Woke Part 2 – Ephesians 5:1-20

This is week 2 of our WOKE series. Last week I gave you a history lesson on the term WOKE and how it is being used as a disparaging term against those whom some on the political right take argument with. But Paul urges us to be WOKE in a theological sense.


The verse that is the theme for this series is in Ephesians 5, which we will look at today. Paul says, “Wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” This is a term that Paul uses to shock us out of an old way of life and into a new way of life.

Have you ever been shocked out of a heavy sleep? I know some of you have had military experiences, and I can only imagine how you might have been awakened quite abruptly and forced to get moving quickly. But being woke suddenly from a deep sleep reminds me of a time when I was a teenager. I grew up during the ’80s. I was brought up in the faith during the “satanic panic.” Yes, that was a thing. We were taught to be careful of the devil seen in everything! He was in movies, books, pop culture, rock music, or worse yet, rock music being played BACKWARDS (yes, that was called backmasking). The devil was everywhere, so it was best that we did not listen to or watch anything that was not explicitly Christian. Christian music, Christian videos, Christian movies, and Christian pop culture began to emerge during this time and took off during the ’90s and 2000s. The only good thing that I think came out of all of this was definitely “Veggie Tales.”

Well, anyhow, getting back to my story, when I was a young teenager, I was fast asleep in my room, and my dream turned dark. I was being given a tour of hell from none other than the devil himself! There was fire and people crying and darkness as I couldn’t understand why I was being given this tour. Suddenly, a slat in the middle of my bed gave out and hit the floor with a loud boom. Then my mattress began to sink into the hole it created. I became WOKE in the worst way. My heart was beating a million miles an hour, sweat on my forehead, panic in my voice, wondering what all just happened. My dad came running back to my room from the loud noise to see if I was okay. Needless to say, I was happy to see him. It is this kind of a shock to the system that Paul is trying to get the Ephesians to understand. There is being asleep in the darkness, and then there is being awake to the light of Christ.

In the letter to the Christians in Ephesus, Paul takes chapters 1-3 to explain all that Jesus has done for us and all the implications of what that means. Paul summarizes God’s story. Then in chapters 4-6, Paul explains how God’s story should reshape our story.

We pick up our lesson for today with Ephesians 5:1-2

Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

In other versions, this passage tells us to be imitators of God. For example, while we were going through the pandemic, I had a pair of teens who thought it would be cute to come to youth group imitating me! Here is a picture of that situation.


But in all seriousness, we are to be imitators of God! So, the first thing that Paul shows us is that Jesus is our prime example. He loved us so much that he gave up his life for us as a fragrant offering to God. In the same way, our love for each other and the world ought to reflect that kind of sacrificial love. But love can be twisted into a warm, fuzzy emotion far removed from what Paul intends here. In our culture I have seen people put up yard signs or have t-shirts that say “Love Is Love”. With the way we define the word “love” this can have a very broad meaning. We use the word “love” to describe our feelings for people, pets and pasta! Love can mean a lot of different things. In American culture we put a lot of stock in love being a feeling I have towards someone or something. But in a theological sense, love is defined more specifically than how we are feeling in the moment. So, we dive into this passage to see what he means in how we show love.

He states in Ephesians 5:3-7
But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. 4 Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. 5 For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a person is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. 6 Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. 7 Therefore do not be partners with them.

Paul points out here that we can not cave to the sin of idolatry. Now when we think of idolatry in the Bible, we typically think of statues that people would worship as a god. But Paul is not speaking about an external object but our internal motives. He tells us that we should not be involved in sexual immorality, impurity, or greed. This is not the way of love.

SEXUAL IMMORALITY continues to be a god of our culture. We live in a time where pornography is mainstream and sex trafficking is happening all around our country. Pornography and sex trafficking are huge businesses that prey on the addiction of men, women, and our youth. Sociologist Jill Manning in a hearing before the US Senate in 2005, is quoted as saying:

“Research reveals many systemic effects of Internet pornography that are undermining an already vulnerable culture of marriage and family. Even more disturbing is the fact that the first Internet generations have not reached full-maturity, so the upper-limits of this impact have yet to be realized.”

Clay Olsen, Co-Founder, and CEO of Fight the New Drug, states that:

“This material is more aggressive, more harmful, more violent, more degrading, and damaging than any other time in the history of the world. And this generation growing up is dealing with it to an intensity and scale no other generation in the history of the world has ever had to.”


But we also often hear that sex is between two consenting adults. What is really fascinating about this common view is that the Washington Post just recently came out with an article called “Consent is not enough. We need a new sexual ethic.” by Christine Emba. In this article, the author makes the case that there is so much more to consider than just consent when it comes to relationships. She states:
I asked many of these people what a better sexual world might look like. “Listening,” I heard. “Care,” they said. “Mutual responsibility,” some suggested. Or, as one woman plaintively put it: “Can we not just love each other for a single day?”


That question points to what looks to me like a good answer. The word “love” tends to conjure ideas of flowers, chocolate, declarations of undying devotion. But the term has a longer, more helpful history. Thomas Aquinas, the 13th-century philosopher, and theologian, defined love as “willing the good of the other.” He borrowed that definition from Aristotle, who talked about love as an intention to bear goodwill toward another for the sake of that person and not oneself.


Willing the good means caring enough about another person to consider how your actions (and their consequences) might affect them — and then choosing not to act if the outcome would be negative. … In general, “willing the good of the other” is most often realized in restraint — in inaction rather than action. This involves a certain level of maturity and self-knowledge on all our parts: an understanding that if we aren’t able to manage this level of consideration — in the moment or more broadly — we probably shouldn’t be having sex. … It’s a much higher standard than consent. But consent was always the floor — it never should have been the ceiling.

It is amazing to me that this is not coming from a Christian publication but a major newspaper. The secular culture is coming around to the fact that there is more to love and sex than just consent. We must have a higher standard as Christ-followers when it comes to our ethics. We must honor those in our lives as people created in the image of God and beloved by Him!

Paul warns us not to be people of IMPURITY. What comes out of our mouths speaks a lot about our character. Paul tells us that we need to speak words of thanksgiving. We should develop an attitude where we can be thankful for all the things going on in our lives and speak about that. Show gratitude and appreciation for all that is in your life.

And he also warns us against GREED. This theme comes up in Scripture, but we don’t talk about it much. We like our things. We like our stuff. But Paul warns us not to allow a heart of greed to take over how we look at the world. Instead, we need to be people of generosity and giving. Paul ends by telling us not to partner with people who are full of immorality, obscenity, and greed. We need to steer clear of people like that. Their lifestyle will implode on them.


In the remaining section of this chapter, Paul makes two contrasts. One is between LIGHT and DARKNESS, and the other is between the WISE and the UNWISE. Let’s take a look at Ephesians 5:8-14. He says that:


For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light 9 (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) 10 and find out what pleases the Lord. 11 Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. 12 It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. 13 But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light. 14 This is why it is said:
“Wake up, sleeper,
rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.”


One of the last times I was at Ohio University with my girls, as we were walking around town and weaving in and out of the city of Athens, I noticed in an alley that there was a big portable spotlight. I was curious about that and asked the girls. They told me that there was a lot of crime happening in this alley at night, so law enforcement put this light there to help curb the problems they had to deal with. Imagine that! Light exposes the darkness, and those in the darkness flee from the light, searching for darkness elsewhere. An interesting approach.

Paul tells his readers that they used to live in the darkness like this. But now, we are to live in the light of Christ, where we don’t have anything to hide! We are to be people of goodness, righteousness, and truth, pleasing God in all we do. When we do this correctly, we are not ashamed or embarrassed by our actions. Instead, we are grateful for all that God is doing with us. The light of Christ shines on us! Does that help to amplify our good deeds or expose our bad deeds? It’s the difference between joy and shame.
Paul finishes this section of Scripture by talking about the WISE and the UNWISE. He states:

Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, 16 making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. 17 Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. 18 Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, 19 speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, 20 always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul recognizes that some revel in stupidity. Being unwise is a badge that many people wear with honor today. Instead, Paul is encouraging us to pursue wisdom. In doing so, we make the most of every opportunity that comes our way, doing all we can to understand God’s will for our lives. It takes effort and wisdom for us to discern God’s direction for our lives. We often don’t bother to think through, “Is this a direction God wants me to pursue? Is this of God?” Instead, we often think about careers and college decisions and relationships with a casual attitude of “Is this what I want?” without giving a second thought to possibly asking, “Is this what God wants for me?”

Paul tells us to be filled with the Holy Spirit instead of being intoxicated with alcohol. Letting down our inhibitions can lead to all sorts of bad decisions and immoral behavior. But being filled with the Spirit of God gives us a firm foundation in which we can show gratitude and thankfulness through a heart filled with joy. As we dig into the culture of Ephesus, the people were known for their worship of the god of Baccus, also known as Dionysus. Baccus was the god of wine and drunken orgies. They believed that to commune with their god and be led by him, and they had to be drunk. In their drunken state, they could determine the will of their god.

On the other hand, Paul contrasted how we connect with the God of heaven. How we live for Him and serve and obey Him. It was natural for him to draw the contrast between how the god of Ephesus is served, as contrasted with the God of heaven. With the God of heaven, you do not get drunk with wine, but instead, you are filled with the Spirit of God. When you are filled with the Spirit, you can determine God’s will and serve him faithfully in moral living. To be filled with the Spirit means that we are directed, influenced, and governed by the Holy Spirit.

When we allow the Spirit to direct us, this is where music comes in! With the right heart and attitude, Paul says we will want to sing about God’s faithfulness and blessing. What should be coming out of our mouths is a pattern of praise, thanksgiving, and speech honoring God. What comes out of our mouths reflects our hearts. I would even go so far as to say what we post, what we type, and whatever form of communication you use will reflect something about your character and your dependence upon who you truly worship. Make sure that the object of your affection and love stems from Jesus. Be the example that you are called to be in Christ Jesus. Be the example you want your kids to admire and look up to. Be the example that will inspire others to pursue character, integrity, and love.

I’ll close with this. In his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin tells of the time he wanted to convince the citizens of Philadelphia to light the streets at night to protect against crime and as a convenience for evening activities. Failing to convince them by his words, he decided to show his neighbors how compelling a single light could be. He bought an attractive lantern, polished the glass, and placed it on a long bracket that extended from the front of his house. Each evening as darkness descended, he lit the wick. His neighbors soon noticed the warm glow in front of his house. Passerby’s found that the light helped them avoid tripping over protruding stones in the roadway. Soon others placed lanterns in front of their homes, and eventually, the city recognized the need for having well-lighted streets.


A single light made all the difference in the dark streets of Philadelphia. In the same way, when we live in the light, we let go of the things that we once did in the darkness, and now we live into a new way of life in the light of Christ. Our culture is full of darkness, anger, and hate. We are to be people of love living into the fullness of what it means to be a Christ-follower. The most recent mass shootings show us some extreme results of those lost in darkness. White supremacy and domestic terrorism have been huge problems within our culture. In some ways, there are some Americans so focused on being afraid of people wanting to come into our country that we have lost sight of what is happening with the very people already in our country! Hate is becoming mainstream, and we are seeing the results of that. While I am all for sensible gun reform, that does not alleviate the hearts of darkness, which is full of hate, that so many in our country are caught up in. We must change and transform from the inside out with the power of the Holy Spirit working in us. May we be that kind of people, living in the light. Amen

WOKE Part 1 – Ephesians 4:17-32


THEME VERSES: Ephesians 5:13-14

But everything exposed by the light becomes visible. this is why it is said: “Wake up. O sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”

Y’all need to get woke! See, even the apostle Paul says it! Now I know you all are thinking, “Whoa, what exactly do you mean by that?” I get it. So, let’s look at how the term “WOKE” has been used throughout history. Wikipedia tells us that:

“Woke is an English adjective meaning “alert to racial prejudice and discrimination” that originated in African-American Vernacular English (AAVE). Beginning in the 2010s, it came to encompass a broader awareness of social inequalities such as sexism, and has also been used as shorthand for left-wing ideas involving identity politics and social justice….

The phrase stay woke had emerged in AAVE by the 1930s, in some contexts referring to an awareness of the social and political issues affecting African Americans. The phrase was uttered in a recording by Lead Belly and later by Erykah Badu. Following the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, the phrase was popularized by Black Lives Matter (BLM) activists seeking to raise awareness about police shootings of African Americans. After seeing use on Black Twitter, the term woke became an Internet meme and was increasingly used by white people, often to signal their support for BLM, which some commentators have criticized as cultural appropriation. Mainly associated with the millennial generation, the term spread internationally and was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2017.

The terms woke capitalism and woke-washing have arisen to describe companies who signal support for progressive causes as a substitute for genuine reform. By 2020, parts of the political center and right-wing in several Western countries were using the term woke, often in an ironic way, as an insult for various progressive or leftist movements and ideologies perceived as overzealous, performative, or insincere. In turn, some commentators came to consider it an offensive term with negative associations to those who promote political ideas involving identity and race. By 2021, woke had become used almost exclusively as a pejorative, with most prominent usages of the word taking place in a disparaging context.

So, as you can see, being WOKE used to be a positive thing in the sense that someone has become aware of the effect and impact of racism. They get it. They had an awakening to better understanding and empathy for those suffering from racism. But now, as we come into our recent culture wars, we see the word “WOKE” being used as a negative, disparaging way of describing people or companies that promote progressive ideas. WOKE is used as a manipulative word to signal opposition to people and corporations who may disagree with the political right.

Now that we understand all of this, in what sense are we supposed to be WOKE? Paul tells us to be woke in the letter to the Ephesians. He says, “Wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” I want us to look at the theological understanding of which Paul wants us to be woke. It is important that we understand this as a theological term rather than a political hammer to smear the opposition. This is a term that Paul uses to shock us out of an old way of life and into a new way of life.

In the letter to the Christians in Ephesus, Paul takes chapters 1-3 to explain all that Jesus has done for us. First, Paul summarizes God’s story. Then in chapters 4-6, Paul explains how God’s story should reshape our story.

We will pick up where we left off last week in chapter 4 of the letter to the Ephesians. Paul begins by stating that to be woke to this new way of life, we need to stop acting like unbelievers. Living in Ephesus had to be tough. Temptation was everywhere. Ephesus was a leading city of commerce and culture in the Roman Empire. It was the home of the pagan temple of Diana, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The worship of Diana involved the worst immorality of pagan religion. This influence made Ephesus a wicked place to live. Temple prostitution, crime, immorality, idolatry, and every conceivable form of sin were practiced. Many of the Christians in Ephesus came out of that kind of background. In contrast to this evil background, Paul states, “Don’t live like that any longer!”

He says in Ephesians 4:17-19
17 So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. 18 They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. 19 Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed.

In this passage, we see that the unbelievers continue to live in the darkness. This involves futile thinking. They think in the moment and have no concept of the bigger picture of what God is trying to accomplish. They think only of themselves with no regard for others. They are ignorant because of the hardening of their hearts. They have no sensitivity to the Spirit’s leading. Instead, they have given themselves over to anything they want, leading to immorality and greed. It appears that the Ephesian church might have been struggling with this, understanding the old way of life in contrast to the new way of life. This is something that every pastor deals with in leading their congregation. We can see this play out with this video called the Honest Pastor.

HONEST PASTOR


Paul contrasts the way of the Gentile with the way of a Christ-follower. To be a Christ-follower is to be WOKE to a new way of living. Paul states in Ephesians 4:20-24


20 That, however, is not the way of life you learned 21 when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. 22 You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires;23 to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24 and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

Becoming WOKE is definitely a process in which we learn how to be a Christ-follower. It is a process of unlearning habits of the former way of life and instead, forming habits for a new way of life. We are to put off the old self and put on the new self. We are to be made new by the attitude of our minds. This is a new way of thinking. A new way of being. A new way of looking at life and our purpose in God’s story. As we better understand how we fit into God’s story, we let go of our old way of life and embrace a new way of life, transforming us to be more righteous and holy.

Paul then gives us 5 things that we must change as we live into being a Christ-follower. The first thing he deals with is what is coming out of our mouths. Are we using our words to lie or be people of truth? He states in Ephesians 4:25

25 Therefore, each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body.

Truth needs to be a central characteristic of a Christ-follower. Unfortunately, we live in a day where so much falsehood is put out there, and it is so easy to get caught up in things like fake news, alternative facts, and blatant lies. It has become a key characteristic of our culture over the past several years. Many online webpages and news sources have found how to get viewers by keeping their audience in a perpetual state of fear and anger. It is a corrosive and cancerous way of being. Instead, we find our truth in what Christ has done for us. We find our truth in how we are invited into God’s Story instead of the ugly and hateful narratives that permeate our culture. If you are caught up in false narratives and fake news, you’ve gotten off course.

The next thing Paul contrasts is how we deal with anger. Do you have constructive anger or destructive anger? Paul says in Ephesians 4:26-27

26 “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, 27 and do not give the devil a foothold.

We cannot allow anger to seep in and become the main characteristic of who we are. It can have a harsh and destructive effect on us. Based on what I see some people posting on the internet, I can tell you that some are living in a perpetual state of anger: anger at the government, anger at scientists, anger at the church, and anger at the schools. This is not healthy, nor is it Christ-like. Is anger always wrong? No, of course not. When we see the injustice being done to people all around the world, it ought to break our hearts and stir up righteous anger in us. But the difference here is that this should lead us to do what we can to bring God’s love and healing to situations of injustice and hate. First, there is an anger that leads us to do what is right for the sake of others. Then there is an anger that becomes a cancer to our soul, eating us from the inside out, hurting and destroying our relationships with others.

The third thing Paul addresses are the contrast between theft and work. He states in Ephesians 4:28


28 Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.

It is interesting to note why he says we should work. It is so that we can help others who are in need! We are not supposed to figure out how to cheat, lie and steal, but instead, have a solid work ethic where we are taking care of ourselves and others. Honest work is a godly value where you learn how to take care of your needs and help other people in need. When we are blessed through honest work, we can meet our needs and help others.

Fourth, Paul contrasts bad language with good language. He says in Ephesians 4:29


29 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.

What comes out of our mouths ought to benefit others. It should build people up, challenge, inspire and uplift people. This would include what we post online as well as what we speak with our mouths. We live in a new information age where we can put out a lot of words both verbally and online. There have even been examples in recent news of pastors who have created virtual fake online personas in which they can post and say things that would shock their congregation if they knew this was their pastor. What we say, what we type, and what we post reflect our true identity, even if you are hiding behind a false identity online.

And then lastly, Paul shows us that we need to let go of the old way of life and embrace the Holy Spirit’s transformation into a new way of life. He says in Ephesians 4:30-32


30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31 Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. 32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.


Our actions and attitudes need to reflect the Holy Spirit’s transformation of our life. We let go of what would grieve the Spirit, and we take on things like kindness, compassion, and forgiveness towards others. We are to build each other up and not tear each other down. Paul reminds us in the letter to the Romans that it is God’s kindness that leads us to repentance. Why then would we think anything less would help to attract people to our church? We need to be people of kindness, compassion, and forgiveness. When we act like this, people will be drawn to our faith. This will be the evidence that the Holy Spirit is working in your life and transforming you to be more like Jesus.

As I was growing up in the evangelical church, a big question that we always had was, “How do I know for sure that I am saved?” However, the more I have grown in the faith and studied Scripture, I believe that the biggest evidence of salvation is recognizing how the Holy Spirit is changing you and transforming you to be more like Jesus. So, take a good hard look at yourself. Are you still asleep, living out the old way of life? Or are you WOKE to the reality of the Holy Spirit making you more like Jesus each and every day?

Our faith should influence our behavior. We should be transformed through the inner working of the Holy Spirit. This isn’t just behavior modification, though, but a new way of thinking and living. Being WOKE to the reality of the Spirit in our lives.

Are you allowing the Spirit of God to work within you, or are you holding out on the Spirit? We can push him off or invite him in to change us to be more like Jesus.

The OLD way of life produces disunity, disfunction, fracturing, and broken relationships.

The NEW way of life produces unity, love, harmony, kindness, compassion, and forgiveness.

Which are you?

What’s Next? Romans 12:1-2

Confirmation Weekend, April 22-24, 2022

Now that we are completing another year of Confirmation, a year that was not interrupted by a global pandemic, the question comes up “What’s Next?” Once you have been through the process of Confirmation, what comes next? Have you graduated from church, and now you don’t have to go anymore? No! Absolutely not! You are saying yes to your baptism, yes to faith in Jesus Christ, yes to salvation, and yes to the church. You are now becoming full members of the church. With membership comes responsibilities. We do not approach the church with a consumer mindset, thinking, “What is in it for me?” Instead, we approach it with an attitude of “How can I contribute to the greater good of our church and community?”  What gifts do I have to contribute to the church, and how can I plugin?

Today I want to look at two verses from the letter to the Romans. Paul is the author of this letter, and he is writing to Christians in Rome in anticipation of him being able to visit eventually. We will find ourselves in chapter 12 but let’s consider all that Paul has written up until this point. In fact, he starts chapter 12 with a “Therefore,” which throws us back to chapters 1-11 as building up to this point in the letter. Chapters 1-11 can be seen as teaching the Romans the basics of the faith. He begins the book by stating his thesis:

I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘the righteous will live by faith.’

Paul then outlines how humanity is lost in their sins, and no one has the ability to save themselves. All are guilty of sin before God. Then, he explains how salvation comes only as a gift from God through the work of Jesus. Once a person is established in the faith, the Holy Spirit comes into them to transform them to be more and more like Jesus. We are adopted into God’s family, and there is nothing at all that can separate us from the love of God. God is constantly working in our lives to make us more like Him.

With all that said, Paul’s letter builds up to Chapter 12 with a big “Therefore!”. He is essentially saying, “Now that we know all of this, What’s next?”

Paul says in verse 1, “I urge you, brothers”! This Greek word translated as ‘urge’ is a strong word that admonishes, encourages, and exhorts the readers to do this! This word was used in classical Greek to exhort troops about to go into battle.

He then addresses this exhortation to his brothers. This would be seen as anyone who considers themselves believers in Jesus. This is seen as a bond connected to our faith. We are brothers and sisters in the faith. This part of the letter is being directed specifically to Christ-followers.

Before Paul gets to his exhortation, he gives us two things to motivate us to follow through with what he is about to say. He says,

Therefore, I urge you brothers, in view of God’s mercy.

It is in fully understanding that our salvation is totally seen as an act of God’s mercy towards us. We were lost in our sins, and there was no way for us to save ourselves. Instead, Jesus came to defeat sin and death once and for all and provide the only way in which we could be justified before God. When we fully understand the mercy of God, this becomes the greatest motivator to live into a holy life. Paul is totally in awe of how merciful God is towards us.   

The second motivator in this passage is seen in his statement:

This is your spiritual act of worship

Paul is telling us that what he is about to say is a reasonable and rational response to all that God has done for us in his mercy. And when we do this right, our life becomes an act of worship. What we do, who we are, becomes an act of worship.

So, let’s get to it! What do we have to do in light of God’s mercy and as a way to live a reasonable life of worship to God? 

Paul urges us to:

Offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God.

In his commentary of the letter of Romans, the late John Stott comments on this by saying that “No worship is pleasing to God which is purely inward, abstract, and mystical; it must express itself in concrete acts of service performed by our bodies.”

Our faith is an embodied faith! Our bodies matter, and what we do with them will speak volumes about what we really believe. We cannot say we believe all this stuff about Jesus and not allow it to impact our bodies. We can not separate the spiritual from the physical. Our faith will impact the physical reality we live in if we are serious. To try and separate the spiritual from the physical has been seen as a heresy throughout church history. Yet here we are in the 21st century, still doing this very same thing. We compartmentalize our faith to the spiritual, then we act and behave however we want in the physical world at home, at work, and in our lives.

It is also interesting to note that Jesus offered himself as a dead sacrifice so that we could be LIVING sacrifices. Dead sacrifices are a one-time event whereas a living sacrifice is a lifetime event. Therefore, we continuously get to be living sacrifices with our lives as an expression of gratitude for God’s mercy. When we do this, we become holy and pleasing to God!

So, the question becomes: How do we offer ourselves as living sacrifices? Paul touches on this in verse 2. He makes two statements. One involves a negative action, and the other involves a positive action. He says:

Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world.

What is the pattern of this world? It is to live in active sin and rebellion against God and his creation.

Instead, Paul exhorts his readers, telling them:

but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

Once again, this embodied faith begins to act itself out by changing how we think. It is a renewing of the mind. We don’t give in to the anger, divisiveness, and hate that is encouraged in our culture and politics. We don’t give in to conspiracy theories that only stoke fear and hate of others. We are to be different. We are to be people of love and grace and mercy. We are to embody a new way of living that ought to attract and inspire others because it is so antithetical to the ways of the world.

In fact, the Greek word for transform is the word from which we get metamorphosis. We are to completely transform ourselves in the same way a tadpole transforms to a frog, a caterpillar transforms into a butterfly, or Bruce Banner changes into the Hulk! What once was, is no longer. We are now a new thing. We are transformed. How? By the renewing of the mind. How we think matters. What we think will act itself out in our behaviors.

When we go through this process of changing how we think and behave, in light of God’s mercy, Paul then goes on to say:

Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.

This is what should be driving our thoughts and behaviors, doing all we can to align our will with God’s will. So the question becomes, what is God’s will for my life?

If we had time to go through the rest of this chapter, you would see Paul encouraging the Roman Christians to make room at the table for all believers. Exercise your spiritual gifts in the context of the church. And to genuinely love each other. He also tells us to hate what is evil and cling to what is good. In fact, we are supposed to take this so far as to love everybody, including our enemies.

So, my encouragement to our confirmands and all the believers here is that we are to offer our bodies as living sacrifices, seeking to align ourselves with God’s will for our life. The way we do this is to be actively engaged in the church. We need to discover our spiritual gifts and use them for the greater good of the church and the community. Confirmation is not a graduation from the church. It is an initiation into being a full member of the church. Get plugged in. Get involved. Find out how God has designed you to be a blessing to others. Don’t give in to the hate and anger that is so prevalent in our culture right now. Instead, live fully into being kingdom people right now! Let’s create a youth group and a church that helps us transform to be more like Jesus in our minds and in our bodies! Let us become a people defined by our love and care for each other.

          So, What’s next? There are a lot of opportunities for you to get involved. Serve in children’s ministry, connect to a small group in the youth group, and participate in mission opportunities, including Summer mission trips. Find what makes you passionate about God and his creation, then pursue it! My hope for you is that you discover what God’s will is for your life and that this gives you direction in your schooling, including your pursuits, after you graduate from high school.

          Adults, I ask that you lead by example. Think about what you are watching, what you are posting, and what you are doing, and make sure that you are not conforming to the patterns of this world. Instead, actively pursue ways in which you are transforming yourself by the renewing of your mind; to think and act differently that speaks more about the love and mercy of Jesus in your life. You have a responsibility to the youth and children of this church to show us how to embody your faith in real life. So please be actively pursuing God’s will in your daily lives, for yourself, and for future generations to continue the kingdom work here at Epiphany.

          Alright! Are you ready to be confirmed in the faith?

Giving Up Enemies

When it comes to books and movies, we love our enemies! Lord of the Rings gave us Sauron and the Orcs. Harry Potter gave us Voldemort. The Avengers gave us Thanos. And Star Wars gave us Darth Vader! When the new Spiderman movie was being advertised, I was very excited to see the hints that Dr. Octopus was going to be the villain again. He was always one of my favorite bad guys in the Spiderman universe.

A well-developed bad guy will make a movie successful. Think of the Batman movies. The Joker, Riddler, Penguin, Bane, all were worthy adversaries.

We love the stories in the Bible that give us a strong antagonist to our beloved protagonist. Moses vs. Pharoah. Jacob vs. Esau. Joseph vs. his brothers. Elijah vs. the prophets of Baal. Paul vs. the Pharisees. And we can not forget the ultimate clash of good vs. evil that runs right through all these stories.

As Americans we like to pride ourselves on being the good guys to whatever antagonist that might challenge us. When I was young it was the Russians who were our antagonists. You saw this played out in popular movies such as Rocky 4, Rambo 3, Red Dawn and several of the James Bond movies. Over the years it has become others that have represented Communist dictatorships and Al-Qaeda as well as renewed tensions with Russia right now over the invasion of Ukraine.   

When we look to the Gospels there is no doubt that Jesus had his enemies. There were people he enraged and upset by his teachings and his actions. Some of the Pharisees were always quick to question him and try and trick him.

But what we want to look at today is how Jesus reacted to his enemies. The passage we are looking at is traditionally the passage we look to for Palm Sunday. We will revisit this passage on that weekend, but we want to look at it from the point of view on how Jesus reacted to his enemies. Many of us who grew up on John Wayne, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone or James Bond movies would find Jesus’ approach to his enemies very disturbing. We want the good guys to sweep in and obliterate the bad guys with new gadgets, weapons, and cool cars! The American way and the Jesus way are very different.

Let’s take a look at Luke 19:37-40

When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen:

38 “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”

“Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”

39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!”

40 “I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.”

This is known as the Triumphal Entry. Jesus has finally arrived at Jerusalem and he is riding in on a colt. The people are praising him and shouting out “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” The Pharisees get upset at this and ask him to rebuke the people, but Jesus lets the Pharisees know that the people’s excitement is justified and can not be held back.

But then we get some insight into what is going on inside of Jesus. Instead of riding in with bravado and machismo relishing the praises of his followers, swearing to punch back at his enemies, he does something very unexpected. It says in verse 41 that:

41 As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it 

He wept. His heart was actually broken. He showed tears. Why? He goes on to say that:

42 “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. 43 The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. 44 They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.”

Jesus sees into the hearts of the people praising him and knows that their actions are hiding a deeper issue. He knows that these people are praising him thinking that he will be a political leader that they want to overthrow the Roman occupation and establish a Jewish nation. Jesus knows that those who praise him now will just in days be yelling “Crucify him!” Their lust for power and nationalism has caused them to be blind to the way of Jesus. What Jesus had to do was definitely not what the people wanted him to do. They wanted a good guy to defeat their political enemies once and for all and establish them as their own people. Jesus knew in their hearts that they would not understand what he had to do and through their own stubbornness and hate, they would eventually face the destruction of their people which was fulfilled in AD 70. Jesus didn’t want this for the Jewish people, but he knew that they would reject his way.

We see a glimpse into Jesus’ heart for the people in Jerusalem when we go back a couple of chapters and look at Luke 13:34-35. He expresses his sorrow over the people of Jerusalem in say that:

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. 35 Look, your house is left to you desolate. I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

We peer into the heart of God in this passage. God wants to bring together the people of Jerusalem like a hen gathering her chicks under her wings, but he realizes they are not willing. He knows the pain and destruction that is coming because of the choice they made with a bravado “Jerusalem first” kind of attitude. He knew that they would miss the whole point of his mission. And this broke his heart. Jesus had genuine feelings for his people and wanted them to see and understand the salvation he was bringing to them.

And these are the feelings and thoughts he had for his people as he was entering into Jerusalem on a colt. Instead of riding in on a war horse with armor, shield and sword, showing off masculine power to kill and destroy his enemies, he rode in on a colt, knowing that his weapon was going to be the sacrifice of his own body that would once and for all destroy sin and death. He wept, not for what he had to endure, but for the people who were all missing the point of his true salvation. He was riding into Jerusalem knowing that he would face his political enemies, his religious enemies, and all these people who would turn on him, people who would fall to all the fake news of their day and flip on Jesus, not seeing the news of all the prophets that came before them pronouncing the coming of the king who would defeat sin and death at the cross for the salvation of all those who believe. And this is what broke Jesus’ heart.

In fact, Jesus tried to teach about his approach to his enemies in the Sermon on the Mount. He said to his listeners:

Matthew 5:43-48

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

We see in this passage that God’s grace and mercy falls on everybody alike. The sun rises for the evil and the good. The rain falls for the righteous and unrighteous. His love is expressed through his creation lavishly to all. We are to give up that hatred, that bitterness, that anger towards our enemies and learn how to love them the way Jesus loved his enemies. Jesus knows that the only way to defeat hatred is not with more hate but with love. Instead of escalating hate for hate, pouring gasoline on the fire, we put it out with water through our love for our enemies. This is one of the defining marks of true Christ-followers. It is easy to love those who think like us, act like us, vote like us, and look like us. It is easy to take cheap shots at those who think differently than you. It is easy to look at a whole group of people that are in some ways different than you and, because of that, consider them your enemy. I have had to caution people I love to be careful of what news source they watch or podcasts they listen to because there are some that are very toxic always trying to define other people, other Americans, as our enemy. This can not be representative of the body of Christ. We are a kingdom people who ought to really mean it when we pray “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” In God’s economy we are to live into being one people defined by our love for each other, and even love for those who may consider themselves our enemies. Jesus did not mark out who his enemies were. It was them that claimed to be his enemy. Instead, Jesus, at his most excruciating moments on the cross, looked out at those who considered themselves his enemies and he said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.” He took their hate and rage and anger and bloodlust and nailed all of that to the cross. His one act of sacrifice opened up a path to forgiveness and salvation from the constant turmoil of pain and death brought on by our hate.

And Jesus also tells us that not only are we to love our enemies, but we are to pray for them. When we do so it says that we are moving towards perfection just as our heavenly Father is perfect. Imagine that! The goal of Christian perfection is not church attendance, having the right theology or political views, or reading the Bible, or being a Sunday School teacher or youth leader. Jesus says it comes down to our attitude towards our enemies. Loving those who love us is easy. Everybody does it. But can we give up our hatred for our enemies and learn to love them in the same way that Jesus loved them as he rode into Jerusalem? Can we let go of the angry rhetoric, the hateful attitudes, the fear and loathing of those who aren’t like us? Can we look at the other as a person created in the image of God whom God loves just as much as he loves us? For when we do so, we come close to perfection in our spiritual life in this lifetime.

Love is what compelled Jesus toward his journey to the cross.

So where do we go from here? How do we respond? I know for me just recently I had to give up a podcast because it was so enemy-driven; defining “those people” as the enemies we must defeat with our ideas about politics and reform. I listened to 3 episodes, and I noticed that at the end of each episode I was mad, distressed and angry. This was not helping my blood pressure. Instead, I try to concentrate on listening to podcasts and news sources that uplift, inspire, encourage and try to show either an objective view of what is going on in the world or a kingdom perspective of how we should look at the world. Some of you need to detox from what you are putting in front of your eyes if you think that you have enemies because some guy or girl on a podcast or opinion news show tells you to think that way. You need to immerse yourself in the words of Christ and how he viewed the world, how he views his people, and how he viewed those who considered themselves his enemies. He wept for them.

When was the last time you were moved to tears because you were made aware of how lost people are in their sins? Believe me, this is a constant angst that every pastor of every church has been feeling especially through the pandemic. Many of us need to rid ourselves of the fake conspiracy theories and fake news sights and stop giving into fear and hate.

According to a recent Barna study done about the state of the church and clergy in America:

about 38 percent of Protestant senior pastors surveyed have considered leaving ministry over the past year. Among pastors under age 45, that number rose to 46 percent.

In personal phone calls, emails to congregations, and announcements on video, my colleagues have explained why they are leaving. An intractable conflict. Embedded sexism. Shifting congregational commitments. Unclear paths for ministry following the pandemic. Exhaustion, low pay, and lack of appreciation. After 18 months of live-streamed worship services, tele-pastoral care, and online funerals, my exhausted friends are leaving their churches one by one. Each week, I learn of another pastor transitioning not only out of their current job but out of ministry altogether.

… what we gain as pastors is the opportunity to help forge communities held by common commitments to the gospel. We get to nurture generosity, redistribute our money, and create forms of mutual aid and care. We learn to get along with people with whom we disagree. We carve out new ways for conflict, repair, and restoration.

But in the wreckage of Trumpian politics and a never-ending-pandemic, our jobs have been reduced to negotiating skirmishes over mask-wearing and vaccination status. Former and current pastors have shared with me that their denominations and powerful congregants have pushed for a false unity that tolerates homophobia, racism, and conspiracy theories. My friend Ryan, a seasoned pastor, finally gave up. He felt that he could no longer follow the work of the Holy Spirit when he was expected to make room for people who actively thwarted God’s movement.

Now, I read this to you to help you see what is going on from a clergy perspective overall in America. For these past two years, many in the American church did not rise to the occasion and let our faith shine. Instead, we gave into an “us vs. them” mentality on multiple fronts. We created enemies with those we disagree with. While I cannot speak for unbelievers, this ought not to be for Christ-followers.

Looking at more recent events, I know for me that not only was the pandemic years hard, but now seeing the unfolding conflict in Ukraine is painful to watch. Seeing people in a war that they did not ask for by a person who wants to occupy their land. Are the people of Ukraine worthy of our prayers and support? I certainly hope so. We should be doing everything possible to help them in their suffering. But how do we show love to the aggressor? Do we pray for Putin and the soldiers that are involved in this war? Do we pray for President Zalinsky and the people he is trying to protect and defend? Absolutely. We need to be in prayer for this conflict and for God’s grace, mercy and forgiveness to bring a resolution to all of it. We need to pray for God’s grace to break through the hearts of those who started this. We need to pray for God’s justice and righteousness to triumph through it all. Any type of war ought to break our hearts.

And finally, I want to end with some lyrics by a favorite worship band of mine, Hillsong. They sing in a song entitled “Hosanna”:

Heal my heart and make it clean

Open my eyes to things unseen

Show me how to love like You have loved me

Break my heart for what breaks Yours

Everything I am for your Kingdom’s cause

As I walk from Earth into eternity

Hosanna, Hosanna, Hosanna in the Highest.

So, with all this in mind, let’s choose to be a people that are known for our tears rather than our hate, anger, and fears. Lent is a considered a time where we reflect on our sin and mortality; the reason of why we need a Savior, because of our own failings. This is why we look forward to Resurrection Sunday! Jesus rose again to usher in a new Kingdom that we are invite into. Are we living into the fullness of this or are we getting distracted by the divisiveness of this world? Are we like the people with Jesus, as he went into Jerusalem, ready to sing his praises, but when things get tough, we deny him with our actions?

May God open our eyes to the things that break his heart and may they penetrate our hard hearts.

May God create in each of us a tenderness and concern for others in just the same way that Jesus wanted to care for his people like a hen taking care of her chicks under her wings.

And may we learn to show love and compassion towards all people as image-bearers of God Himself.

Humble us Lord and help us to see things from a Kingdom perspective instead of our myopic, selfish, conspiracy-laden views of “us vs. them”. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.

Getting Ready for the Big Game!

Isn’t today exciting! The Bengals are in the Superbowl! Many thought they would not get by the Titans, and then they did. Many thought they would not get by the Chiefs, and then they found a way! And now we have to face the Rams! Some Browns fans do not want to see the Bengals win simply because they are division rivals. But I took it personally when OBJ left the Browns and got picked up by the Rams. As a Browns and Bengals fan, I have a double motivation to see the Rams get beat and beat badly! Plus, how can you not love Joe Burrow? A solid Ohio boy from Athens. It is an exciting day for Cincinnati and the state of Ohio.


On top of all the excitement about the Bengals, we are also in the middle of the Winter Olympics. I watched the opening ceremonies and felt a wave of excitement when Team USA entered the arena representing our country’s best athletes. Now, I’ll have to admit, when it comes to watching the Olympics live, I have a hard time doing it, especially any type of skating. To know in the back of my mind that these athletes have trained their whole lives to get to this point and then have something go wrong, like a slip or fall on the ice, makes me feel horrible. I’d rather watch curling, hockey, or snowboarding than wince through figure skating competitions.

Since we are talking about sports, I am also a huge Cleveland Cavaliers fan, and I just got to say that they are killing it right now! They are playing some exciting basketball.

With all that said, I want to give you a little background on our passage today. Paul was a church planter and went on several trips to plant churches throughout the ancient world. You can read about his journeys in the book of Acts. In fact, in Acts 18, we can see Paul’s work in the city of Corinth establishing a church and empowering them to grow. He most likely wrote this letter from Ephesus on his third missionary journey sometime between A.D. 54-56. Paul received some bad news on how the church was doing, which inspired this letter.

Now, some interesting things about Corinth are that they loved their athletes. They sponsored the biannual Isthmian Games, which were second in importance only to the Olympic Games. They held these games only 10 miles from Corinth so that most people would be very familiar with athletic training for the games. Many would also be audience members of the games. Paul was in Corinth in A.D. 50-52, so he would have been around for the Isthmian Games held in the Spring of A.D. 51.

The games would include six events: wrestling, jumping, javelin and discus throwing, and racing and boxing, which Paul alludes to in our passage. Athletes for the Olympic games went into strict training for at least ten months to qualify. It is most likely that requirements like this also existed for the Isthmian Games, which would explain Paul’s reference to strict training and disqualifications. Winners would receive a crown made out of pine or celery, which would be perishable.

Now let’s talk about the Corinthian church! Paul begins his letter in a typical fashion with some encouragement. Paul says that the church does “not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed.” Once he encourages them, he launches into some of the problems he hears about: the divisions being created by who is following who: Paul, Apollos, or Peter. Paul resisted the desire of those to make celebrity pastors out of them and take their focus off of Jesus. Instead, he wanted to refocus their attention on Christ alone, with everyone serving the same person. Paul then launches into addressing issues related to sexual immorality, lawsuits being thrown at each other among believers, questions about singleness and marriage, and food sacrificed to idols. The church was couched in one of the largest cities within the Roman province. It was also one of the most wicked cities of ancient times, and the lines between the church and the culture were getting blurred. While many heathen religions practiced in Corinth, the most well-known was the worship of Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty. The temple of Aphrodite stood on the most prominent point of the city and housed one thousand temple prostitutes. So, you can see why it was important for Paul to make a massive distinction between how the culture defined love and how God defined it. Finally, we get one of the most famous chapters in the Bible of 1 Corinthians 13, which lays out the case for what Christ-like love looks like in contrast to the pagan culture’s abuse of it. This is a great letter to read all the way through as it has so much to say that was relevant to the church in Corinth and our modern-day church.

I want us to focus on one passage in this letter found in chapter 9, verses 24-27. As we begin to pick apart this passage, we need to understand that the church in Corinth was getting very lazy with their faith. They allowed all these sins, encouraged by the culture, to impact the church community. And it was having a very negative effect on them. It was causing a lot of division, selfishness, and immorality. What is interesting about Paul is he takes something very popular within the Corinthian culture, athletics, and he relates it to the spiritual development of the believers.

He begins this chapter by talking about our freedom and rights as believers. As Americans, we like those topics! We subscribe to the freedoms we have outlined in the Constitution and our rights as explained in the Bill of Rights. But Paul gets down to the fact that just because we may have the freedom and rights to behave a certain way, it does not necessarily mean we should. We need to consider what is best for everybody in the body of Christ. We need to have a team mentality. We need to consider the greater good in light of the church, not just my freedom and rights. The way I live my life in the context of the community will speak volumes more about what I believe than just by what I say.

Paul explains in the first part of chapter 9 that he is willing to give up any rights he has not to let anything hinder the gospel, which is the good news of Jesus Christ. In fact, he says that he is willing to make himself a slave to everyone to win as many as possible to Jesus. Unfortunately, now we live in a time where there is a rise in the worship of Nationalism within our country. People who say they claim the name of Christ, but are more interested in worshiping the idea of America instead of living into the fullness of the kingdom of God. This is very dangerous and must be avoided. Our loyalty needs to be Christ and Christ alone.

Now we come to v. 24, where Paul reflects on their love of sport and how this can help us understand our motivation to develop our spiritual lives. He says, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize?” We are seeing this play out today with our beloved Bengals and Team USA at the Olympics! Many athletes train for their particular sport, and many compete. But only one person or team will get the ultimate prize: The Gold Metal or the Vince Lombardi trophy. While Paul is getting his audience to think of all those who like to run, whether competitively or casually, he then tells his Corinthian church to “Run in such a way as to get the prize.”

Believe it or not, I have run the Flying Pig Half-Marathon 3 times. Did I run to win the prize? To be the first to cross the finish line? No way. That would have involved extremely strict and disciplined training. My goal was just to cross the finish line in one piece. The first year was scary because it was my first time doing it and because it started in the middle of a storm. So, I started the race soaking wet! The second time was a little easier because it was a beautiful morning, and I was familiar with the race now. The third time I did not train as well, and my time showed. Thousands of people run in the Flying Pig just to say they did it. Everyone wins a medal and gets awesome gifts and food at the end of the race, but only one person can claim 1st place. Paul tells us to look at our spiritual lives with that kind of attitude. Don’t be sub-par, average, mediocre, or even halfway decent. Run in such a way as to win the prize!

Paul says that “Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.” Now I have helped raise four wonderful kids of mine. And as they grew up, I watched their rooms pile up with trophies, awards, certificates and pictures, and posters of all the things they were involved in throughout their school years. All of that had meaning and significance for them during that time of their lives. Now, most of that stuff has either been boxed up and put on a shelf or thrown out. We have even seen star athletes who at one time won a ring or medal or trophy take their award and try and sell it to make ends meet when they fell on tough times. So, the accolades or awards we may receive at the moment may lose their significance over time. But Paul here talks about a crown that we will receive from Christ that will last forever! This is the motivation we need to put in the forefront of our minds to live a Christian life!

Paul finishes out this passage by saying, “Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.” He makes several points here:

1) STAY FOCUSED! Don’t run aimlessly or beat the air. Be focused on who you are in Christ and why we are here. Jesus gave us the Great Commandment and the Great Commission. We are to love God and love others. We are to go out into the world and make disciples of all nations. We are to live into what it means to be the people of God. What rights we may think we have because of our national citizenship or because of our freedom in Christ are rubbish if we are using those freedoms to cause any hindrance to the way of Christ. Remember! Paul also wrote to the church in Philippi saying that “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross.” Jesus gave up all his rights as God and allowed himself to be born human. He lived the perfect life we were unable to. And then he went to the cross to deal with our sins once and for all. Jesus was focused on what he had to do. We are invited out of our laziness, where we tend to blur the lines between the world and the church. We are invited to take the faith seriously and strive to live fully into it as if we were training for gold in the Olympics.

2) BE DISCIPLINED! Paul uses the idea of the physical discipline of an elite athlete in relation to our spiritual development. We need to be disciplined so that we are not disqualified from the prize. If you are paying attention to what is going on in the American church, there are so many religious leaders who have disqualified themselves by being unfocused and undisciplined. Their ministries may have appeared to do good at first but are now leaving a path of destruction with people leaving the church and abandoning the faith. This has led to a wave of people deconstructing what they have been taught as they are left being disillusioned about the faith. This is not good.

So how do we stay focused and disciplined like an elite athlete? I watched videos of what basketball G.O.A.T. Lebron James and Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps would do to train for their sports. Needless to say, that in our day and age, they are on a level that only a few will ever achieve. I did not want us to leave here discouraged that we could not achieve that level of spiritual training. But, what can we do to get started?

Have you ever noticed the video that runs at the beginning of the service? It highlights all five purposes of our church. All five commitments that each member commits to when they join the church. If you were not here at the beginning of the service, let’s run it right now!

Let’s talk about what things we can commit to in order to “run to win the prize.” The most basic thing some of you need to do for your first step is to simply become a MEMBER. With membership, you enter into a community of faith that will inspire, encourage and uplift you to grow spiritually. Also, you would take on some “basic training” commitments.

The first is to be here in attendance as a WORSHIPPING member. Our online presence will not go away. It is a new reality for most churches now. It has become a necessary part of what a church needs to offer. But here is my beef! I believe that there are people who have gotten comfortable watching their church service online because of the pandemic we have gone through. In reality, they are healthy and capable of attending church. However, there is something to be said about being present as a body of believers, worshiping and praying together that online ministries will not fully achieve.

The next commitment is towards making sure you are GROWING spiritually. This is primarily done by getting connected to a small group. We practice spiritual accountability and spiritual practices such as prayer, Bible study, and dialogue in small groups. I am starting a small group this week which you are all welcome to join. The study will be on a book called “A Pray in the Night” by Tish Harrison Warren. If you are going through a tough time, this book is definitely for you as we will explore themes of doubt, insecurity, suffering, and vulnerability. We also will have Lenten small group studies starting at the end of the month. If you want to get plugged into a small group right away, please see Pastor Tracy. She will take care of you.

The next commitment is to be SERVING in a ministry. We have multiple ministries every month, serving people in downtown Cincinnati, Goshen, and Milford. In addition, we have ministries that we are connected to within Loveland that offer opportunities all the time. Also, we have three mission trips this Summer to Chicago, Puerto Rico, and Alaska. Chicago is primarily for our Junior High teens, Puerto Rico is for our Senior High teens, and Alaska is for our college and 20 to 30-something people. We need adults for all three trips. These are excellent opportunities to put your faith into practice as a community of faith.

The next commitment is to be a GIVING member. If one thing is true about Epiphany, you are generous when needed. But everybody should be giving regularly. This helps support the church and all the missions we can connect with locally, nationally, and internationally. If you are not a regular giver, there are ways to help you begin to give a tithe and be faithful stewards of your finances. Please call the church, and we will connect you with Mitch, who can help you become a regular giver.

The final commitment is to be an INVITING member. We are all challenged to bring in at least one new person each year. Now, I don’t usually like to brag about worship leaders because I have always felt it was important to keep everyone’s egos in check as a pastor. But let’s consider Corbin for a second. He came on as the Contemporary worship leader. But look at what he has done in the area of inviting. He has invited Tori, Bobby, Audra, Ian and Ivory, and others to become connected to our church. We have been blessed by all of them as well as those on the team who have been long-time faithful band members. But imagine if we were so excited about what is going on here that we were inviting in new people all the time to plug into all the opportunities available here. Many of you have done an incredible job inviting others to celebrate the big game tonight as many gather to watch the Bengals disappoint the Rams, hopefully. What if we had that same enthusiasm about bringing people into our community of faith here at Epiphany?

So, this is basic training, folks. Let’s get on board and practice our faith in such a way as to win the prize. Let’s stop wandering aimlessly or beating the air and instead focus our attention on Jesus, the author, and perfecter of our faith. Let’s rally together as a faith community to practice our spiritual disciplines of worshipping, growing, serving, giving, and inviting. And this is basic training people. There is so much more we can all be doing to expand the Kingdom of God in our context. So, get excited about your faith. Get motivated towards growth. And get committed as a member to help make a difference.

A Follow Up on Young Life

Dear Youth Group family,

As many of you are aware this past week I wrote a post about my frustrations with Young Life over my 25+ years in youth ministry. I admit it was a rant and I never ever thought anyone would actually see it. I may have a handful of people ever read something from my blog in any given week. It is mostly videos I made for the youth group during our COVID year or my sermon transcripts.

Well, my post went viral. I got almost 1,000 hits on it in two days. I will admit that I felt like I have reached my limit with Young Life in that I have always felt like we are constantly competing against each other. I have had teens have to make a choice between our Summer mission trip with Epiphany or Summer Camp with Young Life; Church retreat or YL retreat. If there is one thing you need to understand about me is I hate to put our teens in a position where they have to pick one over there other.

I lead a network of youth leaders in our area that meet together for lunch every month for encouragement, support, and planning so that we can all work together. We have done combined events at Grand Sands and Castle Skateland just to name a few things we have done together. The Cru (formerly Campus Crusade) person for Loveland is always there and works with our calendars so that we do not overlap. There is a lot of cooperation so that we can all work together and support each other.

Needless to say, I have never felt this way about Young Life so I called them out on it. Now, I will admit I was angry when I wrote it, and maybe I should have given it 24 hours to think about it and wordsmith it a little better. But on the positive side, this post did generate a lot of good conversations. I talked with others who shared in the frustration as well as others who did not relate to what I had to say and had more positive experiences with Young Life and their local church working together. I have also had great conversations with some of our own teens and parents at Epiphany. But the most positive thing I have seen out of this is that the director of Cincinnati Young Life contacted me and we went out for lunch. I was able to share my frustrations as well as invite him to our network so that we can have a more positive relationship with one another. I apologized for my tone but he understood what I was trying to say. We left on good terms. I also told him I would take down the post.

I am also aware that the post got forwarded to many of the teens involved in Young Life and Epiphany, while the post was meant for Young Life. Let me make this clear: I am in no way asking our teens to choose between Young Life or Epiphany. I just don’t want to put them in a position where they have to choose one program over the other. I want to create a program that gives them the opportunity to do both if they so choose.

With that said, I hope this gives you some context and clears the air so that we don’t have to address “the elephant in the room” this weekend. I hope this email helps and if you would like to talk with me I am more than available to meet with you: parent and/or teen. Feel free to reach out to me at 513-600-4790.

Epiphany teens: I love you! You know that. I only want what is best for you. I just don’t want you to have to choose between two good things when we can work together so you can do both. Thank you for taking the time to read this and I apologize if I upset any of you. That was not my intent.

Scott Russ

(De)construction

Matthew 11:1-6
When Jesus had finished giving these instructions to his twelve disciples, he went out to teach and preach in towns throughout the region.

2 John the Baptist, who was in prison, heard about all the things the Messiah was doing. So he sent his disciples to ask Jesus, 3 “Are you the Messiah we’ve been expecting, or should we keep looking for someone else?”

4 Jesus told them, “Go back to John and tell him what you have heard and seen— 5 the blind see, the lame walk, those with leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor.” 6 And he added, “God blesses those who do not fall away because of me. (NLT)

We are currently living in a new information age in which it is always important to ask ourselves how we come to know things. This is the study of EPISTEMOLOGY. Thanks to the digital age, we have a deluge of information thrown at us that we can tailor to our specific views on theology, politics, and history. What is even more dangerous is that algorithms are thrown in to understand better what we want, and the digital gods offer it up to us. And for most people, that means that we are only looking at things that agree with our tailored worldview.

On one level, there is the method of indoctrination. This sounds bad at first because it goes against the grain of allowing someone to think for themselves. But when it comes to certain subjects, there is a body of information that we need to be indoctrinated with so that we can know and understand more profound truths. Think about little kids. We, as parents, want to teach them their letters and numbers. This is indoctrination, or maybe a better word is construction, so that they have a foundation in which to think deeper about English, Reading, and Math as they mature. It’s like Confirmation to a certain extent in that there is a foundation of information I would like the teens to understand about the Christian faith. We want them to be orthodox Christians who can understand and articulate the faith. So we are CONSTRUCTING a type of scaffolding and foundation to continue building their faith on in later stages of life.

Indoctrination can only take us so far, though. Let’s consider the study of HISTORY. When I was in high school, all I remember was being interested in learning about the wars. But my history teachers taught me a lot of lists! Lists of presidents. List of important dates. Lists of important events. It wasn’t until I went to college that a specific history teacher taught me that every single history book has some bias from the author. There was no unbiased history book. Not only that, but he went on to teach me about the reality of slavery and the civil rights movement and the impact and effects that are still present today from all of that.

This caused a major shift in my thinking that I want us to see.

Step 1 is CONSTRUCTION. This is where we learn the basic facts.

Step 2 is DECONSTRUCTION. This is when we are introduced to new information that causes us to reanalyze what we were previously taught.

Step 3 is called RECONSTRUCTION, in which we integrate the new information with the old to come up with a new outlook.

Why am I telling you all this? Because in modern-day Christian America, there seems to be a crisis of people leaving the faith. In particular, there is much consternation about Christian teens who head off to college and seem to walk away from the faith. Now there are many reasons for this. One explanation is that some churches and denominations teach a very literal interpretation of the whole Bible. Then when a teenager goes off to college, and their first science class seems to contradict what they have been taught about the Bible, they then walk away from the faith. Another reason offered is that what we are learning is not Christian theology but is instead called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. That means that God wants me to be a good and happy person. God is there whenever I need His help. We tend to see God as the benevolent old man who wants us to be blessed and feel good about ourselves. But if we read the Bible, we will see that this is far from an accurate view of who God is. When something terrible happens in our life, this can cause the whole structure of our faith to crumble since it is depicted on an inaccurate view of God.

What happens when tragedy strikes?

When I was in seminary, I lived right across the street from Calvary Church. This church ended up having a profound impact on me as I spent three years as an intern there while I studied at seminary. I got to instantly apply all I was learning immediately into the context of ministry. I had a great time there. My Senior Pastor there at that time was Ed Dobson. He was an Irish-American who was an excellent preacher. He was also the originator of what was then called the seeker-sensitive service. This was a church service he would have on Saturday nights that was more like a nightclub with a band in which he would address current hot topics and take questions after his talk. It drew in many people who would never show up for a regular Sunday morning church service. And this was a church of about 6 thousand members. He was gifted, blessed, and extremely fascinating to be around.

But this is what rocked my world more than anything. As he was nearing the age of retirement, he got diagnosed with ALS. Now I can’t even imagine what he was going through, but let me at least tell you some of the thoughts going through my mind.

Why God? Why would you allow this evil disease to impact Pastor Ed’s life?
After all he has done to advance your kingdom.
After all he has done to grow the church.
After all he has done to be a blessing to others and to teach others about you.
This is how you let him go out in this lifetime?

I nervously waited to see how Pastor Ed would take on this diagnosis. As would be understandable, he had his struggles and low moments, but he also used this time of his life to go deeper into his faith. Ed put together a 7-week small group curriculum about all that he was learning during this time. He wrote a book called “The Year of Living Like Jesus” in which he details how he attempted to live like Jesus: hanging out with undesirables, visiting the sick, observing the Sabbath, reading the gospels every week. The book follows him on this journey in which he tries to move beyond just teaching about Jesus and actually living like Jesus, in the midst of him living with ALS. And he wrote some other books to help those going through difficult times. Unbelievable.

The dark thoughts that haunted me that were in the back of my head go to what if it were me? What if I was diagnosed with ALS right when I was about to retire? What if something tragic happened to me? Would I blame God? Would I be angry at God? Would I dare to deny the faith? What would I do? And in all honestly, I don’t know!

I know that for me, one of the most embarrassing moments in my faith journey was when I came back from my first Africa trip back in 2009. Shelly let me know that one of our daughters had a cyst on her back that concerned her. When I finally got back home, I looked at it for myself, and I was instantly horrified that we may have a child with cancer. Every emotion started to go through me. God, I just got back from serving at an orphanage in Africa for You, and you give my daughter cancer? I was nervous, scared, angry, disillusioned. It turned out that a simple operation removed the tumor, and all was well. Then I was flooded with guilt, embarrassment, and shame that this one incident almost derailed my faith.

Now at every church I have served at, I have seen many people throughout my time in ministry go through deeply tragic times. Yet, in all those cases, I observed that God is a giver of grace and love even when we go through the deep, dark valleys of life. God is with us through it all. Jesus shares in our grief as well as our joy. Jesus understands pain and suffering on a scale that few of us will ever comprehend.

What I want us to do today is to do a character study on the person of John the Baptist.

If you read the Gospel of Mark, the first chapter explodes on the page with John the Baptist. It states:

This is the Good News about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God. It began 2 just as the prophet Isaiah had written:
“Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
and he will prepare your way.
3 He is a voice shouting in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the LORD’s coming!
Clear the road for him!’”
4 This messenger was John the Baptist.

This is the child who was the son of Elizabeth, who was beyond the years of being able to conceive, whose husband was promised by an angel that they would have a baby who would become a prophet of God, named John.

Many years before this time, the prophet Isaiah foresees that there will be a messenger who will be sent ahead of the Messiah to prepare the way. John is the fulfillment of this prophecy from Isaiah!

John has the honor of baptizing Jesus and initiating the beginning of Christ’s ministry and mission.

As Jesus’s ministry began to grow, John’s disciples became concerned and wondered what John thought. John states to his followers that:

John 3: 28-30 “You yourselves know how plainly I told you, ‘I am not the Messiah. I am only here to prepare the way for him.’ 29 It is the bridegroom who marries the bride, and the bridegroom’s friend is simply glad to stand with him and hear his vows. Therefore, I am filled with joy at his success. 30 He must become greater and greater, and I must become less and less.

It would seem that John has fulfilled his purpose in the history of Christianity, and now he can fall in line with the classic movie scenes of riding off into the sunset. Mission accomplished! All ends well! Let the credits roll!

Unfortunately, John’s story has another chapter to it that is hard for us to hear. It is hard for us to accept. In fact, it brought John to the edge of his faith. Unfortunately, his perfectly constructed faith journey that was foreseen by the prophets left out the final chapter, a chapter that is quite dark and unsettling.

You see, John criticized the current king for marrying his brother’s wife. As a result, the wife held on to a bitter grudge against John. So, the king threw John in prison, thinking that that would take care of everything. Little did he know the growing rage his wife had against John.

The king eventually threw a banquet in which his daughter danced for the guests. The performance pleased him so much that he offered her anything she wanted up to half of his kingdom. Not knowing what to ask for, the daughter went to her mother and ask for some help. Unfortunately, the king’s wife seized the moment to inflict her wrath and rage on John by insisting that John be executed and his head be brought out on a platter. This caused the king to be troubled. But he knew that in the presence of his guests, and to stay true to his word, he had to carry through with the order.

What I want us to focus on first is the question John had for Jesus, “Are you the Messiah we’ve been expecting, or should we keep looking for someone else?”

As John spends his last remaining days in a prison cell, it appears that he is having a crisis of faith. Is Jesus who he says he is? Is he the Messiah? Are they supposed to be looking for someone else? John had a perfectly constructed faith in which he fulfilled his purpose, and then everything blew apart. A massive deconstruction of his faith occurred. Left in a prison cell to think, he had questions; he had doubts, he wasn’t 100% sure about everything. There are shades of anger, frustration, bitterness, and depression in what John is feeling. This is not a simple question with a reassuring answer that all is well. This is a painful question that John is asking with many layers of negativity attached to it. He is ready to give up.

And if that didn’t make things bad enough, he began to hear stories of Jesus that had to make him shake his head. As an Essene, John took a strict vow against alcohol and limiting his food consumption to only what was necessary, sometimes being as restrictive as eating wild honey and locusts. But then he would hear of Jesus changing water into wine, being called a drunkard and a glutton, one who hangs out with sinners and tax collectors.

And let’s not forget that John and Jesus are also blood relatives. They were cousins. They grew up together, playing games, having sleepovers, helping out their parents with their daily chores, and learning the trades that their father’s passed down to them.

John was in prison, waiting for his demise. He had a cousin who was doing so many miracles for so many other people. Why not him? He had a cousin who talked about freeing the captives? That’s great. What about the one person you are related to? I do not doubt in my mind that John was at his lowest point when he finally needed to ask the question, “Are you the Christ, or are we supposed to be looking for someone else?” John didn’t know what to think.

He felt hopeless.
Alone.
Disillusioned.
He wondered if everything he did was just a farce. Was there any truth to what he was called to do?

If I am thinking like John, I would believe that this is a straightforward question that deserves a YES or NO answer. But Jesus, as is typical of him, gives John more than he is asking for in his response. Jesus tells John’s followers to “Go back to John and tell him what you have heard and seen— 5 the blind see, the lame walk, those with leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor.”

Is this comforting to John? Maybe, maybe not. On the one hand, it is exciting to hear that Jesus is ushering in the new Kingdom of God through the transformation of people’s lives. But what about John? What about his life? Will Jesus rescue him?

Jesus then offers John one last bit of advice: God blesses those who do not fall away because of me.

Put another way: And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.

The Greek verb in this verse can be translated as “be lead into sin, be repelled by someone; take offense at someone by refusing to believe in him or by becoming apostate. The Greek word is pronounced “scandalon” in which we get our English word “scandal.”

Gene Edwards, in his excellent little book titled “The Prisoner in the Third Cell,” concludes his study of this passage by stating that:

A day like that which awaited John awaits us all. It is unavoidable because every believer imagines his God to be a certain way and is quite sure his Lord will do certain things under certain conditions. But your Lord is never quite what you imagined Him to be.

You have now come face to face with a God whom you do not fully understand. You have met a God who has not lived up to your expectations. Every believer must come to grips with a God who did not do things quite the way it was expected.

You are going to get to know you Lord by faith or you will not know Him by all. Faith in Him, trust in HIM . . . not in His ways.

But let’s focus on the feelings that John is going through that caused him to question Jesus. Have you ever been there, at the end of your rope, filled with grief and despair, wondering if this whole thing is even real or not? All of us go through phases in life. Some are mountaintop experiences. Others are deep in the valley of the shadow of death. If you happen to be there, know that Jesus has a word just for you, “Do not be offended.” Do not stumble on account of Him. Although this life can be very unpredictable, we know that Jesus offers hope that one day he will make everything right.

As it says in Revelation 21:4-5
He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

John’s death is not the end of him. There will be a day when Jesus restores all things to what they were meant to be. A new heaven and a new earth. The Bride of Christ will be united with the Son of God. And this is the hope that we live into every day.

What John might not have been aware of is that Jesus was about to follow him in death. And not just any death but death on a cross. Somewhat ironically, Jesus had a similar question on the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

But the difference is that Jesus, three days later, rose from the dead, defeating death and sin once and for all, and now offers us new life in him. Thus, we live in the “in-between time.” The Kingdom of God is here and is being lived into, but it is in the midst of a culture of sin and death, the kingdom of this age.

So, a couple of questions for you to wrestle with:

  1. What have you built your faith on? Is it so that you can be happy and fulfilled like Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, or is it more about faith in a God who is with us in all circumstances?
  2. All of us a guilty of constructing a faith that may have some unbiblical elements to it. What are we doing to make sure you are building your faith on a solid foundation? Are you involved in a small group where you can grow together and lean on each other through difficult times?
  3. We will all go through times of deconstruction. If you think you have your faith all figured out, you will be sorely disappointed at some point. You will be introduced to new information and experiences that will cause you to rethink your faith. How are you putting your trust in Jesus to carry you through any circumstance you may find yourself in?
  4. And lastly, what do you put your hope in? Jesus is making all things new and will one day establish his kingdom once and for all. We may be on a challenging ride to get there. We will share in his suffering and death, but we have the reassurance that new life waits for us who put our trust in Him.

My hope for this church is that we present a faith that goes deeper than mere self-fulfillment.

That we are presenting a faith in Jesus Christ that goes beyond anything we could imagine.

A faith that is strong enough to go through the process of

construction,

deconstruction,

and reconstruction as many times as we may need to in our lifetime.

Whatever you are going through know that you are not alone and you have a church family that deeply cares for you. Also, know that Jesus is with you, and it is our privilege to share in his life and death, knowing that one day we will be resurrected like Him.

Amen.

The Uncertainty of Surrender

So, today’s story is about Zacchaeus. And what comes to mind when we think about Zacchaeus? That he was a wee, little man. Not very politically correct to label a man like that. In today’s world, we may say that he was vertically-challenged. Whenever I think of Zacchaeus being targeted for his height and how he may feel about it, I always think of this clip from the movie ELF with Peter Dinklage.

And with all that we learn about Zacchaeus, his height is the most minor detail in this story for us to unpack. What Zacchaeus did for a living is more significant. The scripture tells us that he was a chief tax collector. This was not a good thing. This meant that he worked for the Roman government in taxing his own people, the Jews. The Jewish people were under Roman occupation. The Romans were seen as the enemy. So, for a Jewish person to work with the occupying government to tax their own people was seen as corrupt and inexcusable. Not only that, but Zacchaeus could work the system for him to get a significant percentage of the profits, thus building his wealth off of the backs of his own people. To say that Zacchaeus was hated and despised was an understatement. Consider the crowd as Jesus was arriving. Let’s think of a parade. Most kind-hearted people allow the shorter, younger people in front of us so that they can see what is going on. The grown adults tend to be in the back of the crowd because they can see over the tops of all the others. But Zacchaeus knows better than to push his way to the front of the crowd. For all he knows, some God-fearing zealot might stick a knife in his back if he is in the middle of the crowd. So instead of taking any chances, Zacchaeus climbs up a tree to see Jesus pass by.

Now let’s consider Jesus. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, knowing that the cross is waiting for him. But instead of taking the most direct route to Jerusalem, he goes way out of his way so that he can have this connection with Zacchaeus. This testifies to us the amazing grace of how God often goes out of his way to pursue us. In Methodist theology, we call this PREVENIENT GRACE. That is the grace that “goes before us.” Before we knew anything about God, He was the one who made the first move in pursuing us. While we were still sinners, Christ dies for us.

Then Jesus notices Zacchaeus in the tree and invites himself to his house, and Zacchaeus welcomes him gladly. And this wasn’t just a “come over for brunch” type deal. When it says that Zacchaeus welcomed him gladly, it went much deeper than only an invitation to eat together. I suspect that this was the moment of transformation in the life of Zacchaeus in which he gladly welcomed Jesus not only into his home but into all areas of his life. We call this JUSTIFYING GRACE when we connect with Jesus in a significant way where we are forgiven of our sins and are then justified before God because of our faith in Jesus.

Now Shelly and I have many conversations about our past experiences growing up and working in various churches and our experiences here. Some of them are fond memories, some of them are painful. Some of it reflects on the good, and other parts are deconstructing what we were taught and trying to reconstruct what our faith looks like now. In a recent conversation we had, Shelly described how we were inundated with sermons about “getting saved” in our past. There was A LOT of emphasis on getting people to say the “sinner’s prayer” and begin a new relationship with Jesus. I participated in many activities and courses that taught me how to share my faith in such a way as to get others to want to convert to faith in Jesus. Pray this prayer. Sign this paper. BOOM! You are saved and going to heaven. The only problem with that is that this is not how Jesus operated. Jesus doesn’t give us “3 easy steps” to get into heaven.  In fact, if we back up to Luke 18, just one chapter beforehand, we see some interesting stories leading up to the encounter with Zacchaeus.

At the beginning of Luke 18, Jesus tells a parable about a Pharisee and a tax collector coming to the temple to pray.  The Pharisee prays, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” While the tax collector prays, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Jesus points out that it was the tax collector that went home justified.

Then at the end of Luke 18, Jesus is confronted by the rich, young ruler. Here is a guy who wants to be saved. So, Jesus, knowing this guy’s heart issues, begins by telling him to obey the commandments. In response, the man is proud to list the commands that he has faithfully followed. Then Jesus cuts to the heart by telling him to sell everything he has, give it to the poor, and then come follow him. The man turned away, sad because he was very wealthy. Jesus did not get him to say a quick prayer to get him into the club. Instead, Jesus wanted total surrender, not only of him as a person but everything else that came with him. The rich, young ruler couldn’t do it. You need to see here that salvation is not just a spiritual reality but also impacts our physical reality. In fact, it impacts everything about us!

Now we pick our original story back up with Zacchaeus. Jesus calls out to Zacchaeus and says, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” And we are told that Zacchaeus came down at once and welcomed Jesus gladly. This is once again more than just receiving Jesus to his house. He received Jesus into his life. All of it.

As Jesus went to spend time with Zacchaeus at his home, many people took notice of this. The crowd was not too kind. They began saying, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.” Let’s stew on this a little bit. In Jewish culture, the idea of purity was a big deal. You had to obey specific laws to be ritually pure if you wanted to participate in life as usual. You could not touch dead things or mold or mildew, or you could become impure. If you were impure, then there were a whole set of other laws you needed to follow to become pure again and be accepted back into the community.

And don’t think for a second that we don’t have our own types of purity culture. In many youth ministries, there is a heavy emphasis on sexual purity. If you choose abstinence until you get married, then all your dreams will come true. But make a mistake, then you are just used goods. There has been a huge industry of shame used to control teens into making decisions about their sexuality. That is not to say we shouldn’t give our teens guidance, advice, and boundaries, but there must be grace, love, and forgiveness woven into our language. And it is not just sexual purity. Sometimes purity culture morphs into thinking we are better than others. If we are honest, we easily divide up people into categories that always make us look better. We have names for them: Karen; ok, boomer; people of Walmart. We are always quick to judge people based on their looks, their clothes, their status, their weight, their age, their sexuality, their color.   

The crowd was judging Jesus for contaminating himself with someone who was considered impure. In this culture, it was seen that contact with impurity would transfer over to others and make them unclean also. But Jesus operated differently. Wherever Jesus went, whatever he touched, whoever he met, whatever he came into contact with, his purity had a more significant impact on others, making what is considered impure now pure or clean. This was a radical change in how purity worked. This was a radical change in how Jesus worked.

Now that Jesus has changed the life of Zacchaeus, the question we want to ask is how did it impact or affect Zacchaeus himself? Was he to go back to life as usual? Going back to being a scoundrel of a tax collector throughout the week, but make sure he goes to the temple on Sunday and give some money to the offering, then all is good? I think not. Jesus did not let the rich, young ruler off the hook, and neither was Zacchaeus. Instead, Zacchaeus is immediately confronted with the corrupt way he did business and wants to make things right with his people. He says to Jesus, “Look, Lord! Here and now, I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” This, my friends, is called reparations. Zacchaeus felt convicted to make things right with those he cheated to become rich. He recognized that he had an occupation in which he became very wealthy off of other people’s backs. And he took advantage of them for a long time. He acknowledged that he took advantage of the system to grow his wealth at the expense of others. And he was immediately convicted of making things right. Zacchaeus’s faith was not just a personal, private thing, but it impacted him holistically and publicly. So, a couple of points to make here:

1) This action that Zacchaeus is taking after being confronted with Jesus would be considered SANCTIFYING GRACE. This is God’s grace that works within us to make us more like Jesus all throughout our lifetime. So, we see the whole pattern of grace in this story: PREVIENENT GRACE is the grace that comes before when Jesus went out of his way to pursue Zacchaeus. God is always pursuing people even before they ever know it. Then there is JUSTIFYING GRACE that represents that moment when we receive Jesus into our lives, and we become justified before God on account of Jesus cleansing us of our sin and being our righteousness. And then SANCTIFYING GRACE is when the Holy Spirit works within our lives to help us be more and more like Jesus in all areas of our life, both private and public. It affects how we interact with people, how we do business, how we conduct ourselves, how we love others, and of course, what we do with what we have, and how we steward our resources fairly and equitably. Our faith ought to seep into all areas of our lives.

2) Let’s talk about reparations. Zacchaeus wanted to repair the way he did business by making things right with those he took advantage of in his business practice. A very cursory study of American history has shown us that white European settlers took advantage of the Americas’ indigenous people. Time and time again, our country would make deals with them only to break promise after promise. Also, the institution of slavery was used for 250 years to build this nation. People from Africa, who are image-bearers of God just like us, were stolen from their country and brought here by force to be used in one of the cruelest forms of slavery in history. When slavery ended, it just morphed into other ways of keeping the white race in control and the African American race under subjugation: through Jim Crow laws, mass incarceration, among many other things. I have my ideas about what we as a nation should do to rectify our past sins. But I am not holding my breath. I can ask us, though, what can we do as a church? How can we respond to current-day racism? What can we do to try and make things right in light of our dark past? The hope is that we bring reconciliation and restoration to all. That we create a community in which we see the inherent worth and dignity of all as image-bearers of God. And that we live in a country that is fair and just for all equally. I will be the first to admit that I have grown up in a country that has benefited me tremendously simply for being a white, heterosexual male. How can we be welcoming and inclusive for all, not only within our church walls but also out in our community and throughout our country?

Here is the deal, we are called to be ministers of reconciliation, not just reconciling people with God but also with each other. This is the kingdom of God we are to be living in right now. And when we do this correctly, we draw people to Jesus instead of repeal people away from the church. What does working toward reconciliation and reparations look like for the United Methodist Church? So far, here at Epiphany, we have people involved in a social justice group studying and talking about this very thing. I would encourage all of you to read the book “Be The Bridge.” Christian author Latasha Morrison, an African American, helps us understand our faith and how to pursue God’s heart for racial reconciliation. It is one of the best books I read on the topic of racial reconciliation. Another book I would highly recommend is “The Color of Compromise” by Jemar Tisby. This book helped me see the church’s complicity throughout American history when it came to its response to racism. Both of these books will be offered as small group studies throughout the rest of the year. I think this should be required reading for all Epiphanyites. But our efforts shouldn’t stop at reading books. We need to wrestle with how we can be more welcoming and inclusive to all people, connect with other organizations and other churches to help, and be a blessing to them to inspire and encourage racial reconciliation. How can we help in areas related to poverty, incarceration, addiction, and families in crisis? How can we help to bring equity to education, housing, and access to jobs? 

So, today’s theme is the Uncertainty of Surrender. We have always liked the idea of privately surrendering to Jesus, making a personal commitment to follow Him. But why is it so hard to publicly surrender to him in all the other areas of our life; making things right, repairing broken relationships, reconciling all people to live into being the whole and diverse body of Christ? Jesus didn’t give us a prayer to say to be in the club, and then all is good from there on out. Instead, he continuously said, follow me. Follow me.

Follow my example.

Follow my lead.

Follow as I am doing.

Has Jesus impacted you in this way? We may not talk a lot about salvation as compared to my past experiences, but we must ask what is Jesus saving us from? Yes, he is saving us from our sins, but he is also saving us from ourselves. He is in the business of saving us and transforming us so that we are more and more like Jesus in all areas of our life so that we as a community represent the present Kingdom of God as an alternative to the broken kingdoms of this world. Just like Zacchaeus, have you opened yourself up to Jesus breaking into all areas of your life? Have you surrendered to Jesus, allowing him to save you from yourself? If not, know that Jesus is pursuing you, inviting you, and welcoming you into this kingdom project. He is there and has always been there. Are you willing to come down out of the tree and follow him? What are you holding on to that prevents you from surrendering to his call? What do you not want to let go of? Today would be a great day to surrender to Jesus and allow Him into your home and transform your life from the inside out. If you are ready for this move, then I invite you to follow Jesus. Jesus loves you where you are at, but he never intends to leave us there. He intends to take us on a journey of total surrender to his will and purpose for our lives. And what a journey it is.

AMEN

The Uncertainty of Faith

So, would you be crazy enough to get into the wheelbarrow? Not me! If social media has taught me anything, I am more than willing to watch “crazy people,” but only in the comfort of my own home in the safety of sitting in my chair! Ask me to participate in crazy stunts, and you can pretty much guess what my answer is going to be.

Now, why is that? If this tightrope walker has proven himself over and over again, why not trust in his athletic ability to get you across on a wheelbarrow? Because we like safety, security, certainty on our terms. We are Americans, after all! But if there is one thing this past year has taught us is that life is full of uncertainty: pandemics, the snow and ice storms, tornados, wildfires, power outages, etc. We have all been rocked out of our false sense of security, reliability, and certainty.

In our story today, we come across a man who is at his wit’s end. He has a son of which he is unable to help. As a parent, this is one of the biggest fears any of us can face. Bring on anything this world has to throw at me, but not my kids. Any parent wants to be the source of security, compassion, and hope for their kids.

In the context of our scripture, today, 3 of the disciples just had an extraordinary experience. Literally and spiritually, they had a mountaintop experience. They were witnesses to Jesus’ transfiguration. But as is with life, they came off of that incredible and inspiring experience just to be confronted head-on with life in the trenches. Let’s dive into the story.

A.  The Problem  – 14-18

14 When they came to the other disciples, they saw a large crowd around them and the teachers of the law arguing with them. 15 As soon as all the people saw Jesus, they were overwhelmed with wonder and ran to greet him.

16 “What are you arguing with them about?” he asked.

17 A man in the crowd answered, “Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. 18 Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not.”

Something was clearly wrong with this fathers’ child. What appears to be what we may think is a medical condition, Jesus is able to see something darker and more sinister behind it. The boy is spiritually oppressed and the father feels helpless.

If we look back into Mark’s Gospel, we would see that in chapter 3, all of Jesus’ disciples were commissioned to cast out demons and heal people just as he has done Himself. In chapter 6, we see that these disciples had success in doing just that, healing people from spiritual oppression.

Now Jesus comes across his disciples in a heated argument with religious leaders about a failed exorcism. What went wrong? Do the same methods and same techniques work every time? Apparently not. This leads to Jesus’ rebuke.

B.  The Rebuke                                       – v. 19

19 “You unbelieving generation,” Jesus replied, “How long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy to me.”

Jesus’ disappointment is directed at his disciples, who were unable to help the boy. Before Jesus can deal with the disciples, he confronts the problem head-on.

C.  The Confrontation                            – v. 20-27

20 So they brought him. When the spirit saw Jesus, it immediately threw the boy into a convulsion. He fell to the ground and rolled around, foaming at the mouth.

21 Jesus asked the boy’s father, “How long has he been like this?”

“From childhood,” he answered. 22 “It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”

23 ” ‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.”

24 Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”

25 When Jesus saw that a crowd was running to the scene, he rebuked the impure spirit. “You deaf and mute spirit,” he said, “I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.”

26 The spirit shrieked, convulsed him violently and came out. The boy looked so much like a corpse that many said, “He’s dead.” 27 But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him to his feet, and he stood up.

We see here that whatever was influencing the boy had a strong reaction to the presence of Jesus. Jesus assessed the problem by asking how long the boy has been this way. But then the father responded with one of the most honest responses. He says to Jesus, “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” The man is open to any help he can receive from Jesus. Anything to make his hopeless and uncertain situation better.

Jesus responds to the man’s request by drawing out the doubt and uncertainty that the man is wrestling with by repeating, “If you can?” Jesus assures the father that “everything is possible for one who believes.” If we stop the story right here, it would appear that the problem in this story is the man’s lack of faith. If he just had the right amount of faith, his boy would be healed. This would be a very heavy burden to put on the father or even the disciples.

I once knew a woman who attended a church I served in that had a child suffering from cancer. During this season of her life, she attended another church. The whole church was praying for healing for the boy. Unfortunately, the boy ended up passing away from the dreaded disease. In her grief, the mother did not understand and had questions about the outcome of her son. She went to the pastor of the church and asked why her boy died of cancer when it was clear to her that everyone was praying for his healing. Why wasn’t he healed? The pastor’s response was horrible and could be considered spiritual abuse. He said to the grieving mom that she did not have enough faith for her son to be healed. This is terrible! This is not how the God I serve operates.

But let’s take a look at what Jesus does here. The man responds to Jesus, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief.” This man exposes the tension within every single one of us between belief and unbelief.

As I have grown in the faith, I can say with pretty much certainty that one of the most insufferable kinds of people to be around are those who have absolute certainty about everything. No nuance. No ambiguity. No doubts. Just absolute certainty: in their beliefs and how anyone who disagrees with them is wrong and on the highway to hell. But I am here to tell you that this actually demonstrates an immature faith, not a mature faith. These types of people typically have not had enough life experiences or have honestly wrestled with their faith in a deep and meaningful way.

On the other hand, some people need certainty. They want everything to be very black and white. But when difficult times come along, this can rock the faith of those who depend on certainty, pushing them into agnosticism, atheism, or an even stronger fundamentalism.

The author of our devotional and sermon series for Lent, Magrey R. DeVega, states that “tension and ambiguity in life are not always bad things. Struggling with what we know and don’t know does not convey how weak we are but simply how human we are. Faith is not the absence of doubt, but the embrace of it and ultimately the transformation of it. Likewise, courage is not the elimination of fear, but the regular interaction with it and conscious choice against it. The truth of the matter is, we live in a time when there is more value in ambiguity and shades of gray than there is in rigid, dogmatic certainty. Our world will be made better not by the extremists on the fringes who think everyone else has it wrong, but by those in the center who believe there is value in dialogue. Uncertainty is a certain part of life, and with its embrace can come transformation.”

In this story, the anxious father shows us that faith and doubt co-exist. They are held in tension. It is not an “either/or” proposition but instead a “both/and”. And it is in this tension that he looks to Jesus for help. Jesus proceeds to confront the spirit and bring healing to the boy.

Now let’s get back to the disciples. Imagine what they are thinking and feeling. Jesus commissioned them to heal people, they have gone out and did just that, but then they come to this situation where it just didn’t work the way they thought it should have. Obviously, they have questions for Jesus.

What happened?

What went wrong?

What did we do differently? The passage continues:

D.  The Explanation                               – v. 28-29 

28 After Jesus had gone indoors, his disciples asked him privately, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?”

29 He replied, “This kind can come out only by prayer.”

Jesus explains to his disciples that in their faith, they needed to depend on God through prayer. He didn’t shame them. He just showed how our faith and prayer demonstrates our dependence on God to help and intervene in our uncertain times. Now we may not get the answers we want, but prayer and faith help us to rely on God to walk with us through whatever life throws at us. And Jesus isn’t asking us for perfect, 100% faith. In fact, in Matthew 17:20-21, Jesus says that:

Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”

Is Jesus talking about literal mountains here? Maybe, maybe not. I tend to think that he is telling us that when we face major issues in our lives, we need to put our faith in God that He is good and just and will be with us through anything. And if we have just the littlest bit of faith, as small as a mustard seed, we will be able to see how God moves in our lives through these uncertain times.

Also, our prayers do make a difference. It helps us to rely more on God to work through our lives.

In America, we like to have a plan, order, and structure for our lives. We like to have everything figured out according to our own understanding. But as we can tell from this past year, that just has not been possible. One of the most useless things in 2020 was a planning calendar!

A passage that has helped me out A LOT in life comes from Proverbs 3:5-6, which says,

Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.

Our own understanding can be faulty. We have a very limited view of things going on in our life. We are incapable of seeing the bigger picture in the way that God is able to understand. That is why the proverbial writer tells us to not lean on our own understanding but to trust in God. This is the way we move the mountains in front of us as our paths are made straight. It is in our reliance and dependence on God.

So, my question to you is, are you ready to get into the wheelbarrow? Are you willing to embrace the tension between belief and unbelief, between faith and doubt, between certainty and uncertainty? When you let go of your own ability to try and understand it all and learn to live in that tension, this is the sweet-spot for spiritual growth and development. When we look back on our past, we understand things better in hindsight, where we see how God helped us through situations. Let’s rely on those experiences in our past as we look forward to an uncertain future, trusting that God is with us every step of the way and will bring about the best of outcomes as we continue to put our faith in Him and trust that He has our best interests in mind. God does not expect us to have PERFECT faith, PERFECT belief, and ABSOLUTE certainty. He just asks that we put our trust in Him and live in the tension. And as a church, let’s continue to take our prayer concerns to Him in a child-like spirit of dependence upon Him.

Anxiety in the Pandemic Age

There are many reasons why we worry. The current times we are living in raise a lot of concern for everybody. It is unbelievable that we have lost 166,000 Americans in just a handful of months to COVID-19. To put this in perspective we lost over 58,000 Americans in the Vietnam War. We lost over 36,000 in the Korean War. We lost over 116,000 in World War 1. We have blown those totals away in just a few short months. Jobless claims have also been extremely high because of the pandemic we are currently in. We are living in anxious times. It is easy to be in a perpetual state of anxiety and fear.

During the month of July, I saw first-hand the efforts being made to help those in Loveland who desperately need the basics of life when it comes to food and education. Our youth group participated with the NEST which is a mission that stands for nutrition, education, safety and transformation. Each week I had a different group of teens who would help to serve this mission in its efforts to continue to provide good food and educational tools to continue the mental and physical growth of the low-income kids in our community. The CEO of NEST, Evangeline DeVol, took time out of her schedule each week to share her story and vision for caring for the children and families within our community who are trapped in poverty and struggling just to make ends meet. I had the privilege of hearing the story 4 times! Each week if she left out a detail I would chime up and remind her to include it. This is a Loveland resident who could very easily keep to herself and ride out this pandemic and be just fine through the whole process. Instead, God laid it on her heart years ago to take care of the poor children who desperately need the basics of life and help to have a chance to break out of the cycle of poverty and excel in their education. Instead of being consumed with worry for herself, she has used her giftedness and blessing to be a blessing to others. And this is just one example of ways in which we can overcome worry.

Today’s passage comes out of a famous section of the Gospel of Matthew that we refer to as the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is talking to a group of people who we see in the end of Matthew 4 are the poor, the suffering, the sick, the hurting. These are a group of people who have a lot to worry about. These would not be considered the middle-class or upper-class. These are people who are used to living day-to-day not fully knowing where their next meal might be coming from or what they may wear in the upcoming days ahead.

Our passage today comes from Matthew 6:25-34. But here is the deal. Verse 25 begins with a big THEREFORE! So, what that typically means is that we need to see what came before our passage. Let’s just look at verse 24. It says:

“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.

Jesus just finished a topic in which he defines what is our treasure. What is the difference between material treasure as opposed to spiritual treasure? What should our focus be on? He points out that where our heart is, that will also reveal what we treasure. If we store up treasure on this earth, it will depreciate in value, it could be stolen or destroyed, what seems to be important for me to have right now may be meaningless later. Instead, Jesus is encouraging his audience to focus instead on making investments in spiritual things, investing in the lives of others, caring for others, loving others. The pursuit of selfish materialism is contrary to a life of service. Jesus makes it very clear that either we serve ourselves or we learn the value in serving others. With that said, he now says THEREFORE!

So let’s take a look at our passage for today. It begins with:

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

I don’t know about you, but lately I have found myself to be in a perpetual state of worry. I worry about this virus that is hurting and killing fellow Americans. I worry about how ministries are surviving during this time we are in. I worry about my daughters starting new jobs in the medical field. I worry about my son who is trying hard to juggle 3 different jobs. I worry about my youngest son who I am going to have to take to Ohio State on Monday and drop him off. Now my other kids were a little bit easier to drop off at college but considering all that is going on I am a bit more nervous about this drop off. Don’t get me wrong. I am extremely proud to be a Buckeye parent. And I am really looking forward to visiting the campus and familiarizing myself with the local cuisine. I want my Ohio State Dad t-shirt! And as a bonus there are a lot of kids from the youth group who are also going to Ohio State so I am looking forward to checking in with many of them on my frequent visits. But I am nervous this time around because of this dang virus and how it may or may not impact schools on every level this Fall. I pray that we quickly find a vaccine and are soon able to resume our lives back to a somewhat normal state of living if that is even possible.

Jesus sets us up in the passage by saying first of all that we need to stop worrying about our life. Then he goes into two specific categories that were very relevant to his audience. He talks about food and clothes. Now we live in a society where most of us eat for pleasure rather than for survival. And many of us are blessed to have a lot of clothes so much so that we tend to be fashionable and trendy here in Loveland. But keep in mind that Jesus is going after the heart here. Is God the God of our abundance or has our own wealth become our God? We can’t serve God and money.

The first illustration that Jesus uses relates to birds. He reminds us that birds, unlike humans, do not worry about what they are going to eat and drink. Birds do not store food away in barns. They are not in a perpetual state of worry about where their food is going to come from. Yet, even though they are just birds to us, God cares even for them and makes sure they are feed.

Just last weekend I went up north to visit my in-laws and parents. My in-laws live in a condo in Vermilion. They have made their backyard into a little bird sanctuary. I was able to sit out on their back patio drinking my coffee as I watched several birds pick away at their bird feeders while the squirrels ate the crumbs that fell into the grass. I was also easily entertained by the hummingbird that frequented their feeder. The many birds I was able to watch were not worrying about their next meal. They were not stressed out about where the food was coming from. They simply enjoyed the food that was available to them. Jesus points out that when it comes to value, are human being not more valuable than birds?

When we think back to the Creation Story we are reminded that when God created humans he marked that as the pinnacle of his creation by stating that it was VERY GOOD. And God empowered humanity to rule over the creation, birds being part of that creation. We were created in the image of God. God created us to be in relationship with us. This was the intent we see in the Creation Story. So to look at what Jesus is saying is that we are valuable to God and He cares deeply for us.

Now how do we rectify this passage with the fact that there are quite literally people every day who die of starvation and preventable diseases? I am reminded of a quote from Ghandi in which he said, “There is enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.” Greed and the hoarding of wealth is a real problem today when you consider that God expects those who are blessed to use that to be a blessing to others. If we have the means and resources to help others, the last thing we should do is hoard it for ourselves. There are plenty of resources to meet the needs of everyone. The question is, are we the type of people or church willing to show care and concern for others in the same way that God takes care of the birds?

God cares for you. He cares for your physical well being as well as your spiritual development. All that we have is a gift of God to be used as a blessing from Him and to be a blessing to others. If you need food assistance I would like to think that the church would be the first thing you would think of. Not that we have warehouses of food stockpiled in the basement of the church, but we are connected within the community to take care of those who are in need. We are connected with the LIFE food pantry, Loveland Initiative, Milford/Miami Ministries, the Goshen Food Pantry, and the NEST. Many of our local churches support these ministries to help provide food and supplies to sustain families in need.

Jesus goes into his next illustration by looking at the fields, possibly even looking around in the very context of where he is speaking. He says:

28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?

Now Jesus takes a look at nature. He is admiring the landscape of where he is speaking. He talks about the flowers of the field. If you are a person who takes advantage of our bike trails or canoeing down the Little Miami River, we are constantly reminded of the beauty of nature. To watch the seasons pass with all of the beauty around us is a awesome experience to behold. One of my happy spots is to be up North to admire Lake Erie and the beautiful sunsets up there. God’s creation is just amazing when we stop for a moment to appreciate his creativity and wonder. But in this passage he is talking about the beautiful fields that are here today and gone tomorrow. We are reminded of this with the cycle of the corn seasons in our state. As a native, die-hard Ohioan there is something about traveling up 71 or 75 and being excited about the various stages of corn fields! I know, “Nerd!”, right? But it is always a little bit shocking in the Fall when you have gotten used to gigantic fields of corn stalks one day, then to see empty fields that have been mowed down the next. Here today, gone tomorrow. Do I lose any sleep over it? No. It is just the cycle of life for plants.

For years now I have teased my wife that she is a plant murderer. There have been many Springs where we go out and buy flowers, or I should say SHELLY buys flowers. She then proceeds to plant them with all the good intentions of having a bountiful harvest of flowers throughout the Summer, only to have her life get busy with other things where the plants die a horrible death of neglect. But I am happy to report that the cycle of death and destruction has been broken with the Summer of Covid-19! She has done a fantastic job of caring and loving all the flowers she has planted this year. Now in a few weeks or months they will all be gone as we head into the Fall and Winter. But it was a good year for plants on the Russ homestead! I suppose I am not allowed to move forward without showing you some pictures so here you go.

Jesus uses this analogy to point out that in nature very little has to be done to see magnificent beauty which is here today and gone tomorrow. And the beauty of nature far surpasses even King Solomon in all his splendor. If the natural world is taken care of by God in such a profound way will he not make sure we are clothed? Grass is worthless when compared to the greater value of people created in the image of God. He will care for us. He will provide for us.

So once again, many of us do not wrestle with the miniscule amount of clothing we have, wondering where we will get our next outfit. Instead, if you are like me, you have an excessive amount of very nice clothes, or in my case, jeans and t-shirts. If there is one thing that every youth pastor has an over-abundance of it is most definitely t-shirts. Every significant moment in the life of a youth group is marked by a fashionable t-shirt. Confirmation = t-shirt! Mission Trip = t-shirt! My spiritual growth can be measured in t-shirts. But once again, if we are blessed with a lot when it comes to clothing, are we hoarding what we have or allowing it to be a blessing to others? Make it a habit to regularly go through your closet and get rid of things you don’t wear anymore so that it can be passed on to someone else and be a blessing to them.

Then Jesus wraps up this section of his talk by stating that:

  31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

Jesus hits hard here about where we are focused. What is our priority? Are we in a perpetual state of worry and anxiety with all that we have going on? Jesus calls us out on the fact that that is actually pagan. Not only that, but it is unnecessary because our heavenly Father knows what we need. So he is telling us not to be consumed with that. Instead, Jesus gives us our #1 priority which is to seek first his kingdom and his righteousness. Now what does that mean? When some think about what Jesus means by kingdom they think of heaven and the after-life. But I believe that Jesus established His kingdom here and now when he went to the cross. He is inviting us to be a part of his kingdom work RIGHT NOW! We are to live into the fullness of His kingdom now! This is an important message for us to hear as we are currently in a political season. Jesus is on His throne. I know that some of you are not comfortable with hearing this but our nationality is as temporal as the grass of the field but his kingdom is now and forever. That helps to put things in better perspective at least for the next couple of months here!

One of my most favorite authors is N. T. Wright. He is our modern-day C. S. Lewis. In his book Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection and the Mission of the Church, he states that:

It is the story of God’s kingdom being launched on earth as in heaven, generating a new state of affairs in which the power of evil has been decisively defeated, the new creation has been decisively launched, and Jesus’s followers have been commissioned and equipped to put that victory and that inaugurated new world into practice. . . . To put it another way, if you want to help inaugurate God’s kingdom, you must follow in the way of the cross, and if you want to benefit from Jesus’s saving death, you must become part of his kingdom project. (p. 204-205).

Our consuming priority is to live as kingdom people in the present. How do we do this especially during a pandemic?

Well one way we can do this which is modeled for us all throughout the New Testament and church history is small groups. Believe it or not, in the New Testament there was no such thing as a church building! They all met in small groups! This is how we know each other, how we learn to pray for each other, and how we care for each other. While the church wasn’t established until Jesus’ resurrection, I believe that Jesus saw the need for believers to trust in God and care for others. Our first priority, above all else, is to seek first his kingdom and his righteousness. A kingdom needs a people. And these people become the church. This is Jesus laying the foundation of what becomes the church.

While we attempt to begin opening up the church I know that there are many of you that are just not comfortable yet getting together in large crowds until a vaccine is found. I get it and I don’t blame you. But we have the resources and technology to meet in small groups. That has never stopped. Every Friday I look forward to seeing the Facebook post of the Men’s small group that has been meeting on Zoom. I literally zoom in on the picture to read the names of all the guys who are a part of that morning small group and find hope as a pastor that they are finding a way to continue meeting together.

I really do believe that this is the greatest way for us to pursue His kingdom and his righteousness; by living and sharing life with others who can pray with you, hold you accountable and be a source of encouragement and love for one another. All of you need to be involved in a group. Even if it is just meeting with a few church members in your neighborhood in your home or online. Do not be like a caterpillar and cocoon yourself away from those who can help you grow spiritually. Don’t hide in your house consumed with worry about all that is going on. We need each other. More now than ever. We are relational and spiritual people of which it is necessary for us to be connected in a way that promotes growth. Spirituality was never meant to be a solo experience. It is meant to happen in community. Sometimes I wonder if the American church has been so preoccupied with building bigger buildings for mega-congregations that God is teaching us through this pandemic that we need to invest in relational small groups more so than bigger arenas and sanctuaries.

This Fall we want to kickoff a variety of small group opportunities for you to get yourself involved in. And just because I may have a list for you to choose from does not limit you. If you feel led to start your own small group, then do it! Let me help you, let me resource you, let me pray for you but let’s do this! Our target date that we would like to launch all small groups is the week after Labor Day starting on Sunday, September 13. Many of you who are already leading a small group have talked with me about what you are doing for this Fall but if there are any others interested in starting a small group in your neighborhood or with some affinity group then please call me or email me this week as I would like to add you to the list of small group offerings and make that available to our list. I can not stress enough the importance for you to make a plan for how you are going to continue to grow spiritually especially as we head into the Fall. Who can you learn with? Who can you pray with? How can you learn to serve together? Pray about it and let’s get back to being the church. While it is not ideal, we have technology today that people have never had in the past. Let’s take advantage of that if you don’t feel comfortable meeting in a small group in person. If you do want to meet in a small group, the church building is available to you. Just call and schedule a time and a place for your group to meet.

With all that being said, let me end with one more passage from Paul as he wraps up his letter to the Philippian church. He tells the church in Philippians 4:6-7:

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

So, let’s not focus so much on what we DON’T have and focus instead on what we do have. We have each other. We have God. He is a big God and can take on all our prayer requests, our concerns, our grief, and our lament. In exchange for all of that we receive his peace! That’s not a fair trade! But that is the generosity of our God. He takes away our anxiety and gives us His peace, which, by the way, transcends our feeble attempts to try and understand everything and helps to guard our hearts and minds, our emotions and our intellect, in Christ Jesus.

Fear not church. Let’s kick this anxiety to the side and live into the kingdom He has called us to be.

Amen.