much Has Changed

Have you ever thought about why you don’t have to teach your children how to be bad? Why is it that obedience has to be learned, but disobedience comes naturally? If you put a vase on the table and say, “Don’t touch.” What’s the one thing your child wants to do? That’s because we are born with a nature that wants to make its own decisions about what is right and wrong. We chafe under the notion that some outside force – even our Creator, even God – could tell us what is right and wrong.

It is ironic to me, that even though we continue to progress as a people; even as we continue under the notion that somehow the essential nature of humankind is improving; the reality of sinfulness is unchanged………………….

Friends, it is hard to deny the reality of sin. Augustine, in the fourth century, identified pride as being at the core of sin. A ninth grader, in a confirmation class I taught named Diana Richards, gave the best working definition I have ever heard. Sin is an overwhelming slavery to self-centeredness.

That self-centeredness, that conviction that WE should determine ultimate right from ultimate wrong is at the core of brokenness that has infused our world. We don’t have to teach brokenness and rebellion – we simply are.

But God – the same God who created us out of love, who created us out of a desire for relationship – that God is not content to leave us in the midst of that brokenness, that sin that we have chosen for ourselves. God sends to us the Holy Spirit – to remind us, to encourage us, to convict us. God raises up men and women, children and youth of faith who serves as exemplars for us. We are so much stronger together than when we are left to our own.

Friends, God has come to be amongst us in Jesus Christ. To demonstrate for us in person what right living looks like. To demonstrate the power of acknowledging that there is a God in heaven, and we are not that God. To demonstrate to us the viability, the meaningfulness, the joy that comes from living within God’s design for life.

But most importantly, Jesus has come – as a gift of grace – to make possible our return to the relationship with God for which we were created in the first place. In that relationship is freedom – tremendous freedom – to be all that we can be in Christ.

The Tyranny of the Present

Friends, to whom do we belong? We have so many things pulling at us. We have so many things demanding our attention, demanding our time, demanding our allegiance. Appointments, schedules, sports, recreation, work, family, the church – so many things that are just so insistent about wanting a piece of us. And if we are honest, some of those things demand more than our time. They demand a place of ultimate importance in our lives. They seek to become the thing around which everything that we do orbits.

In two weeks is the opening Sunday of the NFL season. I have friends for whom that means September 8th is the beginning of their 5-month absence from church. The game may start at 1:00, or maybe even 4:00, but the tailgate begins much, much earlier. They can’t miss something as special as the tailgate, for something as common as worship. I have friends who spend most of their winters on the ski slopes. They will pick church back up as soon as the ski lifts close. I could go on, but I think you get the point.

We have so many things wanting us, demanding our attention. I don’t have a coin to show. But if I could, I would hand each of you a mirror and ask you to look into it. What would you see? A face, a person, created in the image of God. Each of us carry a spark of the divine. You would see a person redeemed by God, at great expense. A person who’s very being reflects the image of God. You, I, all of us like the coin in our story, we reflect the image of God. Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; but give to God the things that belong to God. Friends, that you and that’s me.  

It is God who claims us, who made us in his image. We do not belong to anything or anyone else. Nothing else can demand our ultimate allegiance. Nothing else can claim to be sovereign in our lives. Even if we allow it. Maybe, especially if we allow it. Those allowed things are pretenders trying to sit on the throne of our lives.

We are so often willing victims of the moment. We are so often terrorized by those things, those places, those commitments, those people, that demand to be at the center of our worlds. They make the claim, they make the demand, they offer eternal significance, but they can never deliver. We’ve been sold fool’s gold and too often we don’t realize it until we see it in the rear-view mirror of our lives.

Friends, we live in a busy world. We are people of means, people of substance, we have lots of choices. We have lots of squeaky things demanding our attention. I don’t want you to feel guilty over their presence, but I am asking you to take responsibility for their prioritization. What is REALLY most important? What is REALLY worth your undivided attention? What is REALLY worth scheduling your life around? Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s.