Monday, September 28, 2009

the way of gratitude

“The way of gratitude”
Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
Proper 21, Year B
September 27, 2009 (Preached at ESC)

I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but there’s an insert in your bulletin where you can write down prayer requests, which we collect at the offertory before communion. Well, believed it or not, I received a prayer request last year that I deemed unworthy to present to God. You see, the prayer request in question wasn’t for little Timmy’s leg to heal, nor was it for grandma to get out of the hospital – the prayer, and I quote, was that “John Newton would either learn to be funny or else stop telling jokes.” Lest you’re worried, the offender was excommunicated. After all, God’s people should be known for their gratitude. Not their complaints.

But in all seriousness, we do love to complain. I was trying to write this sermon on Thursday – couldn’t think of a thing to say – and so I decided to kill some time by surfing the interweb, and I came across a site called I’m not sure what the “f” stands for – fail, forget, farfegnugen – it doesn’t really matter. But the website is essentially one big message board where people post complaints. And in all fairness, they’re pretty bad. For example, one person writes “today I threw up on my dress. My wedding dress. While my dad was walking me down the aisle.” And another, “after years of searching, I finally tracked down my biological father on facebook and I decided to message him.” She then added, “He blocked me.” Now granted, those things warrant a posting on this site. But this website makes millions of dollars – on complaints! Well, depressed from all the complaining, and still not having any sermon material, I logged onto facebook. Bad idea. Got to love that newsfeed. One person had beef about their new driver’s license, which didn’t look as cool as the old one. Another person – and I quote – didn’t “understand rain.” Complaint after complaint after complaint.

In tonight’s reading from Numbers, the people of Israel are in the desert. And they’re in the desert because there are certain lessons that God wants them to learn. Because biblically speaking, the desert is that place where God lovingly refines and breaks and shapes his people into who he wants them to be. But the Israelites don’t want to be refined or broken or shaped – and so they complain.

First, the Israelites complain because they want steak or a cheeseburger or some other kind of meat. Apparently, the supernatural manna that God’s been sending from heaven isn’t quite up to their standards and they want a better menu. And so they complain. “We remember the fish, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic we used to eat in Egypt.” I mean, they throw quite the hissy fit! Now remember, these are the same people that God has just freed from a life of slavery by parting the Red Sea. And so here the Israelites are in the desert – with a God that graciously desires to lead them to freedom – and they experience a little discomfort. So they complain. They choose the way of ingratitude.

The interesting thing about complaining – it’s contagious. Complaining breeds more complaining. And so when Moses hears the Israelites complaining, what does he do? He complains to God! And to paraphrase, this is what Moses says: “God, what did I do to deserve this? Why’d you put me in charge of these whiners? I’m not their mother. And so I tell you what God, I need you to do something for me. Either get a new leader for these people or kill me.” Now, in all fairness, when I received the aforementioned prayer request regarding my shabby sense of humor, I may have told God the exact same thing. And so here is Moses in the desert – with a God that’s chosen him to lead, with a God that speaks to him face to face (Num 12:8) – and Moses experiences a little frustration. So he complains. Moses chooses the way of ingratitude.

And then there’s Joshua – the #2 man. And Joshua gets word that Eldad and Medad are prophesying. So Joshua tells Moses to make them stop. You see, in Joshua’s mind, only Moses is supposed to prophesy. It’s what makes Moses special. And since Joshua is Moses’ assistant, the program coordinator for the people of Israel, it makes him special too. But if just anyone can start prophesying, then Moses and Joshua won’t be special anymore. And so here’s Joshua in the desert – and he has a front row seat in the great drama of salvation that’s unfolding – and Joshua experiences a little misunderstanding. So he complains. Joshua chooses the way of ingratitude.

It’s seductive, the way of ingratitude. It really is. It’s seductive because God has ordained a wilderness for each and every one of us. Like the Israelites, we too have to pass through the desert. There’s no other way from Egypt to the Promised Land. There’s no other way from the bondage of sin to the glory of the Kingdom of God. To quote the book of Hebrews, “the Lord disciplines those whom he loves and he chastises those he accepts as children.” Why? Because there are certain lessons that we need to learn. And so spiritually speaking, our wilderness, or our desert, is that place where God refines and breaks and shapes us into who he wants us to be. The wilderness is where God transforms our character. And allowing God to break us, trusting him enough to do whatever it takes to change our hearts – that’s hard. Allowing God to break us, asking God to break us – is hard. It is so much easier to complain! And that’s why the way of ingratitude is seductive.

And it’s a way that we all walk to one degree or another, though some more than others. We all know those people that always seem to be bellyaching about something – the unfairness of life, the insensitivity of their significant other, the liberals destroying the church, the conservatives leaving the church, the hot weather, the cold pizza, the greedy rich, the lazy poor – it’s always something. And so here we are in the desert – with a God that yearns to refine and break and shape us into better people – and we mistake the desert for hell. So we complain. Such is the way of ingratitude.

The good news of the Christian Gospel is that God offers us a better way – the way of gratitude. And unlike the way of ingratitude, the way of gratitude is God-centered. And it too is contagious. After all, gratitude is anchored in the belief that there’s actually Someone to thank – and that this Someone loves us deeply – so deeply in fact that He’s willing to refine and break and shape us into who he wants us to be. Not because it’s fun. But because it’s necessary – because it’s necessary for our transformation.

In his Rule for monasteries, St. Benedict thought that complaining was such an offense against the community that if a complainer wouldn’t stop, and I quote, “two stout monks should be sent to help him reconsider.” In other words, complaining monks would get a visit from Sonny and Guido. It seems that the saintly founder of Western monasticism was under the impression that a left jab to the solar plexus and a right hook to the jaw would do the trick. For the record, I have no plans of implementing Benedict’s policy here at the Student Center, but what I will say is this: not only have we been given the gift of life, but when we rejected that gift and denied God’s goodness in ourselves, in others, and in the world that God created, God refused to let go of us. Through the blood of Jesus Christ, our sins have been washed away and each one of us is a co-heir with Christ and will reign forever in the Kingdom of God. But in the meantime, there’s a wilderness that awaits each of us, and my prayer is that we’ll come to see the wilderness for what it truly is: the grace of God. After all, it truly is amazing news that our God loves us enough to break us – it’s good news that God refines and breaks and shapes us into who he wants us to be – into transformed people fit for His kingdom.

In a few minutes, you’ll be invited to receive the Eucharist, a word that means “thanksgiving.” When you approach the altar, hold out your hands in gratitude – especially if you feel broken – and receive God’s provision for the wilderness.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

having a D.T.R. (with god)


Who is the greatest babysitter mentioned in the Bible?
David – He rocked Goliath to sleep.

Alright, before we get started let’s do a brief recap. In one word, why are we here? Community. Good. And this is a problem because you, me, and every single person that’s ever lived – besides Jesus – are community ____. Crashers. That’s right – you and I live outside the garden. We ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil – we ate the red popsicle – and in doing so we threw a wrench in God’s plan to bring humanity into his perfect communal life. But our God is resilient. God was quite ready, from the very beginning, to rescue the world and to bring His image-bearers back into perfect community with himself. And so in God’s perfect wisdom, he chose one man – and it’s with this one man that God’s rescue mission begins. Does anyone know who this one man is? Abraham.

And so tonight we’re talking about Abraham. But first, I want to talk about a genre of conversation I’m pretty sure you’ve heard of – after all, it’s a staple of postmodern relating patterns between males and females. I’m referring to a D.T.R., which stands for “define the relationship.” For example – two people have been hanging out for a while, the sparks are flying, a little romance is budding, BUT there’s a little ambiguity about the future of the relationship. And so a D.T.R. is needed for relational clarity. And so it usually goes something like this. The person who wants the higher commitment level – or as this person is also known, the woman (joking) – will say to their commitment-challenged partner, “I think it’s time we had a little D.T.R.” And as I’m sure you can imagine this is the first tipping point in a relationship, because you’re forced to ask yourself – “am I going to be vulnerable and take a risk, or is it time to bail? Am I ready to take things to the next level, or is it about time we call it quits?”

Now, you might be wondering – what does this have to do with Abraham or with us for that matter? Well, in Abraham’s journey we see that God initiates a series of DTR’s to invite Abraham to a new place of intimacy and a deeper level of commitment. And even though Abraham doesn’t always get it right, for the most part, Abraham moves out of these DTR moments with God into a new place of faith. And it’s not just Abraham – these DTR moments with God happen throughout the Bible. God, you see, is the Ultimate Pursuer. He corners His people; He confronts His people. And when this happens, there are only really two possible reactions. People are either vulnerable and decide to take a risk. Or they bail. No one ever walks away from God thinking, “That was a good talk.” Because a DTR with God just doesn’t work that way.

And so my objective tonight is simple. First, I want to look at Abraham’s DTR moments because the Bible is the Living Word – it’s alive. What God says to Abraham he says to you and me. But second, I want the Spirit to give us ears to hear so that you and I are tuned in enough to know when God is having a DTR with us – that way we can respond and move to deeper places of faith and love.

And so let’s look at Abraham’s first DTR with God.

DTR #1: The Call to Leave

Then the LORD told Abram, "Leave your country, your relatives, and your father's house, and go to the land that I will show you. 2 I will cause you to become the father of a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and I will make you a blessing to others. 3 I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you. All the families of the earth will be blessed through you." 4 So Abram went. Abram was seventy-five years old when he left Haran. – Gen 12: 1-4

DTR #1 starts with a single command – leave! Leave your country, leave your people, leave your family – leave everything that’s safe and familiar. And of course implied in all this is the command to leave whatever god or gods he was worshipping at the time. And so here we have Abraham who for the first time is faced with an epic DTR moment. Will he stay, or will he leave? Does he dare take a risk – does he dare follow this God that is inviting him into the unknown?

Now, we have to understand the choice he’s facing here. Abraham is not some uncouth nomad with nothing to lose. No, he’s a prosperous merchant. He’s got possessions; he’s got servants. In fact, he’s a city boy! Haran, where Abraham’s family comes from, was one of the great commercial cities of the ancient world located right on the river. And in this Metropolitan area, Abraham is known, respected, and secure. He’s a member at the HCC – the Haran country club. Abraham’s world is very safe and very familiar.

And yet God – who, lest we forget has an agenda to rescue his fallen image-bearers and to bring them back into perfect community with himself – tells Abraham to leave. Go to the place where you have no lands, no networks, no connections, and no prospects. What kind of person would follow a call like that?

Well, as it turns out, the whole story of Abraham – and scripture for that matter – hinges on two little words in Genesis 12:4. Abram went. And he was seventy-five years old. He was rich and semi-retired. Abraham had Medicare and social security benefits. And yet, he bet everything on God – he went, he left, he took a step of faith.

And so before we move on, it might be interesting to ask – is God calling you to leave anything? Perhaps some idol, some sin, or some fear? Or maybe God’s calling you to actually go someplace new – to take that step of faith – to start serving in some new area of ministry? Remember, DTR #1 starts with a single command. Leave.

OK, let’s look at DTR #2.

DTR #2: Making a Covenant

There are some things in life that just don’t make any sense – that just seem beyond our comprehension. For example, a 24 year old model marries an overweight, balding fifty-eight year old alcoholic with a short temper and bad B.O. Now, at first sight – this is just baffling. But if you think about it, why’d she marry him? Money. This actually happens all the time. People get married – they make a covenant with each other – because both parties have something to gain from the exchange. She gets the money. He gets a trophy wife. It’s just that simple. Now, just so I’m clear, this is not even close to what a healthy marriage looks like. BUT, I use this example because it’s a great illustration for how covenants in the ancient world actually worked.

For example, let’s just say two countries form a covenant. The stronger country would have something to gain – perhaps water rights or maybe they need land for their cattle (or to use a modern example, perhaps they need oil) – but the weaker country, they just want the stronger country to protect them. And so they’d form a covenant. “You can use our river; just don’t let those barbarians that live across the river kill us.” And so here’s what’s baffling – what seems beyond comprehension about DTR # 2, where God wants to form a covenant with Abraham.

What does God get out of the deal? What does God –the Creator of the heavens and the earth, who needs nothing, who lacks nothing – what does the Sovereign Lord of the entire creation get out of making a covenant with Abraham? God already knows that we’re a bunch of community crashers – that in forming a covenant with us He’ll face nothing but heartache, ingratitude, folly, and sin. And so what’s in it for God?

And the answer is important. God gets someone to bless! He chooses Abraham, of all the people of the earth, and essentially says “I’m going to pour out all of my affection and warmth and mercy and love onto you. I’ve chosen you and your people to bless the entire world.” And so let’s be clear about God’s desire – God’s desire, God’s plan, is to bless the entire earth. God wants to bless this one man and his descendants so much that they in turn becoming a blessing to the world. And so just to remind you, God’s scope is universal. It’s not a pleasing thing to God when people aren’t blessed – it doesn’t bring joy to God’s heart if someone misses out on the blessing.

Now, as Christians – we also are God’s chosen people. That doesn’t mean that God loves us more than people without the “Christian” label, nor can we sit back in complacency because we think that we alone have the golden ticket into heaven. Because when God chooses you, he doesn’t do it for your sake alone, but for the sake of the whole world. He chooses you to serve. He chooses you to be a blessing. That’s what forming a covenant with God – or DTR #2 – is all about.

And so last but not least, let’s take a look at DTR #3.

DTR #3: A Call to Total Surrender

Ok, so God has a plan to rescue his image-bearers from their community crashing ways and so he chooses one man – a seventy-five year old geriatric – and says “through you and your children, I’m going to rescue the world.” So Abraham leaves what’s familiar (DTR #1) and makes a covenant with God (DTR #2). But, practically speaking, if Abraham is going to be the father of many nations, does anyone know what he has to be first? A father. And so Abraham is 99 years old. It’s been 24 years since he left Haran. He has arthritis and travels around the desert on a rascal. To quote the apostle Paul, “his body was as good as dead” (Rom 4:19). And God keeps telling him “your descendents will be great,” but Abraham doesn’t even have a proper son through his wife Sarah. And so Abraham has to wonder – am I taking crazy pills? Have I been deceived by God?

Well as it happens, Sarah miraculously conceives a son and they name him Isaac. At the age of 100, Abraham has his first son through Sarah – which means that finally, God’s promise is being fulfilled. And so you’d think that Abraham would be pretty pleased with himself. I mean, let’s say you were Abraham – that you left everything. You took a risk on God. I mean, what kind of person would do that? But you did! And now the promise is actually coming true. You’re having a son – which means that this son is everything. Through him, the promise of God moves forward, which means that through your son, God’s plan to rescue the world moves forward. And so your son – He’s your life. He’s a miracle. He’s the hope of the entire world.

God tested Abraham's faith and obedience. "Abraham!" God called. "Yes," he replied. "Here I am." 2 "Take your son, your only son-- yes, Isaac, whom you love so much-- and go to the land of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains, which I will point out to you." – Gen 22: 1-2

This is Abraham’s final DTR with God – the call to total surrender. And just so there’s no confusion – the author of Genesis makes it very clear that this is only a test. The God revealed in the Old Testament hates human sacrifice. But Abraham doesn’t know that. And human sacrifice was common in Abraham’s day. And so this is DTR # 3 – the most shocking DTR of them all – the call to surrender all that you are, and all that you have, to God. Can you hear the greater question that God is asking Abraham? “Sure you’ve left everything, yes we have a covenant – but will trust me even when you don’t understand, even when it doesn’t make sense?”

Well, if you don’t know how the story ends, God doesn’t let Abraham sacrifice Isaac. That just doesn’t mesh with God’s character. Instead, God provides a ram for Abraham to sacrifice. But Abraham was never the same – he had moved to a deeper level of intimacy, a greater level of trust, with God. He now knew what it meant to surrender everything to God. And in surrendering everything, He came to know – not just to believe but to know – that God had his best interests at heart.

“Take your son, your only son-- yes, Isaac, whom you love so much-- and sacrifice him.” This is actually the first time the word love appears in the Bible. Isn’t that interesting? We’re twenty-two chapters into the Bible and for the first time the word love appears – and it’s used for a father whose willing to sacrifice his beloved son - his beloved son that was miraculously conceived – his beloved son who just happens to be the hope of the world.

The call to be in relationship with the God of the Bible is not a one-time decision. There’s always a more radical level of trust, there’s always a deeper place of intimacy. Maybe your world is like Abraham’s was before God called him – very safe and familiar – and God’s asking you to leave something behind. Or maybe it’s time to renew your covenant – your relationship – with God. Or maybe you’ve been walking with God for a while, but you find yourself unable or unwilling to surrender everything because it’s scary. But wherever you are, I hope you’re listening – to God, not to me – because our God is the Ultimate Pursuer. He corners us, He confronts us, He invites us to a new place of intimacy and a deeper level of commitment – no matter where we are. And when this happens, we can’t walk away thinking “That was a good talk.” Because a DTR with God just doesn’t work that way.

DTR #1 – leave. DTR #2 – make a covenant. DTR #3 – surrender everything. What kind of person would follow a call like that?


This OMEGA series “OT Greatest Hits” is inspired by a 32-week Christian Education program put out by Willow Creek called the “Old Testament Challenge.” Some Omega talks will rely on this resource more heavily than others. Some will not even be based on it at all. However, if you have specific questions please email me at For more info on the OT Challenge, see

Monday, September 21, 2009

a cross-shaped wisdom

James 3:13 – 4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37
Proper 20, Year B

From tonight’s reading from James – “Who is the wise and understanding among you?”

We are incredibly intelligent. There’s no doubt about it – we are the smartest living thing that God’s ever created. And of course, I’m not just talking about us Longhorns – though, in good conscience, I could never preach this sermon in College Station. But, I mean humans. People. Homo sapiens. Our brains are faster and sharper than any other species on earth. We are incredibly intelligent, but we're also capable of being incredibly dumb. For example, did you know that we’re the only mammal in creation that routinely kills its own kind? According to Wikipedia, more than 30 wars are going on as I speak these words. And I believe it was Anonymous that said, “The study of history is the study of war.”

We can be so smart and yet so dumb all at the same time. We are capable of doing so much good and yet so much evil. I mean, think about it. We can take a nicely shaped chunk of metal that weighs over a million pounds, and make it glide smoothly through the air. But at the same time, we can glide that same plane right into a building and kill thousands of people. Or, consider this – we can split an atom and power a village. Or we can split that same atom and destroy a nation. We are capable of doing so much good, and yet so much evil. And we, intelligent people that we are, routinely do both. And so how’s it possible? How is it possible to be so smart, and yet so dumb, all at the same time?

Here’s the way that James asks this same question. “Who is the wise and understanding among you?” In other words, who among you is really smart? Who among you is really in step with reality itself? Because I hate to say this, but not everyone is. You see, the assumption behind James’ question is that there's a wisdom from above and a wisdom that doesn't come from above." And so all James is asking is this – “who among you is seeking the wisdom from above? Who among you is in step with reality itself? Who is the wise and understanding among you?”

Ok, hold that thought. A little trivia – does anyone know why Adam and Eve ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil? It isn’t because they skipped breakfast. They wanted to be wise. According to Genesis, and I quote, “when the woman saw … that the tree was desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate.” According to Genesis, this is our “original sin” – seeking to be wise on our own terms. Our world has yet to figure this out, but my prayer and my hope is that our church soon will. Wisdom apart from God is no wisdom at all. It’s a dead end. Because if we seek to be wise on our own terms – apart from God – we’ll inevitably place ourselves at the center of our world. And we aren't made to be the center of our world – that's God's place. And so when it comes to being really smart, to being really in step with reality itself, our IQ doesn’t matter. Our degree doesn’t matter. How articulate we are doesn’t matter. Because according to James, seeking wisdom on our own terms and not God's terms is “earthly, unspiritual, and devilish.” And if we're seeking that type of wisdom, our own type of wisdom, it just doesn’t matter how smart we are. Because seeking wisdom apart from God is dumb.

Now, this is exactly what the disciples in today's gospel are doing. They are seeking a wisdom that's different from the wisdom that Jesus has been teaching – right? And at this point in Mark's gospel, the scene would be funny if it weren’t so absurd. Twice now Jesus has told them that, as the Messiah, he must die on a cross. But today the disciples are arguing over which one of them is the greatest! But notice – Jesus doesn’t rebuke them for aspiring to be great – if anything, Jesus encourages them. If anything, he teaches them what true greatness is. “And so you want to be great?” Jesus asks rhetorically. “Then here’s the wisdom I have to offer. Become a servant. Take up your cross. After all, I’m going to the cross, not in spite of the fact that I’m great.” “I’m going to the cross,” Jesus says, “precisely because I am great, precisely because I am wise, precisely because I am smart.

THE CROSS. That is the wisdom that Jesus offers us. And it is fundamentally at odds with the wisdom of the world. To a world that says look out for number one, Jesus’ cross-shaped wisdom teaches us to lay down our lives for one another. To a world that says “a penny saved is a penny earned,” Jesus’ cross-shaped wisdom encourages us to give some of those pennies away. And to world that screams “we can do anything we set our minds to,” Jesus’ cross-shaped wisdom is emphatic – “NO, actually you can’t. And so you’ve got to become like children, who can’t do anything on their own, and wake up to the fact that apart from me, you can do nothing.”

And so here’s the question I leave us with this week. My question isn’t do you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior? My question is a bit more demanding – do you accept Jesus Christ as your teacher? You see, we can't follow Jesus while we're also seeking a wisdom that's different than the wisdom he's teaching. The world has yet to figure this out, but my prayer and hope is that our church soon will: wisdom apart from Jesus, who is the very embodiment of God, is no wisdom at all. It’s a dead end. Because if we seek to be wise on our own terms, we’ll inevitably place ourselves at the center of our world. Like the disciples in today’s Gospel, we’ll strive to be great without ever knowing what true greatness is. And so if we want to be wise, we have to look at the cross. The cross is where the wisdom of God confronts the wisdom of our world. And frankly, we can’t have it both ways. There’s a wisdom from above, and there’s a wisdom that doesn’t come from above. And only one of them is cross-shaped.

And so, once again, “who is the wise and understanding among you?” Well, I guess the answer to James' question entirely depends on who we adopt as our teacher. Remember – we are capable of doing so much good, and yet so much evil, because there’s a wisdom from above and a wisdom that doesn't come from above. And so when it comes to being wise – to being really smart – remember that our IQ doesn’t matter. Our degree doesn’t matter. How articulate we are doesn’t matter. Because if we seek to be wise on our own terms – apart from God – we’ll inevitably place ourselves at the center of our world. And to place ourselves at the center of God’s world – that’s just dumb.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

community crashers (life outside the garden)


What did Adam say on the day before Christmas?
It’s Christmas! Eve!

Ok, so a little trivia from last week – in one word, why are we here? Community. That’s right, our story begins with perfect community. And let me tell you, life in that first nudist colony was good. Adam and Eve were free to do anything they pleased. Nothing was off limits – well, except for one thing:

The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. 16 And the LORD God commanded the man, "You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die."

Why would God make such a weird rule? Just for fun, let’s say that you’re traveling to LA for a night and can’t afford a hotel room. And so this guy, who’s really rich and generous, puts you up in his mansion on the Pacific Ocean for free. And this place is fully loaded. Nice cars? Check. Flat screen TV? Check. Whatever else you want? Check. You see, he’s going away on business and needs a house sitter and so he tells you – “it’s all yours. Have fun.” Except - there’s this one red popsicle in the freezer, and according to the owner, “that red popsicle is off limits. Have the green one or the purple one. Do anything you want. Just don’t eat that red popsicle.” Why would he make such a weird rule? Hold that thought.

Let’s go back to the Garden, where Adam and Eve were in perfect community. Remember, there was no hiding, no concealing, and no guilty secrets that separated them. According to Genesis, they were “naked and not ashamed.” Adam and Eve stood before God and each other, and every dimension of their soul and body was fully exposed. They were fully known and fully accepted. Adam and Eve and God were in perfect community.

But then something happened, which Christians traditionally have called “the Fall” – and the idea behind the Fall is that humanity was made for perfect community, but because of our own deliberate choice, we “fell” from that state. In other words, the “Fall” is the fancy church-word that describes the mess that our world is currently in. And personally, I like this term. But tonight, I’d like to introduce a new term that might be a bit more practical – not only because it describes Adam and Eve and all the other characters in the Bible, but because it describes us too. And that term is community crashers. Community crashers are people who find themselves powerless – completely unable – to live into the perfect community that God designed them for. And so tonight we hear the story of the world’s first community crashers, and if we listen carefully, we’ll see that it’s our story too.

by John Newton

Eve stands with her husband in the Garden of Eden – both naked as a jaybird – just chilling by the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. A snake slivers up to Eve and “asks” a question.

So God actually said you can’t eat from any of these trees?

No, we can eat the fruit off the trees – except this tree right in the middle of the garden. In fact, we can’t even touch it. Or we’ll die!

That’s a bunch of B.Ssssssssss. You’re not going to die! God just said that to keep you from seeing what He sees. He doesn’t want you to be His equal.

Eve looks intently at the forbidden fruit and begins to think that it’s probably pretty tasty. But the idea of being God’s equal – that sounds even better! And so after grabbing an apple she takes a bite or two and hands the rest of the fruit to Adam. Seeing that Eve is still alive, Adam also eats of the fruit. Immediately, both sense something has changed. Both examine their body in fear. Adam looks at Eve and sees a stranger. Eve looks at Adam and is filled with a horrible shame. They run in opposite directions in an effort to “clothe” themselves the best they can with fig leaves. They both sit alone – crying – until a sound is heard. Footsteps approach …

Adam? Adam? Where are you?

Hiding. When I heard you coming, I got scared and hid. I’m naked. You can’t see me like this.

How’d you figure out that you were naked? Did you disobey me and eat from the one tree that I said was off-limits?

Don’t look at me. Eve’s the one that gave it to me. She did it first. And don’t forget, You’re the one that put her here in the first place!

What do you have to say for yourself Eve? What have you done?

It’s the serpent’s fault. He tricked me.

Serpent, you are now a cursed animal. Your new diet is dirt. And Eve, having children is going to be horribly painful because of this, and your relationship with Adam will suffer. You’ll want love and intimacy, but he’ll just want to be your boss. And Adam, searching the earth for food will be harder for you than childbirth is for Eve. You can’t stay in the Garden anymore. Your life is now work, work, work. And make no mistake – you’ll work yourself to death.

God fights to make sense of what has happened. He feels betrayed and for the first time God sees something on the earth that is not what he intended. He looks around – “not good.” In silence, God and his two image-bearers walk slowly to the Gate of Eden. No words are spoken as God hands Adam and Eve two sets of clothing that He made for them out of animal skins. Adam and Eve leave the Garden. Each one is utterly alone.


Ok, let’s start with a question. When something happens to you, how do you determine whether it’s good or whether it’s evil? For example – your significant other tells you he or she wants to start “seeing” other people, or let’s just say you don’t get into the only grad school you’ve ever wanted to attend? By a show of hands, does anyone think these things are good? But how do you know? In my experience, we usually say that something is good when it makes us feel good, or perhaps when it gives us a sense of security. And that’s why people spend their entire lives trying to acquire for themselves what they determine to be good – whether it’s financial security or six-pack abs or the “respect” of their friends. Do you see what’s going on? When it comes to deciding between what’s good and evil, it’s usually just us deciding what is best for us – a decision that’s usually made based on how we feel.

And so the question is what happens when we’re both after the same piece of fruit – when something seems “good” to us and we go for it? For example, let’s say that me and Casey are both up for the same promotion and that we both “want” it really bad. Wouldn’t that make us competitors instead of neighbors? Or perhaps a real example. What happens when two nations both want the same strip of land – when both nations decide that it would be good if a certain piece of land belonged to them? They go to war.

You see, in making ourselves the judge of what’s good and what’s evil, what we’re actually doing is declaring our independence from God. Because to be in perfect community with God is necessarily to adopt a mentality of childlike dependence – to trust that God is not only in control, but that He has our best interest at heart. And so once again, why would God make such a strange rule? And the answer is because if they eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, in essence, they will be declaring their independence from God. They’ll be rejecting the perfect community that he offers. To eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is to essentially say, “Now I can decide what’s good and what’s evil apart from God or anyone else.” Which isn’t that far removed from, “now I can be my own God.”

And so let’s take a closer look at this story. It starts with a question from the serpent – did God really say that you can’t eat from any of the trees? Now obviously, God didn’t say that – He said to eat from as many of the trees as they wanted except one. And so the question is why – why would the serpent misquote God. And I think the answer is this – he wants to plant a seed in the woman’s mind so that she begins to question the goodness of God. And so the first thing I want to say about being a community crasher is this: the decision to sin, or to be a community crasher, always includes the thought that we can’t really trust God to watch out for our well-being. No one raise your hand, but how many of you have thought something like this before: I want to be obedient to God, but I’m scared that if I do – I’ll miss out on something good, something fun, something that everyone else is doing. You see, any time that we intentionally do something we’re pretty sure that God doesn’t approve of, or anytime we shove God into a corner of our mind so that we just don’t have to think about it, that’s our “inner serpent” that wants us to believe that God can’t be trusted. And when we listen to that serpent, what we’re really saying – usually subconsciously – is I don’t trust that God really knows what’s good for me. And so I’m going to have to choose for myself what’s good and what’s evil. I, and not God, will be at the center.

And so how does Eve respond? “No, we can eat from all the trees except this one,” she says. “In fact, we can’t even touch this tree – or we die.” Now, God never told Adam and Eve they couldn’t touch the tree – that’s a lie. And so what do you think Eve’s up to? I think she’s trying to make God sound a little more severe, a little more unreasonable, than He really is. After all, it’s a lot easier to break the rules when you’ve convinced yourself that the Judge is an unreasonable tyrant.

Now, I can’t harp on Eve too much because Adam is even worst. People always blame Eve, but a careful reading of the story suggests that Adam was next to her the whole time and didn’t say a word. There was no, “Uh, Eve you’re talking to a snake. I think we better leave.” No, Adam watches in silence and then passively eats the fruit. And when God confronts him, does Adam man up and take responsibility? No, Adam actually blames God for putting this “she-devil” with him in the first place. No more “bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh.” Not anymore. You can almost hear Adam complaining, “When it was just me and the animals everything was fine.

Well, it’s like the story says, their eyes were opened – and what a nightmare they saw. The perfect community they had experienced with God and with one another was gone. And so the question is – what were they left with?

1. Shame.
The man the woman, who had never known shame, looked at each other and shame filled their hearts. They looked at what used to be their perfect partner, and each one saw a stranger.

2. Alienation.
Adam and Eve were alienated from themselves, from each other, from God, from their work, from the entire creation. Remember, they both used to walk with God in the cool of the garden. Now, when God comes to walk with them, they both run away. Alienation has entered the human experience.

3. Fear.
When God asks Adam where he is, his response is, “I hid because I was afraid.”

4. Blame.
Adam blames God. Adam blames Eve. Eve blames the serpent.

5. Pain.
Adam and Eve had never known pain. Adam will experience pain in his work. Eve will experience pain in childbirth. Both, of course, are different forms of labor. Whereas labor was intended by God to bring joy, it now brings humanity pain.

6. Death.
Adam and Eve were never supposed to experience death. But outside life in the garden – a life sustained only by a childlike dependence on the God that loves them – their life will now end in death.

Now, regardless of whether or not you believe that today’s story falls under the domain of historical fact, I do hope that you’ve come to see that it’s true – and at least that something, somewhere, happened between humanity and God that ruined the perfect community that He designed us for. Because our hunger for perfect community with God and our hunger for perfect community with one another tell us something real about the purpose that God most certainly had in creating each and every one of us. But at the same time, we all know what it’s like to experience shame, alienation, fear, blame, pain, and one day death. And to me, this suggests that the human race has missed the mark. Perfect community – that’s the mark. And we miss it. In fact, the best translation of the Greek word typically translated sin is “to miss a mark.” And that’s what being a community crasher is ultimately about – it’s about finding ourselves in a world where we miss the mark of perfect community. Being a community crasher is about deciding for ourselves what’s best – about saying that when it comes to our own life, we know what’s good and we don’t need God to help us. And because of that, we too live outside the garden.

Now, did God just wash his hands clean of Adam and Eve? No. They may be community crashers, but they’re still His image-bearers. And so God takes animal skins – which by the way means that a sacrifice was made – and makes them clothes so that they can still come into his presence without being ashamed. What an amazing picture of God’s tenderness and grace!

That being said, you and I live outside the garden. And all because we decided to take that red popsicle. And in doing so, we threw a wrench in God’s plan to bring humanity into his perfect communal life. Lucky for us, God had a rescue plan. And that’s what we’ll talk about next week.

This OMEGA series “OT Greatest Hits” is inspired by a 32-week Christian Education program put out by Willow Creek called the “Old Testament Challenge.” Some Omega talks will rely on this resource more heavily than others. Some will not even be based on it at all. However, if you have specific questions please email me at For more info on the OT Challenge, see

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

consumed by a desire to lose

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that I am?" And they answered him, "John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets." He asked them, "But who do you say that I am?" Peter answered him, "You are the Messiah." And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things." He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels."

Two years ago, I had the chance to coach one of the greatest sporting events of our time. The sport was football. Well, flag football – basically the same thing. And so don’t think Super Bowl. Think “Luther Bowl” – an annual flag football tournament, in honor of the great Martin Luther, where seminaries from across America – or at least Virginia – fight for two things: (1) glory and (2) the coveted bobble-head Martin Luther trophy. And yes, I had the honor of coaching our seminary’s team – the “fighting friars.” And I have to say, I was consumed by a desire to win. And so even though my official title was coach, I saw myself as somewhat of a general. And so before our first game, like any good general, I sat down my men and issued a call to war. I explained that we were an army, that I needed their allegiance, that losing wasn’t an option, and that our enemies had to be crushed.

There was, however, one problem – our first game was against a seminary that was predominantly – female. And apparently, these women were under the impression that the Luther Bowl “was just for fun” – as if there wasn’t a bobble-head Martin Luther on the line. And somehow, in like the first thirty seconds, I may have accidentally tackled their smallest player. And she may have had to go the ER. And the ref may have cancelled the game. Anyway, really embarrassing. But I tell you this for a reason – if we are consumed by a desire to win, we’re going to lose.

Now, that being said, let’s talk more about war. And about armies. And about generals. Because today’s reading from Mark is about all three. You see, tonight Jesus tells us that we must lose our lives for the sake of the gospel – and believe it or not, the word Gospel is a word about war and armies and generals. After all, the word gospel means “good news,” but in its original context – before the “Christian gospel” as we know it was ever written – the word gospel was a military term used by the Roman army. For example, if the Roman army went to war and conquered another enemy – the general would come back to Rome and tell everyone the gospel – or the “good news” – that Rome’s enemies had been crushed. And of course that general, in the name of the emperor, would ask for the people’s allegiance. And so to reiterate, the word gospel is the good news that a war has been won, that an enemy has been crushed, and that the general –whoever’s leading the army – is worth following.

Now, before moving on, I’ve got to say one more thing. The people of Israel – or the Jews – had been conquered by Rome. And because of that, Rome was their enemy. And Jews in Jesus’ day were ready to go to war with Rome under the right circumstances, and I say the right “circumstances” because the people of Israel lacked one thing – a general, that is someone to lead their army and crush the Romans. And do you know what the Hebrew word is that describes the general that’s supposed to lead God’s army? Messiah.

Now, with that in mind, think about Peter’s confession in today’s reading from Mark. Look a bit different than you first imagined? “You are the messiah.” Not you are God, or you are the second person of the Trinity. But, “you are the messiah. You’re Israel’s long awaited general. You, Jesus, are leading the army. You, Jesus, will conquer our enemy. And if you’re leading the fight, then we’re going to war too. General Jesus, you are the Messiah – and we, we are your army.

And so when Jesus – Israel’s general, the leader of the army – starts using words like suffering, rejected, and killed, not about the Romans but about himself, do you see why Peter freaks out? Why He takes Jesus aside, and ironically, tries to inform him how to be a better Messiah? Think about it. The only generals that end up on a cross are bad generals. Losing generals. And yet, this Jesus, this would-be Messiah, this general tells Peter that he must – that he must be nailed to a Roman cross. And so it kind of makes you wonder. What kind of battle is this? And who’s the enemy? And finally – what kind of general is Jesus?

Not the one Peter expected – that’s for sure. And you know why? Because Peter didn’t understand the enemy. That’s why. Poor Peter thought that Rome was the enemy, that Rome was the problem. Not only is Peter’s view short-sighted, but theologically, it’s really problematic. After all, doesn’t God love Rome too? Are the Romans not also made in God’s image? And so the enemy was never Rome. Or Greece. Or Babylon. Or Persia. Or Assyria. Or any other nation that conquered the people of Israel. And so what is?

EVIL AND DEATH AND SIN. The enemy has always been evil and death and sin. And by “sin,” I don’t mean when we break a rule here, and break a rule there. That’s a cheap view of sin. Because when the bible talks about sin, it uses the word to describe this horrible power that puts our world and our lives out of joint – the evil, the hatred, the abuse. And so by sin I’m talking about that dark place inside each of us that makes us go war with each other, that makes us think we have to conquer at all costs, that makes us think that our opponents just have to be crushed – whether it’s Rome or someone we don’t like or even a seminary flag football team made up of all women. The enemy has always been evil and death and sin.

And so back to our questions. What kind of battle is this? A battle between good and evil, between life and death, between the kingdom of the world and the kingdom of God. And what kind of general is Jesus? The kind that conquers evil and death and sin in a way that’s so beautiful and so strange that only God could have thought it up. By going to the cross and bearing their full weight. By absorbing all the evil, all the hatred, and all the abuse – even unto death – only to rise again and conquer our enemy once and for all. And he did that for us. It’s an amazing thing. In the war against evil and death and sin, Jesus wasn’t consumed by a desire to win. He was consumed by a desire to lose. And in a way that’s so beautiful and so strange that only God could have thought it up, that’s how we won the war.

At the end of every service, I yell something from the back of the church. “Let us go forth in the name of Christ.” In an odd way, this is the church’s way of issuing a call to war. After all, Peter was right – Jesus is our long awaited general, the one leading the fight against evil and death and sin. And while God’s victory over evil is secure, there’s still work to be done. And you and I – we get to do that work. Because to be a disciple of Jesus is to place ourselves on the front lines in the war against anything and everything that opposes God’s desire to reconcile all things to himself. But let us not make the same mistake as Peter. Because if we are consumed by a desire to win, we’re going to lose.

And so here’s the take-home for this week. Be consumed by a desire to lose. Because every time we bless someone that curses us, or turn the other cheek, or serve someone less fortunate, on the one hand, it’s going to cost us. We will deny our self. There will be a cross. But on the other hand, we’re going to discover something amazing – that by sacrificing our self for others, we’re fighting the only war that’s ever mattered. A war that Jesus has already won for us. And when that sinks in, not only will we gladly lose our lives for others – but in a way that’s so beautiful and so strange that only God could have thought it up – we’ll actually save our life in the process.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

the reason we're here (life in the nudist colony)


Do you know why Noah didn’t let a few of the birds on the ark?
They were using fowl language.

Not my best effort. Some of you have expressed some concern that the OT is no longer relevant. To quote my sister, “it’s just so old.” So why bother teaching it to hip college students like yourself? Well, I’ll tell you. Last spring I told a brilliant joke on a Wednesday night about Abraham and Isaac. The gist of the joke is that Isaac’s computer didn’t have enough memory and so he complained to his Father, Abraham, whose reply was – “don’t worry son, the Lord will supply the RAM.” Well, no one laughed, and because that’s hilarious I concluded that you know as much about the Old Testament as I know about high-end designer women’s handbags – just enough to get by in casual conversation.

And so without further ado, we begin tonight with the single most controversial sentence ever written. Are you ready? “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Do you feel the controversy? The scandal? These words were written, and the world has never been the same.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. God – if He’s any God at all – created everything that exists. Even my three year old nephew Rupert knows that. And perhaps you’re right, maybe we all do. After all, our culture has inherited about 3,500 years of strong Judeo-Christian teaching. And because of that, we very well might take it for granted that a) there’s only one God and b) that He’s the One responsible for this reality we call existence. But fasten your seatbelts, because if we’re going to understand the Old Testament at all, we have to take a journey. And so put on your imagination cap. The year is 1200 BC and you’re a college student at – are you ready – Mesopotamia University. Sadly, Nineveh State was your first choice and you got waitlisted. And because you grew up in the ancient Near East, you’ve never even heard the idea that of a Personal God that’s responsible for creation.

That being said, you have heard a lot of stories that try to explain why the world was created, but the only thing these stories have in common is that not one of them involve a loving and personal creator. But instead, you’ve been brought up to believe that the universe is filled with many different gods and that each one is limited in power and morally repulsive. In other words, you believe the gods are at war – they’re petty, they’re jealous, and they have a really short temper. Perhaps a bit like Lindsey Lohan. And not only that, but their favorite pastime is taking out their anger on humans.

You live in a really superstitious world and your life is basically one, big terrified existence. It revolves around appeasing the gods so that the short, hopeless, and meaningless life you experience isn’t any more painful than it has to be. Your life revolves around appeasing the gods. And they all want different things. Some gods are easy. Just leave them some corn and that’s enough. And some want to be worshipped – and so there’s a pretty good chance that you brought your small stone statue of the village god with you to Mesopotamia U. But some gods demanded much, much more. For example, when people wanted something from the Molech, they’d build a fire inside of his statue and then wait until it was glowing with heat. And then, they’d place their infant child on the arms of the statue. The child, of course, would be seared to death. The year is 1200 BC. And you live in a barbaric, loveless world.

Of course, as a kid you probably asked your parents why the gods created you. After all, there’s not a child in the world that doesn’t ask that question. A desire to know why we’re here is built into our D.N.A. And every answer had a similar hopelessness. The gods were bored. They were lonely. They needed people to do their chores. They created us for amusement. You could have been told anything. But I know for a fact what you weren’t told. You’ve never been told – not once – that creation had anything to do with love. In fact love wasn’t a concept that would have even made sense to you. In other words, you live in a world where the view of human beings is at an all time low. Life, as you know it, is an endless cycle of conflict – between people and people, between one god and another god, and between people and the gods. But not only that – it’s an endless cycle of death. People are born, they die, and on and on goes the cycle – without meaning, without purpose.

And so living in this horribly destructive belief system, imagine hearing these words: “In the beginning God” – a transcendent, all-powerful, eternal, personal being – in the beginning this God created the heavens and the earth. And then the kicker – God saw that it was good.

What do you think you’d say? Good? How can creation be good? What about the death, the conflict, the fear, the child sacrifices? Well, we’ll actually get into all that next week. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that for the first time in the history of the world, a group of people dared to claim that a personal, loving God created everything – and that it was good. And so the question naturally arises – why? After all, a desire to know why we’re here is built into our D.N.A.

And the answer, from the very beginning, is clear: COMMUNITY. You and I – each and every one of us – were created to be in perfect community with God and in perfect community with one another. In other words, we were made to be in an intimate relationship with God and with others. Now as Christians, we believe that God is, by definition, a Perfect Community. After all, that’s what we mean when we talk about the Trinity – that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – three distinct personalities that are in such an intimate relationship with one another that they are one God and not three. In other words, there was never a time when the Father existed, but the Son and the Spirit did not exist. And that’s because we believe that God, by His very nature, is Perfect Community.

Now, I know what you could be thinking. Isn’t the idea of the Trinity contrary to what we find in the Old Testament? And the answer is – absolutely not. Listen to the first three verses of the Bible.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 The earth was empty, a formless mass cloaked in darkness. And the Spirit of God was hovering over its surface. 3 Then God said, "Let there be light," and there was light.

Verse 1 tells us, and I quote, that “God created.” This, we believe, is the work of the Father. In fact, in the book of James this Creator is called “the Father of lights.” In verse 2, we’re told that the Spirit of God is hovering over the waters. Genesis uses the same language the Gospels use when they talk about the Holy Spirit hovering over the water at Jesus’ baptism. And in verse 3 we’re told that God creates by speaking His Word. God doesn’t just “think” light into existence. He speaks his Word - “let there be light.” And of course in the Gospel of John we learn that this “Word,” through whom all things are created, is none other than Jesus Christ – the Son of God. And so it’s important to see that from the very beginning, starting with the first three verses of scripture, we see God in perfect community.

And so back to our question – why did God create this earth. Why did God create us? And the answer is for community. That’s the main reason you’re here. Out of the magnificent richness of the eternal community that we call the Trinity, God created humanity so that we too might live in his love. You weren’t created because God is bored. The Father didn’t get tired of the Son and all of the sudden need some better company. But you were created because God, because of His communal nature, is love – and by definition, to love is to be generous, to give, to expand, to enlarge, and to include. In other words, God wanted to include you in His own life. And so God created the heavens and the earth, and most importantly – me and you.

But do you see what that means? It means that you and I are the pinnacle of God’s creation. You see, God created the heavens and the earth and He said that it was good. He created the light and said that it was good. The plants – good. The animals – good. But then God created man and woman – and you know what God said? Very good. Here’s what Genesis 1 says.

“Then God said, let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish and the birds and the cattle and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth. So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them.”

I think in today’s world there’s a huge risk – a huge risk – that we’ll forget who we are. And here’s what I mean. We in the 21st century live between two radical extremes, at least in terms of how we view ourselves. On the one hand there’s the view that we deserve a place equal to God. And that’s all pride is. In fact, a few religions even teach that humans are divine. But on the other hand, there’s the radically scientific / secular viewpoint that would just shrug and say that humans are some freakish cosmic accident – the random result of a random Big Bang. But somewhere between these two poles lies the truth, which is this – that You and I and every human you’ll ever meet is the apex – the pinnacle – of God’s creative work.

And so you know how I said that God is perfect community? Well, to be made in God’s image – to be made in His likeness – means that our purpose, the meaning of our existence, is to experience this same perfect community with God and with one another. And that’s exactly what we see in the first two chapters of Genesis. In fact, Genesis tells us a few things that fascinate bible dorks like myself.

First, do you remember Adam’s job before God created Eve? God put Adam in charge of naming the animals. It’s actually a pretty funny scene. It’s just God and Adam in the Garden of Eden and God’s trying to find Adam a suitable partner. And so God parades all these different animals in front of Adam and tells him to name them in the hope that one of them might be a suitable partner. And so as the animals all walk by, Adam starts naming them – buffalo, cat, mouse, horse, lizard, rhinoceros. Adam names them all. Now I don’t care how much we love our pets - we all know that not one of them is a suitable partner. They’re pets. And so as the story goes, God puts Adam into a deep sleep and when Adam wakes up he sees Eve. And when Adam sees Eve, he knows for the first time that he’s found a partner who exceeds his wildest expectations. His exact words are “this at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” Adam, upon seeing Eve, is more alive than he’s ever been. For the first time in his life, Adam bears the full image of God. After all, Adam was made for community, and when he meets Eve, he experiences perfect community with another human being.

Second, we’re also told that the Garden of Eden was the first nudist colony in the history of the world. And, at least before the 3rd chapter of Genesis, the Bible suggests that this is a good thing. Because being naked in the Bible is a symbol of intimacy and communion. To be “naked,” biblically speaking is to be totally exposed and known. And so according to Genesis, Adam and Eve were completely naked – before God and before one another – and were not at all ashamed. This is the second reminder Genesis gives us that what they had from the beginning was perfect community.

But Genesis hints at a third thing that’s really, really significant. It suggests that God was in the garden with both of them the entire time. In fact, one tradition teaches that every evening God and Adam would take a walk. Imagine having a nightly appointment to go for a walk with God.

And so imagine what the Garden of Eden must have been like. Just imagine you’re Adam and that after you see Eve for the first time you go for a walk with God. I bet Adam felt really, really loved by this God that was always trying to bless him and surprise him with these amazing experiences. And I bet their conversations on these walks were awesome – they probably talked about how beautiful Eve was and about how great it was to know her. And as for Eve, I bet she felt really safe, and really loved, and really cherished – not used or taken for granted – but appreciated and admired for who she was. Why? Because she was in perfect community with Adam. And she was in perfect community with God. And perfect community – that’s the whole reason she was there in the first place.

Now, if what I just described sounds like a dream – like it’s a little unreal – there’s a reason for that. It’s not real. Well, at least it’s not anymore – it was perhaps a long, long time ago – but as we all know there’s more to the story. We may be the pinnacle of creation. We may believe in a personal and loving Creator. We may know we were made for perfect community. But we don’t live in the nudist colony any more. Nope – ours is still the world of death, conflict, and fear.

And so the question is – what happened? Well, if we keep reading the Bible we discover that Adam and Eve turn out to be community crashers. And so do their children. And as the human condition worsens, so do we. But more on that next week.

But, none of that takes away from the fact that God created each one of us in his image. And that we’re very good. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Do you feel the controversy? The scandal? These words were written, and the world has never been the same.


This OMEGA series “OT Greatest Hits” is inspired by a 32-week Christian Education program put out by Willow Creek called the “Old Testament Challenge.” Some Omega talks will rely on this resource more heavily than others. Some will not even be based on it at all. However, if you have specific questions please email me at For more info on the OT Challenge, see

Monday, September 7, 2009

faith in what?

James 2:1-10, 14-17
Proper 18, Year B

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works. Can faith save you?”

I was doing a little web surfing the other day and stumbled upon a blog where people were posting the most absurd religious beliefs they’ve ever heard. The first one I read was this: “that an invisible man impregnated a virgin with himself.” Apparently, our Sunday school teachers don’t quite have their facts straight. Absurd belief #2 was a belief in “body thetans,” which, if you’re unfamiliar with finer points of Scientology, are spiritual scraps from millions of years ago from when the galactic overlord Xenu ordered the slave races destroyed inside of a volcano. But honestly, neither one of these take the cake. The most absurd post was from a blogger that called himself “shadowsmurf1979” – and according to shady smurf, “the whole concept of having faith is absurd.” Now, think about that for a second – the whole concept of having faith is absurd. Is that really how things are – some people have faith, and others don’t?

You see, there’s something that smelly smurf doesn’t seem to understand. When it comes to faith, everyone has it. I hate when people tell me that they could never have faith, that faith is just too hard. This idea – that some people have faith, and that others don’t – is really popular. But it’s simply not true. Everyone has faith.

For example, I believe that we’re here because of a personal, loving Creator and that there is a real purpose behind our existence. And of course, I know a lot of people who believe that we’re here by random chance – that there’s no greater meaning, no grand design. But here’s the catch – both are faith perspectives, both are built on systems of belief. Everyone has faith. No exceptions.

Now, stay with me for a bit, because we need to go a bit deeper. Not only does everyone have faith, but how we act is tied to that faith. In other words, we all make decisions every day about what’s important and about how to treat people. And these decisions, how we behave, always come from our deepest beliefs about the world. In other words, all people – religious or not – act on the basis of what they believe is true about why we’re here. And so when it comes to how we live, we’re not talking about faith or no faith, belief or no belief. We’re talking about faith in what? Belief in what? Everyone has faith. And so the question isn’t whether we have faith or not. The question is – what have we put our faith in?

And that’s the question that James demands that we wrestle with in today’s epistle. “My brothers and sisters,” he asks – “do you, with your acts of favoritism, really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” You see, James lived in a world where social class was really important – where it was expected that people with wealth, power, and influence would be treated with a certain dignity. And lower class people, it was widely believed, just didn’t deserve the same respect – they just didn’t have the same dignity. Plain and simple, that’s just what James’ world believed. And apparently, James’ community – people who claimed to believe in Jesus – drank the kool-aid. In James’ community, the rich were treated like kings and the poor were treated like paupers. And so James has to ask – this community that claims to believe in Jesus – “do you, with your acts of favoritism, really believe?” Do you really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?

But behind this question is an even deeper one – do you even understand what faith is? I hate to say this, but today’s church often makes the same mistake that James’ church did – we reduce faith to a series of statements that can either be “accepted” or “rejected.” But that just isn’t what faith is. Accepting something as true may be a prerequisite to faith, but if we want to experience biblical faith, we just have to go deeper. Because faith, whether we’re religious or not, is what shapes our lives. That’s all James is asking – what’s shaping your life? Faith in Jesus Christ? Or faith in something else?

You see, we can say we believe in anything we want. But just because we say that something’s true, doesn’t mean we believe it. That’s why faith without works is dead. Not because God requires them both – but because faith and works cannot be separated. Remember, we make decisions every day about how to live, and these decisions are tied to the deepest beliefs we hold about the world and our purpose. All people – whether they’re religious or not – are shaped by their faith. And so it’s not a question of whether we have faith or not. The question is – what have we put our faith in?

For the record, I don’t think James’ community was bad or hypocritical or even that different from our own community. I just think that like all of us – myself included – James’ community hadn’t fully allowed the Gospel to penetrate their hearts. For example, consider Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians: “for you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” In other words, can you hear what Paul is saying – the King of all Creation emptied himself and was treated like a pauper so that we – paupers that we really are – might live with God for eternity as Kings. And isn’t that the Gospel? That God became poor so that we might become rich? Because if that’s really true, it’s not enough to accept the Gospel. Because accepting the Gospel will never change our lives. But believing it, allowing the truth that in Christ we are Kings, that in Christ we are richer than we could ever imagine – allowing that truth to penetrate our hearts – that has the power to change our life. That has the power to change our world.

Faith and works can’t be separated. And so if we really believe that in Christ God emptied himself for us, will we not pour out our lives in love for one another? And if we really believe that in Christ each one of us is a King, could we ever justify treating anyone as less than a king? That’s all James wanted to know – “with your acts of favoritism, you do really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?”

And so here’s our homework for the week. Pay attention to how you live and ask yourself – what does my life tell me about what I believe? For example, you discover that there’s a grudge that you refuse to let go of, ask yourself – do I really believe that forgiving others is the best way to live? Or if you find that there’s just “no time” to devote to your relationship with God, ask yourself – do I really believe that spending time with God in prayer is worthwhile?

I’m not saying that we’re bad or that we’re hypocrites. I’m saying that we’re Kings and it’s just that this amazing reality hasn’t penetrated our hearts yet. And so for this week, pay attention and be honest with yourself and with God about what you really believe. Because the truth is – and the good news is God already knows this – but some of the beliefs that shape our lives are absurd. To believe that we should usually get our way, or that we have to look out for number one, or that there’s nothing beyond what we can see or touch or feel – this is just as absurd as believing in the galactic overlord Xenu.

In the life of faith, we can always go deeper. After all, Christianity isn’t about accepting Jesus Christ. Christianity is about embracing Jesus Christ. Everyone has faith. And so the question isn’t whether we have faith or not. The question is – what have we put our faith in?

Saturday, September 5, 2009

a different way of being different

“A Different way of being different”
Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Proper 17, Year B
August 30, 2009 (Preached at All Saints’ & ESC)

A few weeks ago my sister forwarded me an email with the following subject line: “you might be an Episcopalian if.” A few highlights: You might be an Episcopalian if, “when watching Star Wars and hearing "May the force be with you,” you automatically reply "And also with you.” You might be an Episcopalian if, when approaching a row of seats at a movie theatre, you genuflect before entering. You might be an Episcopalian if while looking for a can opener in the church kitchen, all you can find are four corkscrews. If you understand that a Senior Warden doesn’t work at the local prison, and that a primate isn't just a monkey, and that the sursum corda is not a surgical procedure – then there’s a pretty good chance – you’re probably an Episcopalian. How many Episcopalians does it take to change a light bulb? I’m not sure I understand – why would we want to change?

My point is this – all of us are participate in different groups with very specific “identity markers” – that is certain ways of speaking or behaving or dressing that serve to distinguish who is inside the group from who is outside the group. For example, if upon leaving church you run into a person with dark lipstick, black clothes, dark makeup, and multiple piercings – I’m going to go out on a limb and say that they’re part of America’s gothic subculture and not a United States senator. Because sociologically speaking, that’s just what groups do – they adopt identity markers – ways of speaking or dressing or acting that mark them out as different from other groups.

Now, when it comes to defending identity markers, religious groups are hands down the most passionate. And I have to say, as an Episcopalian, I love our identity markers – our prayer book, our liturgy, our lectionary – these have been the tools through which I’ve come to know and to love Jesus Christ. And for that reason, identity markers aren’t inherently bad or wrong. But they can go wrong. Our identity markers go wrong when they make us feel superior; when in being different, we actually start to think that we’re better.

Today’s Gospel lesson isn’t about hygiene or hand washing. Today’s Gospel is about identity markers. To be more specific, it’s a debate – between Jesus and the Pharisees – about what identity markers are supposed to make God’s people different from everyone else. And the Pharisees, like all 1st-century Jews, rightly believed that God had chosen them to be different. After all, the word holy means to be separate. And God had given Israel a very clear command: “be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” In other words, “because I’m God, I’m Different – and I want you to be different too.” And so that leaves us with a question – How? How are we supposed to be different?

Well, the Pharisees had a very clear answer to that question – their identity markers were crystal clear. And the specific identity marker at stake in today’s Gospel is the issue of ritual purity. You see, the Pharisees had strict ways of living, of cooking and of eating that made them different from non-Jews. And these purity laws were really important for people like the Pharisees. You see, the Jews were an occupied people – they were ruled by pagan nations – and because of that the Pharisees felt that their identity as God’s chosen people was under attack. In a confusing world, the purity code was the Pharisees’ way of saying loud and clear – “we are Jews! We are different! We do not live like you do!”

Do you see why they flip out in today’s Gospel? Here’s Jesus – the supposed Messiah, the One they’re supposed to hope in – and Jesus is taking something that marks out his own people as different and he basically says “this doesn’t matter.” “Wash or don’t wash – it doesn’t matter.” And so here’s the question. Is it that Jesus doesn’t think that identity markers are important? Or, is Jesus telling them that they’re making the wrong identity markers important? After all, surely Jesus wants his followers to be different. But if Jesus’ chief concern isn’t whether or not we follow the purity laws of Leviticus, and if Jesus’ chief concern isn’t whether or not our worship is contemporary or traditional – then what is Jesus’ chief concern? In other words, what identity markers are supposed to make followers of Jesus different?

“Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile. The things that come out are what defile. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: they all come from within, and they defile a person.” In other words, can you hear what Jesus is saying? “You may trust in some external ritual that makes you feel better or different or more pure than everyone else, but your Father in heaven looks at the heart. And on the inside, you’re all the same.” “Do you understand?” Jesus seems to scream! “There’s no light coming from the bulb. And because of that, I have to change it – to give you a new one.” “When it comes to the human heart,” Jesus says to all of us, “you all need to change!”

It’s not that Jesus doesn’t believe in identity markers – in things that make God’s people different from everyone else. It’s that the identity-markers he wants us to cherish are internal and not external. You see, on the surface Jesus’ words to the Pharisees sound harsh – “you hypocrites,” he says, “you honor me with your lips but your hearts are far from me.” But Jesus speaks this way to help us understand that the purity laws were always meant to point to a deeper purity – a purity of the heart. And that purity of the heart, Jesus says, is what the Kingdom of God is all about.

There’s a saying that’s become quite popular in our culture – “just do what’s in your heart.” For the record, that is not the theme of today’s Gospel. Just because something is in our heart doesn’t mean that it’s valid or good. Because in my experience, there is a real self-righteousness within our hearts that just doesn’t want to die. There is a part of us that isn’t at all bothered when others are excluded. Frankly, it makes us feel special when we’re on the inside and someone else isn’t. And according to Jesus, self-righteousness is something that comes from the heart, and because of that, our hearts must change.

The reason our hearts must change is because God does want us to be different. And frankly, religious people only have two choices. One the one hand, we can make our faith primarily about external identity markers. In a scary and confusing world, we can anxiously cling to artificial ways of distinguishing ourselves from them­ – whoever “they” happen to be. Or, we can give Christ our heart and say “take it. I want to change. I need to change.” Those external identity markers we love so much – whether it’s our prayer book or our liturgy – we can see these things as the means to a much more glorious end – the complete transformation of our hearts. And I promise you, if we do that, if we make our lives about listening to Jesus and trying to identity ourselves by what He values – I promise you we’ll be different.

After all, our Lord is Different. It’s ironic if you think about it. The only person that’s ever been free from self-righteousness is also the only one who was completely righteous. And the least exclusive member of the human race is now its most exalted. Make no mistake, our Lord is different – and he invites us to a different way of being different – a way of being different that focuses on the heart. I have to say, it would be an amazing thing to get an email that said “you might be an Episcopalian if” or “you might be a Christian if” – you were known for your soft-heart; if you never spoke an unkind word about another person; if your compassion for the rich and the poor alike caused you pain; if forgiveness was a daily practice; if people were routinely drawn to your warmth, your joy, and your perspective that all of life was a gift. Wouldn’t it be amazing if these were our identity markers – not that we attributed to ourselves – but that others attributed to us? Wouldn’t it be amazing, if like Jesus, the church was committed to a different way of being different?