He’s Not Mad At You (A sermon about coming home)

This message was preached at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights on Sunday, January 30.  It’s the third in a series rooted in our congregation’s discussion of Max Lucado’s book Fearless.  The texts for the day are Genesis 3:1-11 and John 3:16-21.  At the end of the sermon there’s a video of Chris Tomlin’s Come Home Running, which my friend Adam sang in response to the message.

Maybe you know these, but I’ll try them out anyway.  Here’s a little biblical humor for you.  Where is the first mention of baseball in the Bible?  In the big inning… Who was the first financial genius in the Bible? Pharaoh’s daughter, who went down to the Nile and drew out a little prophet. When were motorcycles mentioned in the Bible? When Joshua’s triumph was heard throughout the land. Does the Bible ever mention insurance?  Sure; David gave Goliath a piece of the rock. I could go on.  Unfortunately, I have a million of these.  Perhaps you use your brain cells better.  I hope so.

OK, one more question – only this time, it’s no joke.  Who was the first theologian in the Bible?  In Genesis 3, we meet the serpent, who represents the power of evil.  The serpent is the first true theologian.  After all, what is a theologian?  Someone who talks about, who studies, God.  Remember your Greek?  “Logos” = ‘word’ or ‘study’;  “Theos” = “God”.  Theologians talk about God.  For most of the beginning of Genesis, we see God as the creator, God as the giver of life, God as the one who gives shape to reality.  We also see God as one who is intentional about being in relationship – creating humanity and breathing life into the man’s nostrils, presenting humanity with that which is good and pleasant, teaching humanity about the goodness of relationship.

And then in Genesis 3, we see the first instance of a creature talking about God, rather than talking with God.  When the serpent talks with Eve about God, he speaks of God as an other.  As one who does not share that which we are doing right now.  Do you see what I mean?  He makes God a concept, or an idea, rather than a person.

And in this conversation about, rather than including, God, the serpent says, “Do I get this right? You’re not supposed to eat from any tree in the whole garden?” In doing so, he distorts God’s words.  Of course, God didn’t say that.  Eve corrects him, but then enters into his error by adding her interpretation to God’s conversation.  “Oh, no, we can eat from any of them, except for that one.” So far, truthful.  But then she adds, “He says we’re not even allowed to touch it.”  That’s not in Genesis 2.  Eve continues down the road of making God an outsider, an “other”, or even an idea or a concept.

And, as you know, this conversation leads to an eating and a sharing of the fruit and a damaging of the entire creation. Genesis 3 tells a story about a conversation that questioned God’s character, competency, and authority – and not only questioned it, but rejected it.  And not only did humans reject God’s character, competency, and authority, they put themselves in the role that God had reserved for himself.  So far as I am concerned, the real tragedy in Genesis 3 is not that someone ate a piece of fruit; the real problem is that someone – all of us, really – indicate to God that while we think he’s a nice enough fellow, he’s not really the one who should be in charge.  That should be, well, me.

And in Genesis 3, when humans begin to treat themselves as if they are God, there is an immediate realization that something is not right.  All of a sudden, Adam and Eve notice that they are naked.  All of a sudden, they experience shame.  Whereas prior to this conversation there had been a great deal of openness, now there is hiding.  They cover themselves.  They run into the bushes.  They conceal themselves from God and from each other.

Genesis goes on to describe God wandering through the garden looking for the ones that he loves.  Now, I know that lots of times, I am working on a project and I walk through the room muttering, “Now where is that drill bit?  I know I left it around here somewhere!  What’s wrong with me?  Why can’t I find it?”  Beloved, that’s not God’s problem here.  “Where are you?” is not a question of geography.  He knows where they are.  It’s a question of relationship.  “I created you for intimacy and openness…and you are not those things any more.  Where are you, humans?” There is a sense of loss and pain in the heart of God that he has to even be asking these questions.

You know the answer, of course.  Where are Adam and Eve?  They are lost.  They are hiding.  And they make it worse.  Adam says, “I was naked, and I was afraid.”

Do you remember last week, when we said that it was up to God to tell us who we were?  That our identity comes from God, not from something outside of God?  Here’s a great example of that.  “Who told you you were naked?”  What a great question.  “How do you even know what ‘naked’ is?  Someone else has been speaking into your heart.  Someone else has been trying to shape your identity.  Someone else is messing with my creation…”

And rather than enter into conversation about that, the humans walk more deeply into dis-orientation.  The man blames the woman.  The woman blames the snake.  In rejecting God, or in taking God’s place themselves, humans have upset the entire universe.  Do you see that unfolding in Genesis 3?  The relational balance that has been set up in Genesis 1 and 2 has now unraveled. Why?  Because humans treat God like an idea and they put themselves in God’s place.  Yet at the end of this passage, look at what happens: verse 21 describes how God goes to meet the people in the midst of this brokenness.  In spite of the fact that they have treated him poorly and acted unwisely, God cares for Adam and Eve and demonstrates that by clothing them.  He enters into the place where they are and insists that relationship is still his intention.  Everybody knows who is in the wrong here, but God takes the first steps.

Everybody knows what is wrong here…

Let me tell you about one of the worst classes I ever took in my entire life.  It was a class on the topic of “evangelism” – and it was designed to help people like me learn how to talk with other people about the amazing things that God has done in Jesus.

“The first thing we have to do,” the instructor said, “is to convince people of the reality of sin in their lives.  We can only tell people about God’s love when they know that they are lost.”

And, like to overachiever that I can sometimes be, I went out and did that.  I mean, I was eager to helpfully point out to my friends and acquaintances where they had blown it, where they were wrong, and just how sinful they were.  It was not, let me say, my finest hour.

Here’s what I’ve come to understand: that my instructor must live in a different world than I do.  Because I very, very rarely have to convince anyone that their lives are not the way that they ought to be.  The people that I tend to hang around with already know that they’ve blown it.  Most of my friends and acquaintances, like Adam and Eve, are acquainted with shame.  They have been down the road of blaming – themselves, or each other, or God.  Now, as I have said, it’s possible that my instructor was palling around with a different group of people, but my experience is that we know what it’s like to fall short.  And most of the time, we get to be pretty good at hiding.  Oh, we don’t hide in the bushes any more.  We hide behind walls of denial, insisting that this may not be perfect, but it’s as good as it gets.  We dive into our work, and keep on producing and producing and producing, hoping that someone will notice and love us for it.  We numb ourselves with alcohol or some other drug, thinking that while we may not be able to experience a life that’s much better, at least we’ll be able to check out of this one every now and then.  Some of us are just angry all the time, and that anger is a means of dealing with the frustration we experience when life isn’t as it should be.

Am I right?  Do you know what it is to realize that life is messed up?  Do you know how it feels to hide inside one of those behaviors?  Yeah, I thought so.

And because I know how that feels, and I know that you know how that feels, I get pretty excited when I read John chapter 3.  Jesus is talking to his friend, Nicodemus, and he’s said that if we want to be friends with God, we’ve got to go back to the beginning.  We need a “do-over”, he says.  Actually, Jesus said we have to be “born-again”, but I think it means the same thing.  We get to start fresh with God.  And just like God reached into the Garden of Eden and went to be with Adam and Eve in their nakedness and shame by clothing them, Jesus says that God has sent him, his son, into the world to convey that message of love and grace.  “My whole life,” Jesus says, “is an opportunity for people who know that things aren’t right to find a way home.  You don’t have to stay hiding in the bushes, or in your jobs, or with those drugs, or in that anger any longer.  I’m here to tell you that God says you can come home.”

I could be going out on a limb here, but I’m betting that not many people in the room know who Hiroo Onoda is.  Listen:

In August of 1942, Onoda joined the Japanese Army.  He was trained to be an intelligence officer specializing in guerrilla warfare.  In December of 1944, he was assigned to the Philippines, where he received his orders from Major Yoshimi Tanaguchi – to go behind the Allied lines and cause trouble wherever he could.  He was expressly forbidden from killing himself, and Major Tanaguchi said, “it may take three years, it may take five, but whatever happens, we’ll come back for you.”  So Onoda and his squad went into the interior of the island.

You may have heard this, but on the afternoon of August 15, 1945, Japan announced that it was surrendering.  On September 2, 1945, a formal peace treaty was signed.  As I’ve said, you’re probably aware of that.  It was, as they say, in all the papers.

But they didn’t get any papers in the jungles of the Philippines, and so Lt. Onoda and his squad of three soldiers kept fighting.  In October of 1945, Lt. Onoda found a brochure saying that the war had ended, but he didn’t believe it.  For the next few months, American planes dropped leaflets announcing the end of the war.  Villages set up loudspeakers and relatives from Japan yelled into the jungle, imploring anyone in hiding to give up the fight.  But Onoda and his men didn’t believe it.  For years, they lived in the jungle, attacking islanders when they could, believing them to be spies for America.  In 1949, one of his fellow soldiers sneaked away from the camp and surrendered.  In 1954, another was shot and killed in a skirmish.  In 1972, Lt. Onoda’s last soldier was killed in a clash with a Filipino patrol.  When the Filipinos figured out that the dead man was a Japanese soldier, they renewed the hunt for survivors, but Onoda went deeper into the jungle.

In 1974, a college dropout named Norio Suzuki decided to bum around the South Pacific for a while.  “Hey,” he told his friends.  “Maybe I’ll find the Abominable Snowman.  Maybe I’ll find a giant panda.  Maybe I’ll find a lost Japanese soldier.”  Well, one out of three ain’t bad.  He found Lt. Onoda, who at that time was 53 years old, and had been hiding in the jungles for more than half his life.  He tried to convince Onoda that the war was over, but Onoda did not believe him.  Suzuki asked him what would convince him, and Lt. Onoda said that he would only come out in response to a direct order from his commanding officer.

Suzuki went back to Japan and found Major Tanaguchi.  They returned to the island and Major Tanaguchi read the orders indicating that all combat was to cease.  On March 9, 1974, World War II ended for Lt. Onoda.  He said, “We really lost the war! How could they have been so sloppy?  Suddenly everything went black. A storm raged inside me. I felt like a fool for having been so tense and cautious on the way here. Worse than that, what had I been doing for all these years?”[1]

Can you begin to imagine that?  In hiding for nearly thirty years?  Lt. Onoda missed the original airing of every single episode of The Brady Bunch.  While he was in hiding, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. began preaching, rose to fame, led the civil rights movement, and was killed.  Four lads were born in England, grew up in Liverpool, formed a little band they called “The Beatles”, made a few records, and broke up.  Alaska and Hawaii became states.  Heck, Onoda was in the jungle so long that the Green Bay Packers even managed to win a couple of Super Bowls!

As I said, people tried to convince him to come out – but he only left his hiding spot when his commander came to get him.

Some of you in this room, I believe, have an inkling of how it felt to be Lt. Onoda.  When Jesus came into the room and said, “It’s all right.  You can come home.  You don’t have to keep living in a flawed reality.  God sent me”, you trusted him.  And you discovered that reality can change.

In church, we talk a lot about “sin”.  Sometimes we tend to get lost in thinking about “sin” as a list of behaviors that really tick God off.  Sin, to many of us, means lying or drinking or cheating on our taxes or our spouses.  But I think a more faithful understanding of “sin” is to think of it as a condition in which we are lost in the jungle, or our lives are broken – that we are missing out on the best that God has for us.  Sin is a disruption in the relationship with God for which we are intended.

The remedy for sin is grace – an invitation to be who we were created to be.  Grace is the ability to let God be God, and me be me, and you be you.  Grace is coming out of the woods and going home.  Grace is a do-over.

Lt. Onoda?  Two years after he got home, he married and moved to Brazil, where he became a rancher.  Since then, he’s opened up a nature school for troubled youngsters.  He’s started again.

The Good News of the gospel is that it’s not just characters in Genesis or isolated old warriors who get to start fresh.  Jesus brings us word – Jesus is the Word – from, not the commander, but the Creator.  It’s time to leave the bushes and the darkness of fear and anger and shame and disappointment, and trust in God to clothe us and to bring us home where we belong.  Amen.

[1] Onoda’s book, No Surrender, was published late in 1974.  This material is cited here.

This is the song that was sung by Adam later in worship.  As you reflect on the scriptures and the theme of this message, I’d invite you to take three and a half minutes and listen to the truth expressed herein.

Who Am I? A sermon about mattering.

I preached this message on Sunday, Jan 23 2011 as the second in a series that connects our worship with a congregational study on Max Lucado’s book Fearless (Thomas Nelson, 2009).  The texts for this sermon are Psalm 139 (included below) and Luke 12:4-7.

4 “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. 5But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him. 6 Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. 7 Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. (NIV)

Many of you are aware that I spent most of last September wandering through the Middle East.  My daughter and I visited Israel, Jordan, and Egypt for a month – it was a fascinating tour into history and faith.  Let me tell you about one evening we spent in a little Egyptian village called Siwa. If you’ve been to my home, you’ve seen the bright carpet in the living room – I bought that in Siwa.  On the same night, one of the other fellows in my group was with me, haggling with the shopkeeper over the price of a similar carpet that he wanted to buy for his girlfriend. My friend is from Australia, and prior to his trip, he changed his money into US dollars so it would be easier for him to change it in remote places.  When we got to Jordan, he changed his US dollars into Jordanian Dinar.  A week later, he changed the Dinar into Egyptian pounds.  Are you following me?  Ten Australian dollars = $9.50 US = 7 Jordanian Dinar = 57 Egyptian pounds.  So when the carpet salesman said, “This rug is 600 pounds”, my friend was going round and round – trying to figure out how much it actually cost in a currency that made sense to him.  He ended up buying the rug for about 250 pounds (about $40 US).

It’s all a question of worth, right?  Knowing value and treating things appropriately.  How do we assign value?  How do we know how much something is worth?  And when we do know that, such information makes us wise and, to some degree, powerful, right?

Luke 12, for instance, describes a shopper’s paradise.  Jesus is talking to his disciples, who are afraid of something, and he mentions the sparrows that are for sale.  Someone, take a quick look at Matthew 10:29.  Someone else, look up Luke 12:6.

How much are sparrows in Matthew 10?  Two for a penny, right?

How much are sparrows in Luke 12?  Five for two pennies.  How about that!  A BOGO on the sparrows!  Sparrows are so cheap that the sellers will give them away just for taking a few off their hands.  Who cares about sparrows?  They are worthless.  They don’t count.  They’re nothing!  They don’t matter at all.

Beloved, have you ever felt like that fifth sparrow?  You know, two for a penny, but if you give me two pennies, I’ll throw in this one extra for free.  Who cares?  It’s nothing.

Have you ever felt like you don’t count?  Like you are insignificant?  Like your life doesn’t matter?

I’m sure you have.  As Max Lucado points out in this week’s reading from his book Fearless, that’s something that each of us is tempted to worry about.

The fact is that we want to matter.  We want to “count” – and have status.  And so some of us work hard to make sure that we do matter.  We measure our status by what we wear, or by where we go, or by who we are with, or by what we do, or especially by what we buy.

For too many of us, life has become a desperate search for significance.  We will do anything – just to be noticed.  Because if you notice me, I matter.  We wonder, “Do I count?  Does anyone really care?”  If you’re not sure about this, think about the phenomenon of YouTube.  If we are on the internet, we’re famous, right?

Jesus says, “Don’t be afraid of that – know that God cares.”  And then he goes and tells his disciples what you’ve already heard this morning: God knows and counts the sparrows.

When I read that this week, I had a thought that I’ve never had before.  I thought, you know, it’s great to know that God cares about the sparrows, but who is selling all of these sparrows?  Who is going down to the market and purchasing small birds?  Why would anyone ever want to buy a sparrow?

I dug around a little bit and discovered that sparrows were a fairly common food.  Wrap your head around that for a bit.  How hungry would you need to be before eating a sparrow sounds like a good idea?  The typical sparrow weighs in at a hefty ¾ ounce.  So it takes five sparrows to come up with a quarter-pounder – if you eat the feathers, the beak, and the legs.  If you want to clean it, you’ll need a lot more.

The reality is this: when Jesus is addressing the sparrow-buying public of his day, he’s not talking to the rich, to the well-off, to the people who shape opinions and who count.  No, the reality is that he is speaking to the poor – the people of his own day who are not likely to matter in most anyone’s eyes because of the things that they have, or do, or buy.  He is speaking to the people who have every reason to suspect that they don’t count.

Only, according to Jesus, they do count.

Why?  Why would they matter?  Why would the creator of the universe, the most powerful force in the cosmos, the author of life – why would God care for these poor people?  Even more to the point, why would he care for me?  For you?  Jesus says that God is concerned enough about us to be aware of the hairs on our heads.  What kind of Deity is this who bothers to subscribe to follicle updates for people like you and me (although, as some of you have mentioned, keeping track of the hairs on my head seems to be taking less of God’s time than it used to…)?

This is the crazy part.  According to Jesus, those scared disciples and those supposedly meaningless sparrows and you and me count.  And they count – we count – because the Lord we love and serve is not some sort of CEO business tycoon Deity perched in some remote throne room overseeing some fatalistic universe.  Listen to how the Psalmist describes the God who watches sparrows, counts hairs, and says that I mean something in the scope of the universe:

You have searched me, LORD, and you know me. 2 You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. 3 You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. 4 Before a word is on my tongue 
you, LORD, know it completely. 5 You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me. 6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain. (Psalm 139)

God knows me – who I am.  Not who I wish I was, or who I used to be, or who I want you to think that I am.  God knows the me that is me, and the you that is you.  And not only that, but it seems like every time I turn around, I keep running into evidence of God’s presence, activity, and care.  The Psalmist continues:

7 Where can I go from your Spirit? 
 Where can I flee from your presence? 8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. 9 If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, 10 even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. 11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” 12 even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.

And you can say “Amen!” to that – but that’s not still the whole story.  Because the truth is, that language is pretty much all about God – it is descriptive language that talks about God’s power and God’s knowledge and God’s presence.  It tells me that God is everywhere and that God is interested in guiding me.  But it does not answer the fundamental question of WHY?  Why is God like that?  Why does God do that?

13 For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. 14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. 15 My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. 16 Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.

Do you see?  God is a maker.  God is a craftsman.  God is a designer.

Let me tell you about the best thing that I have done as your pastor in the last six months.  Maybe even in the last three or four years.  It was extraordinary.  Do you remember a few weeks ago when we were praying for Clare & Don’s grand-daughter, Paige?  Paige is about eight years old, and her spleen wasn’t working the way that spleens are supposed to work.  She had to have surgery in Children’s Hospital.  And on the morning of that surgery, Paige said it would be all right if Pastor Dave came in and sat with her for a few moments (by the way, Paige and her parents also said it was all right for Pastor Dave to tell you this story this morning, too).

So I went to be with Paige and her family, and we got into the pre-op area, and little Paige was in her pj’s and it was freezing and a whole lot of very important, very busy, highly educated, super-expert people were coming and going and asking all kinds of questions and talking about all kinds of possibilities, and it was, well, it was not getting any less scary to be Paige, if you know what I mean.  And so I got down on my knees and I asked Paige if I could tell her a story.  And this is the story that I told her:

One of the best things that happens in my life is when the phone rings and someone says, “Hey, Pastor Dave!  The baby has been born!”  Whenever there has been a baby coming in Crafton Heights for the past 18 years, when I hear that it’s been born, I try to get to the hospital fast.  In fact, my goal is to be the third person to hold the baby.  I told Paige it’s ok if mom and dad hold the baby before me, but I try to beat everyone else to the hospital.  I asked Paige if she knew why that was so important to me, and she said she had no idea.

I told her that the reason I have to get there first is because as the Pastor, it’s my job to tell that baby the truth.  When we are born, we don’t know who we are.  People have to teach us who we are.  And I want the first thing that you hear about who you are, Paige, and Barb, and Josh, and Michelle, to be this: that you are made by God.  And so before I let the nurse or the doctor or grandma or grandpa take you away from me, I read you Psalm 139 – hopefully, before you are six hours old.  As your pastor, I get to tell you the truth.

And then I asked Paige if I could read her Psalm 139.  And she said yes.  And I did.  And when I got to the part about being “fearfully and wonderfully made,” I asked Paige if she thought that God knew what her spleen was supposed to do.  And she said she figured he did.  And I asked her if she thought that maybe God knew more about her spleen than all of these guys in their fancy uniforms and big words.  And she thought that he did.  And I am here to tell you that I have never seen someone so comforted by the Word of God as Paige was that morning.  The crying and shaking stopped, and she knew – somehow, she just knew – that the God who made her was going to be with her in all the hard stuff that was going to come.  It wasn’t me – heck, all I did was tell her the truth – to remind her of what she knew.

Our world is happy to tell you who you are.  Mostly, our world will let you know that you are OK, but you’re not really all that great. OK, you’re worthless.  But if you buy this, or eat that, or wear these, or live here, or vote like this, well, then, there might be some hope for you.  Our world is full of people who say to each other, “Well, you’re not really worth all that much right now, but if you get good at athletics, or music, or get straight A’s, then maybe I’ll notice you.”  Our world is full of voices who say “You’re nothing much, but if you let me do this to you sexually, then I will love you.”

Look, beloved, you know the truth: you’ve got to eat, you’re going to wear clothes, and I hope you are in relationships with other people.  But none of those things get to tell you who you are.

Ideally, when you are less than a day old, I get to tell you who you are.  You are precious and loved.  You are a gift from God.  You are fearfully and wonderfully made.  Church, do you believe that?

You are fearfully and wonderfully made.  This is the word of the Lord: Thanks be to God!

I said, You are fearfully and wonderfully made.  This is the word of the Lord: Thanks be to God!

How are you made? Fearfully and wonderfully!  Remember that.  You are not a nobody, you are not an accident, you are not worthless.  You are God’s amazing son or daughter.

Maybe I wasn’t there to tell you that on your birthday.  If that’s the case, then I’m sorry.  I can only remind you of that truth right now.

And because you are fearfully and wonderfully made – you will engage in those behaviors we all share: you’ll shop and vote and eat and wear clothes.  But don’t do those things because you are looking for your identity: do those things knowing that and acting as if God already loves you and you do matter. Nothing you do is going to get him to like you any better, and I am here to tell you that no matter how hard you may try, you can’t make him love you any less.

There is nothing to fear, my friends: God is crazy about you.  If we could only remember that and act as if it were true each day, then whatever fear is in your heart and in mine would melt as fast as it did in Paige’s that day last month.  We can overcome fear by trusting in the truth of our God-given identity!  Thanks be to God for his incredible gift!  Amen.

The Air We Breathe (a sermon on Fear)

[This message was preached at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights on Sunday, Jan 16, 2011.  The scripture texts were Matthew 8:23-27, wherein Jesus calms the storm on the Sea of Galilee, and 2 Timothy 1:3-7, in which Paul encourages Timothy to remember who God created him to be.]

All of the “regulars” in Crafton Heights know that we have begun a series of discussions on the book Fearless by Max Lucado.  Because of that, I’ve been thinking a lot about fear, and the things that worry us.  For instance, what do you suppose is the number one fear of adult Americans? Speaking in public.  Most of the research I did during the week seems to indicate that number two is snakes.  How many of you would confess to a fear of snakes?  OK, just out of curiosity, how many of you have ever suffered harm from a snake?  I’m just asking…

Fear. We know fear.  As the title of the sermon suggests, fear is the air we breathe in the USA. You can probably guess a few of the rest of the most common fears that polls reveal: confined spaces, heights, spiders, flying, crowds, storms, death.  A lot of us spend a lot of time being afraid.  Very afraid.  In addition to all of the “usual” or common fears, this week I’ve come across a number of unusual fears.  For instance,

Ankylophobia- Fear of immobility of a joint.

Lachanophobia- Fear of vegetables.

Venustraphobia- Fear of beautiful women.

Omphalophobia- Fear of belly buttons.

Homilophobia- Fear of sermons.

Where does it come from?  Why are we afraid?  There are some fears, I suppose, that are inborn – although I’m not sure exactly how many of our fears are “natural”.  I suspect that most of the things that we worry about scare us because we have learned to be afraid of them.

There has been some interesting research done in Yellowstone National Park in the last ten years or so.  Gray wolves were removed from that part of the country fifty or sixty years ago.  Since then, the ecosystem within Yellowstone has changed, and one of the biggest changes is that the herds of elk within the park have been causing significant damage to a number of tree species, most notably the aspen trees.  So in the mid-1990’s, biologists brought wolves back into the park so that they might create – and I quote – “a landscape of fear” for the elk.  The theory was that if the wolves knew that the elk hung around the aspen, then the wolves would stay by the aspen.  If the elk were constantly harassed and hunted while chomping on the aspen, then they’d go eat somewhere else – thus saving the aspen groves.  Some scientists, however, were concerned that because none of the elk or bison currently living in the park had ever seen a wolf, they would have no fear of wolves and therefore the predators would destroy the great herds of grazers.

So here’s what they discovered: the first year, a lot of calves died because the wolves ate them.  But the second year, the mothers were able to teach their calves to be afraid of the wolves, and the survival rate went up.  It’s gone up a little bit every year.  The findings: elk are able to teach each other to be afraid.[1]

But it’s not just the elk.  As Lucado points out in his book, the typical American child today is more fearful than the typical psychiatric patient was in the 1950’s.[2] Are we, like the elk in Yellowstone, learning how to be more afraid each year?  Take a look at this brief video that one of the television networks put together and you tell me if we are living in a landscape of fear.

We know how to be afraid.  As a culture, as a people, we are, in fact, getting better at it.  What can we learn from the scripture as we wrestle with our fears?  Our Gospel reading from today is helpful because it tells about a time when the disciples faced a few of their own fears one day as they traveled with Jesus.

Before we get to verse 27, though, I want to walk you through the events that are recorded in Matthew 8 prior to the ill-fated boat trip.  If you have your bibles, you might want to follow along.  In verses 1-4, Jesus heals a man with leprosy.  That is, a stranger with a shameful, detestable disease who simply walks into the presence of Jesus and is healed.

The next passage describes how a Roman centurion – the very symbol of the hated enemy who occupied the Jewish homeland – asked Jesus to heal his slave.  So far as we can tell, Jesus never, ever even laid eyes on this person who was healed – the army officer came forward and asked for the favor, Jesus said, “OK”, and the slave was made well.

Verse 14 begins the account of how Peter’s mother-in-law, among others, was made well by the presence of Jesus.  Then, in verse 19 a couple of smart young fellows come up and say, “Jesus, we’d sure like to follow you”, and he essentially says, “Well, what are you waiting for?  Let’s go!  We’ve got important things ahead!”  And then they get into the boat and start sailing.

Here’s my point about this: just put yourself in the shoes of the disciples, those men who had been hand-picked by Jesus to follow him.  In the last couple of days, you’ve seen him bend over backwards to be gracious and giving and loving towards people that most folks wouldn’t think twice about.  I mean, think about it – if this is how Jesus treats strangers and unclean people and enemies and slaves and women…well, then, we are IN!  We are the chosen!  We know he loves everyone, but of course, we’re his favorites!  All of this healing and cleaning and gifting and restoring – heck, it’s just the appetizer – it’s what Jesus is doing for a warm-up while we are waiting to go on a retreat with him!  Wow, are we going to have a blast, or what?

Except that’s when the storm hits.  That’s when the waves rise up.  The trip that should have been a nice little pleasure jaunt turns out to scare the togas off of some of the most experienced fishermen on the Sea of Galilee.  What a shift in perspective!  The hope and optimism of three o’clock is replaced by the terror and panic of six-thirty.  Why?

They were afraid.  If they’d have been seen by a doctor, the diagnosis would have been aquaphobia: the fear of drowning.  But Jesus wasn’t a doctor.  His diagnosis is a little different: he tells them that they suffer from a severe deficiency in faith.

They were afraid of dying.  Perhaps worse than that, they were afraid of dying while they were with Jesus. And perhaps worst of all, they were afraid of dying and thought that maybe Jesus didn’t care whether they died or not.  They were afraid that, instead of being Jesus’ “go-to” guys, the hand-picked A-team that was going to shape the world – that they could be replaced by some other, newer, better disciples.

They are afraid of so many things.  And he tells them that they have too little faith.

Now, normally, this is the part of the sermon where your pastor would say, “Do you know that feeling?  Do you know what it means to be afraid?  Do you know how paralyzing it is to sense that you don’t matter, or to be afraid that you aren’t good enough, or to think that something incredibly terrible is going to happen?”

But I don’t need to ask that this morning, because I know that you are human.  And therefore, I know that you understand this fear business very, very well.  You know the storm. You know the doubt.  You know the panic.  You know fear.

What do you do about it?

The Apostle Paul was in prison in Rome.  He had been in some scrapes before, but he knew that the jig was just about up.  As his days on death row tick away, he writes a letter to his young protégé, Timothy.  And it’s one of those letters that serves two purposes.  At the core, it’s a plea for Timothy to come and visit him, so that they might be together for a last conversation.  But it’s also full of teaching and encouragement in case that visit never happens and they don’t see each other again.

How does Timothy read such a letter?  The first generation of Christians – the men and women who really knew Jesus – is dying out.  His mentor, Paul, has been beaten, vilified, arrested, and sentenced.  His mother and grandmother – the first two Christians that he knew – have died.  People who were once faithful followers of Jesus have gotten cold feet and abandoned the faith.  Times are increasing difficult for the small churches that are scattered around the Roman Empire.  Can you get a feeling for this?  It’s a landscape of fear.

Look at what Paul does: just at the beginning of the letter, he settles Timothy down by reminding him of the past and the depths of their relationship.  And then he gives Timothy an amazing gift: he reminds him of his created nature.  He reminds Timothy of the way that God made him.

Do you remember what I said about those elk in Yellowstone?  That they had to be taught how to fear the wolves?  Listen to what Paul says to Timothy: “for God did not give us a spirit of timidity but a spirit of power and love and self-control.”

That’s amazing to me.  Timothy (and you and I, presumably) was not created as a fearful being.  Timothy was not created to be hard-wired for panic and distress.  Somehow, somewhere along the way, Timothy – and you and I – learned how to be afraid, and how to worry, and how to panic.  But that was learned behavior.  The original specifications for the you that sits before me this morning called for you to be filled with what? With power, with love, and with self-control.  You were created to know trust.  You were created to have faith.  You were created to be free from fear.

Do you believe me?  Think about this.  Picture a father and his son walking down the beach engaged in all manner of delightful conversation.  And the father scoops down and picks up the child and, on impulse, tosses him into the air.  In that context, what is the emotional state of the child?  Delight.  Joy.  Happiness.  Why? Because while the boy knows he can’t fly, he also knows that he’s with his Daddy.  And his Daddy can do it.  He trusts his Daddy.  His Daddy loves him.

You have a Daddy. You are loved.  You were created for this kind of relationship.  Sometimes, though, terrible things happen.  Our human relationships are severed.  Brokenness enters into our lives.  We learn how to be afraid.

In the weeks to come, we will explore what that means.  We will talk about the fears that threaten us and the confusion and storms that cloud our perception.  Today, let your pastor remind you that the world has no right to rob you of the spirit of power, and of love, and of self-control with which you were created.

Make no mistake – there are a million good reasons to be cautious.  There are all sorts of things about which we need to be wise and prudent.  But we do not need to allow fear to rule over us and to rob us of our birthright.

This week, let me encourage you to take three small steps in claiming your heritage of power, love, and self-control as you seek to deal with the fear that lurks at the edges of your life.  First, be attentive to the exposure you have (and that you grant to your children) to the media.  As we’ve pointed out, fear is a big business to them.  If they can get you scared, they can make you watch, and if they can make you watch, they can sell soap, and if they can sell soap, then they’re making money.  From your fear.  Remember that.  And be careful.

Secondly, let me encourage you to be honest with other people about the things that bring you anxiety.  Sit with a trusted friend and name the things of which you are afraid.  And be careful to speak honestly in your relationships, too.  Maybe instead of blowing up at me with anger when I’m fifteen minutes late, you could tell me that you are concerned that I’m not valuing our friendship or that you worried that I’d been in a wreck of that you’re afraid that something terrible had happened at work or… Do you see what I mean? Instead of letting fear morph into anger and eruption and panic, can you simply name it so that we might, perhaps, disarm it together?

And lastly, if you are in the boat and you feel the waters rising up, before you give into panic and fear, take a look around you and remember that Jesus is over there.  And I’m up here.  And Joe is back there.  Jess is in the Baby Care room, I believe.  Bill and Fay are almost always over there.  Stel’s right up front.  In other words, remember, my friend, that you are not in this alone.  You never have been.  You never will be.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] “Wolves, elk, and bison: reestablishing the ‘landscape of fear’ in Yellowstone National Park, U.S.A.”  Canadian Journal of Zoology 2001 http://www.mendeley.com/research/wolves-elk-bison-reestablishing-landscape-fear-yellowstone-national-park-usa/

[2] Max Lucado, Fearless (2009 Thomas Nelson, p. 5).

Home By Another Way (A sermon for Epiphany)

The message below is essentially the sermon that I preached on January 9, 2011 as we observed Epiphany Sunday at Crafton Heights.

Matthew 2:1-16

As I begin the message this morning, I have a disclaimer to make.  If you’ve known me for a while, this may not be a surprise to you.  But in the interest of full transparency, I think I need to share this unflattering truth about your pastor: he can be incredibly fixated on himself (even to the point, I suppose where talking about himself in the third person makes sense).

Here’s what I mean: whenever I am at an event where there is a prize to be won or an honor to be bestowed, I hope that I get it.  I know, that’s not too rare when I say it like that.  You’ve been in rooms where everyone has a ticket for the door prize, say a pair of Penguins tickets, and they are calling numbers and you look at yours – obviously, you hope you win, right?

Well here’s what might make me unique, or, perhaps, pathetic.  Even when I don’t have a ticket…I hope I win.  “Maybe someone put my name it without me knowing it,” I say.  I want the prize.  Do you want to know how bad I have it?  I am not making this up.  When I am at an event, like the Jubilee conference or even one of my wife’s educational award dinners, if there is some sort of honor to be bestowed, I find myself secretly hoping that they’ll call my name.  It could be “teacher of the year”, or “outstanding engineering paper of 2011” – but if someone is up front holding a trophy, I’m thinking, “Wow, that would look awesome in my den…”  I’m not kidding: if you got me a ticket to the Nobel Prize Awards ceremony, I’d be sitting there in my rented tux thinking, “Hey, I’ve got a shot, right?  Why else would they give me a ticket to this thing?”  OK, that’s not too funny, because maybe I will win the Nobel some day…

I am thinking about this incredible self-centeredness on the part of your pastor (there he goes again, talking about himself in the third person…) because it is one of the things that simply oozes from the character of King Herod in our reading from Matthew.  (Another news flash: If you ever compare yourself to a character in the Bible stories, try to stay away from anyone named “Herod”.  They’re not usually the good guys.)

The Magi – the wise men from the east – come to visit the Christ child.  No, more than that, they come to honor the child.  To worship the child.  They’ve got awards and trophies for the child…only they are not sure where to find him.  So they stop and ask directions.  And Herod comes down into his living room and sees all of the hardware that these gents are carrying, and begins to think that maybe that’d look good in his den.  He wants the gold, the frankincense, and the myrrh.  He wants the attention.  He wants the recognition.  He wants to be worshiped.

He wants this so bad, in fact, that he moves towards taking it.  Not by brute force – at least not yet.  But he wants to make sure that he can keep an eye on any potential rival, so he asks the kings to facebook him when they find the child so that he and the new king can be “friends”, too.

OK, when I say that I’m like Herod, I don’t want you to think that I’m totally like Herod. Herod was a thug through and through – he had killed 300 of his court officers.  He iced his own wife and three of his own sons.  In his dying breath, he arranged for the killing of all the leading citizens of Jerusalem.  So the readers of Matthew were not surprised to hear what happened next:

Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there till I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”

And he rose and took the child and his mother by night, and departed to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt have I called my son.”

Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the wise men. (MT2:13-16 RSV)

No, I am well aware of the fact that I’m not a replica of Herod.  But I am enough like Herod to know that I ought to keep an eye on myself when people start handing out awards.

And the realization that I share certain unsavory character traits with old Herod is one of the reasons why you are forced to come into this room on the second Sunday of 2011 and have to look at Christmas decorations one more time.

The Christian church begins the season of Christmas, not at Halloween, nor on “black Friday”, but on Christmas Eve.  And Christmas continues, according to church tradition, not until December 26, nor until January 1, but until the celebration of Epiphany – the day that we remember that the Wise Men came to honor and worship the Christ.  While the day of Epiphany is January 6, here at CHUP we observe it on the Sunday that is closest to that date.  I may be crazy, but even I’m not naïve enough to think that I’d be able to get you here on the first Thursday of 2011 for a worship service!

The church holds onto Christmas until we get to Epiphany.  I can think of at least two good reasons for that.

As we hold onto Christmas through the beginning of January, we remember that many of our Christian brothers and sisters, particularly those in the Orthodox tradition, don’t even celebrate Christmas until January 6. Nobody is sure when Jesus was actually born, and if we honor Christmas right through to Epiphany, we say to other Christians, “You know, we don’t always agree on everything, but we can all gather around the manger and give thanks for the gift of God’s son…”

Another reason why it’s important to hang onto Christmas until we get to the visit of the wise men is that we need to remember the whole story.  Sometimes it’s tempting to want to stop in for a few moments, hang around the stable, listen to the angels singing, and then get back to business.  But the visit of the Magi and its aftermath remind us that the Christmas event is not just a cute little baby who was born, born, born in Bethlehem – but a call to remember that that baby was born into a world that is staffed by people like Herod.  A world where selfishness and brutality is the norm.  A world where the innocent regularly get their hearts cut out of them, where assassination attempts and genocide and terrorism and war are far too common.  My fear is that if we loose our grasp on Christmas too soon, we forget that part of the story.

But eventually, yes, even we have to let go of Christmas.  But today, as we relax the hold we have on the manger and the stable; as we pack up the tree and the crèche for another year, we put something else in those empty hands: today as we let go of the nativity we take hold of the body and the blood.

We do this because the church, and your pastor, don’t want you to walk into 2011 empty-handed.  The year ahead will be, for many of us, difficult.  There are challenges to be faced – some of which are global in nature, others are intensely personal.  But if we are going to make it in 2011, we’ll need to walk together and focus on the ways that God has provided for us.  As we do so, let me encourage you to remember three things:

First, let’s begin the Epiphany season – and every season – in a posture of repentance and confession.  The wise men knew that they lacked some key information in their search for the baby, and they stopped to ask for help on the way.  In the same way, we can function at our best when we realize that we are broken.  We are not who we were made to be.  The religious word for that brokenness is “sin”, and the best response to sin is “confession”.  Some of you know my friends Heather and Kayla, who follow Jesus in the Catholic tradition.  They have each spoken to me about the importance of confession in their lives – the act of sitting with another human being and simply naming the ways that they have not lived into God’s best for their lives.  There are a number of ways to do this, including the general confession with which we begin most of our worship services.  But the truth is that we are most able to receive the grace and hope that flow from Jesus when we are willing to acknowledge before God, each other, and ourselves, that we are broken and we need the presence of Christ to move forward.

Let’s also remember that we carry a treasure.  We don’t know how long the Magi were searching for the Christ child, but we know that they were toting that gold, frankincense, and myrrh a long way – and they knew that they were not going to be taking it home with them.  They had great gifts, and they realized that they would be using those gifts somehow along the journey.  Likewise, you need to leave this room this morning well aware of the fact that you are carrying with you some things that others want.  You have energy and attention; you can offer love and affirmation; you have time; you have money; you have a self.  The world is full of advertisers and co-workers and barflies and schoolmates and political parties and movements and friends and low-lifes and any number of other entities that will ask you for a piece of yourself. We face is the question as the Magi: to whom are we supposed to give these things?  Jesus got the gold, the frankincense, and the myrrh.  Who gets your time, your talents, your energy? How do you spend your money? Where is your energy directed?  You are a treasure, beloved.  Enter into 2011 committed to spending yourself wisely.

And finally, let’s release Christmas and engage Epiphany by being open to growing in our understanding of who we are.  The wise men met the Holy Family and then, having been warned by the Spirit of God, changed their itinerary for the trip home.  We would say that they went “home by a different way” – meaning that not only were their GPS coordinates different, but that they themselves had been changed as a result of the experience.

How about you?  On January 9, 2011, are you willing to listen for angels?  Are you open to the fact that God might be longing to take you somewhere new in your walk with Him?  Can you change course if you sense that is where God’s Spirit might be leading you?

I started this message with a warning that whenever I’m in a room full of prizes, I hope to win one.  I do.  And, to be honest, I have – you have given me the honor of your attention for these past 18 minutes.  I do not take that for granted, my friends.  As we look towards 2011, let us remember that, while the Christmas must end, the world needs to know about the manger.  And the world needs to know about grace and forgiveness that flow from the heart of the One who came to dwell in that manger.  And let us commit ourselves, in all of our brokenness, to doing our best to carry the treasure of that message into each new day.  Amen.


Later on in the service, I played the audio of a song by the same title written and performed by James Taylor.  You can hear that song below – I’m not sure where the photos for this slide show came from, but the audio is good.  It’s from his CD “Never Die Young” (1988)


The Truth With No Words

Friends of “Cast Your Net”:
I have been trying to decide what to do with this blog, and wondering about what kind of relationship you are interested in having with it. A few kind souls have encouraged me to keep posting…but the problem is that I’m not doing as much writing as I was. I did write a little story to share with the congregation at Christmas this year, and wondered if you might appreciate it, too.

I’d be interested in any feedback you have, and whether you think that sharing future sermons in this format might be valuable.

I believe that if you click on the link below titled “Truth With No Words”, a pdf file containing the story (including pictures!) will open.

Truth With No Words

Blessings and Happy New Year,

2010 in review

The stats helper monkeys at WordPress.com mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads Wow.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

A Boeing 747-400 passenger jet can hold 416 passengers. This blog was viewed about 4,300 times in 2010. That’s about 10 full 747s.


In 2010, there were 62 new posts, not bad for the first year! There were 421 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 583mb. That’s about 1 pictures per day.

The busiest day of the year was June 29th with 143 views. The most popular post that day was The Fisherman’s Jubilee.

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were facebook.com, chup.org, mail.yahoo.com, mail.live.com, and sz0058.wc.mail.comcast.net.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.


The Fisherman’s Jubilee June 2010


Vote Here in the Hat Poll! July 2010


The Back Story… June 2010


Some Guys Give Boating a Black Eye…VOTE! August 2010


The Sad Truth…and Seeing the Big Picture August 2010