A Prophetic Penitent Pope

“God seems to have disappeared from the horizon, and his word no longer seems a compass guiding our lives, our basic decisions, our human and social relationships,” he added.

Instead of trying to impose religion on the state or lamenting the bygone times when clergy swayed political power, the pope said, “secularization demands we reflect on the changes in society that have influenced the way in which people think about and organize their lives.”

It’s not the faith that is suffering a crisis, he continued, “but some of the forms and ways in which we present it.”

Pope Francis – Religious News Service 7/29/2022

Pope Francis trip to Canada for the purpose of offering a humble, sincere apology for the Roman Catholic Church’s involvement in the cultural genocide of Native America children in “boarding schools” I believe is to be applauded. The Pope did not have to do this. This action will likely not get the church more members. This action will bring the Pope criticism. So why should the Pope be applauded?

Pope Francis understands he cannot undue what has been done. The Pope grasps how horrible this and other moral outrages committed by the church are. The Pope knows he needs to set the example and do what is right. Accepting responsibility and desiring to make amends is a primary expectation of those who would follow Jesus. Hopefully such an apology and begging for forgiveness is a start to undoing so of the damage done.

The reality is that people do bad, unspeakable things whether they are religious people or not. Religion is a powerful tool evil uses to damage people. Sadly, in my case, I have met more evil people in church than any place else. The rise of Christian Nationalism is giving many of these people a desire for political power. I believe the Pope understands just how dangerous and coercive the merger of church and state can be. The above statement the Pope makes could have come from a Virginia Baptist. I am grateful that the Pope made this statement.

I do not believe God ever wanted religion to be a social control device. God wants us to develop faith, faith that comes through trust. God wants us to understand our need for God and wants to help us understand that our need is not political laws but with divine love. The path to such love is paved with the willingness to reflect on our collective behavior, a desire to obtain forgiveness if possible, and seeking the best for all, whether an individual is part of our “tribe” or not, religious or not. Maturing in our faith means we trust God to be faithful. It means understanding fight is not against flesh and blood. It means we grasp the truism that love cannot be forced, legislated, or codified in law. It means we look for the log in our own eye before looking for the splinter in someone else’s.

Thank you Pope Francis

The Move

I do not know how many of you have had to make relocation moves in your life, but I feel like a bit of a gypsy. I have moved, in my lifetime, 39 times (excluding the times I moved in the military). This averages out to a move every 1.8 years. I did not plan to move this much, in fact, to me, moving is hard, painful, and extremely emotionally tiring. I have found that our enemy can be very active during a personal relocation move as well.

We are all pilgrims. We are all on journeys comprised of different motives and purposes. While we are engaged in our moving, we are in a time of liminality, of leaving one place and arriving at another. In this time of liminality, we face challenges of preparation, adjustments of timetables, and adaption of practices.

The challenges of preparation include things like packing, notifying contacts, engaging help, obtaining supplies, and dealing with all the implications of Murphy’s Law. Yes, there is a devil in the details. The time of liminality can be filled with frustration, anxiety, despair, and for some, physical pain. Some of these challenges can push us to the point of exhaustion or at least procrastination. I countered these challenges by using repetend prayers and striving to maintain the morning and evening offices (times of verbal prayer).

Adjusting to timetables involves the action or inaction of others. We do not journey in isolation. Our moving involves others. Our deadlines are not necessarily the deadlines of others. Needless to say, this too can lead to frustration, anxiety, despair, anger, and depression. The enemy will use such times of emotional strain to push us toward behavior and thoughts that do not honor our Lord. Again, what helped my most through this time were repetend prayers. When I found myself being short, caustic, or angry I would pray the Jesus prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner- this is a repetend prayer). I cannot express how often this prayer has brought centering and focus to my life during the move.

As far as the adaption of practices I found that if I was going to focus on grace and love I needed to take more breaks for times of prayer and reflection. Not only do we need to seek to maintain our regular spiritual disciplines, but we also need to intentionally plan to stop and give God time to refresh us and restore us. At least for me, I get more done when I take the breaks I need to care for my spiritual nature as well as my physical endurance.

Then the day arrives, the move is undertaken, and we pass from where we were to where we are going. We are tired, and stressed, but have a sense of peace because we intentionally included God in our move. I would really recommend such an inclusion. I can assure you the enemy will not like it.

Lectionary Sermon for Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Hebrews 11:29-12:2 Why Us?

I have spent a lot of time studying the book of Ecclesiastes.  It can seem a rather cynical book.   To give you an example, the second verse of the book in the translation I use states, “Perfectly pointless, says the Teacher, perfectly pointless. Everything is pointless.” (Eccl. 1:2 CEB)

The NIV translates the book, “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” (Eccl. 1:2 NIV)

Why in the world would someone say this?  They must really have a dim view of our human life. Our lives have meaning, correct?  Our lives are significant, aren’t they?  Our existence does matter, doesn’t it? 

Of course, we matter.  The question is, why do we matter?  We matter to those who love us.  We matter to the functioning of society.  We matter because we need each other.  But what does this mean?  It means the human species can survive.  But why does that matter? 

If the scientists are right, someday our sun will burn out.  Will humanity matter then?  We dream of our continuation through our ability to use knowledge and technology. But for what purpose?  Does it all come down to survival?  Is that the ultimate purpose? 

I don’t believe we exist just to survive.  I believe we exist for a much better reason.  The most important reason for our existence is that we exist for our creator. We exist because of love.  And love, true love, exists because of faith. 

What in the world do I mean by that?  I mean for love, true love, to be shared, there must be faith.  Faith that is built upon a relationship of trust, commitment, value, and hope. 

I have a question, “How do you know you are loved?”  We know when we are cared for, and told we are important and valuable.  This is why it is so painful when people violate love.  We call this being unfaithful.  Unfaithfulness is a violation of trust, a breaking of commitment, and a dashing of hope by violating love. God loves us.  God is never unfaithful.  God has made us for love.  Faith is the way we come to know this is true.

The lectionary passage in Hebrews is a history of the power of faith that includes individuals from all walks of life and situations.  People who believed God, love God and depended upon God in faith.

In their lives, faith persevered no matter what happened, no matter what circumstance or situation.  They tied their lives to their belief in the faithfulness of God despite the challenges that came their way.  The promise they most sought was beyond this existence, beyond mere survival.  In fact, many times their faith caused them not to survive.  Many of them died because of their faith.

Listen again to verse 39, “All these people didn’t receive what was promised, though they were given approval for their faith.” (Heb. 11:39 CEB)

Now if God was faithful, why did they not receive what was promised?  Isn’t breaking a promise being unfaithful? 

Let’s look a little closer.  Note, that it does not say they did not ever receive their promise.  It does not say God broke a promise.  What is said is that the people of faith in the Old Testament did not base their faith on what they perceived they could get.  It was not a faith based on reward.  It was a faith based on trust.  A faith based on hope.  A faith that would bring them into God’s love, not just a promise, but the ultimate purpose for which we were created.

Look at verse 40.  God provides something better.  Not a rigid law that condemned.  Not a rigid religion that judges and labels.  God provided Jesus.  Jesus descended into death so that faith would produce life.  True life, eternal life, from which we were made; not existence, not survival, not chasing after things, not being misled by lies, but life as it was intended.  A life that leads us to perfection. 

Perfection is not free from mistakes, failings, fallings, foolishness, and choices made in ignorance and arrogance, but by perfection in love.  That perfection in love will lead us to be wiser and have a deeper understanding of life. 

Perfection in a faith born of love.  God’s love. 

In the book of Ecclesiastes, the writer of this book tells us, “I have observed the task that God has given human beings. God has made everything fitting in its time, but has also placed eternity in their hearts, without enabling them to discover what God has done from beginning to end.” (Eccl. 3:10-11 CEB)

It is important we pay attention to that.  They were not able to discover.  This was the mystery.  It is a mystery of love.  It is the mystery of why God cares about us.  It is the mystery fulfilled in Jesus.  Now we can know what God has been doing. Without question, the mystery of godliness is great. Jesus was revealed as a human, declared righteous by the Spirit, seen by angels, preached throughout the nations, believed in around the world, and taken up in glory. (1 Tim. 3:16 CEB)

This is the mystery, the mystery that touches human hearts so deeply.  The mystery proclaimed in John 3:16, God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. (Jn. 3:16 CEB).  This is the foundation of faith.  God is love and we exist of love and know this love, experience this love, grow in this love through faith, faith in a God who became one of us because God loves us.

Look again at verse 2.  This is how we can know our lives are not meaningless, not pointless.  This is how we can be forgiven for the wrongs we do and the ignorance we too often embrace.  Turn your eyes on Jesus.  Know Jesus is the one who perfects our faith.  Know that he died for you.  He endured the cross.  He endured the shame for us. Why did Jesus do this?  The answer is right here, “for the sake of the joy that was laid out in front of him.” (Heb. 12:2 CEB)

And what was the joy?  The joy of Jesus is us! 

Listen to what he said, “I have said these things to you so that my joy will be in you and your joy will be complete. (Jn. 15:11 CEB).

Listen to what the scripture tells us, “What we have seen and heard, we also announce it to you so that you can have fellowship with us. Our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy can be complete. (1 Jn. 1:3-4)

As we grow older, we learn just how important relationships are to us.  They are our treasure.  Broken relationships are often the most painful experiences of our lives.  Loving relationships are our greatest treasure.  Why is this so?  Because for this reason we were created.  This is where faith will lead us.  This is where faith finds its strength. 

We exist because of love.  And love, true love, exists because of faith.  Is your journey of faith one that is leading you to the power of faith, the truth of faith, the hope of faith, the love of faith. 

God does not force faith.  Love cannot be forced.  But God is calling, Jesus is calling, the Holy Spirit is calling, calling you in grace to faith.  What will be your reply?

Lectionary Sermon for Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16  The Promise of Faith

Jesus said some pretty amazing things.  One of the more incredible things Jesus said was, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” (Lk. 17:6 CEB)

If that was not amazing enough he went on to say in the story of Jesus known as Matthew, “I assure you that if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mountain, ‘Go from here to there,’ and it will go. There will be nothing that you can’t do.” (Matt. 17:20 CEB)

Now did Jesus really mean this, or was he just exaggerating?  I believe that he meant it.  I understand some would say, “You can’t be serious!” 

“You actually believe a human being could make a tree obey their voice or a mountain follow their command?”

I believe that Jesus does not deceive. I also that our Lord would not exaggerate about something so important to God the Father. But if you focus on simply moving a tree or a mountain, you miss the point.  Faith is much more powerful than that. 

Faith is nothing in isolation.  It is simply a word describing the belief of something for which there is incomplete evidence.  It is a word we use as a defense of our inability to attain certainty.  Example:  I have faith that the Cowboys will win the Super Bowl this year or I have faith I am going to win the lottery even if I don’t buy a ticket.

These are examples of blind faith or having a vivid imagination.

The faith that Jesus speaks about, the faith of power, the faith of promises, is the faith we find in our passage today. 

Verse one is an incredible verse. Listen to it again. Faith is the reality hoped for, proof of what we don’t see.

The reality hoped for, what does that mean?   What kind of a reality do we want?  One without fear?  One with pain and suffering?  One without boredom or limitations?  One filled with love and life?  One without loss and death? 

The reality hoped for is the reality for which we were created.  It is the reality that sin blinds us too and to which hopelessness tries to bind us. 

That world is impossible.  That reality cannot exist. 

Not according to Jesus who said, “It’s impossible for human beings. But all things are possible for God.” (Matt. 19:26 CEB).  This statement is found in three of the four accounts of the life of our Lord.

Faith is the means through which God is known.  Faith is the prelude to a growing relationship of trust, confidence, and ultimately perfected love.  Faith is the proof of what we don’t see. 

Proof, that is a strong word.  Yes, it is.  It is a word meaning evidence, reliability, truth, and confidence.  Proof is what makes faith in God not a blind faith, but a relational faith. 

Yes, Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so, but so does my heart, and so does my experience of my encounters with God in my own life and in the lives of others.  I know my faith is real because of the evidence of Jesus, the evidence of the resurrection, and the reality of the joy, and completeness, which comes from the experience of a growing love for God and others.

Listen again to verse 3.  Faith is the means by which we come to understand God.  We human beings are finite creatures.  We have no control over time.  We have no power over creation.  Even when we seek knowledge we can only understand with our own experiential limitations.  Our only understanding of why we even exist is either to believe we are a strange singularity in an incomprehensible universe or else we are a creation of a God who is beyond the incomprehensible universe that at best we can merely speculate and imagine. 

No, the only way we can understand is if God chooses to give us understanding through faith.  And what God has chosen to give us understanding is that God does love us.  God does care about us and God has plans for us that are revealed through the promises of faith.

In verses 8-16, the writer of Hebrews calls our attention to the history of Abraham.  It is a remarkable history of God’s relationship with a man called Abraham and God’s choice of Abraham to be a means of revealing an understanding of faith.

In verse 8 we are told Abraham was called and he went.  He when because of a promise.  A promise made by God.  A promise Abraham trusted.  How does one develop this type of trust?  This type of trust only comes through the experience of a relationship.  This was not an “I have faith I am going to win the lottery” type faith, but a faith filled with an understanding of God’s reliability.

Look again at verse 10. 

Along with Abraham, Sarah, his wife also had faith.  In verse 11 we are told that for Sarah have a child was impossible, but with God, all things are possible.  So Sarah had faith “because she believed that the one who promised was faithful.” (Heb. 11:11 CEB)

Note what it says in verse 13, “but they saw the promises from a distance and welcomed them. They look at the future with eyes of faith.  They confessed that they were strangers and immigrants on earth. (Heb. 11:13 CEB)

They understood.  They grasp the reality.  They were able to comprehend what God wanted for them.  And what did God want for them?  A reality, the reality we were created for in the first place.  One without fear.  One with pain and suffering.  One without boredom or limitations.  One filled with love and life.  One without loss and death.   They believed that the one who promised was faithful. 

Now, all of these people died in faith without receiving the promises. (Heb. 11:13 CEB) They know the promises of God transcend time and space.  The promises of God are not limited by human finiteness and mortality. 

These people lived in faith of promises coming, a faith we are now called to live by the promise of the one who has come.  The one who brings the promises of God to us now and forever.  The one who grows the promises of faith in us. 

And what promises are those?  If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from everything we’ve done wrong. (1 Jn. 1:9 CEB)

I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever, and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (Jn. 6:51 CEB)

God destined us to be his adopted children through Jesus Christ because of his love. This was according to his goodwill and plan and to honor his glorious grace that he has given to us freely through the Son whom he loves. (Eph. 1:5-6 CEB)

I will never leave you or abandon you (Heb. 13:5 CEB) “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give you (Jn. 14:27 CEB) Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age. (Matt. 28:20 CEB)

This is the power of the promises of faith.  Promises we can begin to experience now through a growing, loving, grace-giving, relational faith in Jesus Christ. 

This is faith that will be with you in the good times and the bad.  It will sustain you in the emergency room or at the side of a grave. 

We are experiencing all kinds of trouble, but we aren’t crushed. We are confused, but we aren’t depressed. We are harassed, but we aren’t abandoned. We are knocked down, but we aren’t knocked out. (2 Cor. 4:8-9 CEB)

Our temporary minor problems are producing an eternal stockpile of glory for us that is beyond all comparison.

We don’t focus on the things that can be seen but on the things that can’t be seen. The things that can be seen don’t last, but the things that can’t be seen are eternal.

 (2 Cor. 4:17-18 CEB)

Faith is the reality of what we hope for, the proof of what we don’t see. (Heb. 11:1 CEB)

Lectionary Sermon for Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Colossians 3:1-11 Where Your Mind is Your Heart will likely Follow

I want to begin with a psychological reality.  I want you to think of the number 4.  Get a picture of the number 4 in your mind.  Can you see it?  Imagine it, see it, now, don’t think of the number 4.  It is hard.  Our minds have a hard time with vacuums.  When we think of something it usually must be replaced with something else before our thinking changes.

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

This is not a good place to be.  These verses warn us of futility in our thinking (my version calls it pointless thinking- the old KJV states vanity of their minds.)  The word translated “futility” means useless, pointless, no chance, or hope.  This is a terrible place to be.  What makes it even worse, this futility in thinking leads to a spiritual hardness of the heart. This can be a spiritually terminal condition.

What is spiritual hardness of the heart?  It is a sickness of the soul that prevents us from perceiving God’s grace and love and makes us unable to grasp how much danger we are in from within and from without. 

This is the danger that the members of the church at Colossae were facing.  They were being influenced by the thinking of their social culture.  This thinking was opening them up to deception, opening them up to manipulation, and pushing them to live for things that are dead. 

What do I mean by the term dead?  I mean dead as in separated and separating from God.  Notice the things listed in verse 5.  These things seem to bring pleasure but in fact, they usually cause great pain.  They cheapen, tarnish, wound, crush, isolate, produce fear, and hate.  They can never satisfy but do lead us to have the continual lust for more.

You know, as I read this list, I realize I could be reading a news story about the events that surround us.  I could be reading the plots of many of the TV shows that fill our homes.  I could have been reading about the activities of celebrities, athletes, or politicians.  It seems like the old dangers of this world that push death has not changed.  They are still there. 

What is sad is that people still believe these things are worth the price of their perceived pleasure.  People believe they can find meaning in life living with these bringers of death. This is a lie.

A man was seen on his knees in his neighbor’s yard.   The neighbor came out and asked him what he was doing.  The man said, “I am looking for my keys.”  The neighbor came over and joined the search.  How did you lose your keys in my yard the neighbor asked the man?  The man replied, “Oh, I didn’t lose them in your yard. I lost them in mine.”  “Then why are you looking for them here?” asked the neighbor.  Because the light is brighter over here. 

Is the search going to be futile? Yes, but not any more futile than living the lies of seduction of our culture as if these lies would lead us to the truth.

Paul tells us there is a better way.  Paul tells us here in verses 1 & 2 and also in Romans 12:2 Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is– his good, pleasing and perfect will. In other words, replace the bad with the good.  Replace that which is futile with that which is faithful.  Seek what is better.  Think on what is true. 

How, how do we think about things that are true?  By replacing, renewing, and transforming what is there with a new image, the image of our Lord.  The image of him at his resurrection, the image of him at the right hand of God.  We gain this image when we follow Jesus as Jesus followed the will of the Father.  Set your mind on reaching out to those you love.  Seek their welfare before your own.  Seek to spend time in God’s word.  Find yourself in the stories.  Find guidance in the behaviors, learn what brings joy, peace, love, hope, and builds faith.  Seek to spend time talking with God in prayer.  Seek to gather as the church.  Let your mind be filled with hope. 

But what about the bad things we must face?  What are we to do about difficulties, pressures, and problems?  We have weaknesses, handicaps, and limitations.  How do we set our minds on the things above? 

Story of a religious traveler who was walking down a path when a monkey through a coconut and hit him in the back.  The traveler took the coconut and ate the meat, drank the milk, and made the shell into a bowl. He then thanked the monkey for giving him the opportunity to turn a painful event into a useful encounter. It is a matter of perspective.

In WWII in the Nazi death camps, a young doctor named Victor Frankl observed that even during evil, torture, misery, and death there were those people who still chose to find happiness.  They found their happiness in the songs of their faith, in the prayers they had learned, and in actions of love rather than fear and hate.  How could they do this in such an evil place? What Frankl observed was what Paul is talking about in these passages.  It is the power of choice given us by our Lord.  We can put off the old nature and seek the holy nature, the nature of perfection in our desire to live lives that conform to the image of Jesus. 

You have heard the saying, “practice what you preach?”  Let me tell you a better way, the way of our Lord: “Preach what you practice!”   Preach the value of a moral life because you have benefited from a moral life.  Preach forgiveness because you have experience forgiveness.  Preach love because you love and have been loved.  Preach Jesus as a relationship rather than a religion because you live in a relationship with Jesus.  Preach the things above because you think about those things, desire those things, you live for those things. 

We were not made for futility.  We do not have to be ruled by lies, deceit, violence, crudeness, cruelty, corruption, and consumption.  We can be surprised by joy.

Paul writes: if you were raised.  This is the question, the big “if.”  This determines if you can set your mind on the things of God.  To be raised you must be called. NIV John 6:44 “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day. It’s a calling to discipleship.  It is a calling that comes from God. Set your mind to hear, to think, and to seek to be conformed to the image our creator made us to have!

Where Your Mind is Your Heart will likely Follow!

Sermon for Seventh Sunday of Pentecost

Colossians 2:6-19 Don’t Get Scammed

This is not an easy passage. This is a Scripture passage that can be hard to accept.  These words may cause an emotional response. These words can convict.  I understand that these words may be out and out rejected and maybe even cause a response in which they are angrily completely rejected.  Still, these are words that fit in the context of this passage and speak to an issue that weigh on me so heavily that it made me physically sick.  What I have to say here today I say not as a legalist, not as a denominational loyalist, and the only personal agenda attached to my words is my desire to see each of us walking closer to our God.  Please be patient with me.  Please weigh these words and pray about how you will respond.

First, let us be reminded of what is happening in this passage.  Paul is writing to a church he has never met. Paul is writing this letter from his prison cell.  He has been incarcerated because of his proclaiming of the Gospel.  Even though Paul only knows of this church from reports and encounters with individuals who do know the church, Paul loves them and desires only the best for them. I know some would question how Paul could love them, but as one grows in the Lord one does come to understand and even practice such compassion.

For two Sundays the lectionary has focused on this letter to the Colossians.  This letter to the church has focused on the dangers (spiritual dangers) they face and that we face as well.  

In this passage, the purpose remains the same.  First, there is the positive.  Look again at verses 6-7.  This is what our faith is about.  This is the reason for the church.  We are here because of Jesus.  We are here because God does love us and (2 Peter 3:9) “It is a God’s desire is in not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”

Jesus came to this world to offer an example of the desire of God, a desire to journey with us.  In the reality of the certainty of death, Jesus came to offer life.  In John 10:28 Jesus says, “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.” 

But Paul brings up a point about this encounter with God that we should understand well.  If we are given life by Jesus, if we are indwelt by Jesus, if we are being transformed by Jesus then we should see evidence of that life.  Our perspective should change.  Our wants and desires should be moving away from living for the world and instead living by the Word. 

If not, then either we are not children of God or else we have allowed ourselves to be so deceived, to be so totally scammed by this world that hates Jesus, despises God, and enjoys using us that we are living a lie.  This is a real danger.

Verse eight states, “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ. (Col. 2:8 NIV) This was the real spiritual danger the Colossians faced.  We are warned of the real dangers to our spiritual lives. 

The Scripture warns us about developing, accepting, or even tolerating certain forms of philosophy.  Philosophy literally means Philo (love) of Sophia (wisdom).  It is the love of wisdom.  What is wrong with that? Why do we need to be warned about the love of wisdom? 

Everyone consciously or subconsciously develops a philosophy of life, an order of thinking that has a great determining influence on our actions and behaviors.  Your philosophy determines what you think is important.  Your philosophy determines what you think is true.  The philosophy or philosophies we are warned about are those that mix foolish deception and our own fallen reason. (Other translations might have vain deceit or empty deception). 

The word translated “foolish” (vain, empty) is a word meaning the sense of being without effect, without reaching its goal.  It is the same word used in James 2:20: You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless?

The word for deception (deceit) is one that has to do with the seduction which comes from wealth.  It is the same word in Matt. 13:22 in the parable of the Sower in which Jesus says, “The one who received the seed (the Gospel) that fell among the thorns is the man who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it unfruitful.” 

The Scripture goes on to tell us that this philosophy comes from human tradition, influences hostile to God, and the way the world thinks rather than what Jesus has taught.

Then in verses 10 through 19 Paul reminds the Colossians and us about the true philosophy, the true wisdom upon which we should be basing our lives.  He sets out the truth revealed in Scripture and in the words and actions of Jesus as a reminder of the core principles the Colossians (and we) need to challenge the philosophies of this world.  In the time this was written, the Colossians (the world) time, the philosophy was one of magic and prosperity.  Magic in believing that we can (through actions or knowledge) control God.   The philosophy of prosperity is one in which we believe money and God are equal and with enough money, I really don’t need God.

It seems that not much changes. The predominant religious philosophy of our day is called therapeutic-moral-deism. God is only important when we need Him.   

Here is when this passage intersects with a very prominent problem in the church. Here is where we face the same danger as the Colossians.  We too are in danger of being taken captive if not captive already. How can we know? How can we avoid being deceived, mislead, and end up being enemies of God’s will instead of examples of God’s guidance and hope?

As one who has been called by God to serve the church, I operate under the authority given to me by the Scripture to equip the saints for the work of ministry.  In the 13th chapter of the book of Hebrews, I am warned that I will give an account to God for my work (Hebrews 13:17 They keep watch over you as men who must give an account).  But the question is, “How does one called by God accomplish this?” A minister has no special magical instrument, no scientific tool to tell how a person is doing spiritually.  There is no thermometer to measure the fervency of one’s faith. There are no x-rays that can be taken to indicate what may be broken in a person’s soul. All one can do is bring the Scripture to God’s people and pray they will respond. This is the faithfulness God expects from those he calls.

In other words, no pastor has the power to diagnose the situation or condition of your soul. All a pastor can do is faithful to God and transparent to those whom they shepherd. A pastor can look for evidence of God working in one’s life. You cannot be touched by our Lord and not be changed. However, our spiritual lives can grow cold. Our spiritual lives can become corrupt. We can be scammed by the enemy of God and thus become instruments of evil. Many, many people with shallow faith and deceived hearts are not living the life we are called to live.

God calls us to transcend, overcome, transform, and be salt and light to this world. If we are not living as people who are an example of light, we will be a people of darkness. We must choose. We must decide. We must have commitment. We must depend on Christ and the Holy Spirit every day, hour, and minute. It is not easy. It is hard, but it is worth it. Don’t be scammed by the enemy. God is counting on you.

Lectionary Sermon for Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Colossians 1:15-28    In Just Four Words

There is a classic book, a novel, with the title Jane Eyre.  It is a novel that is still often read today and upon which several films have been made.  It is a story of a young girl’s life journey through trial and tribulation.  It is a story that is filled with overcoming all kinds of suffering and hardship.  However, after the reader has gone through Jane’s agonies and struggles, her torturous wrestling between heart and conscience the readers of this novel must be satisfied with the final resolution summed up in words, “And I married him.”

Yet, in those four words, we find how Jane views the future with joy and the fulfillment of life.  A simple sentence, four simple words indicating an action that gives the reader confidence in Jane’s future happiness.

It is really amazing what putting four words together in a sentence can do. As I was preparing this sermon, I tried to think of some other four-word sentences: The shock in Star wars, “I am your father.”  The sarcasm of the great coach Vince Lombardi when he told his team they must get back to basics, “This is a football.”  The ignorant arrogance of some who says, “What could go wrong?” The fear that comes when someone answers the phone and hears the words, “This is the IRS.”  Yes, four short words put together can be quite expressive.

Are there four words that could sum capture the future hopes you might have in our unstable world?  Four words that would indicate that you will have happiness, you will have fulfillment.  I do not know about you, but I have.  And what four words are those?  “And I found Him.” 

Of course, that begs the question who?  The answer is Jesus, another short four-letter sentence.  Because I met Jesus I know where my future lies.  Because I met Jesus, I do have hope.  Because of Jesus, I know God is with me.  Because I met Jesus my life has been changed.  I have been forgiven.  I have been called.  I have been blessed.  I have been helped.  I have been lifted.  But most of all, I have been loved.  Four words put together that says so much about what Jesus has done for me. 

I was sinking deep in sin far from the peaceful shore, very deeply stained within sinking to rise no more.  But the master of the sea heard my despairing cry, and from the waters lifted me now safe am I. Hymns also can be used to tell our story.

This passage today is a hymn and a commentary.  Scholars pretty much universally agree that verses 15 through 20 are the words of one of the earliest hymns in the church.  Paul uses these verses to speak to a church that needs to be called back to the reason they exist, back for the purpose of their being called, back to the basics which remind us that everything they are or ever can come from one source, one person, one God revealed in Jesus Christ.

Listen to what this hymn tells us, “He is the First, He is the creator, He is the power.”  Verse 17, literally Jesus is the will, the energy, the reason that holds our molecules in place, He is one who is not limited by time but time exists only because He wills.  It is His church, not mine, not yours, even the term ours needs qualifying in terms of the ultimate head.

Verse 19 tells us He was God, not just a skin covering hiding God, not just a supreme being that morphed into a human-type visage but God, God incarnate, God who came to serve rather than to be served.  Verse 20, this hymn tells us why we can hope.  It tells us what we know.  It speaks to us about reconciliation, about peace God offers through his death on the cross.

Do I like it that Jesus died for me?  No, I do not.  I do not like the fact that I was so ignorant, so arrogant, so selfish, so foolish, so deceived that I would violate the very law of God written on my heart and so became a child of the devil rather than a child of the Light.  No, I do not like knowing that Jesus died on the cross for me, that he went through the suffering he endured for me, the darkness and separation He took upon Himself for me, and that He, my Lord, and my God descended into Hell to the taunts of the demons and the laughter of the deceiver for me.  No, I do not like that, but that does not change the fact that it is true.

How do we describe such reality?  What words could possibly capture what has been communicated through this hymn?  What is being said?  What can explain why Jesus did this?  A four-letter sentence, “Because I love you.”  Jesus tells me time and time again, I love you.  I love you. 

In verses 21-28 we have a commentary given to us by Paul about this hymn.  He writes to us about what God desires for us.  He writes to us about his own suffering, his own pain.  Paul was doing this for himself.  Oh, what was he going to get?  Would this behavior make him rich?  No, but telling people it was a hoax would have.  Did it give him power?  No, in every church there were those who worked to undermine his influence, and even as he writes this letter he does so from within the chains and walls of a prison.  Why did Paul go through what he went through? 

Paul did what he did because the gospel he preached was the truth.  He did so because the resurrected Jesus came to him and called him. The same Jesus who spoke to Paul is in this room right now.  He comes to us and calls to us if we will but listen with our hearts.  He speaks to us through his word, through his messengers, through this world.  He speaks to our soul.  He speaks to everyone.  He gives us all the opportunity to know him. 

The problem is not with Jesus’s communication skills.  The problem is with our listening.  Do you want Jesus to talk to you as he did with Paul, then ask Him?  I stand as a witness and with the promise of Scripture if you ask and really do want to hear you will.  Jesus said: Revelation 3:20 Listen! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come into him and have dinner with him, and he with Me.  And he says in: Matthew 7:7-8 “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.  So if you don’t find Jesus it is not because He is not trying to be heard or found.  Maybe the problem lies elsewhere!

An old man was wondering if his wife had a hearing problem. So one night, he stood behind her while she was sitting in her lounge chair. He spoke softly to her, “Honey, can you hear me?” There was no response.  He moved a little closer and said again, “Honey, can you hear me?” Still, there was no response.  Finally, he moved right behind her and said, “Honey, can you hear me?”  She replied, “For the third time, Yes!”  Sometimes we let our doubts-desires, as well as delusions-deceptions, make so much noise in our lives they drown out the still small voice of God speaking to us. 

Look if you would at verses 27 & 28.  Verse 27 speaks of what God wants.  Verse 28 is what God expects.  What God wants is for us to have hope for hope is the mind of faith.  What God expects: we may present everyone perfect in Christ (NIV).  CEB translation of the Bible has the word mature.  Word is teleos.  It’s the goal, the end, the ability to say at life’s close, “And I found Him.”

Sermon for Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Colossians 1:1-14   What Are They Saying About Us

There is a human activity that is easily engaged in, can be almost addictive, can seem somewhat harmless, but can damage lives and destroy relationships.  We call it gossip.  Sadly, every one of us is susceptible to it.  What is worse is that it tends to magnify and intensify as it spreads from one person to another. It is a very effective sin that can do horrible damage. I know very well. I was a victim of some very horrible gossip that still causes pain.

A friend confessed to another friend that they had a bad habit of repeating gossip. When told this, the friend quickly responded, “I know, but repeating it wouldn’t be so bad if you did not improve on it time after time”.

In this passage, Paul states: We have heard.  A report has been given.  Material has been shared.  Information has been passed.  What is being said?  Is it gossip? 

The purpose of this book, this book we call the Holy Bible, is to bring to humanity the good news, the information, the inspiration, the instruction, and insight in order for us to discover the love God has for us and how we can reap the benefits of this love.  We call this the message the Gospel.  Paul was called by God to proclaim the Gospel. Question, is what Paul writes here to the Colossian’s gossip, or is it the Gospel?

Gossip is defined as a conversation about personal matters: a conversation about the personal details of other people’s lives without their permission, it does not matter whether it is a rumor, fact, or fabrication. This is especially true when malicious. 

Gospel has come to mean an absolute truth: something believed to be absolutely and unquestionably true.  As we read this passage, as we grasp Paul’s purpose it becomes clear that Paul is writing Gospel and not gossip.  So, what can we learn from Paul’s divinely inspirited words?

Out in our community, both gossip and gospel are being shared about our church and by our church.  Which one of these two elements is predominant?  Which one are we most known for?  This is not a static situation.  It is one that can change either way.  The deciding factor has to do with the level of spiritual maturity we possess and the spiritual maturity we desire. 

Some might ask, “What do you mean by spiritual maturity?”  I will get to that in a moment for it is a key element in Paul’s gospel words to the Colossians.

In our passage today, Paul addresses a church he has heard much about.  Paul had heard from secondhand sources about the details of the spiritual life of the people of the church at Colossae. 

What he had heard was not rumor, not speculation, but a report of what was happening.  What Paul was told is not about gossip but about Gospel. The rumors were real.

What has been reported is what God is doing in the midst of his people.  Paul is using what he has been told to seek to help this church through a crisis they are facing, a challenge that is growing in their midst. I hope we understand we have an enemy that thrives on creating conflict.

The church at Colossae faced a difficult challenge.  They lived in a world filled with spiritual counterfeits.  They were continually bombarded with seductive messages that tried to turn their hearts and minds away from Jesus toward lifestyles and mindsets that told them what was most important was their own desires and pleasures. Put yourself first, many religions would say.

Add to this that many in the church in Colossae were very immature in their faith and you have a formula for a church in trouble. 

What do you mean by immature in their faith?  Faith is a growth process.  Faith is like life.  A child is not born into adulthood. A child must grow to function as a human being. 

Faith must grow to function as intended in our relationship with God.  As human beings we mature physically, mentally, and emotionally.   Failing to grow in these areas produces immaturity. 

In faith, we mature in relational understanding, relational commitment, and relational responsibility.  Failing to grow in these areas produces immaturity. 

Now how does this apply to us?  We too, like the Colossians face a culture that is filled with spiritual counterfeits.  We too live in a world that is hostile to faith in Jesus Christ and tries to prevent us or at least make it hard for us to live our lives for Him. 

Our culture has been very successful in accomplishing this goal (evidence: 80-85% self-identify as Christians; 90% believe in God; 75% pray once a week; 47% attend church once a week & of those only 31% believe the Bible is true; of those, only 2% seek to obey what the Scripture teaches). 

The church today is a very immature church.  The crisis faced by the Colossians is a crisis faced by us today.  And the gossip that is heard about the church, about our hypocrisy, our fighting, our scandals, corruption, materialism, politics, and other problems are directly related to our level of spiritual maturity as is our ability to live in the light, love, power, and presence of the Gospel.

What can we do?  First, we need to understand that we cannot do it, but God can.

(Elephant walked across a bridge.  As the elephant walked the timbers and wood shook and rattled.  On the other side a flea, who was riding on the elephant’s back, yelled in the huge creature’s ear, “Boy we shook that bridge didn’t we.”) It is God, not us that can shake all eternity.

The beginning of spiritual maturity is when we understand that it is He, Jesus Christ, who must be in control of our lives. 

Look again at verses 12-14; He made, He rescued, He set us free.  This is the foundation of faith. This is the beginning of faith’s relational understanding.  We fail God. We sin.  We needed Someone to forgive us of our sins.  Jesus is the only one who can.  He died to do this for us. He forgives. He saves.

This, however, is just the beginning.  Look at verse 9.  Paul here is focusing on those in the church of Colossae who are maturing in their faith. 

One of the problems we human beings have is that we focus on the bad (just watch the news and list the bad news with the good news).  We tend to focus on the problems and weaknesses rather than our strengths.  It is easy to be drawn to the problems and neglect the possibilities.

Problems can consume all our energy and distract us from our purpose. 

The reality is that possibilities can overcome problems.  Look at verse 5.  Paul states because of hope.  This is not blind hope, but hope built on facts, upon experiences, and upon the promises of God. 

If Paul were writing us today, what would the Spirit have him write of our church?   Would he write about the love people have in this church, especially the love for one another?  Would he write about the desire we have to be a people of prayer?  Would he write about our hope to touch the lives of children and youth?  Would he write about our willingness to come together to accomplish Kingdom work?  These things are the gospel. 

Let us be encouraged to see the possibilities, the hope we have.  Let us work to increase our relational understanding.  Let us be encouraged to become more involved in those things that increase our spiritual commitment and work to increase our spiritual strength by becoming more conscious of our spiritual responsibilities in view of the world in which we live.   

This is what we are encouraged to do in this passage. 

Our world lives for gossip.  It likes to look at other people’s lives and point out what is wrong, such as the world’s immaturity.  We are called to the light of the gospel.  We need to look for the love of God in everyone we meet.

Supreme Court Rulings

As I watched the news report told the nation that the Supreme Court had overturned Roe vs. Wade making abortions no longer legal in many states. I heard this news with mixed emotions. I am glad that the lives of many innocent children will be saved. I am sad because this issue will never be solved through the process of law. I believe the enemy will use this decision in ways the politicians will never understand.

I became a Pro-Life activist in 1979. I was the first Baptist to serve on the board of directors for Texas Right-to-life. I am the founder of Hill Country Right-to-life. I can remember being booed at BGCT’s (Baptist General Convention of Texas) in 1980 for bringing up a resolution calling abortion child abuse. I quit being an activist when the Pro-life movement became a tool for the Republican party. If we do not address the reason for abortions, the social conditions, cultural conditions, and economic reasons that would lead a woman to allow a baby to be torn from her body.

I am sorry, this is one of those issues that make the legal sometimes wrong and the illegal sometimes right. The abortion issue should be a continuous discussion with those who help us decide what is moral and immoral.

Then today, I read in the news that the Supreme Court has said prayer can be carried out at the end of a high school football game. Legislating prayer, now that is a strange thought. I am sure prayer never left the football field. In fact, prayer cannot be stopped by any law. Now I hope we could pass laws that publically dedicated vocal prayers be limited to 3 minutes and not be clandestine sermons. Once again, I am sure the enemy of humanity was very happy about this decision. What better way to take hate speech to a new level than adding it to prayers.

Will these two actions by the Supreme Court make us a more Christian people? No. Will they bring some people to Christ? No. Will they add to the Christian nationalist heresy that is growing like a weed? Absolutely yes.

I am glad I was an activist. I am glad I am still pro-life. I am glad to pray whenever I can. I am also very thankful that all things work for the good of those who love the Lord.

Lectionary Sermon for Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Galatians 6:1-16 Am I (We) Being Prideful?

Pride has been called the chief of sins. Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall. (Prov. 16:18 NIV) Did you know that pride can infect us without our being aware? Pride, in our relationship with God and with others, can blind us to our arrogance and ignorance.

Galatians 6:1 states, “Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way, you will fulfill the law of Christ.”

I cringe when I read this text. For 40 years I tried to get church members to grasp what this Scripture is saying concerning how we care for one another without very much success. I attribute this failure to two things. First, my own limitations and weaknesses in carrying out the task. The other is that people seem to find satisfaction in finding fault with others. Not only do people find it easy to judge another person’s behaviors and actions but they also seem to feel it necessary to judge others, to punish others. I doubt most people who attend church in America believe that other Christians are their brothers and sisters. They may use the words brother and sister but that is it. The most terrible things that have happened in my life were caused by people who claimed to be Christian.

Verse 3 drives the point home, “If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves.”

How dare we judge others when we ourselves are sinners who are hopefully saved by grace. Jesus told this parable, “”Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. (Matt. 7:3-5 NIV)

Paul reinforces this teaching by telling us, “Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else, for each one should carry their own load.”

Why do we human being compare ourselves with one another? Why do we feel the need to compete? Probably for the same motivation that we blame others for situations we choose to participate in. The natural nature, the sin nature, pushes us against others, still trying to make us believe we too can become gods. Jesus was pretty clear, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. (Matt. 7:1-2 NIV)

No matter what we do, God knows all and sees all. We cannot hide anything from God. There are no excuses we can give to God. Paul warns and gives hope, “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.” Perdition or promise, these are the two paths of life.

The promise of eternal life is not some time in the future, but a promise we can begin to enjoy now. God gives hope. God gives us love. God gives us a new heart and mind that should be able to see God working in everything. Those who seek first the Kingdom of God find out just how much joy and happiness this can bring into a person’s life. A Kingdom attitude-of-living understands this life will be hard. This life is hostile to us. This life will have pain, suffering, sickness, and sorrows of all shapes and sizes. However, in the midst of this difficult fallen world, the promises of God are there for us despite situations or conditions. Yes, we will get tired but as the Scripture tells us, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”

In serving the church as a pastor I have always tried to find a Scripture that would help the church in being the church. I would often use this verse because it speaks to the challenge of Christian living in a fallen world. It is easy to get tired, frustrated, and weary. This weariness can overcome a person unless you learn to be reflective and always remember, that GGod is the one who gives us purpose. If you are seeking to do the will of God, God will provide the energy and endurance to continue. Isaiah 58:11 tells us, “Where God guides, God provides. This is a promise we can count on.

“Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.” The early church faced opposition from without and corruption from within. You could be labeled a criminal just for attending a worship service for Jesus. The early church community found out just how much they needed one another. This was totally counter-cultural. Christians not only cared for their immediate family but for the members of the church family universal. Christians even loved those who persecuted them. This is not normal as far as the world goes. It is expected in the family of God.

In verses twelve and thirteen we are told, “Those who want to impress people by means of the flesh are trying to compel you to be circumcised. The only reason they do this is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ. Not even those who are circumcised keep the law, yet they want you to be circumcised that they may boast about your circumcision in the flesh.”

Circumcision was part of the old covenant. It was a ritual of identification and symbol of linage of the promise to Abraham. It identified the males of Judah/Israel. It was not a means of salvation. And while circumcision did reflect obedience to God, the coming of Jesus changed all that. Jesus became the fulfillment of circumcision.  

In his letter to the Romans, Paul teaches, “What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision? Much in every way! First of all, the Jews have been entrusted with the very words of God. (Rom. 3:1-2 NIV)

Any opportunity, any identity, any ritual that is cooperative with the Holy Spirit is an advantage. It is a means of grace, but it is not salvation. Jesus is the only means of salvation. The Kingdom of God was no longer to be identified with an act of circumcision of the flesh but instead a circumcision of the heart. This is why Paul goes on to say, “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.

Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation. Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule– to the Israel of God. (Gal. 6:1-16 NIV)

Paul understood the theology behind circumcision very well. He understood how it made people prideful. He understood how it could be used as a ritual of control. He grasp how it could be a block to our being servants of God. We may not struggle with circumcision, but we have plenty of other things we can be prideful, judgmental, and thus sinful about.

We must be on our guard. We must be discerning of spirits. We must be reflective, contemplative, and seek to serve as the Word guides. When we do, we will find peace and mercy. Peace and mercy from a God who loves us more than we can imagine. Why would we not seek to grow in faith and follow such hope? Amen.