Worship Message Texts

I concluded my final interim pastorate in March 2016, so I am no longer preaching on a regular basis. I am available for pulpit supply and these sermon scripts and videos give a picture of my approach. For pulpit supply, I am happy to write new sermons targeted at specific concerns or needs of congregations, otherwise I will rework previous sermons based on the texts of the Revised Common Lectionary for that Sunday.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

With Jesus in the Perfect Temple

Hebrews 9:11-14; Mark 12:28-34
November 4, 2012
© 2012


I.                Maybe you’ve seen the beer commercial that runs during TV sports events. Avid fans go through elaborate rituals in hopes of helping their team score or win. I always chuckle at the group trying to explain to the new guy why they line up their beer bottle labels during a field goal. With great skepticism he goes along. They go wild when their team scores, and the caption on the screen says, “It’s not weird if it works.” Though that one is trivial and humorous, human beings have relied on rituals to manipulate the uncontrollable for millennia.

A.           Terrorist attacks are terrifying precisely because they are unpredictable and uncontrollable. No intelligence and security system is 100% airtight. With modern weather forecasting technology, we knew Hurricane Sandy was coming and its general direction, but precise prediction was impossible, and no amount of preparation could protect from massive destruction. So people who ordinarily don’t pray or even consider God have been praying this week, and even atheists don’t object.

B.            As we saw in Job last month, God is wild, free, dangerous and good. Every culture has religious rituals to manipulate divine forces or at least insulate and protect from them. Job’s friends had all the right words but they were powerless to control or protect.

C.            Rather than relying on ritual, Jesus our high priest welcomes us to a complete love relationship with God.

II.            Through Mark’s Gospel, we have journeyed with Jesus on his final trip to Jerusalem for his appointment with the cross. After his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and driving the merchants out of the Temple, Jesus was in the Temple every day confronting the Temple leadership. As we continue to read from the Epistle to the Hebrews, we will read of Jesus as the great high priest who entered the heavenly Tabernacle to redeem humanity once and for all. By reading these passages from Mark and Hebrews side by side, we will see Jesus taking charge of the Temple as high priest.

A.           Mark 12:28-34 picks up after Jesus amazed the Pharisees with thier challenge about paying taxes. Then he silenced the Sadducees challenge about resurrection and marriage.

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?”29Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one;30you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’31The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 32Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; 33and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ —this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question.

B.            In the account of this same incident in Matthew 22, the scribe who questioned Jesus was an expert in the Law chosen to test him. Yet, in Mark 12:34 Jesus told him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” The scribe was no longer testing Jesus. Jesus was testing the scribe. For the scribe to say that love was more important than the ritual sacrifices put him at odds with the Temple establishment. For this reason Jesus said he was “not far from the Kingdom of God.” What was the step he needed to take? When Jesus quoted Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:18, he rightly said, love your God with all your heart, your mind, your soul, your strength, and to love your neighbor. But the scribe backed off with his paraphrase, love him with all the heart, the understanding, the strength, and to love one’s neighbor. To step into the Kingdom of God, the scribe needed to move from affirming impersonal truth to embracing loving his God and loving his neighbors as his personal reality.

C.            For Jesus to quote Deuteronomy 6:4-5 as the first commandment was safe and expected. It is the shema, the great Hebrew confession of faith that all faithful Israelites recited at the beginning of every day. But Leviticus 19:18 is a single line buried in an obscure hodgepodge of minutia. Because of Jesus, we quickly see the parallel: love your God; love your neighbor. But for the Temple establishment focused on ritual, this was shocking. Especially troubling was that their own scribe said it was much more important than sacrifices. Not only that, Jesus made loving your neighbor equivalent with loving your God. He made them one commandment. You can’t have one without the other. Furthermore, Jesus raised the bar uncomfortably high, threateningly personal. Jesus was not being tested, he tested the scribe and all his critics. Talk about “gotcha!” After that no one dared ask him any question. No one wanted to be exposed by their question.

III.       Rather than relying on ritual, Jesus our high priest welcomes us to a comprehensive love relationship with God.

A.           As I have been listening to Jesus in the Temple to prepare these sermons, I am more than a little uncomfortable. Slipping into Temple leadership mode is all too easy. I love the drama and power of ritual. I aspire to quality professionalism. But I dare not use them to protect myself from personal vulnerability or insulate myself from being personally present when people are in pain.

B.            Leo Tolstoy’s story about Martin the Cobbler is often told at Christmas. Martin believed he was promised Christ would visit him on Christmas Eve. All day he watched outside of his shop and helped a number of people: an old woman selling apples and a boy who robbed her, a young woman with a baby, an old soldier who was hungry and lonely. While reading the Gospel before going to bed, he hears sounds in the dark corners of his room, and one by one the people he helped appear briefly and a voice says, “Martin, it is I.” As he reads the words of Jesus in the Gospel, “As you did it to the least of these, you did it to me,” Martin realizes Christ had visited him all day. This is not just a quaint story about helping the needy. It rightly connects loving God and loving our neighbors. To step into the Kingdom of God is about personal relationships: with God, with neighbors.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Off the Ash Heap

Job 42:1-6; Hebrews 7:23-26; Mark 10:46-52
October 28, 2012
© 2012
I.                When I first encountered Job in high school, I was troubled by Job’s final speech. In my 17 year old mind, Job had just won the bet for God against Satan. I thought Job should have been congratulated, not humiliated. Why should Job, whom God acknowledged was righteous and had spoken rightly about God, have to despise himself and repent in dust and ashes?
A.           Several of you have spoken to me about how you’ve been digging into Job this month. Today we come to the most challenging and important part of Job for us to understand. After our first Sunday in Job, Kristyn Reid gave me a poem about Job that she had written last June.

Learning Patience
by Kristyn Reid
© June 5, 2012

Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me to know. (Job 42:3)
I like Job.
When things didn’t make sense
he asked God, why.
When catastrophe struck
he didn’t assign blame
but neither did he accept it.
When his so-called-friends begged him to repent
Job claimed his suffering was senseless and unjust.
His numbskull chorus named him a wicked sinner
urged that he admit his blame.
He must have done something hideous.
Then God himself showed up
better late than never.
Job realized God knows the score
has things under control
and both parties learned
a great deal about the other.

B.            In verse 5 Job told what changed him. He had heard about God, but now he was seeing God, and he was never the same. When Job said he despised himself, he was not speaking of self-hatred but of humility in contrast with what he had now seen of the wild, free, dangerous and good God. Like David in Psalm 131, Job acknowledged in verse 3 that he had been occupying himself with things too wonderful, too marvelous for a human to grasp.

C.            Since chapter 2, verse 8 Job had been sitting on the ash heap. How can he now say, I “repent in dust and ashes”? That wasn’t what happened next in the story. In the Epilog Job got off the ash heap, returned to productive prosperity, had 10 more children and lived 140 years. The problem arises from linguistic complexities in Hebrew. Several alternative translations are possible. The one I have become convinced of is, “I have changed my mind about these dust and ashes.” In effect, Job said, “I have seen God. I no longer need an explanation of my suffering. I am going to get off this ash heap and get about living,” which is what the Epilog says he did.

D.           In Job 1:9, hasatan asks God, “Does Job fear God for nothing?” If we understand the Epilog as God rewarding Job for his faithfulness, then hasatan was right. Job is paid handsomely for fearing God. I believe, however, that the point of the Epilog is that when Job saw God and got off the ash heap, he went back to living. The message of the book of Job is that to be encountered by God is to be empowered to go forward with life.

II.            Mark 10:46-52 tells how when Bartimaeus regained his sight he renounced sitting by the roadside to beg but got up and followed Jesus into life. This is the last incident on Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem that Mark records before his Triumphal Entry on Palm Sunday.

They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside.47When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”48Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”49Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.”50So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus.51Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.”52Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

A.           Bartimaeus obviously knew enough about Jesus to call him by the messianic title “Son of David” and to believe he could restore his sight. He had once been able to see, so he may well have asked why he went blind. He grieved his loss of purpose and the humiliation of sitting by the roadside to beg.

B.            Jesus asked Bartimaeus the same question he asked James and John, “What do you want me to do for you?” But he got a very different answer, “My Teacher, let me see again.” Bartimaeus was ready to learn from Jesus. Sight was more than convenience; it was the gateway to a life of discipleship. Jesus affirmed Bartimaeus’ sight of faith when granting him physical sight.

C.            Jesus did not say, “Be healed” but “Go!” Jesus sent Bartimaeus out to live. And Bartimaeus followed Jesus on the way. The very next thing Mark reports is Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Undoubtedly, Bartimaeus participated. To follow Jesus on the way described those who followed him as his disciples after the resurrection. So though the Gospels don’t mention him again, I imagine Bartimaeus saw Jesus heading to the cross and saw Jesus risen after Easter.

D.           After Bartimaeus saw Jesus he got up from begging and went on to live. Like Job, he knew that to be encountered by God is to be empowered to go forward with life.

III.       Hebrews 7:25 says we all may approach God through Christ who intercedes for us. We cannot get the wild, free, dangerous and good God to do a command performance for us, but Jesus offers us complete access – backstage passes if you will.

A.           Tom Roe was the head usher for the church in which I grew up in California. I don’t know if he ever realized he was one of that congregation’s most influential youth ministers as he trained and coached teenagers to be ushers and along the way imparted great teaching and faith. The Sunday after his wife’s funeral, Tom was at his post like always. Several people told him he deserved some time off. He replied, “You are the people who love me, and I need your love right now. This is the job God has given me and doing it heals me.”

B.            Over 50 years ago, Tom Roe was teaching me that to be encountered by God is to be empowered to go forward with life.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Red Thread

I have often said that our son David is really the theologian of the family. What follows is the script of the sermon he preached to Milwaukee Mennonite Church, whose members share the preaching. I am posting it with my sermon scripts, not just out of parental pride, but believing it is worth sharing. David is Dean of Students at Frank Lloyd Wright Intermediate School in West Allis, Wisconsin. You will meet David’s wife, Rachel, and their children in the sermon. The pictures are from the day Elizabeth joined their family and currently.

Romans 8
October 21, 2012
© 2012 David Stolpe


Good evening.

Tonight we continued our journey into Paul’s letter to the Romans. Honestly I have been amazed and challenged by the different perspectives brought by each of you who have preached in this series. Quite frankly I feel a bit daunted by my task tonight.

First off, I am left with the responsibility to offer something of value to you all, and fear my offering may pale in comparison. I am further daunted by the fact that for some reason I was left to preach on Romans Chapter 8.

The eighth chapter of Romans is probably the most familiar portion of the letter. Some of the most memorable and referenced passages of the entire Bible are contained in this chapter.

…there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus…

For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God.

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.

If God is for us, who can be against us?  

... in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

This is just a small sampling of the rich text of Romans 8. It is the triumphant highpoint of the letter. So I find the responsibility I have tonight downright intimidating. I started this week by asking myself, “What do I, David Stolpe, have to bring to the understanding of this passage?”

What I haven’t told you though is that Romans 8 has been pivotal for me throughout my life. In fact, it is possibly the passage in the Bible that I have read and chewed on more than any other. But in no way do I feel this makes me the Romans 8 authority, instead it just raises my anxiety about the words I bring to you tonight. After 20 plus years of frequent visitation to and meditation on Romans 8, do I have anything of value to say? I hope so.

Romans 8 is a major building block in at least three aspects of my faith. The first was formed when I was young and had the passion, angst, and fire of my youth. I was dogmatic, at times even belligerent. As my understanding of more complex theological doctrines formed and I found John Calvin’s Institutes to be shaping my understanding of our relationship with God, Romans 8 was a bastion of support for my beliefs of our complete and utter dependency on God for all salvific hope. At this time, I loved to engage in debate and argument to advance my Calvinism on others. Romans 8 was an arsenal of evidence to support my at times aggressive dogma.

Since this time, the fire and angst of my youth have waned a bit, and Rachel deserves a lot credit for tempering this uglier side of me. Today my desire for coercive arguments to prove Calvinism has all but dried up.

That being said, I still hold to many Calvinist tenets, and find Reformed doctrine something to rejoice and celebrate. I must admit I still get frustrated when I hear people characterize Calvinism as a belief in a harsh, vindictive God choosing to flick some people, but not others, into hell. This is an argument against a perceived understanding of what Calvinism is, held by people who object to, but I believe, fail to understand Calvinism. This is not in anyway how most Calvinists understand what Calvinism is.  To Calvinists, like myself, the immensity of God’s love and grace through Christ’s death on the cross, is so great, that the idea of God being harsh and vindictive is entirely irreconcilable. Romans 8 is a defining passage in this understanding. But Calvinism is not the aspect of my faith I will be focusing on tonight, although, this reasoning may well be evident in my words anyway, as the themes of Reformed, Calvinist theology are intertwined with who I am and how I understand God’s love. 

The second aspect of my faith that Romans 8 was foundational in is my understanding of our responsibility in caring for God’s creation. Before I wound up in the world of education, I did my undergrad in Environmental Studies in Humanities. I was concerned about the degradation of the creation, and am convinced that a great deal of this was the result of a false doctrine that believed God created the world for mankind’s use and resource, instead of for God’s own glory. The dominion statement of Genesis has been used as a privilege rather than a responsibility. The religious right has co-opted dominion as a justification for free market capitalism that has advanced the western economy, fueled through environmental degradation that has afflicted the poor, powerless, and already marginalized. My goal was to challenge the church from within, by being part of defining a green theology that recognized that the earth is here for God’s glory, and our sin has compromised that. Romans 8 was a cornerstone of my studies and writing at this time. Verses 19 though 22 state

19 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God .22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.

It is we, the children of God, and our sin, our brokenness, that have subjected the creation to frustration. And it is not only us, God’s people, who long for Christ’s redemption. All of creation yearns with labor pains to be liberated from the bondage to which we have subjected it.  But this again is not the aspect of my faith that I come to offer tonight.

The theme of this portion of Paul’s work that has come to most significantly impact my faith is his description of the nature of our relationship to God. Paul compares God to a parent and us to his children. This describes an intimate and deep love between God and God’s people. But Paul goes beyond that, and describes this parental relationship more specifically as an adoption. This additional description is by no means without significance. Why does Paul go beyond the parent relationship metaphor, and extend it to a relationship of adoption?   

In the last 7 or 8 years, this theme of adoption has hit home for me in a much more tangible way because of Elizabeth. And as I dig into Romans 8, I now digest each section in the light of Elizabeth’s life story, our adoption experience, and our relationship with Elizabeth. Our adoption is the single most powerful event that I have experienced in my lifetime. The entire story is packed with sorrow, struggle, triumph and joy. While the beginnings of that story remain obscured from me, these real life elements bring new clarity and understanding to me when I try to grasp the immensity of God’s love. I hope that tonight as I share parts of our adoption story it will help each of you have a new appreciation and understanding for the power and immensity of God’s love for you.

Adoption is a metaphor used by Paul to help us understand something greater than our capacity to fully understand. Paul again uses the metaphor of adoption in Galatians and Ephesians. All metaphors have limitations, and this metaphor is limited by scale. The love we have experienced in our adoption is the grandest thing I can imagine, and yet it remains minute, or bitsy, in comparison to God’s love for us. That being said, I still struggle to comprehend the immensity of the love we have for Elizabeth.  To put a finer point on it, Paul has taken the most powerful experience of love in my life, to help me understand the nature of God’s love which is even greater. As a parent of Sam, our biological child, I would find this amazing by itself, but there are specific events and dynamics of our adoptive relationship with Elizabeth that bring increased understanding to Romans 8 that our relationship with Sam does not. So I will spend the remainder of my time walking through Romans 8 to tell you the story of Elizabeth Stolpe, so that you may share in this joy in the further clarity of the immensity of how much God loves you.

As I imagine it, on December 27, 2006, a poor Chinese couple, who lived in a cramped room, had a baby in the privacy of that room. She was tiny, itsty bitsy, probably barely over 4 pounds, and she had a noticeably disfigured foot. She was weak and frail, and if the parents tried to have someone with some medical training do a health check on their daughter, they would find that this delicate baby had a hole in her heart. Her parents had to wrestle with what to do. With no means to provide care adequate care for a fragile child like this tiny girl, it is likely that she would not have survived the year. To cling to her may have been to cling to death.

Paul tells us in verse 6 that “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the spirit is life and peace.” We have a choice to make. If the priority we choose is to cling to, preserve, and indulge our flesh, we also choose death, but if we choose to sacrifice our flesh, and cling to the spirit we are choosing life.

In desperation this mother and father recognized that if they clung to their daughter, it would likely mean death for her, but if they sacrificed their relationship with her, they might also be saving her life.

Despite their love for their daughter this poor couple made a decision that is incomprehensible to me. They chose to give her up in order that she might live.

The Wuxi newspaper reports that on December 31st 2006 a 36 year old woman found a little girl in a box in the alley. It says the girl was dressed in cute clothes and a hat, and was left with a bag with some more clothes, a bottle, formula powder, and a paper that stated that she was born on December 27th.

This decision to give up their daughter is a decision that Rachel and I can barely stand to even think about. It is so incomprehensible and painful for us to think about. Would we have enough love to make that decision? Would we cling to our kids to preserve our relationships and bring death, or would we be strong enough to make this sacrifice of faith in order to allow our children to have life? Fortunately, we don’t live a life that forces us to make that decision, but this is what Elizabeth’s birth parents did for her, knowing that they would lose their daughter forever.

This scandalous act of love was likely a gift of life for Elizabeth, and a certainly a gift of a daughter and sister for our family. In verse 32 Paul states that likewise God did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will God not with him give us everything else? God displayed this same act of scandalous love, giving up the Son as a gift of life for each of us.

Half a world a way, and about year before this helpless little girl was found in that alley, I sat at our kitchen table in tears, terrified that Rachel was going to have a break down that was going to leave her hospitalized or self destructing. I was scared that I was going to lose the woman I fell in love with. We had been trying to have a second child for almost 2 years. The pain of infertility had been building up, and Rachel was in the middle of her second month of using Clomid, a fertility drug that threw her into deep depression and limited her grasp on reality. I told her I wanted her to stop taking it because I was scared about what it was going to do to her. She stood at the counter and desperately cried out that she wanted a second child. We held each other for a while, sobbing, and decided that having a second child did not justify the damage being done to Rachel’s well being by this chemical. We had to find another way.

One morning after having a particularly rough night, we went to our old church pretty tired and emotionally exhausted. Sam went up for the children’s message and in the back and forth of Pastor Mark’s conversation with the kids, Sam announced that he was going to be a big brother. Immediately everyone in the congregation looked at us and smiled congratulatory smiles assuming that Sam knew something we didn’t let the rest of the church know yet. I quickly shook my head no and indicated that it was not the case, as Rachel crumpled into my shoulder in tears. For the next few weeks people would come up to us trying to congratulate us for being pregnant, and time and again we had to face them and tell them that Rachel wasn’t. We wallowed in these unwanted and to frequent reminders that we were not going to have a second child.

Within a few weeks Rachel’s Dad convinced us to pursue adoption as an alternative. It would be another two years before we would take Elizabeth into our arms. During our four years of trying to have a second child, Rachel and I would go through many more ups and downs. As I said before our adoption of Elizabeth is the most powerful experience of love and joy I have had in my life, but I also said that the story was packed with sorrow and struggle. The adoption process took over 2 years and cost about what I was making each year when we started. There are so many hoops to jump through. This four year period of our lives was the darkest we have walked. It is my primary basis for understanding suffering. It was a time of severe longing and yearning. A time of pain and grieving for the loss of someone we never even had. Romans 8 became a place of refuge and hope for me.

 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

This passage provided the promise of assurance, but the adoption process seemed insurmountable, and Rachel and I often lost hope and belief that it ever was going to ever really happen.  But Sam of 3 to 5 years during this period of life would walk every visitor to our house into his bedroom, show them the giant map on his wall and point to China and confidently say that that is where his sister was going to come from. Sam never lost hope. The 2 plus years of adoption seemed endless to Rachel and me, but to this small loving boy, it was not a deterrent. Sam never stopped believing. He had unshakeable faith in a hope in something unseen, his sister, and he waited patiently, setting an example for Rachel and me.

We struggled to display Sam’s hope and faith in what was unseen. Rachel will tell you that she would go through the pains of the birth of our 11 pound 9 ounce Sam ten times again before going through the pains and the inward groans of the adoption process. Simply put there was no comparison. This was a period of great inward groaning and suffering for us. But as Paul pointed out, our present sufferings were nothing in comparison to the glory in our revelation.   

I will never forget the night that Rachel and I walked into the Nanjing Grand hotel, the night before we finally got Elizabeth. We had been in China for a week, and yet Elizabeth still seemed like a concept that was never truly going to happen to our family. As we stepped into the hotel there was a crib set up at the foot of the first bed. When Rachel and I saw the crib we both burst into tears. Sam asked why we crying. We told him that for the first time Elizabeth seemed like a real person and not just a story that we kept telling ourselves. I don’t thing Sam understood, but then he always had faith, hope, and confidence that he was going to be a big brother, lacking the doubt that we had.

Now I know I said I wasn’t going to spend the night talking about Calvinist theology, but in the last half of chapter 8 Paul starts throwing around these words, predestination, called, foreknew, and elect. And this raises the question of predestination. While many Non-Calvinist believers view this concept as portraying God as someone who damns some people to hell and not others, this is by no means how most Calvinists view the concept, certainly not me.

Here again our adoption experience colors my understanding of this text and the concept of predestination. During the children’s sermon I spoke of the Red Thread. This again is a traditional story shared within the community of adopting families, in particular families with children adopted from China. The concept states that the people who are meant to be together are connected to each other with an invisible and unbreakable red thread. This red thread ties us to each other and assures that we will find the people in life that we are supposed to be with no matter what. And when we do, this red thread will bind us together.

It is easy to dismiss this as a nice quaint story with no grounding in reality, and think that families will love their adopted children no matter what, but I think there is more truth to it than that. When we went to China we were part of a group of nine families who were all adopting with the same program. On the day we were united with our children, we quickly connected with our children. As we all rejoiced and cried with this hope fulfilled, we spent the next two weeks together with this group. Within the first day there were dynamics that we all noticed in the children and their new families that made many of comment on how well fit each family seemed to be for each child, and visa versa. When Elizabeth was handed to us she immediately popped the same two fingers in her mouth just as Sam always did. This is just a minor example, but in reality, there seemed to be instant bonds with each adoption, and it became difficult to imagine the children paired with any other family, even in that first day. The chemistry of the bonds that were forming seemed to be natural and logical, and arbitrarily changing them seemed illogical. The personality combinations just would seem to be mismatches if any child was paired with any other family other than the one they were matched with. This is the concept of the red thread.

This concept was further strengthened when our friend Maureen let us know privately that she and Stu were originally paired with Ji Ju. When they opened their envelope, they looked at Ji Ju’s picture and Maureen felt blank. She told Stu, that’s not my baby. They made the tough decision and declined the match. They were then paired with May. Ji Ju was paired with Mike’s family. We grew very close to these two families in our next two weeks. Even within the first day, we thought about what would have happened if the two matches hadn’t been flip-flopped. That just seemed wrong in our imagination.

I believe our adoptive children were tied and bound to us. Maybe not with a red thread, but by God’s will and divine plan. They were predestined to be in our families. This is how I have grown to understand the concept of predestination. It is not God fickly damning people to hell; it is God binding himself to each of us with a red thread, that connects us no matter what. Nothing is going to stop our adoption from happening, nothing is going to keep us from God’s love, not even our own sinfulness and fallenness. God is going to fight relentlessly to welcome us into his arms.

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Paul also writes in Galatians 4:3-7

…when we were underage, we were in slavery under the elemental spiritual forces of the world. But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship. Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir.

God has adopted us, let us rejoice!

God has transformed our lives!

Not just from a slave to a freed person, but from a slave to a child of the family, from slavery to sonship, from a slave to an Heir. On April first, 2008 when we finalized our adoption, we were asked to swear an oath to the government of China and to Elizabeth. The oath stated that Elizabeth was to be considered and treated as if she was our own biological child. An heir to our family’s wealth, no different than a child born to us. We sealed this oath and our promise with a thumb print left in red ink. God has tied and bound himself to us with a red thread. God has not only freed us from slavery, he has taken us into his own family, adopted us, called us his own children. God has made us heirs to the kingdom, considering us no different than God’s own son Christ. God has sealed this oath and promise not with red ink, but with the Red Blood of God’s own son.

Ephesians 1:3-6 says,

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship  through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will—  to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

You Don’t Know What You Are Asking

Job 38:1-7; Hebrews 5:7-10; Mark 10:35-45
October 21, 2012
© 2012


I.                Last Sunday we listened to Job’s cry for God to show up and acknowledge Job’s righteous suffering, and we heard God tell Job’s friends that he had spoken rightly about God. This morning we have heard the beginning of what God said when God did show up for Job. Job got what he asked for but not at all what he expected.

A.           Every Sunday we open with a prayer of invocation, inviting God to show up to receive our worship and to accompany us through the coming week. Every morning after my workout, I pray facing the four directions of the compass. I start facing east where the sun will rise and invite God into the new day. At breakfast I think through my schedule for the day and invite God to participate. When challenges come, such as meeting someone at the emergency room, I invite God to guide me. When my concern for our parents or children overwhelms me, I invite God to solve the problems. You may have a slightly different pattern, but I’m sure all of you have invited God into your day’s experiences one way or another. What we have read from Job today asks, “What if God shows up?”

B.            In her 1988 book Teaching a Stone to Talk Annie Dillard pushes us beyond our comfortable expectations, just as Job does.

On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.

C.            God answers our deepest prayers by turning us from asking what God is doing in our lives to asking how we fit in with God.

II.            Job had been crying out for God to show up and acknowledge his righteous suffering. God did show up, but it was not a command performance. God spoke, but not to answer Job’s questions. Job asked God to notice him, but God turned the tables and said to Job, “No, you notice me!” Except for one brief interjection from Job in 40:3-5, God spoke uninterrupted through chapters 38, 39, 40 and 41.

A.           I wish we had time to have a good dramatic reader perform God’s monolog for us. The vivid imagery reminds me of Maurice Sendak’s children’s book Where the Wild Things Are. At once irresistibly fascinating and frightening. Like Aslan the Christ figure lion in C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, the God who showed up for Job is not tame but wild and free, not safe but oh so good.

B.            God questioned Job about his grasp of the mysteries of creation: nature and the cosmos. We might feel that we get some answers to God’s questions by watching Nova or Nature on Public TV. I know they do not come from the theological perspective, but clearly the more we can explain, the deeper the awe and mysteries of the universe. Perhaps you saw this week that a new planet has been discovered that revolves around two stars, not one as in our solar system, and has two other stars revolving around it. A planet with four suns all going in different directions. The astronomers said they don’t understand why all of this gravitational activity didn’t just tear the planet to shreds. I’m sure a scientific explanation is possible, but it still doesn’t answer: why is all of this here at all instead of just nothing? God’s monolog doesn’t even answer that, except to imply that God delights to create.

C.            After God showed up, Job asked no more questions. As we shall see next week, Job was more satisfied by God’s encounter with him than he would have been by having God directly answer his questions. Instead of asking God about his suffering, Job was compelled to ask where he fit in God’s wild and wonderful cosmos. God answers our deepest prayers by turning us from asking what God is doing in our lives to asking how we fit in with God.

III.       In Mark 10:35-45 Jesus and his disciples had almost finished their journey to Jerusalem. Jesus led his disciples up the climb into the Holy City. On the way he told them one more time that he would be rejected, killed and rise again. Even the inner core of disciples still didn’t get it.

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”36And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?”37And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”38But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” 39They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; 40but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

41When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John.42So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.43But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

A.           James and John apparently expected Jesus was going to set up the glorious eternal kingdom when he arrived in Jerusalem. They wanted to be at the center of the action. Much the same way God turned the tables on Job, Jesus turned the tables on James and John. They would have to drink Jesus’ cup and share Jesus’ baptism. Cup and baptism do not have sacramental significance here. Drinking the cup was draining the bitter dregs. Baptism was an overwhelming flood of suffering.

B.            Hebrews 5:7, reminds us that Jesus had already been there himself. Undoubtedly referring to his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane that the cup of crucifixion pass from him, he offered up prayers with loud cries and tears. Yes, the Father was able to save him from death, but in reverent submission, Jesus prayed, “not my will, but yours.” Jesus took his place in the Father’s plan.

C.            In response to the ten other disciples’ anger with James and John, Jesus taught them, and us, that the path to glory is suffering, service and redemption. When James and John said they were able to share Jesus’ cup and baptism they had no idea what they were saying. Yet, in a way they could never have imagined, they did it and wouldn’t have had it any other way. And they do share in the glory of Jesus’ Kingdom, perhaps sitting on his left and right. God answers our deepest prayers by turning us from asking what God is doing in our lives to asking how we fit in with God.

IV.      On the last night of a high school mission trip several years ago, 4 or 5 small groups each did a skit summarizing the week’s experience. The last one reenacted Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. Then they went around the circle and washed everyone’s feet. This was the first mission trip for one of the boys who sometimes seemed to have an “I’m too cool for youth group” attitude. When they washed his feet, he exclaimed, “Wow! God really is here!”

A.           The wild, free, dangerous and good God doesn’t always show up as dramatically as in Job. More often than not God shows up in subtle, ordinary interactions with people. When you ache with someone who is suffering, pay attention, God is there. When you have opportunity to serve with humility and insignificance, pay attention, God is there. When you participate as the Holy Spirit draws someone to trust Jesus for a new life, pay attention, God is there. When you come to worship and realize that you are not getting something out of it but giving something to God and those around you, pay attention, God is there.

B.            God answers our deepest prayers by turning us from asking what God is doing in our lives to asking how we fit in with God.

C.            My friend Christopher was 35 years old and had struggled with brain cancer for several years. After everything possible had been done, he was finally told he had about 6 weeks left. The first Sunday of Advent he came to a prayer service we had for relinquishing whatever put us out of sync with the season. People expressed their concerns and lit a candle. With his coordination and speech impaired, Christopher struggled to the front, lit a candle and said, “I’ve just been told I have 6 weeks left to breathe. Whether it is 6 days, 6 weeks or 6 more years, I want them to be for Jesus.” No one else spoke. God had showed up. After this divine silence, we sang a hymn of hope and began our journey to Christmas having been invited by God to glance into the Kingdom. On January 9, at the invitation of Christopher and his family, a group of us surrounded him as he passed into Jesus’ presence.

Friday, October 12, 2012

To Boldly Speak

Job 23:1-9,16-17; Hebrews 4:14-16; Mark 10:17-23
October 14, 2012
© 2012


I.                I suspect few of you were familiar with today’s prayer hymn, Joyful Is the Dark. For the other three, I did try to choose hymns that I was sure would be familiar. I hope I was right. Brian Wren’s lyrics are powerful though unsettling. In a similar way I always cringe when I get to the last line of the third verse of Spirit of God, Descend upon My Heart (CH 265). “Teach me the patience of unanswered prayer.” These hymns and the words of Job, such as we read today, challenge us to consider how we handle the silence of a hidden God.

A.           Hebrews 4:16 invites us to approach God boldly, precluding polite, pious, powerless prayers. We need not tiptoe up to God like Dorothy and her friends on their first visit to the Wizard of Oz. No! This is an invitation to express our struggle and need with bold candor. God is not looking to belittle us for our inadequacy. No! God wants to hear from us our deepest yearnings. God is plenty big enough to hear any authentic boldness with which we speak.

B.            With good theological foundation, we often end our prayers “in Jesus’ name.” Whether we say those words or not, all of our prayers are predicated on Jesus’ name. “In Jesus’ name” is not a signal that the prayer has ended. Jesus’ name is our authorization to speak boldly to God. When we speak out of our weakness and pain in Jesus’ name, Hebrews 4:15 assures us that Jesus sympathizes with us, for he has been tested in every respect as we are.

C.            Hebrews 4:16 encourages our boldness so we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. Yes, a daily prayer life when life sails along smoothly is delightful, but when we feel God is silent or absent in our time of need, we are not to shrink back but to approach God and speak boldly. That is exactly what Job did.

II.            The excerpt from Job 23 that we read today is a sample of Job’s bold appeal to God in the dialogs with his friends and his monolog in chapters 29-31. Job’s friends are appalled. They were convinced he had sinned grievously and so deserved his suffering and couldn’t believe he persisted in protesting his integrity. More than that, they were horrified that he was so bold as to call God to answer him.

A.           Before we write Job off as dangerously impudent as his friends did, we need to hear what God told Job’s friends about Job’s bold speech. We’ll hear it again in two weeks, but God’s last words in the book of Job rebuke Job’s friends, “You have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has done.” (42:7-8) God is plenty big enough to hear any authentic boldness with which we speak.

B.            In Job 23:6, 8, 9 that we read this morning we hear Job’s bold plea to see God. Job knew God is wild and free, and Job could not control God. But Job wanted God to notice him, to acknowledge the ordeal he was enduring. Job was seriously seeking God and troubled that God remained in hiding. Job didn’t ask for relief from his suffering or even an explanation of his suffering. What Job boldly asked for was that God would notice him and acknowledge his righteousness.

C.            In case you think Job is an exception and that most of the prayers in the Bible are much more tame than Job’s, all you need to do is read through the Psalms. About 100 of the 150 Psalms, two-thirds of them, are laments or complaints. Some of them as bold as Job. I invite you to turn to Psalm 44 on page 479 of the sanctuary Bible and read verses 9-26 responsively with me. I’ll read the odd numbered verses and you the even, until we get to verse 20, then you also read verse 21 and we switch. When we get there, I think it will be obvious.

Yet you have rejected us and abased us, and have not gone out with our armies.

10You made us turn back from the foe, and our enemies have gotten spoil.

11You have made us like sheep for slaughter, and have scattered us among the nations.

12You have sold your people for a trifle, demanding no high price for them.

13You have made us the taunt of our neighbors, the derision and scorn of those around us.

14You have made us a byword among the nations, a laughingstock among the peoples.

15All day long my disgrace is before me, and shame has covered my face

16at the words of the taunters and revilers, at the sight of the enemy and the avenger.

17All this has come upon us, yet we have not forgotten you, or been false to your covenant.

18Our heart has not turned back, nor have our steps departed from your way,

19yet you have broken us in the haunt of jackals, and covered us with deep darkness.

20If we had forgotten the name of our God, or spread out our hands to a strange god, 21would not God discover this? For he knows the secrets of the heart.

22Because of you we are being killed all day long, and accounted as sheep for the slaughter.

23Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord? Awake, do not cast us off forever!

24Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?

25For we sink down to the dust; our bodies cling to the ground.

26Rise up, come to our help. Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love.

III.       In Mark 10:17-23 we find the familiar conversation between Jesus and the man we call the “Rich Young Ruler.” Unlike Job’s disgraced suffering, his circumstances were luxuriously comfortable. But like Job, he was in serious spiritual distress.

As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”18Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.19You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’”20He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.”21Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

A.           This man boldly ran up to Jesus and knelt down before him. He addresses Jesus as “Good Teacher,” not in flattery but respect. He was not a cynic trying to trap Jesus. He was a serious seeker. God is plenty big enough to hear any authentic boldness with which we speak. But this man was not prepared for the shock of Jesus counter-cultural, counter-intuitive answer. Prosperity was considered a sign of God’s blessing. We may not really be too different today. So when Jesus suggested he give away his wealth, it was not only that his possessions distracted him from God, but that what he considered evidence that God has blessed him actually prevented him from enjoying eternal life with God.

B.            To go from the man who walked away from Jesus’ loving offer of eternal life in shock and grief because he had many possessions to our annual stewardship emphasis is not much of a leap. It shifts stewardship from budgets and pledges beyond resources for ministry to how boldly we will speak to God about what springs from our spiritual depths. At the luncheon following Rachel Van Wagoner’s funeral this past Tuesday, I met a young man named Frances. He is from Kenya and works as a caregiver at Fountain Brook while studying for a nursing degree. He had lived in Los Angeles before coming to Oklahoma. He commented that in California people think they are broke when they get down to a few thousand dollars in the bank. In Oklahoma, people think they are broke when they get down below a hundred dollars in the bank. In Kenya people don’t think they are broke until they haven’t had anything to eat for a couple of days. How broke do we need to be to speak boldly to God about our spiritual distress? Bold stewardship puts our possessions in perspective, liberating us to speak boldly to God.

C.            Many congregations struggle financially in the interim period between pastors. Sometimes people were giving to support a well-loved pastor instead of boldly giving to God. Sometimes people adopt a “wait and see” attitude and reduce giving until some new ministry motivates them. That, of course, only retards momentum, making the bold development of ministry more difficult. Bold congregations use the interim between pastors to build stewardship momentum. Bold stewardship in the interim between pastors keeps ministry moving so the new pastor doesn’t have to pull the congregation out of a stall before they can grow. Bold stewardship in the interim between pastors accumulates a financial reservoir so money is available for new ministry when the new pastor starts, to capitalize on the fresh energy that comes with a new beginning. Bold stewardship in the interim between pastors enables the Search and Call Committee to negotiate with the best candidates by offering a compensation package that doesn’t just say, “We’ll support you,” but it communicates, “We want you and value you!” God is plenty big enough to hear any authentic boldness with which we speak. I challenge you to be as bold as possible with your stewardship and expect something even bolder from God.

IV.      How boldly do you dare to speak to God?

A.           The bishop’s wife in Susan Howatch’s novel Absolute Truths (p. 169) gathered some women into a prayer group. She told them, “Forget that I’m Mrs. Bishop.”  And she told them not limit their prayers with some idea of what prayer is supposed to be like. None of us know how to pray. We just know we need God. This is how she described prayer that speaks boldly to God.

“I used to think to myself: do our prayers work? Are we a success? But now I know these are the wrong questions to ask, they’re irrelevant. It’s not for us to judge how successful we are – and anyway what does ‘success’ mean in this context? To be successful is to do what God wants – and I know that what God wants for us at these times is to be, lining ourselves up with him so that he can use us to batter away at the suffering in the world. If we can only be, then he can use us and arrange us in the right patterns so that we’re playing an active part in his creative purpose, an active part in his redemptive love.”

B.            Speaking boldly to God does not require lessons in composing prayers, only the same audacity Job had.

C.            God is plenty big enough to hear any authentic boldness with which we speak.