Mustard shrub, Mustard tree

He told another parable to them: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and planted in his field. It’s the smallest of all seeds. But when it’s grown, it’s the largest of all vegetable plants. It becomes a tree so that the birds in the sky come and nest in its branches.”

— Matthew 13:31-32

I have always underestimated the mustard tree. A mustard plant is usually little more than a shrub, barely big enough to hold a bird’s nest. But it turns out a mustard tree can grow 6 to 20 feet with a 20 feet spread. It grows well in bad soil, desert heat and drought conditions. Any water will do, even water so salty it kills most plants. It grows so well in such bad conditions that it spreads like a weed in the Middle East.

A mustard plant produces mustard while it’s still small, but it’s potential size and productivity is enormous. It doesn’t have to be babied, fertilized and irrigated like other plants. The kingdom of heaven, then, is rugged, robust, opportunistic, productive for its size and rich with enormous potential.

Tropical Sands Christian Church is small by some measures, but 60 percent of all U.S. Protestant congregations are even smaller. This summer, we’ve faced fundraising challenges that seemed too big, but we trusted in God and met our goals ahead of schedule. We’re a productive little shrub, and potentially, a great tree!

It is good to be frugal, humble and contented with having enough. It is good to count your blessings and be grateful for what you have. I hope we are that thankful congregation. But we do the kingdom a disservice if we think we can’t be productive or won’t grow larger.

I feel like I’m watching a little mustard bush grow into a tree. New people, new activities and new ministries are our branches. Members are discovering people and services they never noticed before. People who came to test our merciful, accepting approach to faith are settling in. It isn’t our church; it’s God’s church, and we rejoice to see how God grows the church into more than we could imagine.

The kingdom of heaven is like a tiny mustard seed. Don’t let the size fool you. This plant grows like a weed and gets productive in a hurry. It’s productive even as a shrub, and with care and attention, it grows into a tree. The birds of the sky come and nest in its branches.

People accuse me of bragging about Tropical Sands Christian Church. Guilty! What better way to encourage your potential as children of God than to remind you of what God has already done in our lives? Yes, it’s an amazing church!

The mustard seed grows in a challenging environment – bad soil, little water, torturous heat – but grow it does, into a productive shrub with big tree potential. It’s like the kingdom of heaven, and isn’t that where we live? Have faith, keep working, and expect great things at Tropical Sands Christian Church!


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Because He Lives

Every Easter, we hear the story about how some of Jesus’ women disciples came to that first Easter morning, expecting to prepare Jesus’ body for continued burial. Instead, they found the huge stone moved and the body gone. They encountered heavenly beings who told them that Jesus was risen, and they encountered Jesus himself. All four gospels contain parts of this story. They all agree it was the women disciples who first encountered the empty tomb and the risen Lord.

Our faith is founded on this story, and our Christian year begins anew each Easter as we move from His betrayal and passion to his resurrection. This year, I don’t want to restart the calendar. Because the resurrection of Jesus has blessed us all our lives, and for generations before us. The entire world has been blessed by the resurrection, which reset the calendar and also reestablished the equal standing of all humankind and our potential for communion with God. The world was changed forever that first Easter morning. And if your life isn’t perfect, if you are still struggling with unforgiveness, self-doubt, anger and fear, then I invite you to join me in considering how the power of the resurrection can change our lives as well, if we only believe. It helps to know that in Paul’s day, in that first generation of the church, it wasn’t about accepting it on faith, but about facing the facts. Let’s hear the word of the LORD:

If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.

— 1 Corinthians 15:17-22 NRSV

Some in the Corinthian church were saying the dead would not be raised. Some of them thought that Jesus would come and receive the believers during their lifetimes, and that those among them who died were just not fortunate enough to hold on for the rapture. Others probably thought eternal life was some kind of metaphor, some philosophical, but not real.

As a Pharisee, Paul had always believed in the resurrection to judgment and eternal life. On that point, he agreed with Christians – but as Saul, he tried to destroy the church because Jesus rejected the relative righteous of one group over another, namely, of Pharisees over everyone else. It isn’t that Saul didn’t have the same evidence as everyone else; but he intentionally refused to see the truth. But when Jesus struck him blind on the road to Damascus, Paul finally decided to stop denying the truth.

Look at how our scripture today is structured. “IF CHRIST HAS NOT BEEN RAISED” – then the rest of the faith is nonsense. If Christ has not been raised, then why should anyone follow his teachings? There were plenty of good, ethical preachers and rabbis who could improve society with good moral teaching. But there was also the message of Christ, a message that was not complete without the resurrection. “IF CHRIST HAS NOT BEEN RAISED, THEN YOUR FAITH IS FUTILE AND YOU ARE STILL IN YOUR SINS.” The forgiveness of sins in Christ had made a huge difference in the lives of Corinthian Christians. Guilt, shame, and fear of condemnation had been rolled away like the stone at the tomb.

Ah, but on the flip side, Paul does NOT say, “BUT IF CHRIST HAS BEEN RAISED … “ This is not just the other side of the coin to Paul. It isn’t even about faith versus doubt. It’s about facing the facts versus ignoring the truth. What does it say? “BUT IN FACT CHRIST HAS BEEN RAISED FROM THE DEAD … “ That’s important wording. Paul is not trying to convince them that Jesus rose from the dead – they already knew that, as did everyone willing to ask questions. What he’s doing is using THE FACT of Jesus’ resurrection as evidence that the dead will rise, including those who have died in Christ.

The difference is lost on us these days, I think. 2,000 years later, we aren’t sure of anything. Languages change and scrolls crumble, and the best we can come up with is relative certainty. Paul had a lot more to go on than we do. Paul had eye-witness reports. Paul had seen the government cover-ups and the turmoil that surrounded those events. If anyone could be certain that this was all a made-up story, it was Paul. It isn’t that Paul became convinced of the resurrection, or chose to believe. He just decided to stop denying the truth and instead see what God was trying to say through these events.

So let’s move past wondering IF. This isn’t about IF. As Paul said, “IN FACT Christ has been raised from the dead … “ Let’s go where Paul went and try to see and hear the message that God was speaking in this Word become Flesh.

If Christ isn’t raised, then it’s probably okay to hold a grudge, to hold others in unforgiveness. Because if you take Christ out of the picture, we don’t have many examples before that of forgiveness. What you have without Christ is the sense that we are supposed to hold a grudge, that vengeance is honorable and just. But IN FACT Christ has been raised from the dead. Christ prayed on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Christ restored Peter to lead the church, even after Peter had denied him three times. Christ reunited the apostles who had been scattered during the turmoil of crucifixion. IF Christ has not been raised, then we don’t have to worry about that forgiveness stuff. But let’s face facts. Christ IN FACT has been raised from the dead, demonstrating the validity of his teachings and demonstrating the kind of forgiveness he would have us practice.

If Christ isn’t raised from the dead, then we are still in our sins. If forgiveness isn’t important, if vengeance is the norm, then there’s nothing to stop God from holding our sins against us. If Christ isn’t raised from the dead, then we might as well stop trying, because we’ve all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. The flip side isn’t about believing; it’s about accepting facts. Christ IN FACT has been raised from the dead, so we ARE forgiven and CAN live a new life with God. That’s not just another way to believe; that’s facing facts.

If Christ isn’t raised from the dead, then all we can do is move forward and hope for the best. The damage done to us and the damage we’ve done to others is irreversible. It would take divine intervention to redeem the mess we’ve made of our lives, our families, our church, our society, our world, and we dare not hope for divine intervention. Unless, unless we are willing to face facts – because the Christ IN FACT has been raised from the dead. God not only demonstrated divine intervention, but demonstrated a willingness to exercise it on unworthy, unholy, disloyal and cowardly humans. And in that intervention, God makes us better – better friends, better leaders, better messengers of the truth.

Paul was surrounded by evidence of the recent resurrection of Jesus. Paul didn’t have to accept the resurrection on faith, he just had to stop denying the truth.

Every time we give up on relationships, every time we surrender ourselves to anger, vengeance, guilt, doubt, hatred and prejudice, we are denying the truth. We are saying that the resurrection of Christ doesn’t mean so much, or maybe we’re even doubting that it actually happened. Even though Paul was not an original apostle, even though he was not privy to the many miracles that happened during Jesus’ ministry, he had plenty of evidence pointing to the resurrection – and plenty of reasons to deny it. As Saul, he was struggling to protect a way of life that Jesus rendered obsolete – a life of hatred, revenge, and status. When he finally accepted the truth – that Christ in fact has been raised from the dead – he was able to accept the many other blessings that came with that truth – freedom from doubt, guilt, hatred, and shame … the joy of walking with God and being a child of God … the joy of communing with sisters and brothers joined not by blood, language or nationality, but by the common forgiveness in Christ and acceptance of God’s love.

If Christ has not been raised, then it’s all a joke. But Christ in fact has been risen. It is up to us to face that fact and to let it make a difference in our daily lives.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. He Is Risen Indeed!

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Choose This Day

The book of Joshua is the story of how Joshua, heir to Moses’ mantle of leadership, led the children of Israel to finally take possession of the Promised Land. Its concluding chapter contains that fateful verse, “Choose this day whom you will serve; as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.” (Joshua 24:15).

But that’s an abbreviation of the verse. There’s more to it than that. Here’s the unaltered verse from the New Revised Standard Version:

Now if you are unwilling to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose lands you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.

Ironically, while idols are portable, the gods they represented in those days were not. They were gods of this mountain, gods of this land, gods of the river, etc. People were always trying to appease the local gods. YHVH, the LORD of Israel, could not be a stationary god, because the LORD’s people were on the move. YHVH was the god of a people, not of a place, and YHVH was their God in Canaan, in Egypt and beyond the Euphrates. Those regions had their own gods – or so the people of those regions presumed – but YHVH surrounded the Israelites, going before them to drive out the Amorites, going behind them to block the way of the Egyptian army.

Terah and his sons, Abraham and Nahor, worshipped other gods beyond the Euphrates (Joshua 24:2) until YHVH spoke directly to Abraham (Abram) and told him to leave his father’s home. Now, the Israelites were returning to the land YHVH had promised to Abraham and his descendants. But as Joshua pointed out, they had many gods to pick from for worship, and there choice would come with consequences. They could pick the gods of Terah and young Abram, the gods of the Egyptians, or the gods of the Amorites whose lands they now possessed – or they could serve YHVH, who had called them away from those gods and cleared a path from slavery to prosperity.

Without regard to the historical accuracy of the book of Joshua, the spiritual accuracy of the story is significant. Like the Israelites, we are all called to grow beyond the superstitions of the childhood gods beyond the Euphrates; beyond the gods of fear from our Egyptian enslavement; beyond the gods of the lands and peoples who went before us in this place. And if I am not symbolically denigrating Abraham, then neither am I denigrating the Egyptians, nor the Amorites, nor any of the faith systems they may represent. But as for me and my house, we will serve YHVH, the God who brought us through all the above, who fulfilled the promises, who cleared the land before us and stopped the armies behind us.

We are not self-made people. We all live on land where we did not labor, in towns we did not build, and we eat from vineyards and oliveyards that we did not plant. (Joshua 24:13) We enjoy a town, a church, a society that is not the work of our own hands, but of all those who went before us and, ultimately, of YHVH, who may have blessed those predecessors with long, happy lives – or who may have driven them out with hornets so that we could reap the fruit of their labors. (Joshua 24:12)

Remember, I’m reading symbolically, not historically. The point is that God had a hand in the labors of our ancestors, our slavers, the opposition and those who went before us, without regard to the gods or ideals they served. Abraham probably did honor his father, but not to the point of serving his gods. The Israelites had no sooner escaped the Egyptians than they began to long for the luxuries of their slavery – and they could not do so without rejecting God. Moses took them to the river Jordan, but of the spies sent across to scope out the land, only Joshua and Caleb believed the LORD would give them the land; the rest were afraid of the people and discouraged the Israelites from crossing the Jordan.

God has called us to a better faith. God calls us to a direct encounter. We cannot find God by imitating our father Tahor. Tahor was called to go to Canaan but stopped short. It is a wonderful thing to honor our ancestors, but we must accept that God has probably called us to something greater and different.

God calls us to a faith beyond that of our Egyptian captors. Europeans spread Christianity to the New World even as they decimated the inhabitants and enslaved the captives. Natives and slaves heard the Gospel and believed. But, where the slavers used it idolatrously to justify their lordship, the slaves found there a hope that broke the chains of bondage and set the captives free. They followed YHVH directly instead of merely mimicking the faith of the Egyptians.

Now we’re in the Promised Land, where we did not build and did not plant. It’s the LORD’s doing, and it’s no different from the way God has fulfilled promises to many people and many generations. It is not our doing – not our fault, not to our credit – but here we are. Do we keep doing things they way they’ve always been done here? Nothing wrong with that, but we have to be certain that we are doing them because God leads us there, and not just because that’s how it’s always been done.

We are called to a faith that is new every morning. We are called to worship God, who is beyond understanding. Our parents didn’t plumb the depths of God, nor did our enslavers and detractors, nor did those who went before us here. The truth is, we won’t either. But we’ll stay shallow if we aren’t willing to go beyond the faith of our parents, our founders, our superiors, and even our trailblazers.

In this light, let’s reconsider Matthew 10:34-39 –

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

Luke14:26 puts it even more harshly: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters–yes, even their own life–such a person cannot be my disciple.” So if we know that Jesus never calls us to hate anyone – certainly not our parents, children and siblings – then we have to look for the spiritual meaning of these verses. I find that meaning in the challenge of Joshua: “Choose this day whom you will serve…”

Let’s not be content with the faith of our parents, our children, our siblings, our neighbors. Their faith may be great – Who are we to judge? – but God has no grandchildren. We are each called to live for Christ, in lands we did not till and eating fruit that we did not plant. One person plants, another waters, but God gets the increase. (1 Corinthians 3:6) Direct faith in God calls on us to dare to do something new, more than our ancestors did; more than our founders did; more daring, loving and giving than any who have gone before us, ahead of us, or behind us.

That’s the view from this side of the Jordan. Choose this day whom you will serve.

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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.

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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

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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

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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.

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