Five verses God has tattooed on my heart: #5 Ephesians 2:10

Ephesians 2:8-9 is a passage I have often turned to for a tight summary of the evangelical doctrine of justification by faith: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God — not the result of works so that no one may boast.” What I love about these two verses is that they explain why we need to be saved by faith and not works: so that no one may boast. When Christians are prideful about their salvation, that means it hasn’t worked. But it’s actually the verse after these two that God has really tattooed on my heart in the last year. Continue reading

Eucharist is how Jesus makes love to His church

jesus water blood
Hear me out; I’m not trying to be offensive. Several weeks ago, I listened to a podcast from Bruxy Cavey in which he said that we need to reclaim the phrase making love. We shouldn’t be offended by talking about sex; we should be offended by the desecration of sex. I preached one of the worst sermons I’ve ever preached this past Saturday because I couldn’t muster the courage to come out and say directly what I felt called to say: that Eucharist is to the church what sex is to a marriage. Living without either is about equally bearable. Continue reading

Monday Merton 4.8.2013

I’m going to start spending Mondays on my blog with Thomas Merton since I’ve been deeply influenced by several of his books. Merton was a Trappist monk who spent most of each day in prayer; his words are rich and beautiful and liberating. Because he is from a different generation and lived only with men, he doesn’t use gender-inclusive language, so I apologize for that distraction. Because he was evangelizing a secular intellectual audience, he doesn’t always fortify his paragraphs with scriptural proof-texts. This will make it difficult to accomplish my purpose, which is to evangelize evangelicals out of some of the more poisonous aspects of our theology. Those of you who fall in that category will hear things you don’t like that will be easy for you to dismiss as “un-Biblical,” but I urge you to be open to what God might be saying to you through the words of someone who pursued God relentlessly. Continue reading

Relationships: Tools, Idols, and Foes or Family, Body, and Kingdom

This week’s sermon concluded our post-Christmas sermon series “Spiritual Not Religious” in which we were exploring some basic human longings that all people share whether they follow Jesus or not. This last week I preached about our innate human longing for relationships. I think this is the strongest longing we have. We make a lot of choices in life out of the need for authentic companionship. The question is whether our relationships are dysfunctional or healthy. In the first half of my sermon, I talk about tools, idols, and foes: three forms of unhealthy relationships in which we either try to get the other person to orbit around us, fall into another person’s orbit, or clash endlessly because neither one can overpower the other. The second half of my sermon discusses three metaphors for the structure God provides for us to have healthy relationships: the family of God, the body of Christ, and the kingdom that is created by the Holy Spirit.

Lance Armstrong and the need for grace

ILanceArmstrong_620_011513‘m not going to argue whether or not you should forgive Lance Armstrong or not for taking steroids and lying about it. To me, it’s a farce of the age of celebrity that we would even be asking ourselves that question anyway. It’s comical to read the online comments from people who are angry enough to use ALL-CAPS at some guy they will never know for doing things that had nothing to do with them. Because I’m a pastor, I am going to take this opportunity to say something about grace because Armstrong’s apology and the cynical reaction to it in the media really do illustrate why we need a human community that is grounded in forgiveness. Continue reading

Unity in the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:1-16)

As part of our celebration of World Communion Sunday this weekend at Burke United Methodist Church, we had as our guest preacher Pastor Medardo Serrano of the Centro de Formacion Gran Comision, a Hispanic congregation that meets in our church building. I translated for Medardo, so I wanted to share some of the points that he made in his sermon along with a little bit of my own commentary. The text he preached from was Ephesians 4:1-16. The topic was “walking in Christian unity.” Medardo split the text into three parts: the attitudes that create unity (vv. 1-3), the doctrines of unity (vv. 4-6), and the diversity within the unity (vv. 7-16).

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Communion: when we “become” the Bible

This morning we kicked off our 8:30 am Wednesday morning prayer service for the fall. Basically what we do is listen to God through various means of prayer: liturgical, silent, extemporaneous, etc. We close by lifting up the concerns of the church. My favorite part happens in the middle when we read a scripture, meditate in silence, and then speak as the Spirit leads. It was during this time today that my sister Jacque said something that blew my mind. Continue reading

Becoming the righteousness of God (2 Cor 5:17-21)

17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. [2 Corinthians 5:17-21] Continue reading

Survivor vs. the Body of Christ

Sermon for 9/18/2010
Text: 1 Timothy 2:1-7

So I decided to do my first multimedia sermon. The reason why is that the show Survivor illustrates very well how to live the opposite way from how we’re called to live in the body of Christ. In Survivor, the goal is to vote everybody else off the island so that you can win the million dollar prize for yourself. In the body of Christ, the goal is to get as many people as possible to stay on the island to share the prize that is worth more than any dollar amount – communion with God. And yet so often, we live in the body of Christ as though we’re playing Survivor.

Today’s scripture calls us away from our Survivor mentality by instructing us to concern ourselves with the wellbeing of all people, because God wants for everyone to be saved. This statement articulates of what Methodist founder John Wesley called prevenient grace, the fact that God has not only opened a door for humanity to be saved but that He is actively pursuing each and every one of us with His love. In each of our lives from the beginning, God has been using relationships and experiences to draw us closer to Him.

1 Timothy 2 makes the connection between God’s desire for all people to know Him and our responsibility as the body of Christ whom God uses every day in the lives of other people. Christ is the one mediator between God and humanity, but those of us who believe in Him become part of His body and part of His process. God’s prevenient grace doesn’t just happen through meteor showers and private devotional time. When we give our lives to God, we get to be part of how God shares His grace with other people. The question is whether we really do this or not. If God is rooting for everybody to win, then why are we trying to vote each other off the island?

So let’s take a look at Survivor. It’s a game that requires being a master manipulator. You want to present yourself to be as agreeable and funny and laid back as possible while all the time plotting about how to make other people look bad so they’ll get voted off. The strategies vary. [Video clips of survivor contestants introducing themselves]. Matthew presents himself as self-confident and charming, Na Onka calls herself a chameleon ready to change her personality at the drop of a hat, Alina wants to get people to trust her so she can use their secrets against them, and Jimmy Johnson is trying to use reverse psychology by talking about how much people hate him.

The first person voted off this season was a woman named Wendy. She was the least hip of all the characters. The incident that seemed to turn her tribe against her was when she made the mistake of taking hygiene too seriously. Wendy is like those people who pull out the Book of Discipline during church meetings, who insist on praying before everything that they do, who want the praise songs to be based on the Bible and the sermons too. I have a word for it when my wife Cheryl acts that way. I tell her she’s being a Girl Scout.

I feel a lot of solidarity with Wendy because of her goofiness. She was probably one of those kids who got straight A’s in school but couldn’t master the subtleties of getting people to laugh at her jokes. I know what that’s like. I tend to sympathize with the nerds because I got picked on as a kid. But God gave me those experiences as part of His prevenient grace in my life. He made me the kid who didn’t fit in to shape me into a pastor who would spend my life seeking out people who don’t fit in and sharing God’s love with them.

While the world tends to have little patience for people like Wendy, the church is supposed to be a place where we put extra emphasis on making sure that people like Wendy feel welcomed, affirmed, and empowered. The Bible says in many places that if we’re not doing that, if we’re just playing Survivor: Jesus Edition, then we’re mocking God when we sing about how much we love Him.

At the same time, 1 Timothy 2 doesn’t just say that God wants the loners and outsiders to be saved; He desires everyone to be saved. God has a place in His kingdom for the jocks and preps who made my life miserable in middle school. Just because I hate the Dallas Cowboys doesn’t mean I get to vote Jimmy Johnson off God’s island. Just because that contestant Matthew is cocky, successful, good-looking, and rich, doesn’t mean that God doesn’t love him too.

So what would we do if the Survivor characters we just met on the screen walked through the doors of our church? How does the knowledge that God wants everybody to be saved shape our actions and how we receive other people? God doesn’t just want agreeable people to be saved. God wants for us to welcome the people who are the hardest to get along with, whether it’s because they think too highly of themselves, because they talk too much, because they’re sticklers for details, or because they’re clingy and emotionally needy. In fact, sometimes God puts high maintenance people in our lives in order to save us. Because the messier our lives get from dealing with other peoples’ drama, the more we have to ask for help and the more we are liberated from the delusion that we don’t need Jesus.

Now I know we have to be careful about our boundaries with needy people. We can run ourselves ragged by being way too available for others. We can get stuck in codependency when we try to substitute our need for Jesus with a need for other people to need us. But too often in today’s churches, we err in the opposite direction. Church becomes Survivor, and we look around for people to vote off the island. It makes sense that we do this, because churches are filled with people who are opinionated and passionate about their beliefs but hate open conflict with others.

So we form alliances just like they do on Survivor. For those of you who are unfamiliar, characters on Survivor make secret pacts with one another to gang up on other characters they perceive as good targets to vote off the island. The sin that is more prevalent in church than any other is gossip. If somebody on a particular committee or in a particular ministry with us is getting on our nerves, we go and find an ally to whom we can “vent” our frustrations or “seek advice” about how to handle our conflict, and this can easily turn into a full-blown character assassination.

Now this is tricky because I don’t think that it’s possible in a community like a church to avoid talking about other people behind their backs. We have goals we’re trying to accomplish which require collaboration, prayer, and asking for advice when we run into obstacles. Actually, 1 Timothy 2 commands us to talk about other people behind their backs, but by making “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings,” not by attacking them.

So here’s the key distinction: we’re not just called to think about what’s good for the organization and vote people off the island who seem to create problems for other people. If we pursued that line of thinking to its logical conclusion, we would end up with an empty sanctuary. God’s purpose is that everyone should be saved, which doesn’t mean just making a profession of faith and having some water sprinkled on our heads, but actually discovering the gifts we were created with and finding the place in the body of Christ where we fit.

So when we’re dealing with people who talk too much or seem too fragile or have an anger management problem, what we should be thinking about is not how we can rally other people to vote them off the island but how God is working in their lives and how we can honor God’s goal of bringing them to full salvation and a perfect integration into the body of Christ.

And consider this too: we might be the problem! We’ve probably got some things about ourselves that make us difficult to get along with. When the Bible says God wants everybody to be saved, it doesn’t mean that God wants everybody to be converted to my opinion. If I’m just trying to manipulate people into agreeing with me, it doesn’t matter how nice, agreeable, and soft-spoken I am, I’m not building the body of Christ; I’m playing Survivor.

Rather than worrying about who’s the problem, what we need to do is to approach every conversation with every person who walks into this community with the goal that they would know how much God loves them and how valuable they are to the body of Christ. The more that we do that, the more we learn that it is a gift to have the privilege of sharing God’s love with other people.

So let us remember the many ways in which God has intervened in our lives to draw us onto this island that is communion with Him. That’s what prevenient grace is. God’s been walking with us for a long time, just like we talked last week about Jesus walking with Cleopas to Emmaus. But the best part of prevenient grace is this: when we let God make us into vessels of His love, we get to be part of how God flows into the lives of other people. And the island gets bigger and bigger.