Week in the Word: Embracing Healing From Unexpected Places

I’ve been taking a little break from my sharing of reflections to daily readings in our Week in the Word, to share some messages from the life of Christ.  This is a sermon I preached at the chapel at UNC Hospital during my chaplain residency on John 9.

I hope this message inspires you and gives you peace wherever you are broken and in need of Christ’s healing touch.

And I ain’t just whistling Dixie!

Your progressive redneck preacher,


micah spring hat

John 9:1-15

9:1 As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 9:2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 9:3 Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.  9:4 We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.  9:5 As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

9:6 When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 9:7 saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.  9:8 The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” 9:9 Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.”  9:10 But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?”

9:11 He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” 9:12 They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”  9:13 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind.  9:14 Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 9:15 Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.”

The Word of God for the people of God.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

sitting in despair“Why?  What did I do to deserve this?”

This is a question all of us ask in times of crisis, when our health hits rock bottom, when those close to us are suffering, when we lose our job, or finances hit rock bottom.

In our Gospel reading Jesus is asked this same question.   He and his disciples encounter a man born blind.

Like most of us do in times of suffering, Jesus’ disciples want to point the finger.  “Whose fault is this?”

In the face of tragedy, we long for someone to blame.  Some of us blame the person who is suffering.  “If they just had taken care of their health, they wouldn’t have diabetes”, we say.  “What did they expect dropping out of school but to struggle at finding at work?”  “Just look at them – if they only hadn’t shot up, how would they have gotten here?”

Other times we blame ourselves – “If only I had gotten home sooner”.  “If only I had payed attention to the signs”.  “If I’d just pushed them harder to go to the doctor”.

And often we blame God.   “Why are you persecuting you?” “Where were you?”  “Lord, why have you abandoned me?”

Yet when asked why this person was suffering, whose fault it is, Jesus tells them that the blame game misses the point.  “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”

Jesus doesn’t give us someone to point our finger at in blame.  Even though we want someone to do that sometimes, and it feels like it would be easier, life – and suffering – is more complicated than that.

jesus-park-benchInstead Jesus points us to the way forward in our suffering – not in blaming, but in recognizing God’s presence and work within our situation of pain.

This is not always easy.   In the man who is born blind’s situation, it comes through a stranger who puts mud in his eye and points him onto a path of healing.  I can’t speak for you, but a stranger putting mud in my eye is not how I would expect to find God’s presence.  It would have been easy for him to overlook that path toward healing.  Yet he is open to the path of healing God has for him – and he goes to the poor of Siloam to wash.

God’s healing presence comes to us sometimes in the voice of strangers who we might meet in a waiting room.  It may come in the hands of nurses.  It may come down a journey we would not have chosen.  It can be difficult to see, difficult to imagine.  Yet God is present on this journey, however unexpected and uncertain.

god in meAt times God’s presence comes, but in a way that brings healing without cure.  We see this in the life of the apostle Paul.   He goes through a time of suffering, and when he seeks God’s presence, he is told in 2 Corinthians 12:7-9

I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

In Paul’s case, God’s presence doesn’t come to Paul in a way that brings an end to the suffering and trials he faces.   But God is present in the midst of it, in providing him strength.

At times God’s presence may not bring healing from disease, may not bring the broken relationship back together, may not change your situation.  Yet God is present in the midst of it, just as God was for the apostle Paul – offering strength to stand, grace to carry us through.

This grace to carry us through is beautifully pictured in the words of one of my favorite songs –

There’s more that rises in the morning Than the sun And more that shines in the night Than just the moon It’s more than just this fire here That keeps me warm In a shelter that is larger Than this room

And there’s a loyalty that’s deeper Than mere sentiments And a music higher than the songs That I can sing The stuff of Earth competes For the allegiance I owe only to the giver Of all good things

CHORUS: So if I stand let me stand on the promise That you will pull me through And if I can’t, let me fall on the grace That first brought me to You And if I sing let me sing for the joy That has born in me these songs And if I weep let it be as a man Who is longing for his home

There’s more that dances on the prairies Than the wind More that pulses in the ocean Than the tide There’s a love that is fiercer Than the love between friends More gentle than a mother’s When her baby’s at her side

And there’s a loyalty that’s deeper Than mere sentiments And a music higher than the songs That I can sing The stuff of Earth competes For the allegiance I owe only to the Giver Of all good things


So if I stand let me stand on the promise That you will pull me through And if I can’t, let me fall on the grace That first brought me to You And if I sing let me sing for the joy That has born in me these songs And if I weep let it be as a man Who is longing for his home

Let us pray.

God I thank you that we can put aside the easy way of blame, and embrace your presence in the midst of our heartache and suffering.  I pray your hand touch our face so our eyes can be opened to see you in the midst of our heartache, suffering, & situation.   Help us to sense your grace, and join you in the journey it gives us – whether in a journey that changes the situation in which we find ourselves, or gives us the strength to stand in the midst of it.  In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Week in the Word: Making Friends with the Monsters Under My Bed

I’ve taken a short break from my weekly sharing of reflections on my daily Scripture readings, to revisit an old sermon series I gave on the life of Jesus during the midweek devotional I provide at Progressive Redneck Preacher.

I would be remiss, on a blog about progressive Christianity in the south, to not share a traditional southern tale of temptation, before turning to a message about Jesus’ temptation. Here it is.

I hope this reflection helps you learn how to confront the shadows in your life in a way that is liberating and life giving.

And I’m not just whistling Dixie!

Your progressive redneck preacher,


Our Gospel reading comes in Luke chapter, beginning in verse 1, going down to verse 14. We join Jesus after he has chosen to answer his calling, like we spoke about last week. I feel Jesus’ example here shows us some necessary work we must do in our life to begin living our life to the fullest by truly living out our callings from God.

Luke 4

 Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry.

The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.”

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone.’”temptation of jesus

The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world.And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. If you worship me, it will all be yours.”

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’”

The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down from here. 10 For it is written:

“‘He will command his angels concerning you
to guard you carefully;
they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”

12 Jesus answered, “It is said: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

13 When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time.

14 Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside

These are the words of God, for the people of God. May the Spirit inspire our reading, discussing, and I hope and pray, embracing, of these words today. Amen.

Before he begins his ministry, Jesus is drawn by the Spirit to confront potential pitfalls he might face that could trip him up by keeping him from fulfilling what he is called to do.

I remember when Jowancka became a deacon, giving her the sage warning I was given when I was ordained: hold on tight to something. Whenever you step forward in your calling, get ready: if the devil hit Jesus hard, you can know he will attack you. All growth produces spiritual resistance.

That advice was not bad when I first received it from a mentor of mine, and not that bad I think when I shared it, but as I began to study this passage getting ready for this sermon, I realized isn’t completely true. It makes it sound as if what happened to Jesus was some attack out of the blue, a tragedy or travesty it was too bad he could avoid; and as if we might have to fear such attacks in our life.

But as I read over this passage, getting ready for today, I realized that this is not really the case. Instead we are told that God actually drove Jesus to the desert where Jesus had to confront the devil. The Spirit of God leads Jesus right to this moment that Jesus has to face the heart of darkness itself.

Instead of the devil coming on Jesus out of the blue for Jesus, Jesus is being led to come on the devil out of the blue. Jesus is being led to confront the darkness that lays before him in his own life before he goes full-tilt into his ministry that way he is ready to confront that darkness.

great cloud of supportI don’t know about you but this is very different than I have tended to look at darkness in my life, but it shows me that I do not need to fear the darkness in my life, the painful broken places that are a part of who I am, those aspects of myself that are growing edges which make me struggle to be what I am called to be – whether the best Christian I can, the best employee I can, the best husband I can, the best minister I can.

We don’t often think of Jesus as having weaknesses, but during his 30-some year life span, he did. To be fully human means to not just have wonderful gifts we can delight in, which God delights in us about, but also means to be limited. Jesus gets tired like we do, and has to sleep or become grumpy. Jesus has to eat like we do, and gets lonely and sad at points. Jesus can only be in one place at at time and, like us, at times struggles to have faith crying out “Father if you would just take this cup from me”.

And so by confronting the devil Jesus is confronting his own growing edges, his areas where he is vulnerable, where he is weak, where if he does not do the work of preparation, he could fall short.

Sometimes we are slow to confront our own weaknesses. We might be slow by trying to appear we’ve got it all together, when in fact we need to admit we need help. We might be slow to admit our failings and growing edges, instead blaming focusing on where we are strong. We might become angry or defensive when others point out we are not perfect, even blaming others for our seeming short-comings. We might refuse to try new things, to be pushed, for fear of failing. All of these are ways we can be slow to confront our short-comings.

Yet the fact Jesus has imperfections he has to confront before he can go full of the Spirit into ministry, even as the Son of God, shows us something: If the Son of God has imperfections that means being imperfect, having weaknesses, isn’t sin. It isn’t wrong. It is simply being a human being, a child of God. As one of my favorite writers, Pia Melody, says in her book The Intimacy Factor, to be a child is to be perfectly imperfect. It is to be vulnerable, needy, and full of weakness and have all of that be where your potential lies. It is not despite the fact that a new-born baby has to be held, has to be fed, has to be clothed that we love it but precisely in its needing to be held, fed, clothed, and cared-for vulnerability.

inner-peace (1)

So God uses the devil to help Jesus confront his own weaknesses and vulnerability. Those weaknesses and vulnerabilities are the root of his temptations, just as our weaknesses and vulnerabilities are the root of our own. And it is only by confronting them head on that he can avoid falling into them.

To me it reminds of two things. First of all, it reminds me of trip planning. In a way beginning to live out a calling is like planning a trip. One of the first things my dad taught me when learning to drive was to check the engine before a trip. Checking the engine is checking the vulnerable areas of the car – does it have enough oil and water to make the trip? Are there any parts of the car that don’t look right? Not taking time to get to know your areas of weaknesses is like not checking your car engine. You might feel better for a short time, but you know what? If that oil and water runs low, or the belts bust in your car, you might very well end up stranded.


Likewise it is by coming to know and accept your vulnerabilities you can begin to care for your self so you can make it long haul in answering the callings in life God is giving you, making it less likely you’ll get “stranded” through falling into temptation, or collapsing under the weight of trials later in your journey.

A second example of this is how I’ve seen this when I’ve counseled couples. Often couples having troubles in their relationship will want to avoid talking about or dealing with their issues. Usually to get their relationship working what I have to help them do is find ways to do the opposite – to talk about their pitfalls in their relationships, but in ways that bring them together, not push them apart. The way forward is only through really owning up both their strengths and their weaknesses.

These points of weakness are actually the flip-side to what is good in Jesus and his calling.

I never noticed this until I began to really look at the temptations the devil uses for Jesus. What fascinating ploys the devil uses.

First he questions Jesus’ identity – if you are the Son of God. Being able to question or call into doubt Jesus’ identity stems from the fact Jesus truly is a child of God. Deep down Jesus knows his need to be connected to God and to know who he is. The devil tries to use something good: a sense that Jesus should be connected to God, a sense that he ought to have worth, in order to try and lead Jesus astray.

Then the devil quotes Scripture to Jesus – which is only important because Jesus knows Scripture. The devil knows how important being connected to Scripture and to the faith it proclaims to Jesus. So the devil uses this very good part of who Jesus is to try to lead people astray.

If we are committed to Scriptures or to a particular faith, is that a good thing? Certainly. It can ground us, giving us a place to turn to in order to find God’s voice and discern if we are on the right path. Yet the devil can also use that connection in our life to wreck us, if the particular form of faith we join in becomes an idol that is more important than loving God and loving others. Even the Bible can become twisted into an idol when we let it become used in ways that are not loving. I have seen this happen when a church began to ask of people sacrificing family, or health, or work to serve the church. I’ve seen it when the Bible was twisted to justify mistreating inter-racial couples or gay couples. People’s positive commitment to Scripture and to the faith has been misused by the devil to lead them away from loving others and at times even accepting themselves.

This same thing is at work with the three classical temptations. We usually get it wrong by talking as if the great temptation of Jesus’ is to eat food. In reality in each three temptations he is being tempted to be a certain type of Savior. Turning all the rocks to bread in the desert will allow him to feed all the hungry peasants in Israel, and set up the ultimate kitchen for the poor. Jumping from the top of the temple and being carried down by angels will be the ultimate sign or wonder so people can believe in Jesus because he is a wonder-worker. And getting the power to rule the nations would allow Jesus to set right all that is wrong in the world. These temptations are in fact things which, on their own, Jesus actually kind of does. Jesus does feed 5,000 people with miraculous bread – but never makes miracle bread the center of what he does. Jesus does in fact perfect countless wonders, healing the sick and raising the dead, but never makes flashy signs the point of what he does. Instead again and again Jesus tells people what they need is faith, even if just a tiny bit, which comes not based on what is seen but what cannot be seen or proven. And Jesus proclaims there is a day coming when every nation will bow to him, and he will sit in judgment of the nations separating them from the east from the west, but he refuses to let power become an end in itself that is expressed through violence or worship of anything other than God. All of these pitfalls are actually things which, in another context, would be good and beautiful becoming blessings in our ministry.

This is true for us too. So many aspects of who we are are good and wonderful, in the right context but bad for us & others when they take the wrong place in our lives.

Caring for your family is such an important priority. But if you let what your parents or brothers and sisters believe keep you from being true to who you are and who God is calling you to be, you can shipwreck your lives.

Prayer can move mountains, and is important, but if you use prayer as an excuse not to do your part in solving the problems in front of you, you short-change your growth and end up shutting the door to God answering the very prayers you offer.

Alcohol, when used in moderation, can be relaxing and a source of joy. But if someone becomes addicted to it or misuses it, it can wreck their life and, as I’ve seen before while in the hospital, take others in drunk driving accidents.

Sex is a beautiful gift that can bond two people together, and help them celebrate each other and their love. It can also be misused in ways that treat others as objects, or even where it becomes a weapon of abuse.

Being willing to help others can be a great way to show God’s love but if your willingness to give the shirt of your back puts you in the poorhouse, or ends you in the hospital for not taking care of your own health, it can become a pitfall.

Being a contemplative person can help you shut out the noise of the world and hear God’s voice; it can also be an excuse to pull away from others who need you and can build lasting friendships.

All our vulnerabilities and weaknesses include potentials for strength; all our strengths include potential weaknesses.

This is why we need to learn to be able to say, as a popular song right now does,

I’m friends with the monster that’s under my bed
Get along with the voices inside of my head…”

We need to learn to embrace our brokeness, our weaknesses, as well as our strengths.”

What happens with Jesus to me shows me that the answer to our weaknesses which the devil can use to tempt us off God’s path for us is not as simple as we often make it. The answer is usually neither giving in to these pitfalls or rejecting them, but learning from them and embracing what is good in them. Jesus is able to still produce bread to feed the thousands, but without reducing people into being animals who only need food. He also teaches them of their spiritual worth, and the way to food that will last to eternal life.

Likewise we need to learn to look for the positive lessons our weaknesses teach us, and how they can become not vessels for temptations off God’s path but instead vessels for blessing us and others.

Your sexuality instead of making you an abomination can be a way of finding a life mate, or of relating with someone who is some other minority and, like you, faces prejudice for who they are.

Your disability might not just stand in the way of you doing certain things others can do, but might open up doors for understanding yourself or others in ways you would not otherwise do.

What I’d like to challenge you to do this week is to take time this to think of one area you view as a weakness, a failing, a frailty about yourself and are insecure about us or ashamed of for every day this week. I want to challenge you to take time each day to meditate on that area and consider strengths, blessings, or gifts it makes possible for you and how it can become an asset you lean on or learn from. By considering how our weaknesses are a part of our strengths and our strengths are a part of our weaknesses we open ourselves up, like Jesus, to being God’s presence of healing and life for others more fully.

Week in the Word: Going Back to the Womb

I’m taking a break from my regular devotional gleaned from reflections from my spiritual journal and sharing a series of messages I’ve given on the life of Christ for our regular devotional series.  I hope this week’s message gives you hope and inspiration.  This is a sermon I gave some time ago at Diversity in Faith, a church my wife Katharine and I co-pastored in Fayetteville, NC.

And I ain’t just whistling Dixie!

Your progressive redneck preacher,



Have you ever gone through a time you asked, “What is God’s will for me?  What is your plan for my life?”

U-Turns are often the best way to move life forward.I remember a time in particular, a little after I got married.  I had just left the denomination I was ordained in, over how they had treated some LGBT people.  They were paying my paycheck, and really preaching was all I knew at the time.   I did not know where the money would come from.  Also I felt a failure as a pastor.  I had only been ordained around a year or two, and everything had come to a head at that second church.  Even though I followed my conscience, I knew in my heart my ministry was over.  I was heart-broken.  My friends who had been “prayer partners” with me in college snubbed their noses at me.  A lot of mentors told me in spades how much I had let them down.  And some of my family, who already had told me when I went into ministry, what a bad career choice that was, turned to me  and let me know how humiliating I was to fail at even that – for those people.

When the bills began to pile up and I didn’t know what to turn, I remember walking around our neighborhood, a little apartment in Colton, CA., and crying my eyes out.  “All I did was try to be faithful to you,” I remember praying, “And this?   I am not even sure how we will get by.  Where will I find work?  Rent money?  Food on the table?.  I am not sure where to turn.  I thought you said you had a plan for me – I thought you called me to this… Show me what to do”

I think in a very real way, in our Gospel reading Jesus is answering the question: when you come to the point you know the path you’ve been on isn’t working.

Turn if you would in your Bibles to John chapter 3, beginning in verse 1, going to verse 17.

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 11“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

These are the words of God, for the people of God.

Thanks be to God.

May God add God’s blessing to us as we read these words, discuss them, and I hope and pray, embrace them.  Amen.

What does Jesus say?  And what does it tell us about how we can discover God’s will in our lives, especially when we find the way we’ve been going doesn’t quite work?

Jesus is telling Nicodemus – and, with Nicodemus, each of us – the first step in finding out God’s purpose and plan for our situations where the way ahead is not clear; in fact the first step in finding that out for our life in general.

For years I didn’t realize this.  I don’t know about you, but when I first started to read the Bible I would hear “you must be born again to see the Kingdom of God”, and I thought it was talking about heaven.  I thought Jesus was telling Nicodemus – here is how you can get to heaven, and know your place in heaven is secure.  And I remember asking myself – had I really had this experience?  How could I know?

But that phrase “Kingdom of God” isn’t just about heaven.  It’s also about our life here and now, and our world.  If you read through the Gospels, which I’d challenge you to do as we approach Easter, you’ll find Jesus uses this phrase again and again. Almost all of Jesus’ parables, or stories, begin “the Kingdom of God is like… “ this or that.  A mustard seed planted in the ground.  A fishing net tossed into the ocean.

What Jesus is talking about with this phrase is God’s will, God’s plan, God’s dream for this world, including your life and mine, and all the surprising ways God works in our life inviting us to work together with God to make it possible.  And each of these parables of Jesus, including this popular one – the parable of being born again – invite us to join God in making this dream a reality by beginning to recognize God’s view of the world and way of working in it is not what we’d first expect.

In this moment Jesus tells us something important: to see God’s will, God’s plan, God’s dream for this world, and join God in making it a reality, both in those times like the one I shared about where everything seems to be coming unglued and all those other times knowing how to join God in what God is doing matters to us, we must go through a big change.  “We must be born again”.

What do you feel Jesus means by this?

To me it is another way of Jesus saying what he did in Matthew 18:2-3 — “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”

children-coming-to-jesusTwo Christian teachers have hinted to me what this means.  GK Chesterton & Martin Luther King.  Chesterton writes that “Mere life is interesting enough. A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door.”

Early Christians remembered the apostle Thomas telling us that Christ’s glory and plan is hiding in plain sight, when he said,Jesus said, “I am the light that is over all things. I am all: from me all came forth, and to me all attained.  Split a piece of wood; I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.”  (The Gospel According to Thomas, Saying 77)

In a way this is what Chesterton is saying – that children really see their lives, really see what is right in front of them. And so they are filled with wonder.   If you’ve ever seen a child play, you know what I mean.

Similarly, Martin Luther King, in his speeches would tell of how growing up had friends, white boys he would play with, who saw as little children saw him as no different than them until when they were brought to school, they learned they could not play with people of a different skin color.

Life teaches us to close our eyes to the wonder and mystery around us – where we can see, hear, and feel God speaking even in a little piece of wood, a stone, a sunset, each other.  Life teaches us to see difference – color, gender, sexuality, height, weight, gifts, disabilities – as something to fear and hate for.  Life teaches us to see our own worth to others and God based on being good enough, doing enough, fitting a particular mold.   We do not enter life like this.   And to see God’s plan, we need eye transplants.  We need to see life again, with wonder.  See others again, as beautiful just as God made them.  And to see ourselves as precious loved, forgiven children of God.

This sounds easy but it isn’t.  Like all rebirths, it’s messy.

pregnant mother         We can see this in the talk about wombs.  Nicodemus asking about going back into his mother’s womb makes us all squirm.  We laugh at it, and think he missed the point.  In a way, he did.  Literally, of course, your can’t crawl back into your momma’s womb.   But Jesus doesn’t exactly say no to Nicodemus– he says we must be born not just out of the messiness of water breaking, but equally out of the messiness of being born of Spirit.  In Scripture the Holy Spirit as pictured again and again as our divine mother.  In Romans 8, we are told the sufferings we go through are like labor pains through which the Holy Spirit readies us for the time we will be made new by God.  In Galatians 4, Paul, full of the Spirit, talks about how the Spirit sends him through an experience like labor pains through which the Holy Spirit readies the Galatians Christians for a new type of life in Christ.  And Jesus likened the heartache and loss his followers faced at saying goodbye to Jesus at his death and in his ascension to heaven as being like labor pains that hurt now, but ultimately bring a new life in John 16.

These images show that rebirth by the Spirit, like giving birth to a baby physically, is not an easy process.  It is painful.  It is messy.  It in many ways is like going into a womb, the womb of God the Holy Spirit, and there healing, growing, yes, but also experience pain , messiness, and heartache, in order to come out able to see the world with new eyes.

How might the process of becoming like a child again, of learning to see the world with new eyes, be messy?  Painful?  I think a few ways are pointed to in the story itself.

The first Jesus hints at when he kind of jabs at Nicodemus a little bit in verses 10 and 12.  “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things.”

Jesus is letting Nicodemus know the starting place for Nicodemus is in admitting, even with all the titles behind Nick’s name as teacher, leader, ruler, rich educated man … Nicodemus needs to give up the illusion he has the answers or has figured life out.  He has to admit that he is not in control.  He has to be willing to lay aside all of that and come open-minded, open-hearted, to Jesus.

Nicodemus is trying to have it both ways now – keep all that self-respect, keep appearing to have it figured out, and still be able to see God’s vision for his life.  This is why he comes at night, in secret.  Jesus is saying, no.  You’ve got to put it aside, and come to me, naked and vulnerable, like a child.

deserve recoveryWe don’t like that, but it is what works.  You see it in groups like AA, NA, and AlAnon.  I have family in AA and have been a part of AlAnon before.   The first step in all those groups is admitting you are powerless.  “We admitted we were powerless over our addiction – that our lives had become unmanageable”

In a way this is what the apostle Paul cames to, when in the book of Phillippians chapter 3, he writes “But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.”

To really see God’s plan for you, you have to be willing to admit you are powerless without God’s help, and really open yourself up to it. This is hard. And it is messy.

Another reason it is messy is that if God starts to change your life, it is sometimes hard to see the change.   This is what Jesus is saying when he says that you cannot see the wind, but only its effects. You can’t point to wind, but only the leaves it is blowing, the trees that are rustling, the after effects of the storm. The wind itself is invisible.

When you begin to see yourself and others as God does, and begin to change how you act, it may not right away be apparent. Jesus in fact repeatedly tells us this – saying it is like planting seeds in the ground, and not knowing if anything is happening until * pop * plants spring out of the ground. It is like that when you make real changes in your life, because of those new eyes, eyes like a child’s.   People may say you are just the same as always, that Jesus makes no difference. You might look and get overwhelmed by how little progress in being a better person you’ve made. As a church, we might get frustrated at how we aren’t yet making the impact we thought we could.   All the while God is growing, changing us, in invisible ways. When things begin to * pop * out of the ground, leaves and trees in your life and community will begin to shake. And you and others will begin to see something different.

Another reason it is messy is it is not a one time thing.   Growing up when I heard “are you born again?” everybody meant had I prayed a prayer to ask Jesus in my heart. As if it was done then. In a way it was – from God’s side, all is forgiven, I am ever accepted, nothing you or I can do will make God love us any more or any less. CS Lewis gives us a word about what this process of new beginnings really is like, when he says “Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what [God] is doing. [God] is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently [God] starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is [God] up to? The explanation is that [God] is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but [God] is building a palace. [God] intends to come and live in it [God’s] self.” So, we must be ready not just for God to change one aspect of our life, but constantly to keep bringing us back to see the world afresh, so God can make us into people where God can dwell.

Week in the Word: Discovering What Life is For

I’m reposting some old messages to help for our weekly devotionals.  These are from a series I gave at Diversity in Faith church last year on the life of Christ.  May it bless you.

And I ain’t just whistling Dixie!

Your progressive redneck preacher,


2013-07-10 07.19.16

Our Gospel reading comes from Luke chapter 3, beginning in verse 1:

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— 2 during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 4 As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:

“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.
5 Every valley shall be filled in,
every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
the rough ways smooth.
6 And all people will see God’s salvation.’”Baptism-of-Christ

7 John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 9 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

10 “What should we do then?” the crowd asked.

11 John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”

12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”

13 “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.

14 Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”

He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”

15 The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. 16 John answered them all, “I baptize you with[b] water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with[c] the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” 18 And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.

19 But when John rebuked Herod the tetrarch because of his marriage to Herodias, his brother’s wife, and all the other evil things he had done, 20 Herod added this to them all: He locked John up in prison.

21 When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened 22 and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

23 Now Jesus himself was about thirty years old when he began his ministry…

The word of God, for the people of God.

Thanks be to God.

May God add God’s blessing to the reading of God’s word, Amen.

Multicultural Jesus 1Last week we began to look at the ways in which Jesus’ life shows us ways we can encounter God in our daily, ordinary lives. We looked at the day when mother Mary and Joseph brought the baby Jesus into the temple to be blessed, only to discover through the words of Anna and Simeon it was he who was the blessing. We talked about how not only does this story clue us into how special and unique Jesus is, but also how each of us are special and unique, each born able in our own lives to encounter God and to have God come near, taking on flesh and blood for other’s help & healing, in a way no one else can.

We join Jesus some thirty years later. Like all of us, he has entered the world totally vulnerable – unable to walk, talk, eat, or clean himself without help and, like us, had to learn each day. That’s right, Jesus didn’t enter the world fully knowing his calling or what he should do with his life, either. That is why last week’s text said Jesus had to grow in grace, in wisdom, and stature after his dedication to God as a baby. Like all of us, Jesus didn’t enter the world having it all figured out. Those years of Jesus learning, growing, and (eventually) working – likely, with his hands as a carpenter like his stepfather – began to all come together, coalescing into a sense of calling in this passage. I think that Jesus’ hearing of a call, a sense of “what should I do with my life?”, teaches us volumes about our own sense of calling, our own answers to the question “what should I do with my life?”

Does anything stand out to you in this chapter about Jesus’ sense of calling? Anything that might point to how we find our own?

gods callingFirst I want you to notice that Jesus hears and answers his calling rather late in his life. When I first realized this, it shocked me – how could Jesus not have fully heard his call, until late in his life? It speaks volumes to me now. Growing up, I remember hearing preachers talk about hearing God’s call and school counselors talk about discovering what you wanted to do with your life and feeling this great pressure to decide what thing I needed to do with my life. I remember getting the impression I ought to know already – and if I just walked closer with God, or was a bit more together I’d know. Jesus’ example shows that, no, in fact the Son of God himself took awhile to fully realize what he was called to do. Why should you or I feel guilty if sometimes we feel like we are just beginning to find our way with God?

On the flip side I’ve known people who beat themselves up for not figuring out their life yet, or sensing their call so late in life. “If only I’d known it sooner” or “I must have something wrong to not be sure yet”. I remember distinctly while getting trained to be a pastor in Pasadena an older gentleman whom everyone called “Uncle George” who came with his younger family to church. He was approaching his 70s I believe, and at first when he came to understand the message of Jesus was hesitant to decide to follow Jesus because, as he said, he was too old to change and learn something new. Yet when he finally did get baptized as a commitment to follow Jesus – in his relative’s bath tub no less! – he was so full of joy saying “oh how I wish I had known Jesus earlier”.

anabaptist baptismIf you feel you should be further along in your calling, or worry it is too late to answer the call Jesus has placed in your heart, remember this: It was actually late in Jesus’ life when he came to realize his call and, through baptism, say yes to it.

Luke says Jesus was in his 30s – roughly Kat’s and my age – when he finally answered his calling; much later than us, and much later than his cousin who was the same age as Jesus, whose preaching helped Jesus understand his own calling. That certainly isn’t a teenager, or even a twenty-something. And though thirty might sound young to some of us, in Jesus’ day, living in a world without modern medicine the average age a man died was his mid-30s, so someone in their 50s or 60s was considered blessed with a long and productive life, almost ancient by their standards. At best Jesus is answering his call to ministry late in mid-life by the standards of his day, but in reality Jesus doesn’t answer this calling to ministry until near the end of his life, since Jesus only lived around three years more after he publicly embraced his calling here through baptism. Most of the rest of his life was learning, growing, working ordinary trades like carpentry. Yet how those three years out of 33 – 35 changed the world! That commitment Jesus made in his baptism literally split history in half, so that in the West now we mark history as before Jesus’ life and after. Three years living out his calling, in the three last years of his life, totally change the world.

That should show us first that we do not need to rush, if we have not yet figured out our calling. After all, rushing might lead us down a path that is not God’s choosing where we have to face situations or suffering God doesn’t have planned for us. And we should not beat ourselves up for not having arrived at a destination God might not yet have ready for us yet. Trying to arrive at God’s destination too early can be as disastrous as showing up too late.

And you need to not tell yourself you have not figured out what to do with your life fast enough, even if you are just beginning to figure it out fairly late in your life. Jesus has only three years left as he answers his calling – and he is right on time.

The heart of your calling is knowing & accepting yourself as God's child, whom God loves, and in whom God is well pleased.

The heart of your calling is knowing & accepting yourself as God’s child, whom God loves, and in whom God is well pleased.

Secondly, I want you to notice with me what Jesus is saying “yes” to, in answering his calling through baptism.

When I first read this story, it really made me scratch my head. John is calling people to the baptism for the forgiveness of their sins, and when I heard baptism preached in my church as a young Christian it was about going back home to God when you’d gone astray into sin. But Hebrews 2 & 4 tell us that Jesus lived without sin, that He alone was the first human to live His life perhaps not without making mistakes but truly without ever failing to fully love God, love others, and care for God’s earth. Jesus never sinned, never failing to do justice, to love compassion, and to walk humbly with His God. So Jesus had no sin to repent from, no sin to have forgiven. What call was Jesus answering?

One answer that is true is that Jesus was throwing His lot with us, saying that, sinful and broken as we are, He is embracing each and every person just as they are and in His life extending the arms of forgiveness for all who need repentance. And that is true, but there is something deeper, here… something that motivates this choice of Jesus’.

We see it in the words that the Father speaks over Jesus, as the Holy Spirit descends like a mother dove does when she shelters her baby under her wings. The Father speaks out Jesus’ calling clearly. What is it the Father says?

The Father says “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

Jesus’ calling is not to do this or that thing, not to perform this ministry or that. It is not to have a title, or a role. Jesus’ calling is to know, and know that he knows, deep in the core of his soul, that He is God’s own child, that He is loved without condition, and that because of this, before He has done anything in his life, God is well pleased in Him. Jesus is called to accept this love, to be well pleased in who He was made to be, and then to go out with that fire of love, showing others that they too are loved without condition, children of the same Father God and mothering Spirit, and ones God is well pleased in before they have done anything right or wrong, simply because they are God’s children.

And for 3 years this is what Jesus does – lives secure in the fact He is God’s child, He is loved without condition, and lives well pleased with who He is made to be because God is well pleased with Him. And Jesus goes reaching out, letting others know this is who they are too… and that they can make this world one where all are treated that way.

Ultimately, that is your calling and my calling too.

I used to struggle with that. Am I called to teach? To preach? To pastor? How can I live my calling when I can’t preach full time, but have to sometimes work in the school system, or a book store, or a radio station, or a mental health firm? I used to feel I was always falling short of what I was called to do. Have you been there?

But I see now – no. I am not called to do any one thing. Neither are you. I am called to know, in depths of my soul, that I am loved. Unconditionally. Irreversibly. That I am God’s child, and nothing on heaven, on earth, or under the earth, can ever take that from me. And that I am this, before I do anything, right or wrong; and after whatever I have done, disastrous or beautiful. And that God is always well pleased with who I am at my core, even though I don’t always live true to who I am, and so I ought to learn to be well pleased with who I am, just as God made me. Learning to truly believe this and live this out is my calling – and yours.

And when you start to do this, you can’t help but begin to also like Jesus begin to treat others like they are deserving the same unconditional love, like they too are God’s children, like there has to be something in them to be well pleased in because who God made them to be, who they are in their core no matter how often they are not true to it, is a divine work of art that God is well pleased in. And you can’t help but tell others, in your way, whatever job you are doing. You can’t help but begin to look around you at the many ways our world tries to send another message, and try to mend this world by making it a place that treats people more like they are loved children of God, who ought to be well pleased in how God made them. This calling is what we are truly acknowledging when we choose to be baptized as Christians, we are saying out loud that yes I accept your word to me, God, that I am your child, whom you love, and that you are well pleased in me and I should take pleasure in who I am in you.

jesus hugsIt sounds so easy, doesn’t it? Until you try to do it.

You may come out, as a gay or bisexual person, but still deep down wrestle with feelings that maybe I’m not good enough, maybe I’m broken, not just another beautiful way to reflect God’s love. You may tell others who you are, but deep down feel someone like me doesn’t deserve love.

You might voice that God loves you but continue to beat yourself up for the ways in which you ran from God over the years, doing things you are ashamed of – forgetting that God’s love separates that guilt and shame from you as far as the east is from the west.

You might voice the thought that you are worth something, but continue to treat yourself like you are garbage, staying with activities that tear you down. In my own family, some folks close to me did that through drinking themselves to near oblivion. In my own life, I did that by often putting other’s thoughts, needs, and feelings so ahead of myself that I ended up not making space for the full life God had for me, pushing down pain and hurt and brokeness for years.

And we might fail to live as if others are also so loved, so worthy of being well pleased in who they are at their core, in small and big ways – so often as a way of hiding from ourselves how little we are pleased in ourselves.

This is a part of why Jesus’ baptism is couched in John calling people to repentance. Repentance is not what I experienced in church growing up – beating people over the head with shame and self-loathing for what they’ve done. In reality, all that does is not change someone’s life but make it more painful. No repentance in the Bible comes from the word metanoia, which means to change your thinking and the pattern of your life. Repentance is changing your thinking so you little by little begin to see yourselves more fully as God sees you, and see others the same. It is changing your pattern of your life so you move away from those things that tear yourselvs town, tear others down, and make you relate to God as someone less than loved by God and wellpleasing to God.

To close I want to ask you to do somethin.

I want to ask you to take this phrase – You are my Child, whom I love; with you I am well pleased – and meditate on it 3-5 minutes each day. Do this the way that works for you – you might read through this story a few times each day, reflecting on different parts. You might journal or write your thoughts on this phrase, or write poetry or songs about it. You might run the phrase over in your head as you walk the dog, or work in the yard. To get ready for this sermon, I used it for a centering prayer – where I repeated this statement of love during prayer and meditation as a way of meditating, thinking a little about what it means about Jesus, what it means about me, and what it meant about different people I encountered each day. I challenge you to take this phrase and meditate on it each day this week.

I also want to encourage you to take time, if you are a baptized Christian, to remember your baptism. Martin Luther is remembered as having told people when they wash their face in the morning, to remember their baptism. Take time during this time of Lent to recall your own baptism, what it meant to you, and renew the sense of calling it brings to mind. If you have not been baptized you might consider in the weeks leading up to Easter talking to a leader at the church you worship about what baptism means, in case it is something that might help you on the next step of faith.

Most importantly, recall who you are and whose you are.  Child, heaven’s got a plan for you.