Tuesday, July 28, 2009

We are Called; We are Commissioned

(Read Matthew 4:18-22 and Matthew 28:16-20)

To be called (in the Christian sense of the word) is to be invited by Jesus to follow him, to be summoned by divine command. Our presence in this church on this morning is a sign that we have all been called by Jesus to follow him.

I am aware of three times in my life that Jesus has called me. The first was when I was 12 years old. I was attending a Baptist summer camp, and after a rather compelling sermon, the preacher invited those of us who would like to commit ourselves to Christ to remain in the chapel. I remained. A teenage counselor came over to me, and she had me recite some passages of Scripture. I can’t remember which ones they were, but I am sure they were proclamations that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and that through him, I would receive eternal life. The date this happened was July 23, 1990. I know because I wrote it down in my bible. It was the first time I intentionally identified myself as a spiritual seeker.

The second time I received a divine summons was when I was 20 years old. I was living in London, and taking a course in world religions. The class had an even mixture of Christians, Jews and Muslims in it. Bessma was my best friend in the class, and she was a Muslim from Saudi Arabia. I recall praying in my bed one night, saying to God, “I am a Christian because I was born in 1978 in Ohio. If I had been born in Saudi Arabia, I would be Muslim. What should I believe God?” The next morning, the sun broke through my window, and I saw a great circle of light. That circle of light was the presence of Jesus, and he said to me, “I am the way for you. Follow me.” I remember my heart being captivated, and I said, “Okay, Lord. I will try. I will follow you.” This happened in the spring of 1998. I clearly remember, not only because I was studying abroad, but also because that was the year I celebrated Easter Sunday at Notre Dame in Paris.

In the spring of 2001, I received my third call. (God seems to speak to me in the springtime). I was worshipping at Christ United Methodist Church in Manhattan, and it was during the Lenton season. I was struggling with feeling happy and having a sense of purpose in my life. It was at this time that I heard God calling me into the ministry. I felt the Spirit tell me to quit my job selling luxury tile and stone, to move back to Ohio where I was raised, and from there, I would be directed down a new path. I did quit my job and move back to Ohio, and about a year later, after a stint in Los Angeles working in the film industry (which I will tell you more about later), I began my Master in Divinity degree at Princeton Theological Seminary.

To answer the call requires a willingness on our part as God does not force us to be followers of Jesus. We need a willingness to follow, a willingness to leave something or someone behind, and a willingness to embark on a new journey. Simon Peter and Andrew said yes by leaving their nets behind; James and John said yes by leaving their boat and their father behind. All four of their lives changed dramatically as they went from fishing in Galilee to traveling throughout the towns and villages listening to Jesus proclaim that the kingdom of God has come to earth and watching him heal the sick.

You might ask yourself as a part of your own spiritual reflection: How has Jesus called me? Have I been willing to follow? Have I been willing to leave whatever is necessary behind? How does answering the call change my life?

The more we say “yes” to God when God calls, the richer our lives become. Because in saying “yes,” we are inviting God to be active and powerful in shaping our existence. In giving God permission to work and move in our lives, opportunities and possibilities that we don’t currently have and may never even have dreamed of begin to unfold before us. The Way opens before us.

First, we are called to follow Jesus, and then, for many, many years, as we follow, we are taught how to be like him. We learn the Christian virtues of repentance and forgiveness, of non-judgment and hospitality. We learn the Christian practices of worship, prayer, study the Word and sharing within community. We learn what Jesus meant when he said, “They shall have life and have it abundantly.”

As we grow in our knowledge and love of God, our call becomes a commission. To call others as we have already been called, to summon others as we have already been summoned, to invite others in the Way is what it means to be commissioned as a disciple.
Just as Jesus calls each of us to follow him, he also commissions or grants each of us the authority to go out into the world to call others to be his disciples.

In our Scriptures today, we started with chapter 4 when the disciples are called. By chapter 28, the last chapter of the Gospel, the disciples have followed Jesus “to the mountain which [he] had appointed for them.” Just like us, they had come to know and love him, they worshipped him, even while some doubted certain things in their hearts. This is comforting to know because we all have doubts even as we follow. But, our doubts do not prevent us from responding willingly and effectively to the call.

As someone who is commissioned, what you do is take what you have learned by God and teach it to others. As your minister, I will teach you what I have learned. As ministers, you will teach others what you have learned. Together, we will spread the Word of life, of love, of joy, of reconciliation, of peace. As we teach each other what we have been taught by God, we will transform the world.

Even though the disciples had fears and doubted, Jesus still commissioned them as ministers, saying “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the age” (Matthew 28: 18-20). Even though we have fears and we doubt, God can work thorugh us and empower us to make a difference. There is a popular saying in the ministry: God does not call the equipped. God equips the called. We’ve all been called so we are all being equipped. Whatever the Lord asks you to do, the Lord will help you do.

What I have learned as one called and commissioned is that as long as I am thankful and loving, my efforts to pass on the Gospel will be received. The Holy Spirit works through all of us. You don’t have to be great, but be grateful. You don’t have to be loved by all, but be loving towards all. Simply pick the message that Jesus has made clear to you, the message that rings true in your heart, and proclaim it to others in a spirit of love and thanksgiving. This is your calling, all of our callings: to proclaim what we know to be true about God so that the people of the world are healed and the kingdom of heaven is established on earth.

This is something that Bishop Park taught all of us who went to Annual Conference in June. Turn to the person next to you and say to them, “God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.” It’s true. No matter how much we sin, how rebellious we become, how imperfect we are, God loves us! As Scripture says, “Nothing, neither death nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, not anything in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ.”

My friends, my brothers and sisters in the name of the Lord, I proclaim to you that you, like the first disciples, are called to become fishers of men and women. Jesus has granted all of us as his body the authority to: Go! And give the love you have known. Pass on the grace you have been given. Tell of your experiences and share your revelation. This world is hurting and broken. Be a source of compassion, a messenger of hope, and a healer among the nations!

Jesus will help us. As he said to his disciples, “I am with you always, even unto the end of the age.” In him and by the Spirit’s power, it’s our turn to make a difference.

Stepping Out Of the Darkness and Into the Light!

(Read 1 John 1:1-10 from the Message and John 3:14-21)

“We all have secrets: fears, regrets, hopes, beliefs, fantasies, betrayals, humiliations. We may not always recognize them but they are part of us – like the dreams we can’t always recall in the morning light” (3). These are the introductory words of Frank Warren in his book, PostSecrets, published in 2005. Let me tell you how this book came to be.

Warren handed out blank postcards and left them in public places all around Germantown, Maryland with these instructions: “You are invited to anonymously contribute a secret to a group art project. Your secret can be a regret, fear, betrayal, desire, confession, or childhood humiliation. Reveal anything – as long as it is true and you have never shared it with anyone before. Be brief. Be legible. Be creative.” Almost immediately and with great enthusiasm, people responded to Warren’s invitation, and in a short while, Warren was getting postcards from people all over the country and the world. He put the postcards up on a website, and eventually, they were collected into book format.

I have to admit that Warren had an interesting idea, but why was the response so great? Thousands upon thousands of postcards coming not just from people living in Maryland, but from California and France and Japan, people of all ages and races…?

Because we all have secrets, and somewhere deep down, we all want to bring them up from the darkness and expose them to the light. Secrets are heavy; they drag us down with their weight. And they separate us from one another.

Maybe to say that we all have secrets is a little too strong of a word, but we all hide in some way. We hide our actions; we hide our memories and betrayals; we hide our feelings, our desires, our regrets. Sometimes, this is appropriate and healthy because it’s important to pick the right people to share with. But other times, our not sharing comes from an unhealthy, distorted place. We hide because we are afraid of being vulnerable or rejected. We hide because we are ashamed of what we think, feel, do, remember. We hide because we know we are being unhealthy or destructive. We keep a part of ourselves or how we live a secret because we fear that if people found out, they would judge us. We fear that if they really knew what was going on, they wouldn’t accept us. Even worse, they might not love us anymore.

Oftentimes, we are even afraid to admit things to ourselves. Afraid to admit how we really feel or what we really want. Afraid to look at the choices we are making. We don’t want to face the pain. We don’t want to face the truth.

In a biblical sense, the word “darkness” has many connotations, usually related to evil and sin. Today, I would like to suggest that to dwell in darkness is to be in denial of the truth, or even to lie about the truth. To dwell in darkness is to be dishonest with one’s self and to be dishonest with others. To dwell in darkness is to hide from God, from Jesus, who is the light of the world. From a psychological perspective, denial is: an unconscious defense mechanism characterized by refusal to acknowledge painful realities, thoughts, or feelings.

Listen to the words from 1 John again: “If we claim that we experience a shared life with him and continue to stumble around in the dark, we're obviously lying through our teeth - we're not living what we claim” (1 John 1:6). In essence, if we say we are living as faithful disciples, but we are living in denial of the truth, our truth, whatever it may be, then that is keeping us separated from God. “But if we walk in the light,” which is to be honest and truthful, “God himself being the light,” the truth, then we can experienced a shared life, not only with God, but also with one another. It makes sense that a shared life together requires honesty and truthfulness. When we are being genuine and authentic, our relationships with one another develop depth and can really flourish.

The text continues, “If we claim that we're free of sin, we're only fooling ourselves” (1 John 1:8). We all sin; we all have weaknesses and failures. This scripture says stop pretending you don’t. Stop lying. Stop hiding. Stop denying the truth. Because “If we admit our sins - make a clean breast of them - he won't let us down; he'll be true to himself. He'll forgive our sins and purge us of all wrongdoing. (1 John 1: 9). As John 3: 17 says, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Confessing our sins, and the forgiveness we receive, is part of how Christ saves us.

In Postsecrets, some people shared their sins, bad things that they have done. While others shared positive aspirations. Still, others shared their feelings of pain, or of regret, or of love. One of the points that I am trying to make today is that confession of sin is liberating and healing. And so is simply sharing what’s on your heart, or speaking what’s on your mind. It’s good for the soul. It’s good for our relationships with one another. Let me give you a sampling of what people chose to share on their postcards

Some of the secrets on the postcards are positive:

• “I believe I will accomplish something truly great in this lifetime. I am going to be 53 tomorrow” (40).
• “I am so grateful to the psychiatrist I saw when I was nineteen, who told me I would be fine again. He saved my life” (41).
• “I still pray for you every night, and I probably always will” (204).
• “I kicked cocaine for her” (?).

Many of the secrets are about people’s pain:

• “I don’t know what I want but I don’t want this…” (16).
• “All of my life people have told me I’m not special…I’m very easy to replace. After 43 years it has finally sunk in. I finally get it” (86).
• “I wish my parents said I love you…I can’t remember hearing them say it ever” (105).
• “Three years ago, I tried to kill myself…Now I’m 18 and people say that I’m happy…But I still want to die…” (40).
• “I can’t tell my mom about the rape…She wouldn’t want to know. And it kills me” (37).

Many contain a confession:

• “I give decaf to customers who are rude to me” (116).
• “There was no deer. I was just driving too fast” (36).
• “I started shooting heroin again” (65).
• “I wished on a dandelion for my husband to die” (68).
• “I feel guilty about sometimes wishing that I didn’t have children. I don’t dare say it out loud for fear I might trigger something bad happening to them” (126).
• “He’s been in prison for two years because of what I did. Nine more to go” (20).

A few even have to do with God or church:

• “Finding God is proving difficult” (54).
• “I miss feeling close to God” (141).
• “As a child I would sit in church and pray that the lights would fall on people, so I wouldn’t have to be there” (drawing of people running out of a church yelling, “Help!”) (130).
• “I tell people I’m an atheist, but I believe I’m going to hell” (143).
• “I tell people that I don’t believe in God, when really, I just refuse to worship a god that would let my grandfather hurt me like he did” (68).

A couple are very wise:

• “Dear Frank, How I wish I could hug everyone and tell them that it’s ok. It’s ok to be scared and angry and hurt and selfish. It’s part of being human” (108-9).

And this next one hits the nail on the head. You know why so many people responded to Frank Warren and sent in their secrets? Because it is pain and hurt and torture to live in the darkness. One wise person wrote:

• “Sometimes just the act of sharing a painful secret can relieve some of the pain” (70-1).

This person gets it! Admitting the truth, sharing a secret, confession heals the soul.
Warren spoke to this affect when he wrote, “After seeing thousands of secrets, I understand that sometimes when we believe we are keeping a secret, that secret is actually keeping us” (2). To hide and keep secrets is imprisonment; it’s captivity; it’s dwelling in darkness; it’s death.

This morning, I invite you to choose life by welcoming the Light into your life. Say prayers of confession in the church and in private. Open your hearts to God. To one another. Tell someone you love how you really feel. Tell someone you feel hurt by how you really feel. Tell someone you trust something that you have felt ashamed about for years. Because when that person looks you in the eye and says, “It’s ok. I still love you,” you will experience firsthand the liberation that comes with forgiveness, and how your heart will get so full because you have known mercy.

The last postcard in PostSecrets says, “I’ve given away all my secrets…and I feel so free” (275). (The words are printed atop a beautiful drawing of a bird taking flight against a sky blue backdrop.) Brothers and sisters, freedom and healing await us all. It’s time to step out of the darkness and into the light.

Be Still and Know

(Read Luke 8: 22-25 and Psalm 46)

Have you ever been boating on a large body of water in the midst of a storm? The skies darken first. You can watch the black clouds coming towards you. And then, the wind picks up, hitting your face, whipping your hair in every direction. And the water, it begins to roll. The boat begins to rock back and forth, back and forth. The swells grow larger and larger, and the boat, it stops rolling and instead it smacks against the surface of the water, landing in between the pointy edges of the waves. At some point, the rain begins to fall. Lightly, at first, until it comes down in pelts. Being on a boat in a large body of water in the midst of a storm is an awesome and terrifying experience all at the same time.

I know because I grew up boating on Lake Erie. I’ve seen 8 footers break over the bow as our 30’ Carver raced for the harbor. When the weather is nice, the water is still, motionless, and as the speedboat glides over the surface, you feel like you are flying. But when the wind whips up and makes waves, the boat slams against the water, bouncing you up and down and shaking your insides. Your sense of security is stripped away, and the fear that swells in your heart rises up just like the 8 foot waves and sends your mind into a panic.

It is no wonder then that the disciples are terrified when the storm picks up on Lake Galilee. They rush over to a sleeping Jesus, screaming, “Master, Master, we are perishing!” or “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

Whenever I read or hear today’s Gospel reading, I imagine a real storm upon the water and how overwhelming it is. How loud and chaotic. But when I try to make sense of this Scripture, I spiritualize it into a metaphor about the human life. Our lives are also loud and chaotic. Storms blow unexpectedly through our lives all the time. The winds of fear and sadness gain speed. The waves of troubled experience or burdensome thinking rise up, and we find ourselves being beaten and battered like the boat.

The Alban Institute devised a Stress Survey, and on it, are all sorts of different events that can happen to a person, and each event is ascribed a certain level of stress on a scale from 1-100. The events listed on the Stress Survey are some of the major storms that blow through our lives. Death of a spouse ranks the highest at 100, followed by divorce at 73, and marital separation at 65. Some other of the storms listed are: death of a family member or close friend; personal injury or illness; caring for someone you love who is injured or ill; financial problems; problems at work; losing your job; fighting within a family; discord in one’s church; a move or change in living conditions, and the list goes on.

As stressful events or storms come into the external reality of our lives, they also create a different kind of storm in our inner world. For example, getting fired from a job can set off a state of panic in someone’s inner world. Getting into an argument with a relative can whip up anger and hostility that lives like a tornado inside of you. The problems that we face in life on a regular basis, problems that don’t just disappear quickly often leave us feeling restless, anxious, worried, angry, insecure, tired… Our inner world can become so loud that it’s all we hear.

At such times, when what we really need to do is slow down and seek some sort of peace and quiet, we often find ourselves speeding up, which escalates our inner storms.
We often push ourselves even harder trying to fix the problem, find the solution, just get some semblance of control in our lives.

You know how you know when life is getting too loud? This happened to me. I was driving along, lost completely in my thoughts, when I finally looked in my review mirror and there was a firetruck, sirens blaring and everything, on my tail, trying to pass me. I hadn’t even heard it.

Or how many times have you driven in the car, totally lost in thought, and then all of a sudden, you have arrived at your destination? But you don’t even remember turning left or right or any of that. In a sense, you missed the whole drive. In a way, you missed that part of your life. It’s like when you have to keep reading the same page over and over in a book because you are two distracted by your own thoughts to engage the story.

Living in our heads is not really living. Life happens in the present moment. Here, now, tuned in and aware. Also, God exists in the present moment, and nowhere else. God isn’t out there or back there. God is here, now, with us. We are most alive and closest to God when we are present, fully engaged with the people near us and the events going on around us.

Not being truly present to a car ride or a couple pages of a book is not such a big deal, but what if we are spending large portions of our lives not being truly present, missing one moment after the next? The danger is that we could spend our lives thinking about our lives instead of living them. The danger of tuning out is that we will miss the presence of the Living God, who comes to us to comfort us and guide us when the storms of life begin to blow. When we are stuck in our heads, trying to figure it out ourselves, than we are not able to fully rely on God and experience his healing power and presence.

This is why God says to us, “Be still and know that I am God.” We need the quiet; we need to stop trying to figure it out by ourselves. And in the quiet, we find God in all his power and goodness. In the stillness of the moment, we feel the Spirit’s presence and we experience God at work in our lives.

Psalm 46 is the story of people living amidst change and trouble, just like us. Imagine this: The mountains are shaking in the heart of the sea; the waters roar and foam. The nations are in an uproar, and the kingdoms are beginning to totter. Nothing is stable anymore, nothing is steady. That is except God. This was the experience of Israel. God was faithful to them and helped them in their trouble. So, the people cried out with joy. “The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.” (Psalm 46:7).

What God was for Israel, God is for us today. The Living Lord is “A very present help in trouble.” (Psalm 46:1b). Jesus is here to call our storms like he did that day on the Sea of Galilee. “Peace! Be still,” He says to the wind and water. “Peace! Be still” he says to our souls.

There is a hymn called Stand By Me in our hymnal under the heading of strength in tribulation. It is a faithful hymn that calls upon God to help us when our lives are filled with pain and our inner world is filled with turmoil. Let me read you some of the words. But first, find that place in yourself that is in conflict and tumultuous. Take a deep breath and breath out all the pressure, all the pain, all the fear and anxiety that you have been carrying. Close your eyes if you want to.

When the storms of life are raging, stand by me. When the world is tossing me like a ship upon the sea, though who rulest wind and water, stand by me. In the midst of triublation, stand by me. When the hosts of hell assail, and my strength begins to fail, thou who never lost a battle, stand by me. In the midst of faults and failures, stand by me. When I do the best I can, and my friends misunderstand, thou who knowest all about me, stand by me. When I'm growing old and feeble, stand by me. When my life becomes a burden, and I'm nearing chilly Jordan, o thou "lily of the valley," stand by me.

This hymn is assurance that no matter what is going on in your life, your loving God who loves you even more than a human mother AND father ever could, will hold you safe and fast amidst all turmoil. God will stand by you in your troubles.

The Heidelberg Catechism is a statement of faith, of what we believe to be true about God. It’s in the form of question and answer, and #26 says this:

What do you believe when you say: “I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth?”

That the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who out of nothing created heaven and earth and everything in them, who still upholds and rules them by his eternal counsel and providence, is my God and Father because of Christ his Son.

I trust him so much that I do not doubt he well provide whatever I need for body and soul, and he will turn to my good whatever adversity he sends me in this sad world.

He is able to do this because he is almighty God, he desires to do it because he is a faithful Father. (From the Heidelberg Catechism, Q & A 26)

I know the weakness and temptation that accompany being caught in a storm. We grasp and we struggle, to figure things out, to make them right. But today, I invite you to hear God’s counsel. The Lord says to us, please, just be still. And know that I am God. I will take care of this storm. You will not perish. This too shall pass.

So, let us take a moment to be still as the Lord has asked us to. If we don’t do it now, then when will we? If we can’t do it here, then where can we do it?

Be still and know that God is God.
Be still and know that God is.
Be still and know.
Be still.

From Death to Life

(Read Ezekiel 37:1-14 and Colossians 3 (from the Message)

The sad reality is that events occur in the course or our lives that cause us to die in some way. If someone that we love passes away, a part of us dies with that person. If someone that we love mistreats us, a part of us shuts down as we try to cope with the pain. Sometimes, we choose our own demise. We stay in a job that devours our souls. We partake in behaviors that destroy our health. No matter who we are, how well adjusted and faithful we are, there is a part in each of us that has died through the process of living.

A few months ago, I had dinner with a group of women and was amazed at what they had been through recently in their lives. Sara’s story really struck me. She had married her college sweetheart. They moved to NYC together upon graduation, and both secured great jobs on Wall Street. They seemed like they had it all. Love, success, money. That is until one day when $600, 000 just appeared in their checking account. Sara wondered how that could have happened. Turns out, her wonderful husband, John, had a huge gambling addiction, and was involved in some pretty serious white collar crime. The deception destroyed their marriage. Sara filed for divorce. John went to prison.

I knew about Sara’s past the night we had dinner together, but I did not know how Sara had changed since then. It turns out that after the divorce, she quit her job, and spent the last several years traveling around the world, living in interesting places such as Barbados, Hawaii, Sumatra, and Bali. As Sara described the glamour of her travels, I couldn’t help but think that the part of her who was completely trusting, and could fully invest in another human being, fully commit, set down roots and have a family, that that part of her had died through her husband’s betrayal. She was still beautiful, intelligent and vibrant, but I worried about her heart. I wondered if she would ever be able to trust someone again. If she would be able to fall in love, marry and have the family she claimed she deeply wanted.

Sometimes, things like this just seem to happen to us. Othertimes, we are the culprits. But what I want to talk about today is the result, which is that these painful, heart-breaking experiences shut us down in some way. They kill parts of ourselves. They are life-taking.

But God is in the life-giving business. God wants us to have life and have it abundantly. That’s why he sent us Jesus.

The prophecy of the valley of dry bones from Ezekiel is filled with rich imagery that it is God's will for us to come back from the dead and live again. At the time of this prophecy, the most important people in the tribe of Israel had been captured and taken from the Promised Land, taken from Jerusalem, into captivity as slaves in Babylonia. You can imagine the heartache and weeping in Israel. Life was stolen from the slaves and the whole tribe. There was such weeping that it was as if the people had dried up, withered and died. The lively people that was once Israel was now a dead people, laying in a valley full of dry bones.

But our God, who is in the life-giving business, came to Ezekiel and said, "Can these bones live?" Only you know, God, Ezekiel says. And then God says, "Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live!"

I believe it is our spiritual work to be as alive as possible. And to help other people be as alive as possible. Each day, we wake up and exist somewhere on the continuum between death and life. The Triune God plays a dominant role in restoring us to life. Every time Jesus forgives you, you are being brought back to life. Every time the Father pours grace upon you, you are being brought back to life. Every time the Spirit inspires you and lights your heart aflame, you are being brought back to life. Every time you partake of the bread and the wine, you are being brought back to life.

In the Colossians reading, St. Paul offers us a list of behaviors, feelings, ways of being that correspond to either the life of death or the old life, as well as a list that corresponds to abundant life or the new life in Jesus Christ.

The old life of death includes: Sexual promiscuity, Impurity, Lust, Doing whatever you feel like whenever you feel like it, Grabbing whatever attracts your fancy. These must have been some of the issues the Colossians were facing.

The new life, the resurrected life includes: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline, being even tempered, content with second place, quickness to forgive, LOVE, peace, thanksgiving and singing.

I made up my own set of lists On one end there is death, on the other life. Below each
heading are emotions, attitudes, and ways of being that correspond to death or life. And its a continuum: You are rarely totally on one side or the other, but somewhere in between. And the goal is to be moving towards life.

Death/old life -- Life/new life in Jesus Christ
Dry bones -- filled with God’s breath/Spirit
Greedy -- generosity
Fearful -- confident
Defensive -- open
Cruel -- kind
Anxious -- peaceful
Depressed -- hopeful
Angry -- understanding
Fake -- authentic
Oblivious -- aware

We need to reflect upon our lives. In what ways are you close to death? How can you be transformed so that it is new life that fills you?

There are two aspects to our transformation from death to life, or from the old life to the new life in Christ. First, and always first, is grace, which is God’s love and goodness given freely to us. Second, and as a response to grace, is our acts of faithfulness.

First, the Triune God reaches out to us with grace. The Maker comes to us, asking, “Mortal, can these bones live?” God sends us Jesus Christ and through him, frees us from the law of sin and death, forgives us. God sends us the Holy Spirit, who guides and empowers us into new ways of living. This is all grace.

Then, it is our turn to respond to God’s grace in faith. We must consent to grace, receive it because God will not force it upon us. The Maker says, “Prophecy!” And in faith, we prophecy. Jesus says, “Believe in me!” And in faith, we believe in him. The Holy Spirit says, “Go!” And in faith, we go.

Grace. Faith. Grace. Faith. These two work in tandem together, and by them, our lives are transformed from the old to the new, from death to life.

It's not just up to God. We are partners with God. We are co-creators of our own destiny. We have free will, and it is the choices that we make that also determine where we are on the continuum. Whenever you make a choice or find yourself in a situation, you can ask yourself: Is what I am doing life giving or life taking?

My friend, Sara, needs to figure out the parts of her that have dried up, withered, and died. I'm sure the Triune God is already working to bring those parts back to life in some new, refined, revitalized way. She must also choose the things that will bring her back to life. In fact, I think she has already started. Sara made the choice to stop traveling for awhile, and at 38 years old, to move back in with her parents, near to her sister, and to take care of her sister's children so that her sister can go back to work. Not what you would expect from a Wall Street trader and world traveler, but maybe exactly what she needs for her heart to come back to greater life. Perhaps living with family will help her to trust and invest and commit to love again.

Even after we have died, or parts of us have died, it is God's will that we live and breath his very breath. Towards the end of the Ezekiel reading, God offers these words of hope to the slaves of Israel, "I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel...I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil." God restores his people to their land! He redeems their lives from the pit! He gives them his Holy Spirit to live by! And, God puts his people on their own soil. Soil is a place where we can grow. God takes dry, crumbling bones, and raise them up to people of health and vitality, and he puts them in a place where their hearts can open up and their lives can flourish once again.

Brothers and sisters, today you are invited to receive the grace of God. In whatever ways you have been broken, or shut down, in whatever ways your heart has closed or your spirit has died, God is offering to you new life, resurrected life. Believe and respond in faith. On this day, you are being born again and given new life through Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit.