The Whats and the Whys

Was Jesus a marginal Jew? There is a book out called “A Marginal Jew” that suggests that Jesus may have been a bit loose with Jewish tradition, that perhaps he was on the outside liberal fringe of the faith.

Our tradition holds that the Law is honorable, that Jesus rightly divided the word of truth, and that even by the standards of his earthly day, Jesus was a perfect example of pious faith.

I think it was his society, and not Jesus himself, that was marginal. No authority held the Jewish faith together, so it had factions, and sects. The Pharisees tried to control the scripture, and the Saducees controlled the Temple. And none of this happened except that as it could be tolerated by a Roman ruling class that was itself officially pagan. Nielssen was right when he said that a point in every direction is the same as no point at all. The chaos of Palestine in Jesus’ day is a lot like what we call a secular society.

I also think that Jesus was a perfectly orthodox, kosher Jew. That is, I believe that Jesus kept himself ritually clean. I believe he was a faithful student of the scripture and a regular attender at synogog. While it may also fulfill prophecy that Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey, I also have no doubt that Jesus, as a product of ordinary human learning, knew full well that Zecharia said the Messiah would do that..

In that era of Roman occupation, Jesus was actually one of a handful of public figures rumored to be the Messiah. You may recall people asking if John the Baptist were the Messiah, and there were revolutionaries in that role as well.

I can just imagine that poor street vendor. “Hey! Where ya goin with my donkey?” “The Master hath need of it.” “Aye, another Master. The Messiah comes, does he? Oy Vey! Well, take the poor donkey, they’re all humble skinny lots anyway. Here, take her colt, too. The colt will cry without her mother, anyway.”

I can imagine that entering Jerusalem on a donkey might become a rowdy Passover tradition. But Jesus was surrounded by disciples and people who had heard of his miracles. John says they were in a frenzy over the resurrection of Lazarus. Jesus mounted the donkey on the Mount of Olives, which is of course where the scripture says the Messiah will come from. And as the road widens closer to the city these mobs were lining the road, casting palm branches and cloaks to carpet the path.

It is on this short journey that Jesus declares that if you silence the crowds, the rocks and stones will cry out. On this short journey, Jesus stops to weep over a mountain view of Jerusalem. Our accounts of Jesus’ life are so few and so brief that we have latched onto this journey, named it Palm Sunday, and use it to prepare for Easter, the holiest day in our faith. It has all the appeal of a fanfare to the first act of a play. We know there is dark tragedy between here and final victory, so we have this interim celebration, this Palm Sunday, to hopefully take us through the dark moments of the final act.

At the end of this road, Jesus enters the Temple and casts out the vendors and moneychangers. And the scripture tells us that he went on to teach every day in the temple for the next several days.

How could anyone without civil or religious authority enter the temple, trash the vendor mall, and still manage to teach in the Temple day after day? We know the authority of a resurrected Christ; the people in that day did not. All the authorities saw was a rowdy band of followers. No one wanted to risk a riot by upsetting that motley crew. On the other hand, Jesus was willing to die, and there is only one way to stop a man who is willing to die.

Jesus went to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. Our scripture from Luke on the last supper tells us how he had longed to celebrate This Passover with his disciples. I like the NIV, not usually, but on this scripture, because it tells us they reclined at the table. I looked it up — I wouldn’t know without looking it up — and I find that where King James says he sat and the Revised Standard says he took his place, the Greek word is AnaPepto, which means to recline.

By Mosaic Law, Jews would have gotten all yeast products out of their houses for a full seven days before Passover. As the eldest son, Jesus probably fasted the second day before Passover, to commemorate God’s grace on the firstborn of Israel as the angel of death took the firstborn of Egypt.

As a child, Jesus may have asked or answered something like the four Seder questions that our children went over this morning. I can almost see children in that Upper Room early in the evening, asking Jesus and his disciples questions: “Why do we eat bitter herbs this night? Why do you recline at the table this night?”

Passover is all about passing the story of deliverance from Egyptian from Generation to Generation. The Seder meal is designed to make children ask, “Why? Why?” I can almost hear someone asking Judas, “Why do we dip our foods in the bowl on this night?” Passover is for children, and since our account of the last supper includes no children, this meal may have included just some of the ancient traditions, those that held meaning for Jesus and his followers.

Four glasses of wine are poured during the Seder. They represent Freedom, Deliverance, Redemption and Release. A fifth cup is poured for Elijah. The door is left open, and some families set a place for Elijah. As I said, I envision Jesus as a Kosher Jew who ministered in a marginally Jewish world. Knowing what he knew, he might have skipped setting a place for Elijah that night.

Our account in Luke recalls two cups. Jesus took the cup — which cup? Freedom? Deliverance? Was this the cup of Redemption? Or, since he would not drink of it until he drank it new in God’s Kingdom, maybe it was the cup of Release. We don’t know.

Then, after the supper, he took the cup — maybe they just had one large cup. It was probably the same cup, and I imagine sharing a large cup to taste a fine wine was not uncommon practice. But this was the cup of the New Covenant, in his Blood, poured out for us.

I think Jesus started that night with a cup in the old tradition. Freedom, Deliverance, Redemption, Release … They all work. Pick your favorite. But he ended with a new cup, the cup of the New Covenant in his blood, poured out for us.

Why? Why is this a New Covenant? Why was his blood poured out for us? Why did he say the bread was his body? How can a person be born again? Why did he quote scripture from the cross?

In scripture, God speaks to all of humankind using broad strokes. He frees a people from Egypt and inspires their priests to record it in writing. He gives a people a set of rules and reminders, and a nation rises and falls not so much on obedience to those rules as on an ability to understand Why those rules exist.

Time and time again, old traditions are reborn into new. Passover was celebrated even while the Jews were in Babylonian Exile, and it was renewed in detail when they returned to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple. Accounts of the Passover are found in 17 books of the Bible, spanning through time as the nation of Israel returns to tradition for strength in uncertain times. The nation remained a nation while it had no land at all, because each year the faithful raised their glasses to toast, “Next year, in Israel…”

Why do we draw new strength from old traditions? Should we? Are we putting new wine in old bottles?

We have a rich tradition. We have the tradition of the Gospel, and in Christ, we are grafted into the traditions of his People. Our scripture, our scrapbooks, our stories of long ago are so rich with meaning that one lifetime cannot find it all. Each generation finds new meaning in the old stories. That’s how it works with a God who’s ability to speak exceeds our ability to listen.

Tradition can be lifeless. If we stop asking why, it can lose its meaning. The Pharisees had more tradition than everyone else, and they followed tradition to the letter. But Jesus saw their faith as cold and lifeless. They were big on what, and short on why.

Why do we wash our hands so often? Why do we respect the sabbath? Why do we wear tassles on our garments? We say that the devil is in the details. I think the Word of God is in the details of the Torah, and the Talmud — and probably not in some of the other documents the Pharisees might have used. Imagine two ultra-orthodox Jews. One says, “What?” and the other says, “Why?” The one who says “What” surrounds himself with the traditions of his fathers. The one who says Why surrounds himself with reminders of God’s great love and clues to greater mysteries.

In his mercy, God might have brought us to the feet of Buddha, or to the Egyptian Sun God RA, or to the fires of Baal. But he didn’t. Look around you. The grace of God has brought you to the story of Jesus. That’s your tradition. He is the vine, and we are the branches, our God is his God, and that of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This God loves to forgive. This God created everything. This God abolished human sacrifice. This God rules in love, not in anger. This God sets the captives free. This God has always been This God.

This God is what Christ has given us. But Christ gives him to us as a Father. As a Father? As Abba Daddy? Why? Is this the God of the Pharisee, the God of the Saducee, the God of Herod? This is Yahweh! The Great I Am! All these people pointed to the same God, and they all had the same tradition of written knowledge about that God. They all celebrated the same flight from Egypt at Passover. They all knew the What. But what is the question of Passover? WHY? Why did God free us from Egypt? Why did Moses give us the Law? Why does this man have to die?

We all know, roughly, what we’re doing. We’re celebrating Palm Sunday. We’re saluting Passover. We know what Easter is, and what we will be doing for Easter. I think we all know the What. You want to really live this Easter, do something different? For every what, ask why?

Seems like long ago I sat for a first talk with our Regional Minister, Bill Morrison, to get started on licensing. He ask me what I planned to do, and I told him. Then, after he understood What I wanted to do, he just asked, “Why?”

I rattled off a bunch of whats — well, my Grampa was a preacher, and I’m a pretty good public speaker, and I can write, and I’m going to school — and Rev. Morrison just nods and smiles. Doesn’t say a word. I don’t get the feeling that he has his answer yet. I’m sitting there thinking that even as cool as I am, there’s an actual possibility that I won’t have this man’s blessing. So my heart blurts out, “I simply must! I know what Jesus has done for me, and I just have to talk about it!” Apparently, that was the “why” he was looking for.

I love the Whats of tradition. I love my Grampa, and all the years he’s been preaching. I love the old King James Bible, and the Good News Bible, and I love old country Gospel music.

But it’s the Whys of tradition that change your life. Why is Grampa still preaching after 53 years? Why do I love the old King James Bible? Why do I love old Gospel music? Because that’s how good God IS! We need the Whats to get us started, to remind us of the story, but it’s the Whys that will change your life right now!

We know the whats, and that’s good. There is a lot of love packed in all the whats. They all have meaning, and the people who gave them to us wanted us to have all that meaning, too. But we won’t find the meaning if we don’t ask, “Why?” If the Why I preach is because I love God, then I’ll learn to love God whether I’m preaching or not.

And you know, a lot of times I don’t know what’s what. If I even thought I could tell Disciples of Christ what to think, they’d toss me out on my ear. So let me just encourage you to ask, Why? Why is Jesus called the Passover Lamb? In First Corinthians 5 Paul said to that church, “Don’t you know that a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough? Get rid of the old yeast that you may be a new batch without yeast – as you really are. For Christ, our Passover Lamb, has been sacrificed. Therefore, let us keep the Festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness, but with bread without yeast, the bread of sincerity and truth.”

Is this new wine in an old bottle? Is Paul trying to squeeze the new wine of Jesus into the old bottle of Passover? No. Rather, there is truth in the Passover story, and Paul is saying that for him Christ is a part of that truth. Passover is about Freedom, Deliverance, Redemption and Release. Passover is about new beginnings.

In Christ, we have our new beginning, our Passover. We have a path to God’s forgiveness that we can understand. We have our own story of Redemption and Release, but it is the same salvation provided by the same loving God.

And so with Paul I say, let us keep the Festival, the Passover. Let us get rid of the old yeast and become a new batch of dough. And let our Festival be something more than a collection of traditional stories. You can make Easter a personal, life-changing event if you will just look at each tradition and ask, “Why?” “Why?”

Pastor says knowing the right questions is as important as knowing the answers. So let me leave you with a question that always works: Why? We are God’s children, and God has filled our worlds with reasons to ask, “Why?” The question is not an expression of doubt, but a seeking after the Kingdom of God. Seek ye first the Kingdom of God. Begin your search by asking, “Why?” The answers may surprise you. I am certain that they will inspire you. Because I am confident that the question will be answered directly by God, and directly to your heart. And that will change everything.

The Spiritual Food Pyramid

Today, I’d like to talk about food. Actually, I’d rather be eating than talking, but I don’t see anyone bringing in covered dishes. Let me suggest that if you like short sermons, you should organize more covered dish luncheons. The smell of food, and the sight of people setting up casseroles on a banquet table, tends to make me hurry through a sermon.

But I don’t see any casseroles walking in this morning, so just settle back. Let us hear the word of God:

(Isaiah 55:1-2)

Without food, life itself would be impossible. Everything that breathes also eats. But Jesus did not think about food the way we do. He knew it was important, so he used food as an illustration over and over again. Jesus knew how to get our attention.

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said we should take no thought for our life, for what we should eat or what we should drink. God knows we need food and drink, he said, and God will provide these things. All of us, from the richest to the poorest, will have enough to eat today.

Instead, Jesus said, seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things – food, drink, and clothing – will be given to us.

One day, the Pharisees told Jesus to rebuke his disciples, because they were eating grain from a field and had not washed their hands. To the Pharisees, ceremonial washing before meals was a spiritual exercise. But Jesus said it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles us, but what comes out of the mouth is what defiles us. Because what comes out of our mouths – that is, what we say – reveals what is in our hearts.

It’s funny to read this in the gospel of Mark. There, early Christians added in parenthesis that in saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean. I believe every word of the Bible is true. In this case, I think the truth is that those early Christians missed the point. Jesus was not saying that any food was clean, or dirty. He was saying that food is not important, compared to what is in our hearts, and what we say. Jesus was always trying to turn our attention away from the world and toward the Kingdom of God.

The FDA food pyramid, from top to bottom, goes from foods we should eat sparingly – like fats and candy – to foods we should eat more of – like bread and pasta. I think the Atkins Diet would chop off the bottom of the food pyramid.

So let’s consider the spiritual food pyramid. I will start with things we should eat sparingly, and end with things we should enjoy to the fullest.

At the top of my spiritual food pyramid is pride. Pride is a vegetable. I know that because it doesn’t do anything; it just grows bigger and tries to impress us. Pride is also a bitter fruit, so you don’t want to chew it. Pride is best swallowed whole. So if you don’t want to choke on pride, you should swallow it while it is small. It is, after all, easier to swallow a grape than a watermellon.

Pride is a sin that looks like a virtue. We are taught to take pride in ourselves, pride in our appearance, pride in our accomplishments. But pride so often gets in the way. Pride stops us from asking for help when we really need it. Pride is what keeps men from going to the doctor. It makes us hurt our backs, because we are so proud of our strength, and too proud to ask for help.

Pride is one of those evil things that comes out of the mouth, Jesus said. The apostle Paul told Timothy, his preacher in training, not to put new Christians in positions of leadership, because they would get puffed up with pride and misuse their power. John, the beloved disciple, said that the lust of the eyes and the pride of life is not of the Father, but of the world, and the world passes away. And James, the brother of Jesus, reminds us that God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.

So let us swallow our pride every day, before it grows too big. Let us put God first and put others ahead of ourselves. Let us never be too proud to ask for help, too proud to learn, or too proud to admit our mistakes.

And that takes us to the next level of my spiritual food pyramid. Some people think this is my favorite spiritual food group, because I eat so much of it. It is not my favorite food, but when a food is plentiful, we tend to eat more of it. The next level of my spiritual food pyramid is crow. We should learn not to crow so much – that is, not to boast about ourselves, about our future, or about our accomplishments. Because the more we crow, the more we will have to eat crow.

When we crow, we are putting ourselves ahead of others. We are taking attention away from someone else and putting it on ourselves. A rooster has a mighty crow, but he’s really just a chicken with an attitude.

The rooster crows like he owns the world, but the eagle barely makes a sound. The eagle spends more time listening than screeching. The eagle is listening for the rooster’s crow, so she will know where the chickens are. The rooster crows to make himself look important. But if he were protecting the chickens, he would spend less time crowing and more time listening for hawks and eagles.

So the best we can do is to learn not to crow so much. If we swallow our pride sooner, we won’t have so much to crow about. But if we do crow – if we brag and boast – the best we can do is to admit our mistakes, deliver our apologies, and eat our crow. So, if we can’t stop crowing, we’ll just have to learn to pick feathers out of our teeth. After you’ve swallowed your pride, eat your crow, every day.

Now we’re getting to the fat side of our spiritual food pyramid. At the base of our food pyramid are the spiritual foods that we should eat in abundance. Next on the pyramid is the Word of God.

If we don’t know what the Word of God says, how much impact does it have on the world? Are the pagans reading the Word? They may talk about it, but they don’t really read it. Unfortunately, neither do we.

The prophet Ezekiel was told to eat a scroll, then speak to the people. In the Revelation of John, an angel tells him to eat a little book, then write what he sees. These are symbolic of what we must do. The Old Testament was written on a scroll. The New Testament is a little book. Like Ezekiel, like John, we as Christians are to educate ourselves on what the Word of God says, then share it with the world by making it a part of our lives.

It is a minister’s job to study the Word of God and share it with the people. As Christians, we are ministers to the world of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. If you are a Christian, you are called to this ministry. We cannot do the will of God until we know what it is. In my longest sermon, I don’t have time to tell you all that God says, and I don’t know enough about you to decide how it applies to your life. If I could accomplish just one thing in my ministry, it would be to convince everyone to read the Word of God for themselves. God says it better than I ever will.

Now, we’re at the bottom of our spiritual food pyramid. Here is the most important spiritual food we have, the very foundation of our Christian lives. John said that Jesus was the Word made flesh. Jesus said that he is the Bread of Life, and the fountain of Living Water.

Those who drink deeply from the fountain of God’s grace revealed in Jesus Christ will never thirst again. Jesus himself is the foundation of our spiritual food pyramid. His words, his life, his example, his spiritual presence in our lives – these are the bread and butter of our spiritual lives.

God gave us physical signs, then spoken laws, then written scriptures, to help us live in his kingdom. His final revelation was to live among us, to give us an actual, historical life, in the form of Jesus Christ. Jesus himself is the last word. As he said on the cross, it is finished. He is the alpha and omega, the last word. If we would show the world the Father, God the creator, we must show them Jesus Christ, in history, and in our lives.

We swallow our pride, because it keeps us from relying on our king, Jesus Christ. We eat crow, because our crowing puts the attention on us, and takes it away from our king, Jesus Christ. We study the word, because it tells us about God and about our king, Jesus Christ. All these things matter only if they make Jesus the central driving force in our lives. Jesus is the Bread of Life, the fount of living water.

The point is not a set of rules, or a fancy sermon, or even a book of scripture. The point is a person, and that person is Jesus Christ.

You know, we tend to follow what we watch. Some of us watch a lot of television. Some of us watch the Internet. Some of us follow the crowd, or the latest news, or the stock market, or the next big rock star. Some of us follow our favorite preacher. But if we want to live in the Kingdom of God, we have to follow the king. Christ is the good shepherd, and he will not lead us astray.

Our hymn of the day is page 558, “Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us”. If Christ is not first in your life, if he is not your primary spiritual food, then let me invite you to step out of the ordinary world and into the glorious Kingdom of God.

Those who drink of this water will never thirst again. If you would receive Christ into your life, come forward as we sing today. If you would like to join our church, if you would like to walk with us in the Kingdom of God, come forward as we sing today. Please stand as we sing page 558, “Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us.”

Tropical Sands Christian Church – August 10, 2003

The Rest of The Christmas Story

We say we believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and we accept Him as Lord and Savior. Who is this Jesus? Christmas is right around the corner, and that means the World is about to knock on your door and ask you that question: “Who is this Jesus?”

To be honest, we aren’t certain what day Jesus was born, or even exactly what year. The early church used ancient Winter and Spring holidays to spread the gospel. They used the Winter holiday to celebrate the birth of Jesus, and the Spring holiday to celebrate His resurrection.

As a result, we can reap where we have not planted. We can use the holiday to share the story, the whole story, of faith in Jesus Christ.

Each Christmas, the world peers through a frosted window at a cute baby snuggled in a warm manger with two loving parents and gentle animals. And some of them wonder, Who is this Jesus?

We know they are coming. They come every year, to this very church. And they bring with them five basic longings that are shared by all modern humans. We long for power, the power to change, and to change the world. We long for hope, hope of healing and recovery, hope for tomorrow. We long from freedom, from our own self-destructive behaviors and from the constant worry of modern life. We long for love, to be accepted and valued as we are. And, we long for purpose, asking for ourselves and for the world, what is the meaning of this life.

Now maybe we can’t give these things to people. But we know someone who can. We know Jesus, and the best we can do is to use this holiday, this festive, nostalgic party, to introduce people to Jesus. The World is looking for a baby in a Manger. They don’t know that the baby can also fulfull their deepest longings. And now, from John chapter 4, a Christmas story:

The Pharisees heard that Jesus was winning and baptizing more disciples than John. (Actually, Jesus himself did not baptize anyone; only his disciples did.) So when Jesus heard what was being said, he left Judea and went back to Galilee; on his way there he had to go through Samaria.

In Samaria he came to a town named Sychar, which was not far from the field that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by the trip, sat down by the well. It was about noon.

John 4:1-6

Away in a Manger, no room for His bed, The Little Lord Jesus Lay down His sweet head. The stars in the sky look down where He lay. The Little Lord Jesus Asleep on the hay.

The world knows all about that baby in a manger. But does the world know this tired Rabbi? He gets tired. He feels hunger, thirst and weariness, just like we do. And who would see the power in this tired, thirsty rabbi, resting at a well in Samaria? Could they see His power to change the world? Can they see it today? Our mission is to tell the world about the Power of Jesus.

A Samaritan woman came to draw some water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink of water.” (His disciples had gone into town to buy food.)

The woman answered, “You are a Jew, and I am a Samaritan — so how can you ask me for a drink?” (Jews will not use the same cups and bowls that Samaritans use.)

Jesus answered, “If you only knew what God gives and who it is that is asking you for a drink, you would ask him, and he would give you life-giving water.”

“Sir,” the woman said, “you don’t have a bucket, and the well is deep. Where would you get that life-giving water? It was our ancestor Jacob who gave us this well; he and his sons and his flocks all drank from it. You don’t claim to be greater than Jacob, do you?”

Jesus answered, “Whoever drinks this water will get thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring which will provide him with life-giving water and give him eternal life.”

John 4:7-14

What child is this who lay to rest
on Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom angels keep with anthems sweet
While shepherds watch are keeping.
This, This is Christ the King
Whom angels guard and anthems sing.
Haste, Haste to bring him laude,
The Babe, the son of Mary.

Who are you, Jesus? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who dug this well? At least the shepherds had Herald Angels singing, and the wise men had a star. What did this woman have to know who Jesus was? What about these longing, seeking people who will come through our doors? What do they know about who Jesus is? At least the woman at the well could talk to him face to face. Today, those who would meet Jesus face to face come here looking for him. For every person who walks through the church this Christmas, our mission is to show them the face of Jesus.

“Sir,” the woman said, “give me that water! Then I will never be thirsty again, nor will I have to come here to draw water.”

“Go and call your husband,” Jesus told her, “and come back.”

“I don’t have a husband,” she answered.

Jesus replied, “You are right when you say you don’t have a husband. You have been married to five men, and the man you live with now is not really your husband. You have told me the truth.”

John 4:15-18

Oh, come, all ye faithful,
Joyful and triumphant!
Oh come ye, oh come ye, to Bethlehem.
Come and behold Him,
born the King of Angels
Oh, come, let us adore Him.
Oh, come, let us adore Him.
Oh, come, let us adore Him.
Christ, the Lord!

Yes come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant. They have reason to celebrate! But what about those who are not so faithful? Those who have messed up. Those backsliders. Those outsiders. People like us. That babe in a manger grew up to get close to the outcast and the lost. He wasn’t content to leave them adoring Him from afar.

The Christmas story is more than the story of a miraculous birth. It is the story of a miraculous forgiveness. Mary loved her boy child, but God so loved the world that He sent His only begotten Son. Jesus accepted people in their sinful, fallen, unlovable state. While we were sinners, Christ died for us. Have we given up on anyone? Did Christ give up on any of us? Our mission is to bring lost sheep into the fold, to love the unlovable, to include the outcast. Our mission is to set the captives free with his mercy and forgiveness.

“I see that you are a prophet, sir,” the woman said. “My Samaritan ancestors worshiped God on this mountain, but you Jews say that Jerusalem is the place where should worship God.”

“Believe me, woman, the time will come when people will not worship the Father either on this mountain or in Jerusalem. You Samaritans do not really know whom you worship; but we Jews know whom we worship, because it is from the Jews that salvation comes. But the time is coming and is already here, when by the power of God’s Spirit people will worship the Father as he really is, offering him the true worship that he wants. God is Spirit, and only by the power of his Spirit can people worship him as he really is.”

John 4:19-24

Go, tell it on the mountain,
Over the hills and everywhere.
Go, tell it on the mountain,
That Jesus Christ is born.

Jews go to synagogue. Muslims go to mosque. Christians go to church. Isn’t that how it works? You go to your church, and I go to mine? But Jesus shows us God unfettered by buildings, or by prejudice, or by human tradition. The world knows how we segregate ourselves for church. But our savior went into an unclean land, and shared food and water with an outcast race. Does the world know the savior who isn’t afraid to be seen with “that kind of people”? Does the world know that Jesus loves in spirit and in truth, not in creed or color? Our mission is to love others as Jesus loves them, and as Jesus loves us.

The woman said to him, “I know that the Messiah will come, and when he comes, he will tell us everything.”

Jesus answered, “I am he, I who am talking with you.”

At that moment Jesus’ disciples returned; and they were greatly surprised to find him talking with a woman. But none of them said to her, “What do you want?” or asked him, “Why are you talking with her?”

Then the woman left her water jar, went back to the town, and said to the people there, “Come and see the man who told me everything I have ever done. Could he be the Messiah?” So they left the town and went to Jesus.

John 4:25-30

We three kings of Orient are,
Bearing gifts we travel so far
Field and fountain, moore and mountain
Following yonder star. 
Oh, star of wonder, star of light, 
Star with royal beauty bright, 
Westward leading, still proceeding, 
Guide us with thy perfect light.

Ah, now we have a miracle, a guiding star. Jesus convinced the woman, face to face, that he is the Messiah. Has he convinced you? Is there a miracle you can share to gather the villagers out to meet this man named Jesus? We will do all we can this Christmas season to help you share the story. There will be cookies, decorations, music and children. But it is your testimony that brings them in. Do you have a miracle? A changed life? The joy of salvation? The villagers will come to see Jesus because of what you say. Share the good news. Our mission is to bring the villagers here, to meet Jesus.

In the meantime, the disciples were begging Jesus, “Teacher, have something to eat!

But he answered, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.”

So the disciples started asking among themselves, “Could somebody have brought him food?”

“My food,” Jesus said to them, “is to obey the will of the one who sent me and to finish the work he gave me to do. You have a saying, ‘Four more months and then the harvest.’ But I tell you, take a good look at the fields; the crops are now ripe and ready to be harvested! The man who reaps the harves is being paid and gathers the crops for eternal life; so the man who plants and the man who reaps will be glad together. For the saying is true, ‘One man plants, another man reaps.’ I have sent you to reap a harvest in a field where you did not work; others worked there, and you profit from their work.”

Many of the Samaritans in that town believed in Jesus because the woman had said, “He told me everything I have ever done.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they begged him to stay there two days.

Many more believed because of his message, and they told the woman, “We believe now, not because of what you said, but because we ourselves have heard him, and we know that he really is the Savior of the world.”

John 4:31-42

Joy to the world, the Lord is come. 
Let Earth receive her King. 
Let every heart prepare Him room, 
And Heaven and nature sing. 
And Heaven and nature sing. 
And Heaven and Heaven and nature sing.

Yes, brothers and sisters, Joy to the World! Heaven rejoices over each and every lost sheep that returns to the fold. Bring them in, introduce them to Jesus, and let Jesus Himself convince them of the joyful good news of God’s Love.

This Christmas Holiday celebration like a precious gift that is beautifully giftwrapped. It has ribbon, and bows, and bells, and garlands, and it looks so beautiful under the tree, you want to leave it there forever.

But the real present is inside the wrapper! We all loved Christmas as children, but don’t you love it even more as a celebration of your savior? Wasn’t it wonderful to finally unwrap the present, to find that this faith is not just beautiful, but also fulfilling?

Jesus is the answer to those deep longings in the heart of Modern humankind. Jesus is the source of Power, of Hope, of Freedom, of Love, and of Purpose. Jesus really is the answer for the World today.

This Christmas, the world will knock at our door, as it does every year, to peer through that frosty window at the snugly baby in the manger. Let’s invite them in. Let them smell cookies, and fresh coffee, and hot cider. Let them hear old familiar carols and decorations of red and green.

And while they’re here enjoying the decorations, let’s take them one step further. Let’s introduce Christ through our love, and acceptance, and consideration. Let’s help them unwrap the present, to see that this Jesus is more than a baby in a Manger. He’s our brother, our savior, our teacher. He shows us a loving God who can fill the longings of our heart. Advent begins next week. Let’s us all work together to give the world the greatest gift anyone can give. Our mission this Christmas is to give our world the gift of Jesus.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.


Tropical Sands Christian Church – November 25, 2001

The Milk And the Meat

Oh LORD, my heart is not proud,
nor my eyes haughty;
Nor do I involve myself in great matters,
Or things too difficult for me.
Surely I have composed and quieted my soul;
Like a weaned child rests against his mother,
My soul is like a weaned child within me.
Oh Israel, hope in the LORD
From this time on and forever.

–Psalm 131 (NASB)

When Jesus’ followers ask Him who would be greatest among them, he placed in their midst a little child and said, “Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”

We know that mothers were eager to have Jesus bless their infants. But for his object lesson, he selected a little child, not an infant. Like the psalmist’s soul, this was a weaned child, one whose love for his mother is based more on love and less on need.

Peter told his readers to desire “the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby.” But Paul lamented that “I have fed you milk, and not with meat; for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able.”

The writer of Hebrews had the same lament. “For when for a time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat. For everyone that useth milk is unskilful in the word of righteousness: for he is a babe. But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.”

Interesting that discernment of good and evil is developed through exercising of the senses. It is a growth process, a graduation. But what’s the milk? The writer of Hebrews continues: “Therefore leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on unto perfection; not layuing again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God, of the doctrine of baptisms, and of laying on of hands; and of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment.”

Those are the fundamentals of the Christian faith: belief in Christ, repentance, faith in God, baptism, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment. These are just the starting point, and we need not rehash them over and over. The laying on of hands is active involvement: If your laying on of hands and prayer fails to heal a loved one, then your hands are still needed there. Eternal judgment? If you can’t accept another definition, try this one: When you’re dead, you can’t edit your earthly life. There are no replays. It will forevermore be the life it actually was.

There is a maturing process associated with the Christian faith. You start with the milk, filled with the wonder of forgiveness and salvation. Milk is good, but God doesn’t want you to stop there. He wants you to grow to become a partner in His work on earth. He wants you weaned from milk and moving on to the meat of the Gospel. The meat, I believe, is the kind of hands on, love thy neighbor activity that Christ endorsed. It is partnership with God. It is to become the body of Christ on earth.

There’s nothing wrong with milk, and we all need milk to grow. But let’s remember that, scripturally speaking, we are expected to mature in the faith. Let us accept the milk and move on to the meat. Let’s get on with the business of doing the good works that God has prepared for us to do.

The Master Plan

On July 6, 1958, a lay preacher named Charles Minton and an elder named Lawrence Calaway officiated at the first meeting of the Riviera Beach Christian Church. The scripture that day was Psalm 122. Today, as on that day, let us hear the word of the LORD:

Psalm 122

Please pray with me. Father, please help us to profess our faith, to proclaim your hope, and to practice the love of your Son, Jesus Christ. For it is in his name that we pray, amen.

You know, this place called Jerusalem was important to the house of Israel. King Solomon had built there the very House of the LORD. It was a gated city high on a hill, and it was a crown jewel of the Middle East. There was a time when the House of Israel would declare God’s love for them with a one word exclamation: JERUSALEM! Verse four calls Jerusalem the Testamony of Israel. It was a testament to God’s covenant with the House of Israel.

When Jesus walked the earth, it was Herod’s rebuilt temple. Saducees were the officials running the temple. Pharisees were the religious zealots insisting on their rights there as well. Merchants flocked to the temple, because it was a curiosity at the crossroads of the Roman world. It was a tourist attraction, a showpiece. And of course, Roman law enforcement was always nearby to referee, and to keep the peace.

Place is a funny thing, isn’t it? As far as Jesus could tell, the Temple had already been destroyed. This showpiece of Herod’s was a hollow shell. It was a poor attempt to insinuate that Herod had restored the covenant as he had rebuilt the Temple.

Jesus knew that shortly after his death and resurrection, the Temple would be completely destroyed, and that the faith of Israel could no longer be pinned to a particular building, or a particular city. He predicted that not one stone would be left upon another. In just a few decades after his resurrection, that prediction had come to pass.

Today Jerusalem is a divided city, and the Temple is closed for business. And are we still praying for the Peace of Jerusalem? Jerusalem remains a beloved city, but it is no longer the best illustration of God’s covenant with humankind.

So do we have a better illustration? Tropical Sands was launched 43 years ago as a missionary church to this area. Certainly, that trailer park rec room was not the picture of what we would become. I understand the next building was a complete disaster. So I look at these walls around us today and I say Praise God and Thank You Lord Jesus. But even at that, I know better than to pin the love of God to my satisfaction level with this building.

In his days on earth, Jesus revealed the Master Plan. The Master must be God Himself, and if there is a plan, its purpose must be to fulfill God’s desire here on Earth.

When Jesus met the Samaritan woman at the well, he revealed to her God’s Master Plan for worship. She said Our fathers worshipped in this mountain; and ye say, that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.

But what did Jesus say? In John 4.21 he said, “Woman, believe me, the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor at Jerusalem, worship the Father. The hour cometh, and now is, when true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth; for the Father seeketh such to worship him. God is Spirit, and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.”

So the point is not a place. The church of Jesus Christ is not a place. It is more like a club — and I think Jesus would say it is more like a family. We are drawn together not by a place, but by a spirit.

You know, on that day, the woman drew crowds to Jesus, and he made a lot of people happy. He made them happy because he told them that salvation was for Samaritans as well as for Jews. He made them happy by telling them that they did not have to possess the Holy City of Jerusalem, nor even the Holy Mountain, to stay in touch with God. As a Spirit, God is not restricted to a particular place.

So what does it mean to worship in Spirit and in Truth? Now I have not studied exactly what the original text might mean by that, but let me take a layman’s stab at it. A spirit of worship is one that accepts the presence of God. To worship in spirit is to have not just some outward appearance of worship, but an inward sense of it, and a real need to get in touch with God. It is our heart seeking the heart of God. That is worship in spirit.

Now, for truth. What does it mean to worship in truth? I think we can agree that Jesus had a special contempt for hypocrites. Christ was absolutely venomous toward pious religious people who held others to the jot and tittle of ceremony without even tipping a had to service. He called them bad shepherds and blind guides. They could indeed worship, but they did not worship in truth.

A worshipper in truth is one who is actually interested in pleasing God. You might notice that every little thing today is done by someone different. Kim did the children’s moment. Tom Brown wrote the skit. Pearl Callaway has a history for us later. You’ll soon have the best food you ever tasted, after service. We have special music. You know, I didn’t have to beg anyone to do anything. That’s because these people are hear to worship, and they worship by teaching children, and by writing skits, and by helping out with the service.

That is worship in Truth! Worship in Truth is hands on worship! To worship through service to others is to worship in Truth. That is the worship that keeps us connected to one another and to the coming Kingdom of God on Earth.

We have a lot to do today. At the luncheon, we’re going to induct our new slate of officers. Please don’t let that scare you off, with food like this, it will be worth it. And our elders are going to induct a new elder into their ranks today. Tom Brown has agreed to step up to the plate, and he has accepted the call to become an elder in this church. I am very proud of Tom because he is willing to serve as a leader of this church. In becoming an elder, Tom Brown is worshipping in spirit and in truth.

So what is the master plan? It is not about place. It is not about Jerusalem, White Temple, or Southern Trailer Court, or Southwind Circle, or Burns Road. It is about worshipping in spirit and truth. It is about worshipping with a sense of gladness, with a joy that draws others to your Church, and to your Lord. It really is about skits, and food drives, and Sunday School, and elders, and music specials, and covered dish luncheons, and reaching out to the people around us. God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship him in Spirit and in Truth.

Tropical Sands Christian Church was born to be a missionary church. I say that it is still a missionary church, and we are just getting our second wind. The Master Plan is to profess faith, to proclaim hope, and to practice love, and to do so right here, in this community.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Tropical Sands Christian Church – July 8, 2001

The Kingdom of God

Some of the Pharisees asked Jesus when the Kingdom of God would come. His answer was, “The Kingdom of God does not come in such a way as to be seen. No one will say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or, ‘There it is!’; because the Kingdom of God is within you.”

–Luke 17:20-21 (CEV)

The map of the entire Human Genome was made public this past Monday. They found a few surprises when they put all the pieces together. Let’s say this pickle jar is a living thing, and this rice is genetic information. It takes about this much rice to make make a fruitfly. Now the pickle jar knows what it needs to know to be a fruitfly. Add just a little more, and it can be a nice, exotic flower. You don’t have to add much more to turn this pickle jar into a living, breathing human being.

Everyone thought we were a lot more complicated than a fruitfly. And we are. A fruitfly gene does its thing by making a protein, at just the right time. One human gene might make five or six proteins. If you think like a computer programmer, you might say that God did not write a bigger program for humans than for fruitflies. Instead, he wrote a smarter program. If you’re a watchmaker, you might say God made a Rolex using parts from a Timex.

Another surprise is how alike we are. If this is you, then 99 percent of this information is exactly the same as for everyone else on earth. That last one percent is what makes you unique as a physical specimen.

Scientists are calling this information “The Book of Life.” I won’t go that far. But I do think we are reading the penmanship of God. The human genome holds every physical instruction required to make a human being. And the last percent of information is so flexible that no two people are exactly alike. Each combination is one in a billion, and one wrong move can make the whole set fall like a house of cards. You think God doesn’t love you? Think again.

So if this is the handwriting of God, why isn’t it perfect? Here’s a genetic marker for asthma, a flaw on chromosome number five. What’s with that, God? Oh, that, God says. You know, if you could just take one day in six off, like I suggested, and not light so many fires on the Sabbath, that one wouldn’t have gone bad.

And what about this one, God? Isn’t this one a carrier for cancer? Well, God says, I started you out on clean food and fresh air, but you had to get greedy and chip away at the ozone. It took a few generations for that one to go south, but you guys just kept hammering away at it.

Radiation, chemicals and micro-organisms can literally alter genetic material. It happens in cancer cells, and genetic mutations. They find that we have about 500 genes that were inserted by some bacteria, eons ago. That’s probably where we started breaking some critical dietary laws. We have been careless caretakers of this fallen planet, and in a million ways we have accidentally smudged the handwriting of God. Without God’s merciful hand to support all life, the reckless sins of our forefathers would have doomed the human race many centuries ago.

So, let’s add these black beans to our pickle jar. These beans are everything that has been done to you, and everything you have done to yourself. These environmental factors might have more to do with how you turn out than those genetic instructions, anyway. And what about this one, God? Here’s a gene that points to depression. What broke this one? And God says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” I know, it’s a hassle. That gene is easy to break. But I have redeemed this condition. Put it back.”

Blessed are the poor in spirit. Why? Our pew Bible makes Matthew [5:3] say, “Blessed are those who KNOW they are spiritually poor …” I object. It sounds like work, something to learn, something everybody experiences. If you aren’t poor in spirit, that’s okay. You can be a peacemaker instead [5:9], and get your blessing there. You don’t have to be poor in spirit to be blessed. But Jesus said the poor in spirit are blessed for “theirs is the kingdom of God.”

I think the poor in spirit are just what that sounds like. The poor in spirit are people with that depression gene, or their depression gene got knocked crooked, or their environment is suppressing the feel good genes. The poor in spirit might be people who are sad, melancholy, gloomy. Why is theirs the Kingdom of Heaven?

I think I know why. The poor in spirit are not satisfied with this world. The poor in spirit have no trouble believing that they are strangers in this world. No friendship seems to reach deep enough to cure the loneliness of the poor in spirit.

The poor in spirit know what a cold and lonely planet this world can be. The poor in spirit also know how bright the light of the World can be. They know how dark the world really is. The poor in spirit don’t need a disaster to drive them back to God.

The poor in spirit are hungry for God. And when you want to know God and his comfort like a starving man wants food, you learn to live in the Kingdom of Heaven. There are many people who are poor in spirit who are living wonderful lives because they do not live in the ordinary world. They walk and breathe and find their reasons for living in the Kingdom of God itself. They really are blessed. Theirs IS the Kingdom of God.

Jesus’ first public declaration was “Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven is near.” [Matt. 4:17] He sent his disciples out to preach “The kingdom of God.” Matthew says “Kingdom of Heaven,” a euphemism, where Luke and Mark say “Kingdom of God.” What is the Kingdom of God?

Is it Heaven? Certainly Paul and other Christian writers used the Kingdom of God to mean Heaven itself. And Jesus referred to the sudden appearance of the Kingdom in the last days. But in today’s scripture, Jesus talks in the present tense, not about the future. Jesus told the Pharisee that “The Kingdom of God is within you.” Ah, now there’s something else in there. The Kingdom of God is in there! Jesus told the Pharisee that the Kingdom of God is within the Pharisee. What is this Kingdom of God?

Jesus said to seek it above all else. Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, he said, and all these things will be added to you – these things being food, clothing, shelter. So where do we look? Look within, Jesus said. The kingdom of God is within you.

In Matthew chapter 13, Jesus gave us a number of parables to help us understand the kingdom of God. [21-22] He said the Kingdom of God is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when it is sown in the earth, is the smallest of all the seeds planted in the garden. But when it is sown, it grows up and becomes greater than all herbs, and shoots out great branches where the birds can nest.

What does that mean? It means the kingdom of God is like something that starts very small and grows very large. He said it was like a lump leaven; where a little changes the whole loaf.

Here’s a funny one. [24-30] Jesus said the kingdom of God is like a farmer who plants wheat, and the enemy comes at night and plants weeds in with the wheat. The landlord tells his workers – that would be us – to let the weeds and the wheat grow together, and we’ll sort things out at the harvest. Don’t worry about the weeds, he said, just water the field. Justs bless them all and let God sort them out.

He said the Kingdom of God was like a man who sold everything to buy a field with hidden treasure [44], or one costly pearl [45] . That’s how important it is to be.

In Chapter 25, [14-46] He said the Kingdom of God was like a landowner who left his servants 10 talents, and five, and one, then took a long journey. “But look, Lord. Wanda and Fred have all of the musical genes. Jana and Gina got all the smart genes. What do I have?” The parable says it isn’t what you start with, but what you accomplish with it. The servants who multiplied the talents, such as they were given, all received their reward.

Once a scribe asked Jesus for the greatest commandment. Jesus said to love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and soul, and your neighbor as yourself. When the scribe agreed, Mark [12:34] says that Jesus saw that he answered discretely and said, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.” After that, it said, no one dared ask him more questions.

Why not? Here they were, not far from the Kingdom of God. Did they want to find that Kingdom? Well, maybe, and maybe not. Maybe they could see it from where they were, and maybe they didn’t want to go there. Throughout the scriptures, we are told that Jesus was preaching the Kingdom of God. He sent his disciples out to preach the Kingdom of God. Repent, they said, for the Kingdom of God is near.

Some writers of scripture referred to the Kingdom of God as that final reward for the saints, after death and upon the Lord’s return. But I think Jesus was talking about something even bigger, something closer. His parables actually make it easier for us to understand the Kingdom of God.

What is a Kingdom? It’s a dominion; a region of rule. We might think of the British Empire, or Saudi Arabia. But consider the Gypsies, a wandering race that was targeted by the Nazis along with the Jews. Gypsies have no land, no place or borders, but they have kings and a royal family. Gypsies are organized as a kingdom. That kingdom is defined not by territory, but by loyalty.

So, too, is the Kingdom of God. It is a kingdom defined not by land, but by loyalty. I live in the Kingdom of God if I give God himself dominion over my life.

Now all the parables fit. God’s dominion over my life may start small, like the mustard seed or a lump of leaven, but it can grow into something mighty, something that leavens the entire loaf of my life. God’s dominion over my life is something to be pursued, a precious commodity like a treasure in a field, or a pearl of great price. And like servants who were expected to invest their talents, God’s dominion over my life can be expected to bear fruit.

And Jesus tells us a lot more about this Kingdom. Whomever would be greatest here is the servant of all. The worker who began at the last hour is rewarded just like the worker who labored all day. The ruler of this Kingdom is a shepherd who leaves his flock to find the lost sheep. Those who do not humble themselves and receive this Kingdom as little children will no way enter in. Jesus said all that about the Kingdom of God.

Luke 12 is where Jesus said, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added unto you.” He goes on to say, “Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

Are we seeking the Kingdom of God? Are we looking for those areas in our lives where God does not yet reign as King? Is the lordship of God ruling our time? Our finances? Our friendships? When we pray, “Thy Kingdom Come”, do we mean it?

With the scribe, we might say, “Well said, Master. To love God with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself, is more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” And with that knowledge, Jesus says, we are not far from the Kingdom of God.

So here you have it, the stuff of life. One grain of rice is all it took to make you black or white, tall or short. Half a grain made you male or female. It’s the same dust that God used to make fruitflies and fruit.

You have blessings and curses all stirred up in that stuff, and while science marches on you’ll still find it hard to add an inch to your height or a day to your life just by worrying about that stuff. You have all these beans and rice, all the stuff that happened to you and all the stuff you’re made of.

But there’s something else in you, and although it is a very small thing, it can make a bigger difference than all of your beans and rice put together.

You have that mustard seed, the Kingdom of God, within you. In fact, let’s add that now. Here we have your basic black beans and rice. Toss in that mustard seed and Bam! Up a notch! Now we have something special. Now, we have gumbo!

If I shake that jar long enough, that little mustard seed will touch everything. If I cook it, it will flavor everything. You were born with that mustard seed of faith, and now that you know it’s there, you have a decision to make. Do I let God rule over this area of my life? Do I trust God to make good use of this talent, or to help me live with this handicap? Can I grow a mustard tree in there with all those bean sprouts? I think you can. It can grow huge, if you let it. It will grow in ways you never imagined, if you just let it happen. The birds of the air will nest in its branches, and you’ll probably have a bumper crop of good beans.

There was a food fight in the early church – a dispute about dietary law. Paul settled it by saying that the Kingdom of God is not about meat. Paul would say you are NOT what you eat. I say it isn’t about your beans and rice, either. God loves you, and that is true whether this stuff is carefully crafted to be you or just a miraculous crap shoot. There is not one spec of that stuff, there is not one thing about you, that God wouldn’t love to redeem.

Like leaven, the Kingdom of God affects the entire loaf. Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand. It is near. You are not far.

Jesus is not teasing us with something we can’t have. The spirit is not Repent, or here comes trouble; the Kingdom of Heaven is near. I think it’s more like Repent, and grab it while you can! Repent means turn around! Go a different way! Stop mourning and start celebrating! Jesus was giving a word of hope to the poor in spirit, to those hungry and thirsty for righteousness, and to everyone who truly loves the Lord God. It matters, and the Father does love you. Yours is the Kingdom of God.

Jesus is telling us that the Kingdom is ours for the taking. It is God’s good pleasure to give it to us, with all of the privileges of citizenship – all of the hope, comfort and courage that the life of faith provides. The Kingdom of God is wherever willing subjects of God give God full reign as Lord and King. The Kingdom of God is within you.

Delivered at Tropical Sands Christian Church
(Disciples of Christ) – 
February 18, 2001

The Father’s Heart

Well, today is Fathers Day. This can be a tricky day to preach, because some people don’t have Fathers, and some have Fathers but wish they didn’t.

At the end of the Hebrew Bible, which we call the Old Testament, the prophet Malachi could see the difference between what God wanted from Fathers and what Fathers themselves wanted in Malachi’s day. Let us hear the Word of God:

(Malachi 4)

All I really needed was the last two verses, but I just couldn’t resist using all of it. In this short chapter, Malachi shows us two aspects of God, a God who hates pride and evil, but also a God who rewards faithfulness with freedom and happiness. But look at that last prophesy. The prophet Elijah will come, he says, to bring fathers and children together again. Other translations say he will turn the hearts of the fathers back to their children, and the hearts of the children back to the fathers.

That tells us where God wants our hearts to be. It tells us where a Father’s heart should be. It also tells us that human hearts have not always been where they should be. Way back in Deuteronomy, Moses sang of God as the Father of his people. “The Rock, his work is perfect, and all his ways are just, yet his degenerate children have dealt falsely with him. Is he not your Father, who created you, who made and established you?”

Centuries later, Malachi has the same complaint. “Have we not all one father? Has not one God created us? Then why do we break our promises to each other?”

Throughout the scripture, God is a loving, patient parent trying to direct rebelous children to the Promised Land.

But the worst part is that those rebelous children become parents themselves, and we are less-than-perfect copies of the original.

We have this theory that way back when, families were perfect. I don’t know when in history that was. Moses had to warn the children of Israel not to sacrifice their own children by fire. Apparently, that was a practice among some surrounding tribes.

The books of Kings and Chronicles show the failure of one king after another as each follows the poor example set by his father. A King of Moab sacrificed his own son in the heat of battle just for the shock value. The enemy retreated in disgust.

So there are better and worse parents, and it has always been this way. Fathers and Mothers leave, they die, they go off to war. They work too much, or not enough. We call on Moms and Dads to fill that God-shaped hole in our souls, and even the best of them will fall short.

Jesus proposes a new approach for the soul in search of God. We have a tendency to see this Human-to-God relationship as struggle to reach an awesome power, like an explorer in a blizzard. Jesus proposes that we instead approach God with loving anticipation, like a child running to the embrace of a parent.

As far as we can tell, Jesus himself was not a father in the human sense. His earthly father Joseph was apparently deceased before Jesus started his ministry. We know so little for certain, but we have no indication that Jesus was ever married, or a father. What can this bachelor tell us about a Father’s heart?

You know how the kid in trouble always seems to get the most attention? And isn’t that exactly how a Shepherd should react to a lost sheep?

Isn’t the forgiving Father to be praised for looking for the prodigal son? “If your child asks for bread, do you hand over a stone? Or a serpent, when the child wants a fish? If you,” Jesus said, “being evil, know how to give good things to your children, doesn’t your heavenly father know how to provide for you as well?”

I’ll never forget my orientation sessions with the Seventh Day Adventists. They were doing OK I guess until they got to the part about remaining a family throughout eternity. Now I was a sophomore in college, just out on my own, and when they said, “Wouldn’t you love to live with your father and mother and brother and sister forever, as a family, throughout eternity?” I had to tell them that I did not find that prospect particularly appealing. That, in a nutshell, is why I am not a Mormon.

But Jesus clearly meant for us to see God as not just a parent, but as an all knowing, infinitely loving and perfectly merciful parent. He launched his ministry with the concept that God is our loving Father. In the sermon on the Mount he said, “Let your light shine before others, so that they will see your good works and praise your Father in Heaven.” Jesus did not just declare himself the son of God, but he declared us his followers to be children of God as well.

Now that’s a proud lineage. Jesus was humble, but he took great pride in his father. He was zealous for his Father’s house, and conscientious about saving his Father’s lost sheep.

“I and the Father are One”, Jesus said. What’s this parent God like that Jesus was showing us? Did Jesus threaten us with his big bad pappa? His warnings to the scribes and Pharisees reveal that Jesus knew about the stern face of an angry God. But that is not the face of God as revealed to his children.

Let me address that one. All of the prophets, from Moses to Malachi to Jesus himself, had stern warnings for evil people. You are NOT evil people. Are you hear to lead someone astray? Are you trying to do damage to someone, and laughing about it? Or, are you regretful of those few sins you still can’t shake, and doing your best not to hurt anyone. That’s most of us, I think.

We aren’t perfect, but we are not evil people. We really are the children of God, and God is a loving parent. All God wants to do this morning is to give you a hug.

You’ve all met my Father, Ray, and my Grandfather, the Reverend Roy. God knows how I love those men! Dad is one of those guys who’ll wash your car when you come home to visit, and fill the tank with gas before you leave. Mom’s always been great in the same way, always eager to help. I know I’ve been truly blessed with my parents.

But if my parents were not alive and kicking, I might admit that I frankly do not feel infinitely blessed in that relationship. Like I said, we use a parent size peg to fill a God sized hole, and something’s still missing. We want our parents to make us feel important, make us smart and successful, feed us well, clean our rooms, put us through college, get us a car and leave us alone! I certainly did.

I see my kids in the congregation this morning. That is such a blast. I have been far less than a perfect parent, and for the most part, I thank God that my children are NOT like I was!

ButI do know a little bit about being a Dad. I know what it’s like to want to provide for your children, when you know what they need. But I do NOT always know what they need.

My daughter Traci is singing a special this morning. I had a copy of the background tape, but I lost it. I spent hours looking for that tape. We drove all over town yesterday looking for another copy. God would do that; he’d gladly drive all over town to find your background tape, just like a parent. But unlike this IMperfect parent, God would never lose the tape to start with.

Does God ever fall down on the job? We might think so. Maybe our Fathers fell down on the job at one time, and now we wonder if having a father is such a good idea. Maybe we CAN see God as a Father – and maybe that doesn’t help us get any closer.

We are imperfect. But God is perfect. We have a narrow view. But God sees everything. We are imperfect Fathers and Mothers, rebelous children, lost sheep. God the Father is not surprised. God does have the patience it takes to raise rebelous children to responsible adulthood, to lead them to the Promised Land.

God is not the imperfect earthly Father we knew. Earthly Moms and Dads may give us a glimpse of God’s glory. They may show great wisdom, or astounishing mercy and sacrifice. But they are Parents. They are not God. And this may come as a shock to some of you. Being a parent myself, I’ve discovered that parents actually do not want you to see them as Gods. It’s too much work, and it’s an impossible standard to live up to.

My relationship with my mother and father took a quantum leap forward when I stopped expecting them to do what only God can do. Dads can wash your car, and Moms can drive you around town, but only God can save your soul. An ordinary parent may teach you to fly, but only God can give you wings.

Throughout the Bible, the name of God is considered sacred. The sacred name of God is so shrouded in mystery that we still don’t know how to say it. But Jesus invites us to use His favorite name for God: Abba. In the Garden Christ cried, Abba, Father. A child’s cry to a parent. Paul said the spirit of adoption in us moves us to cry Abba, Father.

Don’t you want to say it? Don’t you want to say that the very God of the universe is your beloved parent? Pappa? Abba? That’s the spirit in you that wants to cry Abba! You are a child of the Most High God, through Christ your Brother! That IS the gospel! You want to cry Abba, Father! Jesus understands, and he urges us to follow the cry of our souls, to embrace God the Loving Parent.

Knowing you’re a child of God, that you actually have this super-loving, super-resourceful, super-Parent, is like a little leaven … A little leaven enlarges the entire lump of dough. A little sense of your divine Parent enlarges everything in your life. You start to see that we are just passing through this world, and that makes the journey all the more exciting.

So what is the father’s heart? Jesus is our window into the Father’s heart. The God revealed in Christ is not threatening us. That God does not want to see his children fretful or frightened. Jesus showed us God the Father down on one knee, smiling down at His children. “Fear not, little flock,” he says. “It is your father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.” That’s a parent at his or her best. That’s a perfect parent.

Listen up, brothers and sisters. Our heavenly Father says rejoice, and fear not. It is his good pleasure to give us the very Kingdom itself. Let us live in the glorious Kingdom our Father has prepared for us.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Tropical Sands Christian Church – June 17, 2001

State of the Church Union

Let’s see. What time does that football game start?

This has been a stormy 12 months for the Tropical Sands Church family. We’ve had devastating illness, serious injury, deficit spending and economic uncertainty — and that was all before September 11.

And yet, we’re still together. The state of our union is strong. What is the bond that holds us together, like a cord of many strands that is not easily broken? Let us hear the word of the Lord:

“Those who are led by God’s Spirit are God’s sons. For the Spirit that God has given you does not make you slaves and cause you to be afraid; instead, the Spirit makes you God’s children, and by the Spirit’s power we cry out to God, “Father! My Father!” God’s Spirit joins himself to our spirits to declare that we are God’s children. Since we are is children, we will possess the blessings he keeps for his people, and we will also possess with Christ what God has kept for him; for if we share Christ’s suffering, we will also share his glory.”

(Romans 8:14-17)

It was just about one year ago, on February 11, 2001, that I gave my first sermon to this congregation. I wonder how many of you were here on that occasion.

Let’s see. Jim, you were not here for that sermon. I wish you had been here, but I’m certainly glad you’re here today. Let me say today that as I said on that occasion, that I am proud to call Jim Burton my pastor.

Most of the faces I see today are the same faces I saw out there last year, and that is very nice. I also see a lot of old friends, and a lot of new faces as well.

I note with sadness some of those who are no longer with us. Jan Hunter was here for that first sermon. I think that was her last day in this church. We also lost Marcella Hutchinson during this past year. Seems like they’ve been gone for such a long time, doesn’t it? Our legacy is that those dear ladies brought their friends and family into the church, people who strengthen our service to God to this day.

We have a lot of new faces, too. You’ll forgive me for not catching all of them, but I know Sula wasn’t here. Or Cheri. Or Fred and Evelina. Or Chris and Gayla. Or Sheryl. What I want to know is, how did so many people get to be pillars of the church after less than a year? How did we last so long without Fred’s cooking?

Well, it’s been a good year, but we have seen trouble. Sometimes, we’ve had bad news, even the worst possible news. How many people lose hope over less? But you know what? We have not lost hope! On the contrary, I have seen miraculous demonstrations of courage and dignity, miraculous demonstrations of determination and strength, miraculous healing and recovery. For these, let us give glory to God, and to God alone.

Most of us have seen the movie “The Invisible Man” in one version or another. Now we can’t see the invisible man, unless he walks through smoke, or fog, or rain, or dust. Then, we can see his outline. I think trouble is the smoke that lets us see the invisible man of faith. Trouble is the dust that lets us see the sunbeam. Trouble is the rain that reveals the rainbow.

The Bible is a book about the strength of family. Israel was originally a man named Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham. Israel became the father of a nation, just as Abraham was the father of many nations.

Abraham taught us that YahWeh is God. But another 42 generations would pass before anyone dared to suggest that people should relate to that God as “father”. The only crime Christ ever committed was to call God his Father. You and I know that Jesus took it a step further. He said that we should call God our Father as well, and treat one another as brothers and sisters.

In today’s scripture, Paul tells us that our hope is a spirit given to us by God himself, a hope that cries out to God not in fear, but in love. Jesus often referred to my heavenly father, but he was just as quick to call him your heavenly father. Your heavenly father knows that you have need of these things… Jesus shows us the father, and in doing so, he reveals our common ground, our family ties.

The practical side of this gospel is in what this means to our relationship to one another. We are brothers and sisters. We are children of a common father. By this, Jesus said, they will know that you are my disciples, that you love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. And when asked, who is my brother, Jesus told the story of a chance encounter between a Samaritan traveler and an injured Jew.

This is the bond that holds us together: We not only dare to believe that there is a God, but we dare to believe that he actually loves us, like a father loves his children. And the Gospel of Jesus is a Gospel that says as God loves us, so should we love one another.

That is the foundation of our union, and the state of our union is strong. I once thought the role of a pastor was to make the church union stronger, as if a person could do such a thing. So I’ve tried to help promote some of the good ideas floating through the church, with mixed success.

I tried to help Jane Gillette and Doris Sifford develop more small group meetings. We have a few more home Bible studies now than before; we have three, and we can still make more. If you want to be in a casual study group, please do let us know. And if you want to be on a committee, we can work that out, too.

We spent some time trying to revisit our church charter, to bring it up to date and reduce some of the paperwork. I thought by now we’d have fewer committees and fewer meetings. We actually have more meetings, and the various committees and task groups are doing great work. You know, if we’d just call them small groups instead of committees and task groups, we could call it a success and move on.

If the church does business at all, it must be the business of serving God by serving other people. It is always good to review your processes against that standard. The Joel 2:28 group has done the heavy lifting on that job. My assignment was to review their plan, write a pastoral response and recommend next steps. Forgive me, I am late on that assignment. We need prayer, patience and persistence to finish this task in a way that will best serve the congregation and glorify God.

So if a year of part-time preaching has taught me anything, it has taught me that this pastoring business is a lot harder than it looks. Thank God we have professional help. Jim and Ann Burton need and deserve all the love and support we can give them. If Jim’s going to be your little energizer bunny, you’re going to have to keep his batteries charged.

As for me, let me simplify my ministry goals this year. We are called to make disciples of all nations, and yet Jesus said the best example of discipleship is our love for one another. So, what can I do to increase the love here at Tropical Sands Christian Church?

You’ve heard of low-hanging fruit, or the 80-20 rule. That says roughly that you can reap 80 percent of the benefit from the first 20 percent of effort on a project. So if I focus on that 80-20 rule today, I might get you out of here in time for the big game.

So let’s get to it. Here’s my three-point plan to make our church union even stronger.

One: Wear your name tag. Yes, I know, we’ve all known you for years, and we all have perfect memories, and we really should know your name by now. To all this I say, please have mercy on your brothers and sisters. Help us attach your name to your face. Have pity on us when our memory fails. We all have name tags, but most of us do not wear them. Please, wear your name tags. It is a loving thing to do.

Two: Look for the lonely. As much as we might love each other here, somebody feels left out. Somebody just quit showing up to see if we would notice. We forgot someone’s birthday, and they thought it was intentional. We had a guest, but we didn’t really notice, and they never came back. The lost sheep isn’t bad, just out of the fold. Find the lost sheep. Look for the lonely.

Three, practice forgiveness. Forgive us if we forget your birthday, or your name, or your announcement. Forgive yourself if you lose your cool. Forgive your friends if they miss coffee house tonight for some silly football game. Forgive that person who just rubs you the wrong way. Jesus tells the story of a father who forgives his wayward son for every wrong, and welcomes him back with open arms. Jesus teaches us to forgive others their sins, but also to forgive their appearance, or their circumstances, or how they measure up to our standards. In so many ways, Jesus says that love IS forgiveness.

Peter was certainly a beloved follower of Christ. Imperfect, but beloved. In a letter to the church, Peter said above all else, practice fervent love, because love covers a multitude of sins, and he’s right. We’ll never be perfect. Our own strength, our talents, our efforts — these are wonderful things, but they are a shaky foundation to build anything on, much less a church and certainly not the kingdom of God.

But there is a firm foundation, and because Jesus Christ is the foundation of the church, the state of the Tropical Sands Christian Church union is strong. Our strength is your strength, and you don’t have to be perfect, or get it right, or work harder to fit in here. All I ask you to do is to wear your name tag, look for the lonely, and practice forgiveness.

If you hear my voice, then you are not the exception. Of course you’re supposed to be here; this is your father’s house. And that person, fill in the blank, is okay by me, so play nice. That’s your sister. That’s your brother. And if my father loves them, then I can, too.

God help us love one another like Christ loved us. God Bless Tropical Sands Christian Church.

In the holy name of Jesus, let his Gospel be proclaimed.


Tropical Sands Christian Church
 – February 3, 2002

On Doormats and Kitty Litter

My grandfather, age 92, sometimes draws sermon topics from dreams and visions. At twice my age, I guess it’s only natural that he has had more dreams and visions than I have. My inspiration comes from more common sources. This week, I am inspired by doormats and kitty litter.

If a doormat does its job, it gets messy. I’ve seen people toss doormats out, saying they are nothing but dirt collectors.

I had a friend in the mat industry. They’d collect dirty door mats from busy business locations, replace them with clean mats, launder the old mats and repeat the cycle. In door mats, quality is measured by how many pounds of dirt it can hold, and how well it holds up in the laundry. It’s a huge service industry. Businesses pay big bucks to keep those dirt-collectors in place.

A doormat is designed to get dirty. The dirt that a doormat collects is dirt that doesn’t make it farther into your house.

As Martha Stewart would say, it’s a good thing. And, as Dr. Joyce Brown says, dirt is matter out of place; it’s hair in the butter or butter in the hair. And that brings us to kitty litter.

If you ever spilled kitty litter on the floor, you know how messy kitty litter is. When you mop your floor, the dirt in the water is dirt off the floor. The last thing you want to do is to spill the mop bucket on a clean floor. Well, that’s exactly what I did.

If that ever happens to you, here’s a helpful hint. Pour (clean) kitty litter on the floor. You sweep it one way, and a flooded floor is now just damp. Sweep it across the floor again, and a damp floor becomes dry! All of a sudden, that messy kitty letter turns out to be a great cleaning aid. It’s the same stuff that factories pour on indoor oil spills to dry them up quickly.

So, how does that relate to the trouble in our lives?

I’m not one to suggest that God is responsible for the trouble in our lives. Some of it we bring on ourselves, and some of it gets spilled on us by everyone else. It’s a fallen world, and that means trouble. But sometimes, what we call trouble is really God’s end-run around bigger problems that we could have had down the road.

An innoculation might not be pleasant, but it helps avoid sickness. An operation might seem like trouble, but a successful operation is a blessing. And people are always praying for a “good report” from medical testing; what they actually want is an accurate report, cause if there’s trouble, you want to find it now.

Peter’s first epistle told early followers that they were “begotten … unto a lively hope … to an innheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven … Whereby ye greatly rejoice, though now for a season, if need be, ye are in heaviness through manifold temptations (NRSV: many trials) That the trial of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honor and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ … ”

They were, in other words, undergoing “trouble” that was actually a testing (development, training) of their faith, to the glory of Christ.

God’s ways are above our ways. We are told that we will have trouble in this world. But, if we trust that there is a loving God who has our well-being at heart, we can trust that God will work good from the trouble we face. We should always bear in mind that what looks like trouble might actually be a blessing from a God far wiser than we are.


Not So Fast!

The New Century Version of the Bible is written with childlike simplicity. In that version, “Fasting” is translated simply, “go without eating”. Some people place great significance on “Fasting” and consider those who practice it to be going above and beyond the call of duty. John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Church, fasted two days a week, and advised all of his ministers to do the same. Jesus started his ministry with by fasting for 40 days in the wilderness.

There is not one word about Fasting in the law of Moses. If the children of Israel went without eating, it was because they had no food, and not with any spiritual intent.

The first reference to intentional fasting in the Bible is in Second Samuel is where David fasted in hopes of saving the child of his adulterous affair with Bathsheba. It did not work. The child died anyway.

But fasting is in the Bible, so it must be a good thing, right? The Bible’s second reference to fasting, and the first officially declared fast in the Bible, was in the book of First Kings. It was declared by the evil queen Jezebel. In that declaration, she made false accusations against Naboth the Jezreelite. This time, the fast had its intended effect; Naboth was killed, and Jezebel’s husband Ahab was able to take his land to make a garden.

If you remember the story, Jezebel was punished for declaring that fast. She was thrown from the city wall and eaten by dogs. When Ahab saw it, he humbled himself and fasted; for that, the Lord spared his life. And that was the first reference to a fast that was actually honored by God.

Already, there is a pattern here. David fasted to avoid punishment from God; and Jezebel declared a fast to deceive the people. No good came from the fasting of David and Jezebel. Ahab’s fast saved his life, because God paid attention to it. But it was Ahab’s newfound humility, his repentence, and not his fasting that saved his life.

So fasting is not a practice given by God to the Hebrew people, nor to Christians. This search of the scriptures seems to say that it was a pre-historical practice. By itself, it is no better than a superstition, like throwing salt over your shoulder. We know that as early in history as King David, people thought Fasting would cause God to hear and honor prayer. In that early reference itself, we see that fasting does not work that way. And in the example of Queen Jezebel, we see that fasting can be evil if it is done for the wrong reasons.

Jesus fed the 5,000 because he didn’t want to send them away fasting. Their fasting was not an act of worship; it was simply that they had no food. Later, there was a mob of Pharisees intent on killing the apostle Paul, so they swore they would fast until he was dead. Again, a fast with evil intent.

Maybe the simple New Century Version of the Bible is right. Maybe fasting means nothing more than, “to go without eating.”

The prophet Isaiah talked about a fast with wrong intent. “Why have we fasted,” the people were saying, “and God doesn’t see it? Why have we afflicted our souls, and God doesn’t honor it?”

Isaiah answered that they were fasting for pride, and fighting about it. God will not honor such a fast. “I did not choose this fast,” God said through Isaiah. “I did not ask you to afflict your souls. All of your scraping and sackcloth and ashes mean nothing to me, God said. It is not an acceptable fast.

Fortunately, God also told Isaiah what IS an acceptable fast. “Isn’t this the fast I have chosen,” said God, “To loose the bands of wickedness, to undo heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to feed the hungry, and house the poor, and be kind to your relatives? Then shall your light break forth as the morning, and your health will be restored. Then you will call, and the LORD will answer. If you break the yoke, and stop gossiping about each other, and stop bragging, and feed the hungry, and comfort the suffering, then the LORD will hear you.”

I’m not making this up! That is what God says about fasting through the prophets. By itself, there is nothing good about fasting. Now, some of our young people have fasted for the last 24 hours, to raise money for Week of Compassion. The fasting does not make them holy. No, it is their caring for the poor that makes them holy.

Now, some of our youth are NOT fasting. Their little bodies just do not hold enough energy to keep them going for 24 hours. But they did help raise pledge money. Some of them helped us feed the poor last week in a local soup kitchen. THAT is the fasting that God wants; not to hurt yourself, but to help other people.

The young people in our church, without exception, are caring, and humble, and eager to please God. That is true for those who fast; it is also true for those who do not fast. They are precious, and holy, and righteous in the sight of God. I have heard them talk about God and Christ with great sincerity, and with love, and with respect. I am extremely proud of them, yes, each and every one of them.

Our youth group will be joining us for Communion today. For some of them, that little flake of bread will be their first solid food in more than 24 hours. I ask that you do not ask them which ones fasted and which ones didn’t. That is not important to God, and it should not be important to us, either. What is important is that they care about the poor, and about our church, and about each other.

If fasting is a part of your worship, so be it. That is between you and God. He who sees your fast in secret will reward you openly. But there is no shortcut to God’s heart. God does not honor our ceremonies. Instead, He sees the desires of our heart. The question is not do you fast, do you pray, do you honor the Sabbath. The question is, do you care? Do you help others? Do you honor God with your very life?

I think that John Wesley thought of God every time his stomach growled during those two days of fasting. His fasting left more food for his family and his community, and that is good. You do not have to fast to get close to God. All you have to do is to love his children.

Your children, our children, are the children of God. Let us pledge to love them, to guide and protect them, and to encourage their concern for others. God does not honor them because they fast. God honors them because they care. And as we care about our children, as we love one another, as we love our enemies, as we love those who are homeless, hungry, discouraged and oppressed, God will honor us as well. That is the fast that God wants.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.


Tropical Sands Christian Church – March 2, 2003