Sunday, June 27, 2010

Following Jesus Means Leaving Your Comfort Zone

(Read Luke 9:51-62 and Isaiah 43: 1-3a, 18-19)

Some people don’t have what it takes to follow Jesus. It’s too scary; it requires too much courage and an utter confidence in God to provide fully for your life.

Our Gospel passage from today talks about such people, the would-be followers of Jesus. They don’t have what it takes. First, we hear about the Samaritans. Jesus sent his disciples ahead of him to proclaim to them the Good News, but the Samaritans were afraid. The Scripture says that “they did not receive him because his face was set toward Jerusalem” (Luke 9: 53) which to me says they heard the prediction about Jesus future in Jerusalem, that the “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected but the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Luke 9: 22). For those that didn’t know of Jesus well, this must have sounded like the wrong group to get involved with. After all, the one they would be following was going to get killed!

So the disciples said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” (Luke 9: 54). This wasn’t a fire to kill them because they were non-believers; it was more like a sign, a miracle to show the Samaritans the power that Jesus and the disciples had from God. This way, the Samaritans would be assured that these men were of God, and then their hearts would be consumed with belief to follow Jesus.

But Jesus essentially said, “Don’t do that. If they aren’t ready to follow me, they aren’t ready. We won’t send them signs and wonders.” It reminds me of the Scripture, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet still believe.”

Next, as they were going along the road, Jesus said, “Follow me” to a man who replied, “Lord, first let me go bury my father” (Luke 9: 59). The Samaritans didn’t believe, and while this man believed, he was too attached to what he had going on in his life to leave everything behind and become a follower. Isn’t attachment a trap we can all relate to?

Jesus reply, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but you are alive, and so go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” But the man couldn’t do it. He felt too much responsibility to his family.

Along the same lines, another man said to Jesus, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” This man too was unwilling to leave his attachments behind him. He clung to his past so as not to create a new future.

Jesus reply, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9: 62). This is a very powerful message from Jesus. Imagine yourself plowing a field, but you have to keep looking behind you to see what’s going on back there. You can’t very well plow a field turned around. Many people get stuck in the past, and then they wonder why their present life is so unsatisfying. Jesus says, “If you’re going to follow me, you have to be ready for forward motion. The past has brought you to this place, but now, it’s time to move on.” It’s time to do a new thing.

So here we have some would-be followers of Jesus. The ones who don’t believe and so do not follow, the man overly attached to his present life circumstance and responsibilities that he won’t leave, and the man afraid to leave the past behind and move into an unknown future.

In some way, we share in these same excuses for not following Jesus. Who here at times doubts Christ and God, and thus puts your energies into worldly affairs? Who here is so consumed in your present life circumstance that you ignore or don’t even hear Christ calling you to new heights, new dimensions in life? And who here is too afraid or too unconfident to move forward because of the uncertainty it will bring into your life?

I know I have suffered from all three at various times. I believe God is calling me to write more and try to publish for the sake of expanding his message in this world, but I have all kinds of excuses to rationalize why I haven’t done more yet. They all boil down to fear and lack of confidence in myself, which is to say, lack of confidence in God.

Let’s talk about what it means to follow Christ for a moment. In the simplest sense, to follow Jesus is to live by his teachings, to do what we are taught in the Bible. Sin stops us from that. So does laziness and selfishness. At other times, the teachings are just too hard. A few verses earlier at the beginning of Luke 9, Jesus says, “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money-not even an extra tunic” (Luke 9:3). Just live off whatever people give you. Who here is willing to give away everything you have worked so hard to acquire and that makes you feel safe, and go wonder around preaching Christ crucified?

There are easier teachings, like the command to love one another and pray for our enemies, so we can follow Jesus by doing those things. You might even have a favorite teaching of Jesus that you adhere to and in doing so create your own unique way of being faithful.

A more complex understanding of what it means to follow Jesus is living your life in such a way that you take action based on the inspirations of the Holy Spirit. If the Holy Spirit inspires you to move to a new land, would you go? That would be following Jesus. If the Holy Spirit inspires you to move into a new line of service or work, would you leave behind what you are already doing, as scary as that may be, and start in a new field? To follow Jesus means to follow the Living God wherever God is leading you.

That takes courage and trust because it’s scary and unsettling to move into unfamiliar territory. But following Jesus often means heading into unchartered waters or going deeper into the waters you are in. Either way, following Jesus means going outside of your comfort zone.

Let’s talk about comfort zones for a moment. For many people, a cup of coffee in the morning is a source of comfort. And people are very particular about how they take their coffee because it’s only comforting when it’s the kind of coffee you want and are used to. Starbucks has made a billion dollar industry out of giving people their coffee just how they want it. Americana. Latte. Frappuccino. Skinny. Soy. Sugar-free. You name it, you can have it. And the coffee always tastes the same at every Starbucks. Heck, even the stores look the same.

People like their lives like they like their coffee -- consistent!

I know a man named Tim, and he liked to call the shots in life. He was a leader, knowing what he wanted, in charge and good at making decisions. Tim’s company hired another associate, Mark, that was very similar to Tim in the way he thought and acted. Although, of course, to Tim, Mark was overly aggressive and too confrontational. They began working closely together. At first, Tim was very frustrated by Mark. Their ideas clashed and so did their personalities. The office became an unpleasant place, filled with tensions between the two.

But Tim is a follower of Christ, and so while praying one night, he realized what he had to do. Tim decided to yield to Mark, at least for awhile as an experiment to see if it made things better. When Mark would make a declaration, Tim would simply listen instead of arguing the point. It felt foreign to Tim to take this “back seat” approach, and it made him uncomfortable, but he remained committed to acting differently around Mark in the hopes that the dynamic between them would change.

Tim wasn’t sure if he was doing the right thing or not because he felt so strange not leading his group at work like he always had. It took time, but one day Tim realized that Mark actually had innovative ideas and effective leadership. Tim became more able to relax and appreciate his work in a new way. He found that he had more time to listen to his co-workers and talk to his clients. One of the things that Tim ultimately realized was that the yielding, as foreign as it felt, wasn’t bad or wrong, it was simply different for him. In fact, this out-of-his-comfort-zone yielding actually had benefits. It was like Tim went from drinking his coffee black to adding whole milk and one raw sugar. Neither way is a right or wrong way to drink coffee, they’re just different, and Tim realized that he could enjoy coffee both ways.

In the end, Tim actually liked yielding to Mark, at least on certain decisions, and the entire work relationship was transformed. Plus Tim found himself enjoying aspects of work he had never really even considered before, like the personal relations aspect. Christ provided the catalyst in Tim’s life, and a prayerful lifestyle helped to transform his inner world. It took courage and fortitude to go into the unknown, but in doing so, Tim reinvented himself. What a willingness on his part to be outside his comfort zone and actually change.

Like Tim, we all have opportunities in our lives that ask us to stretch and grow. This is one of the ways that God asks us to follow Christ. They say that variety is the spice of life, and following Christ demands that we incorporate variety into our old repertoires; it means incorporating the new into the old.

As the prophet Isaiah writes, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old, I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43: 18-19). God is doing a new thing in your life, in all our lives together.

Some people don’t have what it takes to follow Jesus. They’re too scared; don’t have the courage, not confident in God’s grace, but not us. We are the faithful, and today, something new is happening. By God’s grace and our own willingness, we get to be a part of that something new. Let yourself move into foreign territory, even if it feels weird or different. Get outside of your comfort zone. God is going to bless you by this new thing that he is doing.

Just as practice, why don’t you drink your coffee different this week- or have no coffee at all. Go chai. Drink tea. Even better, allow yourself to feel different, think different and act different this week. Because to grow in faith and to follow Jesus into ever higher heights and deeper depths, we have to leave our comfort zones.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Moving Forward in Faith

(Read Genesis 12:1-9)

There is little mystery in going to the grocery store. First of all, we’ve all been there like 1,000 times. Second, most of us go with a list in mind, and third, we basically buy the same items every time anyway. The grocery store is what you might call a safe bet. Not a lot of mystery, not a lot of the unexpected.

If we work or go to school, the same is usually true of our experience there. We pretty much know what to expect. Even our weekly routine is no mystery. People are creatures of habit and we like the certainty of knowing what’s going to happen.

One thing that is a mystery in our lives is the call we receive from God. We never quite know what God will want from us. It can be a bit unsettling, and yet, it can also be very exciting. Who knows what great plans God has for us?

We are in the midst of a calling from God. We are smack in the middle of an unfolding mystery. What will Miracle Sunday bring us? What exactly we will do from here is yet to be known.

The one thing I do know is that we have already triumphed; we have already succeeded because God called and we answered that call. No matter what today’s total is, we have already succeeded because we have acted in faith.

Abram’s life was pretty comfy and cozy until God called him one day. And then, boy, did he walk into a mystery. Abram was sitting safe and sound in his father’s house when God said, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.”

Now that is an intimidating calling. To leave everything. But Abram responded with great faith, that is why he is so revered in our Judeo-Christian tradition. He packed his things, took his wife Sarai and his nephew Lot and moved ahead into the unknown. He moved forward in faith, which is exactly what we are doing today!

Abram left Haran and went by way of the river to Schechem. There he built an altar to the Lord. These altars were points of meeting for God and Abram. When Abram built them, he felt the presence of God and communed with God. Next, Abram walked faithfully forward to Bethel, where he again built an altar to commune with God.

We can all gain confidence from Abram’s faith. Abram left security, trusting in a better future which God promised if only he followed the path laid out for him. The unknown might be scary to us, but when God is the one we are walking towards, like Abram we know God will meet us more than halfway.

We are on a path that God has laid out for us. We don’t know everything that will happen, but we have the assurance that God is walking with us, encouraging us, providing for us, and meeting us along the road.

With all the certainly in our lives, there’s something sacred and special about living in the mystery of God.

Let me provide you with an image of what I think answering the call of God is like:

At the very beginning of being called by God, it’s like walking around in the dark, you walk slowly, hesitantly with your arms out looking for walls and objects, points of reference, trying not to bump into anything, unsure of what’s going on.

But as you keep moving forward, it’s like walking at dawn. It starts out dark so we are walking slowly, tentatively, not quite knowing what to expect. But as the sun begins to rise, a soft light starts to illuminate the land. We start to see shapes and outlines of the things around us. We get a feel for where we’re going.

As the call moves from mystery to a definite plan, it’s like walking around in the light, you walk much more quickly, with confidence using your eyes to see what’s ahead of you so you can avoid any obstacles and move towards what you know is right.

Eventually, the light is bright enough that we can see clearly where we are at, what’s in front of us and where we are going. By the end of a particular faith journey, it’s quite clear where we’re headed and how we are going to get there.

We are in the dawn of our faith walk as a congregation right now. Months ago, before talk of Miracle Sunday even began, it was dark outside. We couldn’t really see where we were going, and we were walking slowly, not sure of what was ahead of us.

But then, the sun began to rise. We realized the church needed some tender loving care, and we decided to rise to the challenge and care for this special place. We committed to a method, the Miracle Sunday method, and moved ahead.

At this point, the light was just bright enough that we started seeing the shape of how things might look one day. We were in the dawn of our calling.

Today is a big day for us, the sun has risen in the sky just high enough that we can see it above the tree line. We know the day is breaking. We are walking more confidently now. We are starting to see what lies up ahead in the road. Yes, today is an exciting today - the day when the sun breaks through and becomes visible.

Up until today, it’s all been talk and planning and hard work. Today, we put our money where our mouth is. Today we are taking steps. We are moving forward in faith.

Like Abram, God has called us and told us its time to move. And like Abram, we are faithful people willing to respond to God’s call, confident that God will meet us on the road as we move ahead.

After today, our future calling remains a bit of a mystery. The next steps involve the actual renovations, and we have an exciting plan but no one can know exactly what God will do with us. We’re doing today will affect what happens 10 years down the line, 50 years down the line, 100 years down the line. That’s part of God’s bigger plan that we don’t ever quite get access to until it finally happens.

My friends, as God’s messenger, I want to thank you all for moving forward in faith these past months and especially today.

And on a personal note, think about your lives and what God is calling you to do now. Are you moving forward in faith? Are you taking chances or playing it safe because God’s blessings are often found when we take that chance and go forward, blind or not, in faith.

Live in the mystery! Enjoy the mystery! And thanks be to god who calls us forward
into new and abundant life.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

More than Lemonade

(Read Genesis 3:1-7 and Romans 5:1-5)

The story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is the Judeo-Christian attempt to explain that from very early on, humanity strayed from God. I don’t read this account literally, but as a story that tries to explain the historic relationship between God and people. As far as humans go, I would speculate that our first breath was pure, and our second was tempted.

In an outpouring of love, God created the universe and all things living, and called them good and blessed them. Man and woman God took special care in creating, forming us in God’s image, putting God’s breath in us as our life force and essentially making us a little less than gods ourselves.

At first, God and people were in perfect harmony, but very quickly, evil, temptation, human free-will and sin entered into the picture. God had given Adam and Eve a command, saying they could eat fruit from every tree in the garden of “delight,” except for two. They couldn’t eat from the tree of life or the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In affirmation of their purity of heart and free will, Adam and Eve chose not to eat the fruit of these trees. That is until the serpent, who is the personification of the force of evil in this story, tells Eve that God lied to her and that she could eat from the tree of knowledge without dying.

Evil made Eve doubt God, that’s what evil does, and in doubting God, Eve became confused.

The serpent told Eve that she would become like God if she ate the fruit of knowledge from the tree, and in her confusion, this sounded like a good thing to Eve. She looked at the tree, and saw that it was a delight to the eyes, and that it was to be desired because it could make one wise, so she ate from it. Adam also desired the fruit, and so without thinking about the consequence of his choice, he too ate of the tree of knowledge.

This one act of disobedience, known as “The Fall,” lead to a rupture between God and humanity, a violation of trust, a broken relationship. But when I really think about this story, I don’t see Eve or Adam being malicious or greedy, actively rejecting God. What I hear in this story is that our separation from God came through foolishness, being naïve, being confused and unaware of the consequences of one’s actions. Without her guard up, Eve simply believed the serpent, and with innocent eyes, she chose fruit that at first appearance seemed delightful and good.

At the end of the day, what I gain from this portion of the Eden account is that, although God created us good and hoped we would stay obedient to whatever God said, almost immediately after our first breath, this was not the case. The serpent, that is to say evil, and human free-will co-existed with God almost as soon as creation began.

The result of “The Fall” demonstrates the powerful law of cause and effect, and human beings are subject to this law. God put us out of the garden to live our lives freely, and that means that choice is ours, and it means that the consequences of choice are ours as well.

We might ask ourselves, how much of our sin, of our straying from God and God’s ways is wrought by a similar type of foolishness, naiveté, confusion or just not fully considering the consequences, like Adam and Eve? And since choice, the law of cause and effect, and the consequences of choice determine the future of our lives, I think we should pray to God to help us make better choices. Without stealing fruit off of any of God’s trees, we can still pray for God to give us greater wisdom and insight. We might pray that the scales would fall from our eyes so we can see clearly how our choices will impact our lives and the lives of those around us.

Sherry had been a foster child, moved from one home to the next. She developed a drug problem in her teens. By the time she was 16, all she wanted was to settle down with her boyfriend, who also had a drug problem, have a baby and start a family of her own. She just wanted some people in her life that would stay with her and that she could love forever.

One night when Sherry was six months pregnant, her boyfriend hit a row of parked cars while driving them home. The doctors at the hospital said that Sherry and the baby were fine, but two months later, when the baby came a month early, worries surfaced. “At first the doctors just thought my daughter was slow. And had seizures,” Sherry said. But at five years old, her daughter couldn’t feed herself, crawl, sit up or say mama. All she could do was hold her head up.

The accident had separated the placenta, causing seizures and retardation. Sherry wasn’t aware of it that night, but her boyfriend had been on drugs while driving. And though Sherry made all those choices when she was naïve and foolish, she now takes responsibility for what she did. Sherry said, “Getting into that car-and what that did to my daughter and me-is something I’ve had to live with every day of my life.” (Beattie, Melody. Choices. San Francisco: Harpers Collins, 2002. Pg. 9-10).

I think many people blame God for the suffering in their lives. I know I do. When you suffer, don’t you say: God, how could you let this happen to me? God, why did you do this? God, you must not love me… But I think blaming God is really just a way to avoid taking responsibility for our lives.

The story of “The Fall” and the law of cause and effect state that it’s not God’s fault we suffer, it’s evil’s fault and it’s our fault. The serpent was given the choice to stray from God, so was Adam, so was Eve, so are we. That’s the choice we made and that’s the choice we live with.

God doesn’t want us to suffer, but at the same time, God doesn’t stop the things that cause us pain. We wanted independence, free-will, choice, and we have it. But often we get angry at God when really we should be angry at ourselves because we don’t know how to use our free will.

This is why making good choices is so important. Bad choices lead to negative consequences. Good choices lead to positive consequences.

Spiritual maturity means that we do get wiser in our decision making. It means that our hearts are getting purer, so that we are choosing holy and wholesome things more naturally now than before. This is all good news because we are all maturing spiritually. At the same time, I just really want to encourage everyone here to take responsibility for your life and the choices you make. They matter. They affect your lives and other people’s lives.

While God doesn’t stop the law of cause and effect, what God does though, is God comes into situations of brokenness, and out of pure love, works to heal the situation. Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden, and therefore all of us were expelled, but look at the land of beauty and adventure we were put in to live our lives and work out our destinies. Adam and Eve damaged their relationship with God by being disobedient, but God healed and reconciled that relationship with them and us by sending us Jesus Christ. A little boy failed the fifth grade, but because he did, he met his best friend in class that next year, a best friend he would have for the next 70 years. A woman was left at the altar by her fiancé, but 10 years later that same woman was happier and more fulfilled than if she had said, “I do.”

You might say that God takes a bad situation and makes something good come from it. You might say that God turns lemons into lemonade. I like to say, God doesn’t cause suffering, but once suffering happens, God knows how to use it.

In the book, The Shack, God says this about the issue of suffering:

“Just because I work incredible good out of unspeakable tragedies doesn’t mean I orchestrate the tragedies. Don’t ever assume that my using something means I caused it or that I need it to accomplish my purposes. That will only lead you to false notions about me. Grace doesn’t depend on suffering to exist, but where there is suffering you will find grace in many facets and colors” (Young, William Paul. The Shack. Newbury Park, CA: Windblown Media, 2007. pg. 188).

Where we make unwise choices that lead to negative consequences, we will find God working to bring about good. God does more than make lemons into lemonade. God saves us when we find ourselves in trouble. God heals us when we find ourselves sick. God redeems us when we have hit rock bottom.

There’s that saying that when one door closes another door opens. We have to take responsibility for the doors that close in life. Not everything is our fault, but we can’t just blame it on God either. What we can do is see that the doors that are opening are from God. The nature of God is to provide door after door after door. As many as we need.

This is why I love this verse from Romans: “Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.” Because no matter what we suffer, God is using it for our good, to save, to heal, to redeem, to provide new opportunity. There is always hope, even in suffering, especially in suffering.

God does more than make lemonade with our lives. God turns pain into joy, brokenness into relationship, suffering into opportunity, so wherever there is pain, brokenness, suffering, there is hope because wherever those things are, God is there.