Get on Mission!

Mark 8:31-38 (NRSV)

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

If you were in 11 a.m. worship at Luminary UMC last week, you heard me express despair during the prayer time. Something stirred in me as I made several rat-a-tat observations: poor attendance in worship of late, our average age, and our general lack of success in reaching the many people around us who need to know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Several of you nodded in agreement.

That low moment in my heart did turn into a good week of prayerful learning. I was in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., most of the week, at a continuing education program we call Ministers’ Convocation. The theme was most appropriate, centered on how we establish the appropriate church culture in difficult circumstances. And let me tell you, folks, our circumstances aren’t nearly as difficult as some.

I also had today’s text in mind, and all sorts of concepts seemed to come together as I considered the words of my colleagues, this story of Jesus and his followers, and plans we have for our near future.

We could sum our text up this way: Peter got off mission, and Jesus let Peter have it. Then Jesus proceeded to unload on the disciples and the crowd tagging along behind them, just in case they also were not understanding the hard work and sacrifices that must be made, first by Jesus and then by his followers.

At the time Jesus was speaking, there was immediate work to be done to make the arrival of the Kingdom of God possible. He had to suffer, be killed by his own people’s leaders, and then rise from the dead.

It seems Peter thought Jesus needed to tone down the frank, negative-sounding talk. Jesus called him Satan, indicating how far Peter was from God’s plan.

Beyond the immediate mission, Jesus also indicated there would be long-term work to be done by his followers. And it would get messy for them, too.

We have to stand up for the truth. We have to tell the story. If we’re going to call ourselves Christians, we are going to have to make some sacrifices in finances, in pride, in reputation and even in our sense of safety as we reach out to those around us.

Some of us may even be called to sacrifice our lives. In the soft kind of Christianity we so often practice in America, martyrdom seldom happens, and we forget just how many Christians sacrifice their lives for their faith on a daily basis.

Martyrdom is how far we might be called to go, however. The phrase “take up your cross” certainly has connotations of impending death. If that bothers you, at least try to cling to another of Jesus’ prominent teachings, “Fear not.”

It’s not a great message for the church brochure or the sign out front, is it? “Hey, come suffer and maybe even die with us!” But out of such intense commitment to the mission of the church comes a kind of greatness we struggle now to imagine.

I’ll tell you two ways your Luminary church leaders have decided you can individually dive back into the church’s mission this year. If we do these two things right, with God’s blessing, we may not be feeling so much despair in a few months. And there’s an extremely good chance you won’t have to die to do these things.

First, we are forming Life Groups at Luminary, details of which we have already heard. The risk here is making ourselves vulnerable to people we don’t know as we invite them to these groups. While we certainly will benefit from the experience ourselves, these groups are in many ways for people who are not yet part of our church.

Second is an idea new to many of you. Just last week, our Church Leadership Council approved what we’re currently calling the Summer Music Program.

Again, it’s great if our children and grandchildren attend, but what we’re really hoping to do is reach unchurched people around us by offering the gift of music, a gift we love so dearly here. For two weeks, children will have the opportunity to learn about Jesus through different kinds of music, regardless of how much singing or instrumental ability they may have.

Again, for us the risk is opening ourselves to people we don’t know, people who may be very different from us. There also are rewards to being on mission, however, even before the whole eternal life thing kicks in.

We will make friends and draw in people who will bring new spiritual gifts, making our community more dynamic. We will develop a sense that what we have now as a church will continue after we have passed on. And we will take joy in knowing we have done what we said we would do when we took on the title, “Christian.”

I conclude today with a modern parable. In short, it tells the story of a seacoast lifesaving station that evolved into a club, ultimately leaving people to drown. If you haven’t heard this story, take time to experience it here.

We exist for one reason, folks. We save people from eternal death. It is the only reason we exist; we are not a club.

People are drowning all around us in a sea of pain, pain from drug abuse, from broken homes and damaged relationships, and from the general, pervasive presence of evil that remains in the world.

Find your boat and start rowing!

The featured image is James Tissot’s “Get Thee Behind Me, Satan,” circa 1890.

One of Us

Mark 1:9-15 (NRSV)

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

It is the season of Lent, and this story of Jesus’ baptism and temptation in the wilderness tells us much about how to put sin behind us and grow spiritually, seeking holy alignment with God.

Not that Jesus, who was in a mysterious way fully divine and fully human, had sin in his life. He did have the potential to sin; he simply did not succumb to temptation, as we so often do as frail humans.

We often think of baptism as an act of repentance and a cleansing of sin, and these are accurate notions. We have to go a little deeper into baptism’s meaning, however, to comprehend what the sinless Christ accomplished at the Jordan River, and how it ties to our lives today.

When Jesus was baptized, a new alliance between humanity and God was affirmed. When we accept baptism as the key identifying event in our lives, we make ourselves part of that alliance, with ties that run as deep as the purest bonds of family.

The Father in Heaven affirmed Jesus’ sonship; in baptism, we too become children of Father God, siblings of the Savior Son. As the author of Hebrews notes, “The one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.”

Think of baptism as God lifting up his children, gazing upon them and claiming them as his own. God also kneels down with his children. Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness was God, through Jesus’ eyes, seeing life from our level. And what a painful place the wilderness can be.

In the other synoptic gospels (Matthew and Luke), the effort to tempt Jesus is described in greater detail. We hear specifically the lures old Satan dangled to try to convince Jesus to sin: You know you’re hungry; make bread from stones. Throw yourself from the highest point of the temple; angels will save you. Bow down to me and I’ll let you rule the world!

I also like the less-detailed account in Mark, however. It creates the possibility that Jesus faced the temptations most dangerous to me. I feel I can see him walking about in the chalky, sun-baked wilderness, hungrily praying about everything that draws humans away from God.

I’m also reminded of the need to find time apart for meditation and prayer. Folks, we’re really not very good at this in our culture. It is as if our goal is to fill every moment with something to tingle the ears or penetrate the eyes, as if time spent in unstimulated silence is somehow wasted.

We fail to do what Jesus did. We fail to go without so we can remember our fragility and dependence. That’s the real purpose of fasting. The act helps us become more conscious of the voids within us, deep depressions in the soul we too often try to fill with excesses in eating, sex, recreation or other diversions.

Having consumed the wrong kind of sustenance and thinking we are satisfied, we then fail to gather our strength through direct communion with God. That’s the great result of intense communal worship and private prayer: Those voids can be permanently filled with God’s Holy Spirit.

I don’t talk about our failures to make us despair, however. No, I point them out so we can, with God’s help, overcome them and be amazed at all that God wants to do for us!

Never forget that in the midst of what seemed like vacant, dry wasteland, a place of constant danger, there were angels ready to tend to our sibling Savior. Do you not think they will do the same for us, his little brothers and sisters in the family of God?

All around us there is a God-aligned spirit world ready to come to our aid. Its members stand between us and what tries to afflict us. They go to war for us against the forces of evil, if only we let them.

When the brokenness of this world overcomes us, the angels comfort us. They want to help, particularly as we, like them, work on God’s behalf more each day.

Yes, the Bible stories in the Lenten season remind us of sin. But more importantly, they remind us of the joy and power in a life redeemed from sin, a life connected to eternity by Jesus Christ.


Fat Tuesday Extra

Is the Christian season of Lent relevant or a relic? It is something to ponder as we approach Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent.

Fasting, a traditional part of Lent, hardly seems fashionable. We live in a culture where hamburgers dance on television to get our attention. A few years ago, Taco Bell advertised the importance of being able to shout, “I’m full!”

In a nation where smartphones are a pocket away and the Apple Watch can make life a nonstop concert, the silence needed for meditation and prayer can be rare, too.

But maybe we just need to modernize some of Lent’s lessons. Lent teaches us that life has value beyond the Value Meal. You don’t have to go digital to know God.

If you’re unfamiliar with Lent, this Christian season begins tomorrow (Feb. 10) with Ash Wednesday. In lots of churches there will be worship services incorporating the “imposition of ashes,” that is, the marking of worshipers’ foreheads with ash in the sign of the cross as a symbol of humility and penitence. Throughout Lent, Christians spiritually prepare themselves for Easter, the most important day of the year, the day we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In the early church, what we now call Lent was the time when converts to Christianity were readied for their baptisms, which happened on Easter Sunday. (In 2016, Easter is March 27.) Over time, Christians began to encourage one another to use those days as an opportunity to better understand the wonderful news Easter brings: Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

Lent is a time to reconnect with our need for Christ. We do this by reducing our sense of dependence on worldly things and increasing our sense of dependence on God.

Which brings us back to fasting. Usually, fasting is associated with food. During Lent, the decision to forego two or three meals in a row is very appropriate, perhaps once or twice during the week. (This assumes, of course, that you are healthy enough to miss meals.)

Fasting also does not have to involve food. It could involve anything that draws our attention away from God on a regular basis – television, for example.

Fasting, mentioned regularly in the Bible as a way to enhance prayer, is not some burdensome rule for Christians. It is an opportunity, something we do voluntarily and joyously in an effort to draw closer to God.

One other important thing about fasting: Whatever you fast from during the week should be freely available to you on a Sunday during the Lenten season. Sundays are “Little Easters” during Lent, and nothing short of falling into sin should interfere with your joy on these days.

Don’t think Lent is all about denying yourself, though. My favorite part of Lent is what I choose to newly incorporate in my life. Usually, this is some spiritual activity that has been missing or has fallen into decline.

Carving out more time for prayer or Scripture reading is a good example. In fact, you can use the time gained from giving up a less spiritual activity to add something important to your life.

Many people find that by the time Easter arrives, the new spiritual activity has become a habit, and it brings too much joy to let it end with Lent.

You may even find that Lent will cause you to cry, “I’m full!” Full of the Holy Spirit, that is.

Through the Wilderness: Provisions

Exodus 16:1-8

Last week, as part of our Lenten journey, we headed off into the wilderness with the Israelites to see how they would grow in their understanding of God. They first learned to orient themselves in the easiest of ways, by keeping their eyes on the highly visible sign God gave them, a pillar of cloud and fire.

They quickly received another powerful sign, a story most people know, the parting of the Red Sea. Through this miracle provided by God, they were able to escape the pursuing Egyptian army by crossing the sea bed on foot. They even watched that army drown when the walls of water came crashing down.

You would think they would follow that clear sign of power through the desert with a mixture of astonishment and deep trust. We’ll find, however, that the Israelites were much like us—they were a worried, very human bunch. Astonishment and trust faded as soon as they became concerned their needs would not be met. Specifically, they became hungry.

God responded with the promise of provision. They didn’t even need to carry food with them on their journey. Instead, God told them, it would rain down on them as quail and manna, described later as a substance sounding a little like Frosted Flakes.

The lesson was pretty simple: God will provide. In fact, God wanted the Israelites to go to bed every night trusting his provision would be there for them the next day—no long-term planning needed on this journey. There was work to be done, but they always had enough. (He provided them with water in a similar way.) The one exception was when God sent them enough food for two days when the Sabbath came. God also wanted them to rest!

God still seeks the same kind of trust from us today. Pray this prayer with me: “Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread … .” Stop right there just a second.

Hmmmm. At least weekly in worship, and maybe daily, we lift up this prayer Jesus taught us to pray. Do we mean it? Do we live it? What does it mean to live as if we trust our bread will come on a daily basis?

The idea certainly conflicts with our 401K/pension plan/Roth IRA world. We’re taught to plan for our own provisions 40 years or more into the future, with all of that planning affecting when we can retire. We’re sometimes even left with the strange concern that we might live too long, running out of money in the process. How do we reconcile these two very different world views?

First, I’m reminded of one of Jesus’ parables. He begins telling it at Luke 12:16:

“The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

Jesus said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing.”

The big problem for the rich man, it seems, is not really hoarding, although he certainly is committing a serious sin when he hoards. He is deluding himself about how much control he has, in the process failing to understand his basic relationship to God. Preparation seems prudent, but we should never let go of this basic truth: We don’t control the future. And no amount of planning or stored provisions remove us from our need for God.

There also is the issue of how we use the resources we are given. Do we live as if this life is the only one that counts? Or do we live as people who believe something greater is happening—that God’s kingdom is truly arriving, and that the kingdom is where we store our true treasures and live out eternity!

John Wesley had a sermon, “The Danger of Riches,” that explained his idea of how to balance proper planning and trust in God. (He was working from 1 Timothy 6:9.)

In the sermon, Wesley said that God provides for the roof over our heads, food, and other basic needs, allowing us to ensure the well-being of our families and even our businesses, if we are people who operate them. Beyond those provisions, everything we are given counts as riches, and they have been given to us to use “to the glory of God.” Often, this means using our riches to help those who are less blessed materially, playing a role in God’s provision for people’s basic needs.

Even for a tither, this is a concept that requires thought. It forces a reassessment of every decision we make regarding how we handle our income and possessions, simply because we learn to say, “It’s not really ours, anyway.”

When we learn to make such decisions in the light of God’s dawning kingdom, we not only trust God daily, we begin to participate actively in the kingdom’s growth. We let God work through us so others see their daily bread arrive.

When all Christians adopt such an attitude, God’s presence will be as visible in this world as a pillar of cloud in the sky and Frosted Flakes on the ground.

Next week: The importance of perseverance.

Through the Wilderness: Orient Yourself

We have entered the season of Lent. Since the earliest days of the church, Christians have observed 40 days of spiritual preparation to ready themselves for Easter. It is a time we hope we will grow in our ability to understand and relate to God, particularly as we experience God through the story of Jesus Christ and direct interaction with God’s Holy Spirit.

Long before Jesus Christ came upon the scene, however, the people from whom he was descended, the Israelites, had to go through their own process of understanding and relating to God. Their Lent was a long one, 40 years rather than 40 days, and it was spent wandering in the wilderness.

The Israelites were happy to go to that desolate place, at least at first, because they had been slaves in Egypt, and the desert was their escape route. The journey was a hard one, though, and staying close to God proved to be difficult.

There is much to be learned from their time in the wilderness. The lessons God was teaching them are many of the same lessons we should learn during Lent. Including this Sunday, we’re going to spend four weeks during Lent understanding some of those lessons, letting them shape our Lenten experience.

We’ll begin with Exodus 13:17-22, that moment when the Israelites set out from Egypt. Right away, we’re told something that might be a little disturbing; rather than taking them the relatively straight, easy-to-navigate route to their homeland, God leads them toward the desert. This is in part to help them avoid something they were not ready to handle, war with the people who would have attacked them along the way.

For me, this falls under what we usually call “God’s timing.” Even when we follow God, it’s not unusual to continue to think we’ll meet our goals and find success according to our very human expectations. When we’re disappointed in God’s apparent slowness, what we may be missing is how God has steered us away from some disaster we could not foresee. The creator of the universe is also the seer of the Big Picture.

There also is an important little aside in the story, the detail that the Israelites gathered up “the bones,” the mummified remains, of Joseph, who more than four centuries earlier had risen from slave in Egypt to its de facto ruler, in the process saving the Israelites from famine. It was only later the Israelites became the Egyptians’ slaves.

What’s interesting here is that over four centuries, the Israelites had remembered who Joseph was, despite their declining circumstances. They had remembered what God had done for Joseph, and what God had promised he would do for the Israelites.

To trust God, it helps to have storytellers—you need at least a few people who remember the community’s narrative of truth and hope. It is how a community of people remember their identity and pass that on from generation to generation, staying focused on a common vision.

Lent is a good time to ask ourselves how we’re doing as a Christian community at telling our stories. Do we know the story of Christ well enough to tell it? Do we share the story with a sense of urgency, knowing that if we fail to tell it, a generation may find itself disconnected from God’s promises?

Lastly, we see the Israelites knew how to remain oriented, even if it seemed they were going in circles. As long as their eyes were on God, they were on track; when they doubted the path laid out for them, they got themselves into trouble.

God made the path easy for them with a kind of holy GPS. He led them with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Sometimes, these signs kept the people in place for a long time. Other times, these signs kept them moving.

As believers, we have signs, too, signs as obvious as holy cloud and fire. I know, you hear it from the preacher all the time, but you need to hear it again. The Bible really is our guide, and Lent is a great time to rededicate ourselves to living by its truths.

I frequently hear people say you can make the Bible prove any point you want. I will agree that the Bible really is more a library than one book, and there are parts that seem to conflict, usually because of different contexts for the passages that seem at odds. But I also believe it has a cohesive, overarching message, and when we understand that message, we find it fairly easy to discern from Scripture how to live our lives.

That big message is along these lines: God is holy and perfect and made all things. Through disobedience, we are separated from God, but God loves us so much that he went to extraordinary lengths to reunite us to him. After revealing himself through Jesus Christ, he made reunion possible through the cross. When we affirm through our own lives that Christ’s death on the cross is a real event, we are rejoined to God. And finally, God is remaking all things to conform to his holiness.

Orient ourselves toward the big message and the one who delivers it, and we’re following the Lenten path.

Next week: How do you pack for a trip like this?

Thursday’s Reflection on Ash Wednesday

Somber as it was, I really enjoyed being with the folks of Cassidy UMC at the Ash Wednesday service. It is a very powerful, personal experience for me to place ashes on the foreheads of adults and children as we remember our mortality and dependence on God. I pray that Lent will be a deeply reflective time for all, and that we will draw closer to God.

We showed a brief video during the service, and in it there was a phrase that startled me. I don’t remember the lead-in exactly, but the video was listing things we should give up. One was “false relief.” At first, I thought it was a typo, that it was supposed to say “false belief.” But false relief makes perfect sense—think of all those things not of God that we do to escape the brokenness of our lives. When we give up false relief, we are left with nothing but true relief, the redemption and renewal Christ has brought into the world.

May we worship well throughout Lent and rejoice at the message of Easter.