Just Be Yourself: Part 3

This past Sunday I preached at Chapelwood (2nd time in a month, crazy).  Over the last several days I’ve posted parts of that sermon.  (So as not to be cruel to the readers attention span…trust me its more entertaining when I’m making facial expressions).  So far we’ve talked about not getting so wrapped up in yourself (even your own faith) that you miss the doing part of faith.  There is actually a great freedom in being yourself, and when Christians move out of the mirror and into the world, amazing things happen.

James says,” Forget the mirror stuff. It’s not real. It’s make up and hair gel. Look Underneath. Try to see yourself as God sees.”

You’ll find, before anything we make or build or craft, our lives are a gift. Born in flesh and word, you are good and perfect and loved.  You are first fruits, a holy offering. Strip everything else away and what you see is that you are Imago Dei, the Image of God.

You always have been. And that is all you ever have to be.

That is true freedom, Freedom to step away from the mirror and into the better part of life. You don’t have to focus on yourself, because you know God has that covered. You can listen more than you speak, because you don’t have to justify yourself to anyone. You can be humble and slow to anger because nothing Someone else says or does can ever threaten who You are. Don’t get stuck in the mirror, just be yourself. And when the people of God do that…

When Christians live as the people God created them to be, the world is changed.

When we are as God created us to be, children are cared for.

When we are as God created us, widows and the elderly are looked after.

When we are as we’re created the hungry are fed and the thirsty drink.

The sick are healed and the imprisoned comforted.

When we are as we’re created the homeless find shelter

the blind find sight

the dead find life

When we are as we’re created the powerful are brought down to listen and the powerless raised up to speak.

When Christians are as we’re created, the world is changed

And our calling is nothing less than to be the kingdom God created us to be.

Study, devotion, Self reflection are all important but they should play out in our lives. If faith makes us constantly fixate on ourselves, we risk missing the best part of Life.
We risk building a faith that is only a mirror image, too insubstantial to survive the real world. We risk teaching a faith that looks great on Sunday morning but is forgotten the moment we step away.

Don’t be only hearers, but also doers of the word–Don’t get stuck in the mirror, just be the Image of God you were created to be.

See the funny thing about the Image of God is, it works best when you don’t stare directly at it.  N.T. Wright, an Anglian theologian, uses a beautiful image in some of his lectures.  He says the Image of God is not such that you can stare directly at yourself in a mirror and find it. Rather it is as if the mirror is tilted so that our reflection is lifted up to God And God is reflected out into the world.

Don’t worry about who you’re going to be, or how others see you.  Just be who God created you to be because there are a lot of people out there who need to see God.
This is the full life of discipleship. Be doers of the Word. Check in with the mirror, but then more on to the other 6 days of faith. Carry it out to the world, because when the people of God live as they are created to be–day by day, moment by moment– that is how the world is changed for the glory of God.

Just be yourself… and dare to watch God do the rest.

Amen.

Just Be Yourself: Part 2

This past Sunday I preached at Chapelwood (2nd time in a month, crazy).  Yesterday we talked about dating…I mean how easy it is for faith to become solely a matter of study and self reflection.  James tells us not to get stuck in the mirror.

I’m the Kind of person that gets stuck in the mirror sometimes. This was especially when it came to dating.  I was terrible at being single, I’m serious. I’m convinced my husband and I only got together because we never really dated.

If I had a date, I would get so nervous. I had to get everything perfect, nice hair, right outfit, good conversation topics. Oh yeah, I’d even try to plan out responses for every possible situation. I could get so wrapped in my head, by the time the date started I didn’t even want to go.  (And no, actually being on the date wouldn’t suddenly make it all go away.)  I got stuck in a weird infinite mirror loop… it rarely ended well.

In fact, I only had 2 mildly successful first dates, and they both started about the same way. Someone I’d recently met in casual, social, not-at-all a date settings texted me and said something like, “Have you eaten? Let’s grab dinner at__________ in 15.”

So both times I had like 15 minutes to prep and get there, (And this is Chicago, where you walk EVERY where). We’re talking enough time to brush your hair, brush your teeth and go. And it worked!

For some of you this is not surprising. After all the best dating advice you can give someone is  “Just be your self.”  It is, after all, a lot less work. Even if you fool someone on a first date, they are going to meet the real you eventually. So just be yourself.  It’s good advice. Turns out,  it’s James’ advice.

I mentioned yesterday, we sometimes assume James and Paul are at odds. Part of why that happens is that we try to read James like we read Paul.  I mean Epistle to the Romans/Epistle of James… same rules apply. (right?)  But as scholars have worked with the text, they found that what James most resembles is Jewish wisdom literature. It turns out reading James is a lot less like reading Romans and a lot more like reading Proverbs. It’s not a, systematic treatise; its advice.

James is good advice about living the Christian life.  And one of the first pieces of advice is this: just be yourself. Or more accurately: Be who God created you to be.
There is an important distinction there. It’s not be who you want to be, but Be who God created you to be. So often we buy the cultural myth that we make ourselves. You can hear it in the language we use. We talk about building character or reputation. We choose our path, chart our course. We craft the image we show to the world.

But that takes a lot of time in front of the mirror. Maybe too much.

We can paint an amazing picture for the world. It may even be a “Christian” picture. But when it’s something we built it requires constant effort and focus to maintain. We get stuck in the mirror, because when we step away–when we stop focusing on ourselves–there’s a danger we’ll forget and let the image slip.

James says,” Forget the mirror stuff. It’s not real. It’s make up and hair gel. Look Underneath. Try to see yourself as God sees.”

You’ll find, before anything we make or build or craft, our lives are a gift. Born in flesh and word, you are good and perfect and loved.  You are first fruits, a holy offering. Strip everything else away and what you see is that you are Imago Dei, the Image of God.

You always have been. And that is all you ever have to be.

That is true freedom, Freedom to step away from the mirror and into the better part of life. You don’t have to focus on yourself, because you know God has that covered. You can listen more than you speak, because you don’t have to justify yourself to anyone. You can be humble and slow to anger because nothing Someone else says or does can ever threaten who You are.

Don’t get stuck in the mirror, just be yourself. And when the people of God do that… When Christians live as the people God created them to be, the world is changed.

Just Be Yourself: Part 1

This past Sunday I preached at Chapelwood (2nd time in a month, crazy).  Over the next several days I’ll post parts of that sermon.  (So as not to be cruel to the readers attention span…trust me its more entertaining when I’m making facial expressions)

When Peter asked me to preach the Sunday before a holiday I joked if you don’t have an asscosiate or an intern, the youth leader would just have to do. Then I looked at the lectionary readings… Word of advice to aspiring preachers: Never say yes before you look at the readings. I’m kidding (mostly), I know it could have been a lot worse.

Actually our reading today from James isn’t difficult. It just has so much going on: gifts, and filth and seeds and laws and devotion (whew!) In the midst of all that, I think James is essentially saying: (1) Don’t fixate solely on self examination; (2) Be who God created you to be because (3) when you are you can change the world, As 1 was preparing this week, I found myself drawn to the image of the mirror and being doers of the word. It’s verses 22-25.

You must be doers of the word and not only hearers who mislead themselves. Those who hear but don’t do the word are like those who look at their faces in a mirror. They look at themselves, walk away, and immediately forget what they were like. But there are those who study the perfect law, the law of freedom, and continue to do it. They don’t listen and then forget, but they put it into practice in their lives. They will be blessed in whatever they do.

I’m betting all of us use a mirror almost daily. You probably spent time in front of one this morning. It’s a routine.; you may hardly even notice it. But there are times in every life when we have to settle in and take a hard look at ourselves…I speak of course of, dating.

Seriously, do you know what it’s like to date.   How much time does that take in front of a mirror ?  Do you remember what it’s like to go on a first date? I know for some of you its been awhile, but think back.

There’s all that preparation. You have to pick a place times time and an outfit. Another person usually helps.  Then you have to actually get ready, take a shower and do your hair. Girls get a lot of flack for this, but I Know at least 2 men who take longer than I do. Maybe you were the kind of person who used the mirror to psych yourself up. (I won’t ask for a show of hands.) But you kind talk to the mirror to burn off nerves. Even if you’re a “Ready, fire, aim” kind of person, you needed a little time just to brush your teeth…

But what would happen if you never left the mirror?

You cold get every hair in place, plan out every pithy remark. You can get your image perfect. But unless you step away… You’ll miss the best part of the date.
Everything worth doing takes preparation, but we can’t get stuck there. Just as devotion and self reflection are important, but they are not the sum total of the Christian Life. They aren’t even the best part.

This is why James tells us to be both hearers AND doers of the word.

Now, over the centuries, James has taken heat for this idea. Eusebius, one of the first church historians, wondered if the Letter of James even belonged in the Bible.  Martin Luther famously called James “an epistle of straw”  There is a long standing tendency to think being a “doer” of the word is at odds with Paul’s salvation by faith.
That’s not really fair. James does not as us to do instead of hear. The author simply recognizes that when we come before God there is a temptation to stay; to keep listen and listening and listening and never get to the best part of faith

 

Samson v Thor: Pride and Brokenness

Samson is not and ideal hero of the Bible.  Before his birth Samson’s mother makes a vow.  Her son will be a Nazarite: one who lives a life of purity pleasing to God.  Instead he lives a life to break a mother’s heart.  Samson is vain, rash and violent.  He teases the Philistines, terrorizes the Philistines, and when they push back…Samson exacts terrible revenge.  He slaughters thousands, he burns fields with foxes.  He is a bully.  AND he fraternizes with foreign women.

This last one causes the most trouble.  Samson and Delilah is the last story of the Samson cycle and probably the one most of us know best.  Having spent his adult life, generally harassing the Philistine neighbors,  Samson takes up with another Philistine prostitute, Delilah.

The men of the town offer Delilah an obscene amount of money to find Samson’s weakness.  And she sets about her task with something less than subtlety.  She,     just asks      over and over                   and over                                    and over                                  and over                                        and over.

Samson makes a game of it, at first.  He mocks her with ridiculous answers:  undried bow strings,  no new ropes,    no weave my hair on a loom.   Each she tries and each time he laughs it off.  After all, he is Samson slayer of lions, slaugter or men,  she poses no real threat.

Finally though, finally Delilah gets the truth.  She shaves his head, and calls his enemies.  Samson jumps up sure he will triumph and escape,  he always does…but not this time.  He is stripped of his strength.  In a moment, the source of Samson’s pride is gone and it breaks him.

The Philistines take him easily.  They shackle him, blind him, and set him to degrading labor.

In the recent movie, Thor’s arrogance is more subtle, but just as damning.   Thor, favorite son of Asgard, is eager to prove himself.  Against his father’s wishes, he sets out for revenge on an old enemy.  He takes friends, he treats it like a game, but the consequences are dire.

Yeah, it doesn’t end well there.  Thor is stripped of his position and strength.  In a moment his friends, his family, and the source of his pride are all gone.  and it threatens to break him.
Pride is dangerous.  And its not limited to super heros.  I saw it play out just last week at UMArmy.
Rachel is a darling of her youth group.  A queen bee who just graduated top of her class, head of the cheer leaders, ready to take college by storm in the fall.  This was her fourth Army and she had the perfect trip all planned out.   Except for a few hitches she hadn’t counted on.

Me, for one.  The “not-her-youth-director” that made her group share a room with girls from another church, and turned out to be her Work Team Adult when she’d prefer one of the “cool guys” from her group…or the guy they all called “hot Jesus”.  Worse yet, it was her fourth year, and there wasn’t a wheel chair ramp in sight.  Instead she had to scrap, and paint, put in grab rails, replace door knobs, and lay linoleum (which involved moving a toilet).  Not the most glamorous assignments.  To make matters worse, Thursday night, when Rachel thought she’d finagled us onto another team’s site to build a poarch,  We get assigned a new job, painting and fascia boards.  She literally ran away.
When I tracked her down, she was in tears, and no matter how we talked about the new site, all she could say was “It’s not what I want,  It’s not what I want,  It’s not what I want.”
In that moment, she was stripped of all pretense and control.  I could see Rachel struggling to hang on to her pride.  And it was breaking her heart.

Most of us have been there with Samson, or Thor, or Rachel.  We’ve fooled ourselves. We think pride makes us strong.  But it just makes us hard, even brittle.  It leaves hollows inside us.  And when the world crashes in, we crumble.

We try to live out of pride; we insist on control; we end up broken. But the good news is, God doesn’t leave us broken.  God never leaves us broken.
When pride crumbles, God’s light of hope shines through.  For Samson, that light is 16:22: But the hair of his head began to grow again after it had been shaved.  The hair of his head began to grow again.  That simple phrase says God is not done with Samson yet.

Now I’d be lying if I even replied that Samson was a perfect picture of repentance.  It is not a humble servant who enters the temple of Dagon, but it is a very different Samson.  He still wants revenge, for himself.  But now he is willing to sacrifice; now he comes with clarity of purpose; now, maybe for the first time, he sees from where his strength comes.  In blindness, Samson catches hold of God’s vision…at least impart.

It is to God, he cries out, and God who empowers him to bring down the temple. And Samson said, “Let me die with the Philistines.” Then he bowed with all his might; and the house fell upon the lords and upon all the people that were in it. So the dead whom he slew at his death were more than those whom he had slain during his life.

Even if we are uncomfortable with the violence, Samson’s feat is still amazing.  Humiliated and blind, yet God uses Samson to do something greater than ever before.

Thor goes through a similar transformation.  Without ruining the movie, I can tell you Thor is a very different man by the end.  Thor must learn to measure the consequences of his actions, and to see how he affects others.  Through his humiliating exile he becomes a hero to two worlds.  And there is this great moment at then end where he….

Just kidding.  I won’t spoil it, but you should see the movie for yourself.  It has moving stories of redemption, love, and salvation, none of which could happen if Thor clung to the pride that got him cast out of Asgard    (and tasered in New Mexico).  By letting go, he goes on to do something greater than before.

I don’t know what will become of Rachel.  But I know a very different Rachel showed up to the job Friday morning.  The work was small and short, but she spent time with an 80 year old man who hadn’t had company in almost a year.  She connected for the first time with Emilia, a first year girl on our team.  Their backgrounds were completely different, but Rachel stepped in and found a way to mentor her, and included Emilia in her friends games that night.  She even got through the day without killing Alex.   Rachel never got to build that wheel chair ramp,  but when she let that go, God used her to important build relationships.  And maybe that is a greater work.

Pride as a vice can be obvious.  It can lead to addictions or violence.  Sometimes its more subtle.  We can’t delegate tasks, because others won’t do it as well, we hold grudges, when we disagree we walk away instead of working through conflict.  However it manifests, pride leads to broken hearts, broken relationships, broken lives.  Pride breaks us, but God takes our brokenness and re-forms it to greater things;  things we never imagined.
Is there a place of pride in your life right now?  or a place of brokeness?  Is God calling you out of that to something greater?  Take a moment, as the band plays and reflect.  Examine yourself, and when you are ready, come forward.  You can take a swing at the bricks here, and then pick up two pieces.  One you can carry home, the other I invite you to arrange on the table as an offering to God.

Together with God, let us build beauty from brokenness.

A Letter for the Class of 2011 (or a shameless crib of Philippians)

I have to commend the class of 2011 for their taste. They chose our scripture for today and I can think of few things more appropriate to graduation Sunday than Philippians.  It is some of Paul’s best work; a letter full of joy and hope and love.  It is also a letter of goodbye.

Paul is in prison.  He is clear several times that his trial, and probably his death, are eminent.  So he writes to a people who loved him and supported him–a people he holds in his heart–to give them last things; to say, whether i see you again or not,remember this, hold in to these things.

So, if i may be so bold, I’d like to offer a letter for our graduates, in the Spirit–and occasionally  the words– of Paul.

From the Chapelwood family,  servants of Christ, to the graduates of 2011 as God guides you into the world.

We love you. We watched you grow up, some over the last 4 years some, all your lives. We worried over you and prayed over you. We’ve been blessed to see God in you.

Though sad to see you go, we know a good work is going on in you. And we know God, who began it, leads you in to the world now to complete it. Hold us in your heart.  God knows we will always hold you in ours.

We pray your love will overflow.  More and more each day, let love guide you to grow in knowledge and wisdom.  Learn from it what truly matters in life.

That isn’t easy.     Even in the church, where we are to glorify Christ, sometimes rivalries creep in, factions develop.  Sometimes when we disagree, we do it badly.  We know we’ve shown you that beloved, and we’re sorry.  If you were hurt by it, forgive us.  Try to see only, how much we wanted you to know Jesus.  Remember us proclaiming Christ in many ways, and rejoice in that.

Remember and outdo us.  Live lives worthy of the gospel of Christ. Make us proud whether we are there to see it  or not.

If there is any encouragement, any love or counsel we can give you as you go, it is this: Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit. In humility treat others as better than yourselves. Don’t look to your own interests, but to the interests of others. In short See the world as Jesus saw it.

Hopefully we taught you that.  So many people supported you here.  We played games, made crafts, taught Sunday school and choir.  We laughed we preached, we built wheel chair ramps and painted houses, all so you would know the love of Christ.  Take charge of that faith.  Own it, contemplate it, work it out with the honor and dedication it deserves.  God is at work in you, every good thing you do springs from there.

Never forget that, and always, always, rejoice in the Lord.  Like Paul, you may have great success in life. Like Paul, you may lose everything. But If you gain Christ, it is worth it. If you learn to hold fast in the Spirit, it is worth it.  If you experience and share the love of God it    Is   Worth it.

None of us is perfect.  But as you work through the stages of your life, don’t waste time on regrets.  Leave temptations behind you, forget the roads not taken, strain forward to the kingdom God has in store.

True, not everyone lives like this, today.  You will meet many people whose minds are set on earthly things; they glory in shameful deeds, their God is greed, and their end is destruction.

But we look to Christ, who is our glory and our end.

Therefore, graduates rejoice, Rejoice, REJOICE in the Lord always; and again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone.

Know that God is with you always. Do not worry about anything, but take everything to God in prayer. Offer your joys and concerns; though you may not understand everything, the peace of God, come to your heart and mind.

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable,whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Live the lessons you learned here.

We are so   very   proud of you and– though this isn’t the last time we’ll see you– we’ll miss you while your gone.  Go with the peace of God.  Find joy, find love. Be who you were meant to be. And remember, you can do all things through Christ who strengthens you.

May God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his richness. To God be glory forever and ever. Amen.

The Gravity of Faith

A sermon on Hebrews 11:1-3,8-16 (with some help from Firefly)


I had an, flamboyant, friend in college who was known to say, “this is me, get in orbit”.  [hand motion] Actually, sometimes it was just the hand motion.  And I discovered in telling this story recently, that I might be alone in finding it absolutely hilarious.  This might be because I remember his face, his voice, his stance…maybe you just had to be there.  Or it might be that along with his face pops to mind all these images of strange drawings and outrageous models of geocentric universes.
geocentric universe model
For millennia people believed Earth stood at the center of the universe, and they conceptualized this in many different ways, reaching their climax in medieval Europe.  they tended to look like this.

I mean look at that, is complicated and delicate, and absurd and beautiful.  And at the center of it all: us. [hand motion]
Then along came Copernicus and Galileo.  They thought the universe looked more like this.

Heliocentric UniverseBut no one was eager to listen.  They believed in the old system.
They misplaced the center.  To be fair no one was talking about mass or gravity yet.  They didn’t realize the Earth could not sustain that field of influence.  That with Earth at the center, everything would spin off. Or maybe they just weren’t reading enough Hebrews.  This book is all about finding the center.

We all have to have a center.  We need one, it’s in our nature.  The writer of Hebrews knows this, and has just spent 10 chapters establishing Christ as the only center.  He’s been building to this point.  Here he shifts and begins to make the cast for faith in God.

If you’ve ever written a term paper, you might recognize v.1-3.  They’re a thesis statement.  The rest of the chapter, really the rest of the book are riffs on this melody.  It reads a little like Merriam-Webster, but it isn’t so much a definition as it is a sketch, or a lavishly painted portrait of faith.

When I first read this text, I was reminded of a more modern portrait.  One I’ve watched many times on DVD.  Firefly was a short lived television show on Fox.  In this clip we meet two people.  River is a genius on the order of DiVinci.  She is incredibly intelligent, but slightly damaged.  Book is a preacher and nomadic monk.  They are traveling together in a larger group and Book is looking after River for the day.


“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.  indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval.”  It’s about believing in something bigger than yourself and letting that belief be real enough to change your life…       This is more than an affirmation, this is a radical centering that anchors our lives in a larger story, and drives us to action.

Faith anchors us in a story; it grounds our experience in a larger context.  Despite what celebrity publicist would have you believe, the notion of a autobiography is fairly absurd.  You can never truly tell the story of your own life; partly because by the time the story is finished you’re dead, but mostly because a life has no meaning in isolation.  The interconnections, our interactions render our lives intelligible.   It is the forces that shape us and the ways we in turn shape others that reveal the truth of who we are.  Our small story must have context.

The story Hebrews’ author tells is a grand one.  Beginning with Abel, he walks, patriarch by patriarch, forward through the history of God’s people.  In essence the author is saying, these stories, this story, is our story.  We are not alone.  This Christianity is not a new idea, but an ancient faith stretching back to the foundations of the world.  It sets us as a people, and as individuals, in an enormous context.

The section we heard lingers over Abraham, making he and Sarah archetypes of faith.  We see here the beginning of our story.  God makes a promise to Abram and Sarai that becomes the foundation for God’s special relationship with Israel. That promise will not be fulfilled for generations, but still it becomes a grounding for their hope.

On the strength of that hope alone, the reading says, “he set out, not knowing where he was going”.  See that’s the interesting thing.  Faith will ground you, but it never leaves you where you are.   Faith in God, always, inevitably and continually drives you to your neighbor.  It has too, because that is our story.  It can be summed up so simply, “Love God, Love your neighbor as yourself”, yet it has played out across ages and it will keep playing out till the kingdom fully come, because  it is profoundly powerful.

And it just keeps pushing.

Faith drives you onward, maybe even to places you didn’t expect.  Hopefully it brought you here today.  Where is it pushing you next?  Is it to learn more about God?  Is it into ministry at Chapelwood: teaching children, or welcoming newcomers, or shepherding stewardship?  Is it pressing you out to fight hunger, or carry Christ into the prisons?  Faith is dynamic.  When we center our lives as Abram did, we will be grounded.  We will also be led.

As humans, our lives must have a center. We need to be anchored in a story, we need a force to drive us.  We must have faith in something.  But something, can be anything.

What is the object of your faith?  What is your center?  Since we’re sitting in church, the right answer must be God, but is that the correct answer?  What does your life revolve around?  Why do you go to work?  What do you do in your free time?  What is your last thought at night?  What gets you out of bed in the morning?        That is where your faith lies.

Heliocentric UniverseIn modern language faith is an easy word.  We use it for many things.  But faith as Hebrews uses it can have only one object, one focus, one anchor, one driving force. And faith in God, real faith, the kind of faith that fixes you forces us to admit, we are not the center of our lives.  You are not the center of your life.  You are not its author or director.  You aren’t its main object; it’s not about you.  And that is a very good thing.

geocentric universe modelWe cannot successfully be the center of our lives.  Nor can money, or power, or family, or work, or even service for its own sake.  We may place those things at the center.  But none of them generate the kind of gravity real faith requires.  Like the Earth, they simply cannot sustain that field of influence without things spinning off.

There is only one true center,  one Son.  When that is the focus of our faith, how wondrous will be our orbit.  It may not always be easy,  there will certainly be darkness, but our path is a fixed one.  God led Abram to the promise land, he brought the Israelites back over and over.  He overcame death and carried God’s people through countless persecutions worldwide.  God will not give out on you–not now, not ever.  Through faith God will sustain us to the fulfillment of God’s promises.

That is the full gravity of faith.  Anchored in the story of God’s expansive love, we are sent forth to our neighbors, to our world.  That is the promise and the call of Hebrews.  That is a belief big enough to change your life.  That is the assurance of things hoped for, and the conviction of things not yet seen.  That is truly what it means to be a faithful people of God.