Restored – October 25, 2015


Job 42:1-6, 10-17 Mark 10:46-52


The ancient stories of Job and Bartimaeus bring us lessons that are still pertinent today…especially for us…at this time in the life of the Jackson Grove United Methodist Church family. Like the unfortunate widow who tormented the judge in chapter 18 of Luke (1-8) Job kept battering on heaven’s door until it was opened. God spoke to Job and gave him a few answers. God showed himself to Job for a few moments. The space between God and man was briefly crossed and the awful silence of heaven was briefly broken. That was enough for Job. Throughout the story of Job all of the theological problems regarding the presence of evil in God’s creation are thoroughly aired…but none is completely solved. But…to a desperate man…Job…there came a vision that goes beyond theology and enabled him to soldier on in a bleak and fearful word. God commended and rewarded Job for his persistence and faith. Could the ultimate message of this book be that persistence in faith brings God to the desperate…not to the self-assured…to the drowning person…to the person at the end of his rope…to a church challenged to meet its potential? The story of the encounter with Bartimaeus on the roadside gives much the same lesson. He was persistent. Nothing could stop his clamoring to come face to face with Jesus. He had a desperate desire…the kind of desire that gets things done. How deep is our desire? Bartimaeus did not hesitate when Jesus called. He threw off his only possession…his cloak…so he could more quickly run to Jesus. Many have heard the call of Jesus…but said…”Wait a minute, I want to get just one more thing finished.” Do we sometimes have a desire to abandon some habit…to purify some wrong in our life…to give ourselves more completely to Jesus…to aid our church family? Do we act on it? Or, do we create excuses that let the chance slip away? Bartimaeus knew exactly what he wanted. He wanted his sight…something Jesus was willing and able to give. Bartimaeus was on the mark…not only was he specific…he was asking for the right thing. Recall that Jesus asked the very same question…”What do you want me to do for you?” …three other times in this chapter of Mark. The Pharisees wanted to outsmart Jesus and trap him with their question (10:2). The rich man wanted eternal security at minimum cost. (10:17) James and John wanted to be the top officials in the kingdom’s bureaucracy. (10:35-36) Bartimaeus…a blind beggar…only wanted his sight returned. It was only to Bartimaeus that Jesus responded as requested. Bartimaeus may have had an incorrect idea of Jesus…when he called him the Son of David. That’s a title that suggests a messiah who would be a military conqueror. But…Bartimaeus had faith. That faith made up a hundred times over for his weak theology. The message from Bartimaeus was that Christianity begins with a personal reaction to Jesus. It’s a reaction of love…a feeling that truly in Jesus is the one person who could meet his need. Even if you and I are not able to give deep theological thought or meaning the response of our human heart in love and faith in Jesus is enough. Remember…I said these stories were especially pertinent to our Jackson Grove United Methodist church family today. Here’s why. Like Job we have suffered significant losses. There may be some like Job’s wife and his friends who want to curse God…who want to get into some theological hair-splitting and theorizing about why it has happened. Job wasn’t wasting any of his time and energy on that. Instead he went straight to God asking questions…seeking solution and resolution. Job talked with God and listened when God responded. Let us not be like Job’s wife…cursing God for our situation. Let us not be like Job’s friends…grasping at cockamamie theories about why. Let us be like Job…go to God…ask God for solutions…and be open to what He tells us. Let us be like Bartimaeus. It seems he had tried other cures before. They didn’t work. But…he never gave up. When Jesus came along Bartimaeus threw down his only hindrance…his coat so he could run to Jesus faster. Let us throw down the coats that hinder us from running to Jesus for the fix. Let us throw down doubt. Let us throw down differences. Let us throw down fear of failure. Let us throw down the shackles that come with “we’ve always done it this way,” and “we’ve never done that before.” Job and Bartimaeus were restored because they acted on their faith…just as Jackson Grove United Methodist Church can be restored by acting on our individual and collective faith. Mackenzie Allen Phillips…well…he was a different story. Could it be a familiar story? Seven years ago…my sister sent me a book as a Christmas present. The book was the highly popular novel written by William Young…entitled The Shack. Mackenzie…who his friends called Mack…was the main character. He was born somewhere in the Midwest. His dad was religious on the outside. He was a church elder. His dad was also a closet drinker who frequently beat his wife…Mack’s mother. When Mack was thirteen years old he confessed to the church pastor that he had done nothing to protect or defend his mother. Clearly…he confessed to the wrong person. The pastor told Mack’s dad. His father tied Mack to a tree and…between his bouts of drinking… beat Mack badly with his belt for two days. When he was freed Mack put rat poison in all of his dad’s liquor bottles…left a note for his mother…and ran away from home at the age of thirteen. Much later in his life the story focuses on Mack’s trip…by himself…to a remote cabin for a weekend retreat when Mack reached his mid-fifties. During that trip he encountered God…much like Job. The message Mack received from God was clear. God told Mack, “You try to make sense of the world in which you live based on a very small and incomplete picture of reality. It is like looking at a parade through the tiny knothole of hurt, pain, self-centeredness, and power and believing you are on your own and insignificant. All of these thoughts contain powerful lies. You see pain and death as ultimate evils and God as the ultimate betrayer, or perhaps, at best as fundamentally untrustworthy. You dictate the terms and judge my actions and find me guilty. The real underlying flaw in your life, MacKenzie, is that you don’t think I am good. If you knew I was good and that everything—the means, the ends, and all the processes of individual lives—is all covered by my goodness, then while you might not always understand what I am doing, you would trust me. But you don’t.” There is a powerful conclusion to this conversation…when God says, “MacKenzie you cannot produce trust, just as you cannot ‘do’ humility. It either is or is not. Trust is the fruit of a relationship in which you know you are loved. Because you do not know that I love you, you cannot trust me.” So…as Mark reported that Jesus asked four times…”What do you want me to do for you?”…today His Jackson Grove United Methodist Church family should respond this way. Where it’s needed…we confess and ask that our knowledge of God’s universal love be restored…and that consequently our total faith and trust in Jesus Christ be restored…and that with full faith and trust in that love we go forth on the path that restores our Jackson Grove United Methodist Church family to its full potential as a beacon of God’s love in our lives and in our community.

Are you Able? – October 18, 2015

Are You Able

Job 38:1-7 Mark 10:35-45


As far as I can tell we don’t have a James or John in our church family…someone striving for a position of power at the side of the person in charge. In fact when I announced a few weeks ago that the Leadership Development committee would be open to volunteers to help lead our church no one lobbied to be put in an important position. Instead…one of the questions to ask today is whether we have enough Samuel Brengles. In 1878…when William Booth’s Salvation Army had just been so named…men from all over the world began to enlist. One man…who had once dreamed of himself as a bishop…crossed the Atlantic from America to England to enlist. He was a Methodist minister…Samuel Logan Brengle. He had turned from a fine…successful…pastorate to join Booth’s Salvation Army. Brengle later became the Army’s first American-born commissioner. But at first Booth accepted his services reluctantly and grudgingly. Booth said to Brengle, “You’ve been your own boss too long.” And…in order to create humility in Brengle…Booth put him to work cleaning the boots of the other trainees. Brengle said to himself…”Have I followed my own fancy across the Atlantic in order to black boots?” And…then as in a vision he saw Jesus bending over the feet of rough…uneducated… fishermen. “Lord,” he whispered, “you washed their feet, I will black their boots.” Brengle blacked boots. Jesus washed the feet of the disciples. How are we serving…how can we serve others…serve Jackson Grove United Methodist Church…an important part of our lives for many years…and how can we serve Jesus? In his first letter to the Christians living in what is now Turkey…the apostle Peter wrote…”you are a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession. As a result you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light. Once you had no identity as a people; now you are God’s people. Once you received no mercy, now you have received God’s mercy.”(1 Peter 2:9-10 NLT) We’ll talk a little more about the important point known as possession in a few minutes. Let’s talk about chosen for a moment…right now. You see…the ancient Jews heard that word “chosen”…and thought it meant they were someone on whom God intended to lavish great wealth and power…a life of luxury. At the University of Southern California…the other U. S. C…. there is a distinguished emeritus professor of philosophy…whose name is Geddes MacGregor. He shared this prayer offered by a worship leader of what MacGregor called “orthodox pretend Christianity.” It’s the kind of prayer that some of the ancient Jews…hung up on the label chosen…might have offered. It’s the kind of prayer that we hear from those who preach what’s called the “prosperity gospel” today. “O dear, wonderful Father of our incredibly unbelievable experience, we like to feel assured that we may always come to thee when we feel like it…and now, dear Lord, we want quite naturally and simply and just in a word to ask thee very frankly, to give us our heart’s desire. Thou art the Comforter, as the old story puts it, and so thou are our friend, for we are very fond of comfort.” Let us NOT think of chosen in that way. Yes…you and I have been chosen…and we have committed to follow the one who chose us. But…he chose us to make disciples…not live a life of leisure and luxury. In that letter to people just like you and me Peter added…”…continue to show deep love for each other for love covers a multitude of sins. Cheerfully share your home with those who need a meal or a place to stay. God has given each of you his great variety of spiritual gifts. Use them well to serve one another.” (1 Peter 4:9-10) In the three short months we have been together you have shown you are able to serve as God’s chosen people. Let’s reflect a bit. You have warmly welcomed me…though I am your third pastor in three years. We have worked through several committee meetings to prepare for the charge conference and catch up on some church business that has been neglected. There is more to do. Together we have planned for a Lord’s Acre celebration on November 22nd. I look forward to sharing the celebration with you and with our friends and neighbors. Some of you have visited in person and on the phone with those who are shut-in or hospitalized. Some took me to introduce me to those shut-ins personally. We have returned to celebrating the Lord’s Supper monthly and taking it to our shut-ins to celebrate with them. We have given support to our brother Michael Gossett. We have chosen a new, contemporary, large-print edition Bible…the New International Version…to place in our pews…so the Word can be more easily read and understood by all. With a little effort we will be able to dedicate them at our Lord’s Acre celebration. We have developed a comprehensive… monthly financial report that is posted for all to see. None of those activities will put our name in lights…give us an earthly life of luxury and leisure…but they are certainly part of what we have been chosen to do as we walk the earth that God has given us…and serve the church and community he has chosen us to serve. As we proceed through the next three months to prepare…then hold our church wide planning retreat…let us be like those chosen saints who preceded us at Jackson Grove United Methodist Church. Let us ask God for discernment to know His will for us…let us ask: How can we best nurture each other that we may grow in faith and witness as we proceed on our Christian journey individually and as a church family? What can we do to effectively reach out to our brothers and sisters in our local community to give them compassion, seek justice and become their advocates as well as advocates for Jesus Christ? How do we prepare ourselves to be witnesses for Jesus Christ and how do we proceed to faithfully and effectively witness for the one who has chosen us…the one we have chosen? Raise these questions to God in your prayers. Share them with your family. You might be astounded at the obvious answers you get when you raise them with your neighbors, your pharmacist, your grocer, or a first responder. Jesus’ life and teaching turns the world’s understanding of greatness and great works upside down. The greatest work ever done was accomplished by someone who gave his life for others. Self-giving service is the only greatness recognized by God. Only those who give of themselves for others will be the big winners with God. They are willing to let life go hang for the sake of another. Jesus invites followers to join him in becoming great and doing great things…not the way the world judges “great” but the way God judges it. Martin Luther King Junior said that everybody can be great because anybody can serve. He said “You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know Plato and Aristotle. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics. You only need a heart full of grace…a soul generated by love. This attitude is shown in the character of Nancy Mannigoe in William Faulkner’s “Requiem for a Nun.” She says at the end of her life, “It’s all right. I can get low for Jesus, too. I can get low for him, too.” We can check on our own attitude on this score by looking at how we respond when given a little task to perform that we might judge to be beneath our dignity. God truly reigns when Jesus’ way of viewing life overrules the world’s destructive glory-seeking…stuff-seeking…ways of living. I told you we’d look at that word “ransom” again. Jesus’ “ransom” statement uses a metaphor to describe our predicament and his sacrifice. It suggests that we are enslaved to the world and many of its sinful ways and standards…and…that it is impossible for us ever to pay for our own freedom. Someone else must pay. Jesus’ death is not a tragic accident or courageous martyrdom, but an intended supreme sacrifice for all humankind…for you and for me. This image does not end the plight of the human situation and how Jesus’ death puts right that situation with God…but it does make clear that atonement is not something we can reach for ourselves. It comes as a gift from God. Jesus has paid with his life the infinite debt owed by humankind. He has delivered us from our captivity to sin. There is a catch. In the ancient world there was a law that the one who was ransomed became the property of the one who freed him. Paul assumes this principle when he told the Corinthians, “You are not your own; you were bought at a price.” You and I have been ransomed by Jesus Christ. We belong entirely to Jesus Christ. It is the one who has ransomed us and now possesses us that makes us able to leave the desires of this world behind and give ourselves entirely to Christ…to humbly…but with conviction…serve him by serving his people…and by leading his church…Jackson Grove United Methodist…into a strong future. “Lord…because of you…with you…and for you…we are able.”

Saved – October 11, 2015

Job 23:1-9, 16-17 Mark 10:17-31
In our well-to-do American culture we tend to be more interested in economic success than in excelling in discipleship. Most Christians do not accept for themselves…Jesus’ command to the rich young man…that one should sell all that one has in order to be a disciple. Few Christians…just over 5% in the U.S…..perform the basic of tithing to their churches. And…there are churches that sit on wealth rather than using it for discipleship activities. Many believe that sacrificing just one thing should be good enough. Today…many people would be more likely to ask Jesus how to get the highest return on their investment rather than how they can serve God. This kind of attitude sabotages serious commitment and leads many Christians to a dangerous laziness about their faith. More than one minister has turned a blind eye to Jesus’ teaching on possessions. Some even use religion to make greedy appeals to fatten their own bank accounts. There are ads and messages that tell us we can receive a hundredfold more. All we have to do is send a large contribution to a post office box to learn the secret they have discovered in some remote Bible verse or some ancient writing. The values of our materialistic culture seep in and can undermine the spirit that should fill a follower of Jesus. In the first century A.D. the Roman satirist Juvenal made an observation that is still true today. “majestic mighty wealth is the holiest of our gods.” Many people ask why they should give up for others what they had worked so hard to get. Some might even feel that the rich man did the sensible thing in walking away from Jesus. They think that religious commitment should cost something but not that much…not everything. Jesus said that the rich man lacked one thing…though he did not specify what it was. It makes sense to assume that he lacked the very thing that our culture might lack. First…the man lacked for nothing. He had too much to give up. Money brings people many things. That’s why it is so attractive. However…wealth cannot make a person holy or purchase eternal life. It does not offer any deep happiness…even when people get more than their fair share. Many people in our culture have plenty to live on…but little to live for. Doubling one’s income and having more things does not make for happiness. Many people…those in church and those not in church…sense that something vital is missing in their lives. Material success allows them to live in comfort but fails to meet their basic spiritual needs. Their spiritual emptiness becomes a gnawing hunger when they have to confront the reality of death and bereavement…the anxieties and stress of personal relationships…or the tenacious down drag of evil in their own souls. They wonder if there is something more to life and something beyond this life. When confronted by Jesus’ invitation to sell all and follow him…however…the world usually counts possession more dear than the hope of eternal life and a meaningful earthly life. They lack for nothing. Sometimes…as a result they lack everything. John Wesley wrote and preached…”earn all you can, give all you can, save all you can.” The key verb for Wesley was “give”. There are those who are wealthy and give. There are many more…at all levels of earthly wealth…who find excuses to not give. The second thing the man lacked was trust. God requires something more than simple reverence for Jesus and zealous attempts at obedience. God requires radical trust. Like so many people today…this rich man wanted to serve God on his own terms. He obeyed all the commandments that suited him but resisted giving his whole life over to God. He was afraid to expose himself to the uncertainties and insecurities of the future or to make himself as vulnerable as a child. He accumulated possessions to secure his life in this world…and he accumulated obedience to selected commandments as a way to secure his life in the world to come. In a culture that has grown wary of commitment and risk…few people want to bet their whole lives on Jesus. They want to keep a material safety net and refuse to disentangle themselves from something that brings status…influence and privilege…beyond the safety net. Few are willing to trust that there will be other brothers and sisters in the faith who will watch over them and care for them…partly because we know we do not sacrificially watch out for them. To have life…one must trust God and give up the quest to create our own security…give up holding on to earthly treasure. Third, this man lacked compassion for others. Origen…one of the early fathers of Christianity… cites an excerpt from “The Gospel According to the Hebrews”: “…the rich man began to scratch his head, for it did not please him. And the Lord said to him, “How can you say, I have fulfilled the law and the prophets, when it is written in the law: You shall love your neighbor as yourself, and lo, many of your brothers, sons of Abraham, are clothed in filth, dying of hunger, and your house is full of many good things, none of which goes out to them?” What has changed in the 19-hundred years since Origen wrote this? Wealth can blind our moral judgment…harden the arteries of compassion…and lead to spiritual bankruptcy. The man was unable to give what he had for the benefit of others because he cared only about himself and nobody else. Remember…he asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” He was a prisoner in a dungeon of concern only for his own welfare…his own wealth. This attitude contrasts starkly with the Son of Man’s self-giving love. Jesus had compassion on the crowds and fed them and eventually gave his life for the many. How can someone like the rich man live in luxury and be complacent about the needs of others…while professing discipleship to the one who gave his life for others? Have you looked closely at the arguments being offered by today’s political candidates to pander to certain groups of people? They are appealing to this attitude of caring only for oneself…the attitude of the rich young man who questioned Jesus. During our study Wednesday we heard a young woman tell how she had come to rely on Jesus as she escaped tyranny in the Sudan…alone and with nothing more than the clothes she wore. Our study leader asked this question. “Do we dabble in discipleship?” Do we…dabble in discipleship because…like the rich young man…we are fearful of losing our earthly treasure? Possessions pit humans against other humans and against God. A recent survey of Americans showed that a significant percentage would still buy clothing even if they knew it had been produced by slave labor in a sweatshop. The cheaper cost would override their compassion or desire for social justice. Jane Goodall’s study of chimpanzees reveals a surprising trait about their life in community…a trait that humans share. The chimps…who were normally placid and cooperative…changed their behavior when she gave them bananas. They immediately began to fight. The new surplus of food caused the dominant chimps to try to keep it all for themselves and to chase the others off. The less dominant ones had to come begging. In our own lives we see evidence that the more we have the more we want and the more jealous we become of those who have a little bit more. Jesus tries to free us from these desires to accumulate…which ultimately destroy fellowship and a sense of brotherhood. In his book…Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger…Ronald Sider argues that we need to distinguish between necessities and luxuries…and we must reject both our desire for luxuries and our inclination to blur the distinction. Expenditures for status…pride…staying in fashion…and keeping up with the Joneses are wrong. From God’s perspective they are foolish. Teaching a Stone to Talk is a book written about 30 years ago by Annie Dillard. In this book she writes of the Franklin expedition to the Arctic in 1845. It was such a well publicized failure that it became a turning point in Arctic exploration. The preparations that were made were more suitable for the Royal Navy officer’s club in England than for the frigid Arctic. The explorers made room on their ships for a large library…a hand organ…china place settings…cut-glass wine goblets…and sterling silver flatware instead of additional coal for their steam engines. The ornate silver flatware was engraved with the individual officer’s initials and family crests. Search parties found groups of bodies of men who had set off to walk for help when their supplies ran out. One skeleton wore his fine blue cloth uniform edged with silk braid…hardly a match for the bitter Arctic cold. Another apparently chose to carry with him the place setting of sterling flatware. What must he have been thinking to take sterling silver tableware in a search for help and food? It’s hard to imagine that any of these sailor adventurers would have said…as they neared death on the frozen landscape…”I wish I had brought more silver place settings.” Our hanging on to things that are ultimately useless will look no less foolish. Many people cannot envision life without things they cherish. The more they possess…the more they are possessed. Lacking for nothing…do we lack full trust in Jesus and compassion for our sisters and brothers? Like the failed Arctic explorers…the rich young man…do we…hang on to the earthly stuff so we can just dabble in discipleship and thus become in danger of losing the only life that counts?

My Children – October 4, 2015

“My Children”
Job 1:1, 2:1-10 Mark 10:2-16
Hear again…our Lord’s words…”I tell you the truth…anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.
The word that is translated “never” is very strong. New Testament scholar, William Lane, writes “The solemn pronouncement is directed to the disciples, but has pertinence for all men confronted by the gospel because it speaks of the condition for entrance into the Kingdom of God.” It’s not so much whether you come to the Lord’s Table this morning…it’s the attitude with which you come to the table.
No one will get into the kingdom of God unless that person receives God’s salvation like a child…no one! How are we to understand and apply this? For starters…coming as a little child does not suggest innocence. Anyone who has experienced life with a two year old will tell you that. Neither does “like a little child” suggest trustfulness…receptivity…simplicity or wonder…as beautiful as each of these happens to be.
What Jesus had in mind here is a state which every child who has ever lived…regardless of race…culture…or background has experienced. It’s a feeling…admission and acceptance of helpless dependence. Every single child in the world is absolutely…completely…totally helpless. And…so it is with every child who is born into the Kingdom of God. Children of the Kingdom enter it helpless…ones for whom everything must be done. If you open your hymnal to #361…Rock of Ages…you’ll find these words…in the third verse…. Nothing in my hand I bring Simply to Thy cross I cling; Naked, come to Thee for dress; Helpless, look to Thee for grace. There is no other meaning for verse 15 in the Scripture from Mark 10. Do we come to Christ like this? You see…it’s his grace plus our nothingness. The realization that we are as helpless as a child should create humility.
Jesus made this clear in similar scripture from Matthew (18: 3-4) He said, “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
Many who are in and of the world refuse to come to Christ because of what they call “self-respect”. That’s another way of saying pride and independence. How humiliating they would think it is to come as a helpless child! But…Jesus says…”That is the way you must come…as a baby…filled with profound obedience…and dependence.
Did you see what happened to the children waiting to see Jesus? “He took the children in his arms…put his hands on them and blessed them.” Children were always comfortable with Jesus. They knew he loved them. They laid their heads against Jesus’ chest. Jesus blessed them. John Albert Bengel…a German…is often known as the Father of modern Biblical scholarship. He wrote that Jesus “…did more than they asked.” The word translated blessed in our Bible means “fervently blessed.” Christ took the children joyfully and with a fervent heart…for they refreshed his spirit. Do you desire to be like the child…held in Christ’s arms…to hear him pronounce blessings over you? Jesus raised the place of children in society of his day…and today. He believed they can know him as truly as anyone else…perhaps more truly…that they can have a vibrant relationship with Jesus. Jesus also made it clear that we need the faith of children. No one will enter the Kingdom of God without this helpless dependence and humility.
On this World Communion Sunday…when Christians of all denominations…from all over the world…join in the sacrament…Jesus invites each of us to his Table…just as he invited the children…to come to him…unhindered…to the Kingdom of God…in helpless obedience…leaving all of the “self-respecting”… worldly-status-concerned…you… behind. Let us come to Jesus’ table with grateful hearts…as children of God…full of thanks for sustaining us in the good and the difficult times in our lives. Terrorism…war…hatred…division…and lack of trust surround us…but through the bread and cup…we learn to love and trust others.
Through the bread and cup we gain strength…courage…and guidance that we may not be defeated in our task to proclaim God’s word around the corner and around the globe. As we come to the table…to be with our Lord and with our brothers and sisters…let us pray for and receive courage and strength to live our faith…even in the most difficult circumstances. Let us receive the power of Jesus through the Holy Spirit…that we may be faithful…and like the children…love others as Jesus loved us to death on the cross.
Let us come to the Lord’s table to become one with each other…and with all…in love, patience and understanding. Let us become the children Jesus would have us be.