Category Archives: Bible

Enough is Enough

A meditation on Matthew 5:38-48 and Matt 25:35

How many times do I have to turn the other cheek? How many times do I have to forgive? How many times do I have to welcome the stranger? How many times do I have to give drink to the thirsty? How many times do I have to feed the hungry?

I know very good people who grew very worn out by working with the homeless and poor and just got into safer occupations. The stress was just too much. I also know people who bought a gun to defend themselves because the stress of living in their neighborhood was just too much.

But when Jesus said “love your enemy” he didn’t mean one time. When he said “turn the other cheek” or “go the extra mile” he didn’t mean until you get tired of it. He said do it as a child of God. Do it because your heavenly father is perfect. God’s perfection is enough to absorb all the hatred and fear and fatigue in the world. His perfection keeps his children from ever exhausting His love. Notice I say His love. Knowing what Jesus wants means knowing we don’t have it on our own. We are never enough alone.

 

Being an advocate in the area for tent cities means being lied about. It means standing up for the unsheltered while the city says “there are plenty of shelters and space available.” It means being called a lot of names and having to be patient through a lot of confusion. Being an advocate in addition to being a pastor to the poor is exhausting. This morning I was up at 5:30am and on the radio live at 7am to answer call in questions patiently. I feel like I say the same things over and over and it still seems to be so confusing. But God’s supply is not exhausted. So I gotta just go back to God on my knees.

 

I can’t love my neighbor let alone my enemy but God’s perfection is never exhausted. I can’t give enough to all the poor to keep them provided for until they die, but God’s supply is never exhausted. And being anything less than a son in God’s family is not an option. Some people say of themselves, “I’m a bad Christian” but I say, leave it up to God to judge. Jesus came to set you free and if you want freedom then don’t settle for anything less. This world will eat you alive and leave nothing left of your memory. But God loved this sinful world and doesn’t consider it so far gone that you can’t be saved.

 

In a world where people couldn’t care less, be someone who couldn’t care more. Be someone who inspires hope in people that there are Christians trying to do what Jesus said, in the Spirit of Christ.

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Shelter and doctrine

I just reread a tract titled, “Is Mormonism Christian?” by the Institute for Religious Research. It explains very simply and dogmatically why Christianity and Mormonism are two different faiths. If Christian teaching and right doctrine alone were enough to minister to people than all I would need to do would be to place this tract in a person’s hands and all would be right with the world.

But alas, people of different faiths come to their faiths in different ways. We relate to our faiths differently too. I have some new friends who have had a whole lot of different experiences with churches and their home church. They are of the Latter Day Saints faith. They speak of it as thought there is no difference between it and say Presbyterianism. A lot of Presbyterians would have no trouble agreeing with it either. I happen to currently be a member of a Presbyterian church, while also pastoring at NLEC.

But alas, orthodox Christian that I am, I know that Mormon doctrine is very different than Christian doctrine. So what should my approach be with my new friends? Well, I met them because they are in need. They are homeless and also very sick. Would now be a good time to use shelter and food to convert them? I think not. Because I work in direct assistance, I’m very leery of “God talk” that is meant to take the place of action. I’m also leery of any religion that does not respect personal time, space, and the independence to make choices.

So my approach to living near and sharing with my new friends is to listen to them and make space for their growth. I want my orthodox faith to demonstrate itself in little ways by the grace God gives me. I have no love, no purity of doctrine, no holiness in myself. It is all a gift. So I don’t want to get in the way of that gift. If we have opportunity to talk about our faiths, I’m all into that. For the time being we’re all very busy trying to make a living during a very difficult time.

Does that make me sound like a liberal? I don’t know, I know some very dogmatic, irreverent, and loud liberals. If by liberal it means I take responsibility for what I say and do than OK. But everything I believe about the Bible, Church History, and living out the faith is expressed daily by the way I keep my house and treat my kids, and love my neighbors. There’s a lot to live up to, and I take it a day at a time by God’s grace.

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You Bet Your Life

​10/27/11

Dear Friends,

Many people are upset because they are living a PLAN B. They’re upset because what they really wanted in life was not what they got. They had certain expectations, but now they’re living with something different from the plan they thought they were living. Duke Divinity School professor Stanley Hauerwas likes to ask the following question, “Who told you the story that you should have no story except the story you choose when you have no story?” Now you might be thinking “What does that mean?” Let’s break it down. First, the great minds of our age say that your life is a blank slate. You can be whatever you want to be if you dream big. You get to write your own story. There is no grand narrative in life except the one that you write for yourself. Because there is no reference point, no grand narrative, any story you write with your life will have the most meaning to you. You are an individual (just like everyone else). Secondly, question anyone who would question your freedom as an individual. Your ability to choose is the most important ability you have. Don’t ask “to choose what?” just keep choosing.

Herein lies the problem, you and I didn’t ask to be born. We were born in interesting times. Is life a gift or a curse? And what if I don’t want to choose to answer that question? One alternative to this situation is to simply ignore it. Become a sheep and do what you see everyone else doing. Trust in society’s collective consciousness. Base your existence on the Consumer Confidence Index. Buy what everyone is buying. Start out in your youth. Find the kid every kid likes and listen to him. Do whatever he tells you and always be on the winning side. If you are a teenager, do anything to keep from being like your parents. They’re locked into one thing, go out and experiment with everything. Later as a young adult in prison. . . . promise your P.O. that you’ll do anything to stay out, but then go back to the same neighborhood to look up the kid everybody liked. I won’t tell you how that story ends, but I’ve met a lot of people who are living out stories like that today.

For many people PLAN A, aka, “I have no story except the story I choose when I have no story” has all but played out. Now they’re living with a PLAN B. They’re not sure exactly what PLAN B is, but they’re doing their best to make it up as they go along. Just last week a man came to me and asked to join our two year leadership training program. He signed all the paperwork and then had a change of heart. Maybe he’d never made up his mind to begin with, but he had no trouble with the paperwork. But all this week we’ve been discussing the next stage with him, the one where he travels to a new place where he’s never been before. He just wants the assurance that he’ll get to come back within a short time. He’s given no such assurance, so he sits stewing over it in his mind day after day. The decision gets no easier. Can he really trust us? His mind is focused on one thing, his situation. He doesn’t see the many people who are still here after many years, who trust this place and have dedicated themselves to their story here. All he knows is that he won’t be in control of his story as it is anymore if he goes out of town for an indefinite period of time.

I don’t mean to pick on this guy. I share his story because I believe we are all in the same boat in one way or another. Who or what can we trust in, really? I don’t know about you, but for myself, I regularly struggle with a crisis of confidence. Yes, I’m a minister, but I struggle too. I work at a job where I’m regularly encouraging people to do what seems impossible: serve people who will more often then not seem less than appreciative. I tell my fellow staff members to be encouraged and not lose confidence. But last week I was standing in the woods asking God, “What’s wrong with me? Why am I so anxious and irritated and tired? Why do I feel so used up?”

I could tell you about some of my problems. My family has had three cycles of some kind of flu in the house in the last month. At work here in downtown we have a passive-aggressive property owner in the area who wanders around outside our building with a camera taking video and photos of the homeless and their belongings to regularly send to city hall. Trying to reason with this person only seems to make it worse. I’m partly responsible for two old houses that take a lot of maintenance and some old cars that break down more times than I can remember. And my dog has fleas. Oh yes, it all comes down to that doesn’t it? The final straw. My dog loves me, won’t stay away from me, and she has fleas. Isn’t that reason enough to crack up? It’s always the small things that send us over the edge isn’t it?

So as I wandered out in the woods crying out to God, and then got quiet, I heard Him say, “Cast not away your confidence.” So I went and looked that phrase up in the Bible.
“Cast not away therefore your confidence, which hath great recompense of reward. For ye have need of patience, that, after ye have done the will of God, ye might receive the promise. For yet a little while, and he that shall come will come, and will not tarry. Now the just shall live by faith: but if any man draw back, my soul shall have no pleasure in him. But we are not of them who draw back unto perdition; but of them that believe to the saving of the soul. Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
Heb 10:35-11:1 KJV

So what was the Lord telling me? First, that I had a confidence that I can’t cast away, and that this confidence would be rewarded. Second, that I needed patience in doing the Will of God so that I will receive the promise. Third that Jesus is returning and is not late. Fourth, that I am just and must live by faith. I am, together with you who believe, not among those who draw back, but am of those who will be saved. Finally, that faith that I have bet my life on, and that you believers have bet your life on, is a substance, is an evidence of what we can’t see but know is coming.

What was that I said about betting your life? I bet my life on following Jesus Christ. I’m not living on a PLAN B because there really is no PLAN B. I have a different PLAN A. My story is not the story I chose because I learned there was no story. My story is that Jesus Christ has conquered death and hell and died on the cross to reconcile all things to God. He died for all my sins, he died for your sins. Jesus is returning and he’s not late. He will be right on time. My confidence is not in my abilities. I’m a jack of a lot of trades, but the one thing I can really do right is confide in Jesus. So if I’m getting frustrated and angry, you remind me of that will you? The ONE thing I’m really called to do is confide in Jesus.

I’m just getting started. We ARE having church today. Jesus is here today with power to save. That word for confidence in that verse is translated from a koine Greek word, parrhesia, that is loaded with history and meaning. The philosopher Michel Foucault wrote an entire book about the word. It is usually used in reference to speaking openly, holding nothing back. The Greeks loved their freedom of speech in the polis, and this word is not just a word, but it refers to the right of free citizens to speak their mind, especially when they were threatened by an intolerant ruler. That should stick in your mind because we find the word used throughout the New Testament in a way that says, “you will face opposition, but you better not back down”. Acts 4:13-14 gives an example:
“When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus. (NIV)
Here the word for parrhesia is translated as courage. In John 18:20, when the Pharisees asked Jesus about his teaching and doctrine, he replies using parrhesia, saying that he spoke openly to the world.

Jesus promised his disciples that they would be hauled in before the authorities in Matt 10:18-20:
“On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles. But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” (NIV)

So what’s really different about this word courage in the New Testament is that it is a courage not based on a citizen’s position as free or slave, or on one’s great oratory skills. It is a courage given by the Spirit of the living God, specifically for doing the will of God. God knows my heart. He knows that I’m a coward when it comes down to it. I’ll run away before I’ll defend myself every time. But he took a coward like me and called me to tell sinners everywhere that if he can turn someone like me into a witness, he can save anyone.

I know a lot of you sitting in this room today. I saw some of you when you first joined this ministry last year. Confident is not a word I would use to describe you that day. Some of you were crying. Others were scared to trust anybody. But I’ve been here for a little over a year now and I see God doing in you what you could not have done for yourself. You never thought you’d be setting people back on a straight path. You never thought God would use you to save someone’s life—but he has, and he is. Not because of your great abilities, but because of Jesus’ power over sin and death that is real in you. I’m so grateful to be a witness to that.

Before I came back to this city I was on the run from doing anything like this. My secret fantasy as a young man was to stick out my thumb and hit the highway to anywhere else where no one would know me. Anyone here ever done that? Well I met a few folks who had done that and it didn’t play out for them well, so I thought better of it. Anyway, I was scared to death at first of doing what God wanted me to do. So for a while I wouldn’t tell my wife that God had put moving back to St. Louis on my heart. But God kept pushing me. Then I grew more and more dissatisfied with my work because I knew God was calling me elsewhere. Then I went to my pastors in Chicago, hoping they would tell me that God hadn’t really said that. But they did no such thing. Finally, I gave in and told my wife about it.

Now I’m sorry for running from God. I’m sorry because it is the supreme joy of my life to see what God is doing in all of you. God is doing miracles everyday here one person at a time. And I believe that for someone in this room today or listening to me at home, you want to know that there is a PLAN A. You want to know more than anything else that, sick as you are with sin, God has a life for you. I can say with all confidence that He does. Here is what you need to do:

Learn the Will of God. What is God’s will for you? Believe in the One he sent. (Jn. 6:29)Jesus Christ. What do I mean by believe? Place your trust in, cling to, forsake all else, and bet your life on the fact that Jesus Christ’s death on the cross sealed for all time your future. You can know for certain that God’s will is not for you to be selfish, but to love Him with all your heart, your soul, your mind and strength. God’s will is for you to love your neighbor (that person you notice because you despise them) as much as you love yourself. That’s a start.

Abide in the Word of God. “If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you.” John 15:7 (KJV) Jesus Christ is the Logos of God. Your confidence in him is a confidence in the PLAN A he has given you. This Word is not for you alone but is also for all the other children of God he has surrounded you with. They may not be people you would choose. But abiding in Christ means loving them and being loved by them. It means living by the Scriptures together come what may. It means humbling yourself daily. (For me it meant getting up at 5:00AM to take a woman and her daughter to the train station so that my sister in Christ wouldn’t have to.)

Know the Truth, That Truth will set you free. John 8:31-35 says,
Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
They answered Him, “We are Abraham’s descendants, and have never been in bondage to anyone. How can You say, ‘You will be made free’?”
Jesus answered them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave of sin. And a slave does not abide in the house forever, but a son abides forever. (NKJV)
You may or may not feel like a slave on any given day. You may feel quite comfortable, actually. You live in America, land of the free, home of the brave. But your social and political freedom can’t free you from your sins. Nothing you do can free you from sin. Pretending they’re not there doesn’t work. You need Jesus, the way the truth and the life. Knowing Jesus is true freedom.

Without Christ there is no way to stand against the powerful social, political, spiritual and personal forces that oppose us in this world. But just where we are weakest, God is determined to have His way in us. In the end our story is not about our ability or inability. It is about God’s plan.

Romans 8:31-39 says,
“What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect?
It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,
‘For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (NRSV)

Life is struggle. Martin Luther said, “To have no temptation is the worst temptation.” May God save us from imagining the spiritual life as a comfy bed of roses. As long as we desire God’s will rest assured we will need courage and holy boldness. The way of Jesus leads us into confrontation. We don’t have to pick fights, God’s eye for the poor ensures that the powers that be will come looking for us. God’s love is controversial because it insists that money and things are temporary and relative to time. God is patient. His love is eternal. He cares deeply and does not lie. This kind of truth exposes many persons for what they have become as paid liars. If you imitate God rest assured life will be an adventure and you’ll turn your body in well worn from intense grief as well as real joy.

Yours in Christ,

Rev. Chris Rice

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New sermon: “Systems Failure”

Systems Failure                                                             6/16/11

 

Dear Friends,

 

There are two things I’m certain of: There is a God, and I am not Him. Every day that I pastor here brings me new awareness of my limitations. I do not wear a cape. There’s no super on my outfit. If I had a super power I know just what I’d want it to be. I’d want people to use their brains to their God given potential. By sheer force of will I’d look them in the eye, reason sense into them, and then cause them to forever change their way of thinking. The trouble is, I’m sure my wife could tell you she wishes she had that same kind of power over me! No matter how hard she tries, she can’t force me to pick up my clothes on my side of the bed, or desire to do the dishes instead of leaving them for her today.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if maybe just a few people had all the answers and all the power to heal addictions, grant work and housing to the poor, and make our society truly righteous? And what about God? Didn’t God create something perfect at first? How did He let things get so bad? God the creator of all things is very unlike us. He does not create things without a will of their own. His design involved the possibility that the people he loved could choose to reject Him and the very order for which they were designed. And this is exactly what happened. We humans are stubborn people. That can be a good thing, but it’s very often a bad thing. The strength behind stubbornness can be seen in love and loyalty, or it can be turned to fear and self destruction.

In the beginning God gave the first humans a very important task. Genesis says,

“God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’ God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. (Gen. 1:28-30 NRSV)

Now, anyone who has ever been to the Grand Canyon, or the source of the Nile, orYellowstoneNational Park, or has ever opened a National Geographic magazine knows that the earth is a vast place. Scientists are still cataloging species and mapping the ocean’s depths. So how were these two humans supposed to accomplish this task? We’ll never know. Because we know from the Bible that things took a bad turn two chapters later.

The earth was meant to be a place of harmony. A place wherein God dwelled with his creation, humans and animals and all plant life, and together in innocence they had everything they needed. It’s clear that in such a paradise humans had everything they needed. They had more work than they could accomplish, but they didn’t have to worry about it. Their rule over creation was given and sustained by a loving creator. They had no need to kill thousands of fish for a meal, or club dozens of baby seals to stay warm. Such thoughts, no doubt, would have never had to enter their minds.

Then came sin and punishment, and with it WORK as we know it.

“And to the man he said ‘Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it, cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return. The man named his wife Eve, because she was the mother of all living. And the Lord God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them.” (Gen. 3:17-21 NRSV)

So, right here along with the Fall and the Curse, comes the possibility of a better future. Man names his wife and God offers covering. Because of this curse the very things that are meant to complete us as humans, namely the ability to provide food and shelter for ourselves, to be industrious and enjoy the fruit of our labor, can never really satisfy. We were meant for more. We were meant to rule with God, but instead our ways are full of thorns and thistles. We wrestle with the knowledge that no matter how hard we work, this world will still be a mess when we leave it. Perhaps we fear that each of us will have left it a little bigger mess than when we came.

Scientists and other theorists have been saying for years that the earth’s population will soon outgrown it’s “carrying capacity.” They say that the earth’s ability to grow enough food for billions of people is vastly insufficient and in a matter of decades our misuse of lands will lead to devastating consequences with many millions dying off. Some hope that technology will allow us to miraculously feed, water, and shelter everyone before we completely destroy the earth with our use of it. Technology has made us more acutely aware of the world’s needs and our lack of supply.

After the Garden of Eden was placed off limits, the Scriptures recount that Adam and Eve and their children did a lot of fruitful multiplying. They lived far longer than we can imagine humans living today and they had far more children than we think possible. So many children in fact that the Scriptures are rather vague about how and where all the people were coming from. Nevertheless, these children drifted further and further from God in their thinking. It got so bad that we might say it was a “system failure.” God decided, in computer language, to do a clean REBOOT. He was ready to wipe the whole earth clean and “reinstall” as it were. “The Lord said, ‘I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.’ But Noah found favor in the sight of the Lord.” (Gen. 6:7-8 NRSV)

So he gathers a community of righteous persons and a few of every kind of animal and then judgment falls the likes of which we have never seen. Everything died in this massive flood. Then he reinstalls with a promise never to do that again. It’s going to be right this time. He sets a rainbow as the sign of his covenant that regardless of what happens, he will not judge like this again. Noah and his sons are given a similar mandate to Adam and Eve. And then they go about repopulating the earth. Nations develop from these few people and everyone is still speaking the same language. And we see one of the first experiments in technology. A group settles in a plain and makes begins forming a city. The planning committee decides, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” (Gen. 11:4) This is an odd little story. They built their tower and then God confuses their language and scatters them all over the face of the earth. It’s an odd story because it seems like the city was meant to unify them and be a monument to their power. And yet it happens at a time when their purpose is to spread out all over. Some read what God does here to be an angry reaction, a punishment out of fear that humans will threaten His power. He confuses their language and then they spread out further and abandon the city and tower. Rather than an angry reaction, I look at the birth of different languages as a means for new civilizations. God likes diversity. Homogeneity stifles true creativity, and God appreciates our differences. The story of what happened here atBabelfurther illustrates the frustration of our collective creative intent since the Fall. No matter how well we work together as humans, we still don’t know what’s best for us apart from God’s will. Building great edifices doesn’t make us better humans. It just reminds of us of our yearning to reign with God, and the fact that until Christ returns, everything we do is temporary and partially effective.

Rev. Ray Redlich recently brought to our attention the similarities between theTowerofBabeland the birth of the Church in Acts 2 in our men’s morning bible study.

“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. 5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.7Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ 12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ 13But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’” (Acts 2:1-13)

Whereas in Genesis God confused the people’s speech to fulfill His purpose, here God gives the disciples of Jesus the ability to speak in order to be understood by different peoples from all over the vast reach of theRoman empire. And their speech had real content. They were witnesses of God’s deeds of power. The result of this sign was that 3000 people from all over the known world became the first recipients of the kind of life God intended for all people.

This new life lived by the Spirit of God caused the first believers to worship differently, live in proximity differently, consider their time differently, and use their money differently. The Fear of the Lord was on everyone and gratitude marked everything they did. Work was apparently losing its curse because it was not full of fear and selfishness. Believers held all things in common. They sold their possessions and gave as any had need. And day by day God was adding to their numbers.

This vision for work has been called “a new society in the shell of the old.” In Christ God is changing us humans first and then reordering the systems we inhabit accordingly. William James once said, “I am done with great things and big things, great institutions and big success, and I am for those tiny invisible molecular moral forces that work from individual to individual, creeping through the crannies of the world like so many rootlets, or like the capillary oozing of water, yet which, if you give them time, will rend the hardest monuments of man’s pride.” God chooses to use the least likely sinners, men and women who can’t succeed at doing right though their lives depend upon it to make all the difference in this world.

One such example is the Apostle Paul. Saul of Tarsus was a renowned hit-man for the ruling opposition. Word traveled fast among Christians when Saul was heading to town. “If you mean to stay alive, be somewhere else!”, they probably said. And yet God chose this man of wicked reputation, this man few Christians could believe, to suffer for Christ and spread the gospel to the Gentiles.

In his Epistle to the Colossians he shared this insight for reversing the work curse: “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Col. 3:17 NRSV) You have to understand this wording “in the name of the Lord Jesus.” In these days all action with authority was done on behalf of Lord Caesar. Caesar was the highest authority in the Roman empire. The Roman household was set up in honor of authority. Slaves and servants acted under the authority of the head of their household. If you came as a herald for a particular household you would speak your message and act under that name’s authority. And Jesus Christ is the name of the Lord under whose authority we all do everything. In doing this we are saying that the household we are apart of does not belong to any one of us. We don’t act under our own authority. We are all humble servants of Jesus Christ.

Paul proclaims aloud our freedom from human systems fraught with failure. We live not to pay bills, and not to buy things we don’t need, but in order to serve one another in love.

13”For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. 14For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 15If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.” (Gal. 5:13-15 NRSV) In theUSA we love that word freedom. But it doesn’t ring well next to the words “slaves to one another.” How can you be free and a slave at the same time? The key is in that word love.

The only thing that can break that cursed thinking that says, “I am valuable in so far as I work hard and provide for myself and owe nothing to anyone” is a willingness to acknowledge that everything you have is a free gift because of Jesus Christ. I know so many men who walk around feeling half their size because they don’t have cash in their pocket at the moment. They’ve been taught that buying power is true freedom. I know many others who have learned and are learning that true freedom is not in cash but is in being loved and loving in return. I’m privileged to know some men who have renovated room and after of this building in voluntary service, and the love and work they put into those rooms makes them feel responsible for this place and the people in it. That, brothers and sisters, is true freedom. The freedom to give of yourself willingly, and allow others to care for you in return.

I wish I could say that everyone we serve is ready for that kind of freedom. Many others, its true, find this church’s hospitality stifling. They don’t want to be part of any environment where they have to change. I learned of a mother who came here with her kids and after getting all checked in announced that there was no way she could make it through the whole night without a cigarette. She got her kids and shuffled back out into the rain. Another woman could not bear to be without her cat and so tried to sneak it into her suitcase hoping it would not be checked. And many others have to choose between thirty or more boxes in storage and living next to other people. There are a thousand little things that make serving the poor uncomfortable. For this reason, many people try it out for a little while and then get away as soon as possible. We can accept that. But at the same time, someone has to learn a different way of life, you know?

Too many people are getting theirs and not giving back.

I love Paul’s simple admonition: “Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labour and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy.” (Eph. 4:28) I love it because, compared to the way our great grandparents lived we all take much more than we give back. We have much more of everything, but we don’t work for it like they did and so it means a lot less to us. Their lives were simpler, you know? They had far less to distract them.

St. Francis De Sales once said, “Every moment comes to us pregnant with a command from God, only to pass on and plunge into eternity, there to remain forever what we have made of it.” With hearts that wait and lean on God’s commands we can live life to its full. Without God every moment propels us back at the curse of doing without meaning.

Would to God that we could learn with St. Therese of Lisieux that all is gift, and all is grace:

“Everything is a grace. . . everything is the direct effect of our Father’s love- difficulties, contradictions, humiliations, all the soul’s miseries, her burdens, her needs- everything, because through them she learns humility, realizes her weakness. Everything is a grace because everything is God’s gift. Whatever be the character of life or its unexpected events — to the heart that loves, all is well.”

 

Yours in Christ,

Rev. Chris Rice

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Filed under Bible, Community, homelessness, humanity, NLEC, Pastoral Ministry

Give me love but don’t tell me what to do

“Give Me Love But Don’t Tell Me What To Do.”

Sermon for Friday, Feb. 25, 2011

 

Dear Friends,

 

One of the central questions of my life is in the issue of authority. “How can I love and serve Jesus when I don’t like being told what to do?” I grew up in a very loving home with both a mother and a father active in Christian ministry. Just like every child does, I tested the boundaries with my parents. If I was told not to wander far I would wander to the very edge of what was considered far, so as to be called back. Like my own children do now, I loved the art of being contrary. My grandfather would tell me that I could argue that the sun rose in west and set in the east. And just to test whether he really knew I pressed him on that point. I learned how to get under the skin of someone in charge so that they knew I was there, and so that as long as I did the bare minimum of what they asked, they’d not bother me anymore. I never thought that I’d be the on the receiving end of that behavior one day. But now it comes to my wife and I every Saturday as we press our children to spend hours doing their chores.

When it comes to following Jesus, many people who have no problem saying their prayers and reading their bibles have a BIG problem with this issue of submitting to another believer out of love for Jesus. They don’t mind the rules, they’re just very bothered by the other troublesome personalities who also know the rules and want to remind them of them. It’s said over and over again, “I love Jesus, it’s just other Christians I can’t stand.” We could probably go around the room and list the things about authority that have always bothered us, giving examples of employers who used and cheated us, preachers who spiritually manipulated us, politicians who lied and stole money. Each of us have different reasons to not trust authority. But I think at root what we really want to know is that the people in charge are completely trustworthy. We want leaders who don’t need to be questioned because they’re perfect.

In real life I started to suspect by about age three that my parents were not going to give me everything I expected in return for obedience. Things happened to me and to my parents that were outside of our control. Cars broke down, money got low, tempers flared, and in general life threw us things we didn’t like. I started to suspect that maybe mom and dad were not the superheroes I thought they were and maybe I was not really the center of their world anymore. Let me tell you what I did learn from them though. It’s very simple. Whenever we had a need I watched my parents pray to God for it and expect that He heard and cared. When I needed something they couldn’t afford they’d encourage me to pray for it. When I lost something in my room my mother taught me to stop and pray and ask God for help finding it. In this way they instilled in me a trust in God. A trust that God was personal and powerful. That no matter what happened to us in life, God was our source and determined our very existence itself.

I had no idea how silly that seemed to many people. I remember driving a couple of classmates home in high school one day. We got in the car and as I adjusted the mirrors and started the car I bowed my head and quietly prayed for a safe journey. The girl sitting next to me thought that was the funniest thing she could think of. “Don’t you know how to drive?” “Why would you need to pray?” And that sentiment is the prevailing one in this world today. Why would anyone with the skills to drive and a means going places need to ask God for anything? And with all that America provides for her citizens, why does anyone need a heavenly deity? It’s fine to practice your religion personally. Do whatever gets you by, let Jesus be your personal drug of choice. But don’t dare take that out into public. Don’t dare presume that anyone else should care. In this way privatized religion poses no threat to the wheels of progress. So long as God stays out of the way of making our money and doing with it what we want, religion in America can continue to be useful in blessing our way of life.
But what does the Bible say? Matt 28:18-20. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

When Jesus said, “All authority on heaven and earth has been given to me,” he was saying he is the ultimate authority. Not just over religious individuals but over all the known world. Over every high authority that can be named. And all authority in our lives comes through Jesus Christ. How did Jesus’ authority come to Him? His authority came through submission to death. Authority and leadership in the Scriptures always flow out of worship, love and gratitude. This gratitude demonstrates itself in hospitality. Real authority has learned self control and mutual submission. It is others focused; service oriented. Leaders begin with listening and rely on God for wisdom and discernment.

Common Views and Practices regarding Authority

In our world authority and power are words often used interchangeably. Authority is imposed by force of arms or force of argument. It usually involves some form of compulsion or persuasion. Real authority is in the power to influence someone to do something they would not have otherwise done. Along these lines we could argue that the world’s greatest influence is in capital. The power to influence markets is what everyone follows. People are far less impressed with what you say you believe than by your power to spend money and influence other’s power to spend money. So when we talk about Jesus’ power and authority many people think they understand this. Every US President in history has acknowledged his membership or involvement in some particular Christian denomination, because this is what many of his voting constituents wanted to hear. Jesus can have all our prayers, but he’s left the power over the movement of money to others.

Many people want nothing to do with organized religion because they’ve been manipulated and conned against their wills in the past. In the 1970s the issue of brainwashing and authoritarian religious cults was everywhere in the news. We were warned that there are certain predisposed personalities who can easily be brainwashed. We’re told such people need to be taught to think for themselves. As a culture we’re repelled by the lure of cults but are far less afraid of how controlled we are by other message systems like advertisers and infotainment sources.

Today people don’t want to feel like they’re being told what to do, but they respond well to the idea that a website is most visited and most popular. They come to believe that something must be right for them if it’s right for most people. If a video or type of software has over a million page views it is a sensation and many other news outlets will beat a path to their door. One morning a young teenage girl may have “Good Morning America” call her on the phone about a Youtube video of her playing in front of the mirror when she was three because it’s what everyone wants to see.

Now, through the power of social media, every individual has the power and freedom to choose to do what every other informed person has done. For many people this has become true autonomy and unquestionable authority. But, truthfully, something’s utility to most people may not make it worth everyone’s time. Just because one million people age 14 to 44 were online watching a teacher sprawled on the floor punching his student over and over does not mean that everyone else needs to. Just because “cutting,” that sick form of self mutilation, has become popular to share with others online, doesn’t mean it is something everyone needs to do to feel noticed.

Fruit of World’s Values related to Authority

What the world wants from its authorities is in constant flux. Persuasion, influence, money, and the desire to know what is popular and change quickly are what’s most important. In the name of national duty leaders use their authority selfishly. One day’s servant revolutionary is the next day’s cruel tyrant. We watch the news and see one country’s people use social media and protest in the streets to topple a dictator. The next day we see the people in a different country attempt the same thing only to have their dictator turn anti-aircraft missiles on his own people. This world is in decay and is passing away, the Scriptures warn us: “15 Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father[a] is not in them. 16 For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. 17 The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.” (1 John 2: 15-17) Do not spend your love on this world. Do not fall prey to wanting what this world wants. If you do the Father’s love is not in you.

God’s Vision of Authority

We are all frail creatures made in the image and likeness of God. For this reason all humans are worthy of our love and respect. We are not meant to be alone. We are social creatures. If there is anything we can see from all government institutions it is that their authority is important and it is never enough. No government can remove hate from the heart of its people. Every ruler comes into office to inspire hope that he or she can restore confidence and hope. But God’s vision of what authority is and does has something else in mind entirely. 1 Kings chapter three recounts he way Solomon received authority from the Lord:

“5 At Gibeon the LORD appeared to Solomon during the night in a dream, and God said, “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.”6 Solomon answered, “You have shown great kindness to your servant, my father David, because he was faithful to you and righteous and upright in heart. You have continued this great kindness to him and have given him a son to sit on his throne this very day.7 “Now, LORD my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David. But I am only a little child and do not know how to carry out my duties. 8 Your servant is here among the people you have chosen, a great people, too numerous to count or number. 9 So give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong. For who is able to govern this great people of yours?”10 The Lord was pleased that Solomon had asked for this. 11 So God said to him, “Since you have asked for this and not for long life or wealth for yourself, nor have asked for the death of your enemies but for discernment in administering justice, 12 I will do what you have asked. I will give you a wise and discerning heart, so that there will never have been anyone like you, nor will there ever be. 13 Moreover, I will give you what you have not asked for—both wealth and honor—so that in your lifetime you will have no equal among kings. 14 And if you walk in obedience to me and keep my decrees and commands as David your father did, I will give you a long life.” (NIV)

Solomon’s authority came through confession and humility. “I am only a little child. . . I don’t know how.” He asked for a discerning heart to govern and distinguish right and wrong. Finally he asked “who is able?” This is a very different posture for authority. It lacks assumption, and instead challenges human action, asking, “Who can?” It knows that God is all powerful and wise and knows human hearts better than any leader. God’s reply is to give him more than he asked for, everything he didn’t ask for. Wealth, honor, supreme power, and long life if he walks in obedience like his father David.

Now what happened to Solomon? He did get wisdom and authority. The Holy Spirit used him and his words and is still using them today in the Bible. But as an authority he fell short. He serves as a witness to the Son of David yet to come, who we believe is Jesus Christ. Solomon began in humility and deference but his heart turned from the Lord and he left a wicked legacy for his own son and a broken kingdom. He married many foreign wives who spread his influence, but took his spiritual devotion as payment. And his story serves as a warning for us today. There is no authority so God-given to men and so great that it cannot become corrupted and taken away. This story has been repeated for thousands of years in the lives of countless individuals.

Jesus Christ is the true Messiah in David’s line, the true King. And with his appearing we await a new heavens and a new earth full of righteousness and justice. He has conquered hell and death and is Lord of all creation. The apostle Paul leads us through how this happened:

5Let this same attitude and purpose and [humble] mind be in you which was in Christ Jesus: [Let Him be your example in humility:] 6Who, although being essentially one with God and in the form of God [possessing the fullness of the attributes which make God God], did not think this equality with God was a thing to be eagerly grasped or retained, 7But stripped Himself [of all privileges and rightful dignity], so as to assume the guise of a servant (slave), in that He became like men and was born a human being. 8And after He had appeared in human form, He abased and humbled Himself [still further] and carried His obedience to the extreme of death, even the death of the cross! 9Therefore [because He stooped so low] God has highly exalted Him and has freely bestowed on Him the name that is above every name,10That in (at) the name of Jesus every knee should (must) bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,11And every tongue [frankly and openly] confess and acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil. 2:5-13, Amplified)

As followers of Jesus no less is expected of us than can be seen in the example of Jesus. By God’s Holy Spirit we are being made into the image of Christ. We are drawn into the love of the trinity. And that love began with total sacrifice. We can never know the same kind of sacrifice God has made for us because we’re not God. But by His Spirit we are being made willing to empty ourselves. Now emptying ourselves involves total trust. We trust, as Jesus did, that God is in control. When Jesus suffered and died on the cross he cried out, “Why have you forsaken me?” But with his final words he breathed, “Into your hands I commit my spirit.” We may feel as though God’s love is not present with us. Fear and ego at times cause us to panic. But we must remember that Jesus took all that on the cross for us so that we never have to fear God’s abandonment. The same Jesus who said “All power is give unto me” says “I am with you always.”

With authority turned upside down, coming to us through trust, service, and suffering, we give up the right to personal unquestionable authority. We learn not to be offended when our reasoning is questioned, when our decisions are questioned, and when we face resistance and hostility. We learn through mutual submission that time and space are gifts not to be taken for granted. Gradually, we learn that obedience is a part of love. Jesus said to his disciples, Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.” (John 14:21, NIV) So we know we have to be careful when we go on about how much we love Jesus. It is better to let people see our love for Jesus by our obedience to him. Jesus said to his disciples, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35, NIV)

By this measure instead of telling you I am a Christian, it would be wiser to say, “Ask my wife or my children. Ask my church.” The credibility of my witness can be seen in the people I am called to serve. Regardless of what I say, can you see by my actions that I obey Jesus and am filled with His Spirit? The gospel of Jesus Christ is not a matter of polite talk, but of power to save. Can those who know you say of you that the power of Christ in you is alive? Do you speak and act with an authority not of yourself but of Jesus Christ who is your determining ground of being?

In this book The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, Leslie Newbigen wrote, “The idea that the gospel is addressed only to the individual and that it is only indirectly addressed to societies, nations, and cultures is simply an illusion of our individualistic post-Enlightenment Western culture.” The strength of this illusion can be seen in how Christians speak of Jesus as though he were the path to self-actualization. “Jesus wants you to be the best and have the best of everything. There’s no reason you can’t have your best life right now.” Personal bibles, personal quiet times, personal devotions, and now with the internet, personal teachings delivered to your phone, allow us to feel like we’ve got God at our fingertips. Some preachers make it sound like God will move heaven and earth to give you more money than you need just to prove He is God. God doesn’t only care about you. And He is not an extension of your wants.

We can never become a people willing to obey Jesus and serve each other so long as we see God as our personal “bless-me machine.” The closer you get to Jesus the more He will reveal to you what He knows of the pain this world. He will give you His love for all those broken and suffering. Your mind will be renewed and you’ll begin to be marked by suffering, humility, and dependence on the living God. Let’s return to Philippians 2. Paul makes his appeal for obedience in light of Christ’s self-emptying. It is clear that Paul has no personal right to demand such obedience of this church. His appeal is in light of God’s work in their lives.

“Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” (Phil. 2:12-13, NIV)

Authority in Christ’s body, the Church, of which all believers are a part, is not imposed by manipulation. It is not created with threats and accusations. God’s Holy Spirit is working in us to will and act to do His will.

That power to act together in mutual submission, serving and obeying in divine love is a wonder to behold. To an outsider it seems too good to be true. But the Christian life is not an ideal, it is a life given by God’s Spirit. In Christ’s authority the Church is making disciples of all peoples. A disciple is not simply a religious convert. A warm body to fill a pew in a church. A disciple uses her freedom to serve. “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. 14 For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself”15 If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.” (Gal. 5:13-15, NIV) That word “servant” makes some cringe. It brings to mind harsh treatment, slavery, shackles, being bought and sold like an animal. That’s certainly not what the family of God is like. “There is no fear in love but perfect love casts out all fear because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” (1 Jn. 4:18, NIV)

God knows that if we do something because we’re forced to do it we can’t do it with our whole heart. He wants our whole hearted obedience. There are times when we do things from mixed motives until we get our hearts right. But God can’t use us at all if we’re totally resistant to doing his will. What God is bring about in us is the fruit of His Spirit: “. . . love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Gal. 5:22-23, NIV)

 

In second grade I had a crush on two little girls at the same time who were twin sisters. Now in second grade I was hardly old enough to want to have a girlfriend. But I just knew it felt good to be around them. Every day I hung out with and held hands with Amy. She was a cute little Vietnamese girl. She talked constantly and so fast that I could barely hang on to what she said. We stood in line under the flag pole together before recess. When the class crossed big bad Grand Avenue to play in Tower Grove park all I wanted was to walk beside her. But she set new rules every day for the things I should like so I would look good being with her. The way I dressed, the way I stood, the way I spoke, all these things were questioned and closely scrutinized. So after a while I started to notice her sister Ann. Ann was quieter if I remember correctly.

So one day I didn’t show up at the normal spot under the flag pole near Amy but instead met Ann on the other side of the building. Ann was shy and quiet, a lot more like me. And she was harder to get to know, which I liked, so without any real commitments I was free to follow Ann around—until Amy found us together. Amy pulled Ann aside and spoke to her in Vietnamese. They giggled and Amy asked me who I wanted to be with. I didn’t really understand what it meant to be “with” someone. All I knew was that I just wanted to be liked for who I was. I didn’t want to be an outsider, but I really didn’t want to have to worry about how to dress and stand and talk. I also had the strong feeling that if this was what it meant to be popular, which is all Amy talk about, then I had no desire to be popular. Of course I wanted to be liked, but not at the high cost of losing myself. The next morning when Amy and Ann strolled by together I’d made a clear decision. Girls were just not worth it.

Now of course I changed my mind about girls later. As a young adult I even invested in a few bad relationships where once again I cared more about being noticed then being known. Did you know there’s a big difference? Getting noticed is relatively easy. Really being known is something many aren’t sure they even want. Being known takes time and commitment. It’s very important to be known by a few people who really love you for you. A few people who are committed to walking with you, praying for you and holding you accountable. When I talk about authority I’m talking about trust. When I say trust I’m talking about love and yes obedience.

My little story about a second grade crush is humorous in hindsight. But the desire to love and be loved is truly serious. The need to have an anchor for our souls, to hold tightly to something and be held onto tightly, that is in all of us. We also need to be part of bringing the light. It is not enough to know the love and warmth of Christian community. The grace and love we know is ever being tested by human pride and hostility. But giving up is not an option. The love I know is not mine to steal away and keep to myself. The love of Christ is shared love. It belongs to all of us.

At just the point where we beg God to take away our weakness and pain God reminds us: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul said, ”Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor. 12:8-10, NIV) This glory in weakness will never make us popular. We will ever be surrounded by other broken people in need of love. And though foolish to many, we know the Source of the richest love anywhere.

Like it or not this gospel of Jesus is a threat to those who desire the world’s pleasures. They want their piece of the promised pie, their ticket in the grand lottery as they see it. To relativize money’s power by giving it away to the poor, to take in those who’ve been cast away, is a reminder to them of the futility of their striving. That is threatening indeed. Our authority in Christ enables us to overcome in this world. “You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.” (1 Jn. 4:4)

Our authority to overcome is in our new story. The story of how God redeemed us from striving to be noticed and accepted, only to be used up and left spiritually dead. Our desires have changed. Our minds are being renewed. We now finally want what God wants for us. Our purpose is to glorify God and serve Him wholly. “They triumphed over him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death.” (Rev. 12:11)

We face death knowing that we are not alone. We are witnesses. Remember that word for witness in Greek is martus, where we get the English word martyr. To die as a witness in the first centuries of the church was a believer’s crowning glory. With John the Revelator as the only exception, tradition tells us that all the apostles were executed as martyrs. When you die will those around you know what you lived for? Do you have a story worth telling?

 

Yours in Christ,

Rev. Chris L. Rice

 

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not so shocking really

“My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. I dare not trust the sweetest frame but wholely lean on Jesus’ name. On Christ the solid rock I stand all other ground is sinking sand. All other ground is sinking sand.”

 

Friday morning, 9am. I arrive with my guitar and a handful of papers clutched next to my leather bound bible and prayerbook. Around the thirty foot long table are already seated five men. Good mornings are wished all around. I pass around the song sheets. For the next twenty minutes, through the opening prayer and first few songs, men still trickle through the door. I marvel aloud that every morning I close my eyes to pray and when I open them a changed room sits before me.

 

In morning prayer we ask for many of the same things every morning. We offer gratitude for all of our blessings. For the opportunity this day affords to be used of God to serve. One of the constant themes of our morning bible studies is surrender and spiritual renewal. Every morning we come to God anew admitting our sinfulness and His faithfulness. Every morning we admit that we don’t have what it takes to serve in ministry and we ask God to cleanse us and fill us and lead us by His Spirit.

 

Who are these men I serve with? Our group is mostly African American men aged 40 and up. There are a few of us white guys in the room. So when we worship in song we do a mix of spirituals, hymns, and a few new songs. The faces in the room change a lot. There are a handful who’ve committed to two years of service, but the majority are working designated hours everyday and then working outside jobs in pursuit of their own apartment. Our bible studies are mandatory but I dare say most of the guys seem genuinely happy to be there. We worship, we read scripture aloud together, and we pray for each other’s needs. We sometimes air grievances when they come up about living together or the rules.

 

I admit that sometimes I get frustrated when I learn that one of these men who’ve I’ve seen every day for months admits that instead of saving his money for an apartment he’s been spending it. I get frustrated when someone else who hears the gospel message every morning about sin and grace and redemption steals and sells items from our building. I get frustrated and sometimes discouraged but it doesn’t really bother me any more than my own sins. Living as I have in Christian community all my life I’ve been around long enough to witness brazen sinful acts among stalwart prayer warriors, Christian mothers, and baby Christians alike. Truthfully the backbiting and bitterness, the cold shoulder and the favoritism found among old Christians is more painful to me than having things stolen and pawned. The fact that shunning and rumoring are common and acceptable sins shows how deep our sin goes. In time disciples can learn to adopt a good appearance, play by all the rules, and come to isolate and just sit there.

 

Those new believers who don’t want to be like what they witnessed among adults in church when they were children are right. To fill pews and become bitter old busybodies is not what Jesus wants. I am ever refreshed by the Lord and the fellowship of these men in the mornings. They want the word of God. They want prayer. They’re not afraid to pray out loud. When they don’t know something they’re not afraid to admit it. They know they won’t be laughed at for an idea or a question. We want to foster a caring environment. We pray for those who mess up and get kicked out. We remember those in the hospital. We remember many family members in trouble whom we never meet.

 

To me the gospel’s power is best seen in our weakness. And this is why the Lord is close to the poor and brokenhearted. We are only one of countless Christian ministries across the nation who take in homeless people and help them get stabilized through free service. We get to see miracles everyday so often that perhaps the greatest miracle is that we still get to appreciate miracles. Personally I have a hard time receiving gratitude from strangers. I know that Jesus comes to us as a stranger needing welcome and because I see so many strangers everyday I wonder how often I relativize Jesus among the poor. Every day God gives me the miracle of sight for my blind heart. I grew up in a family that was called to serve alongside the poor and homeless. In many ways I was raised by strangers who journeyed with us for a time. And so because I think I’m in a familiar landscape I don’t know how to react when someone says they know my family or wants to share a memory with me.

 

After the death of my mother to cancer in 2007 I came to realize that nothing continues forever. Somehow because God gives us grace everyday we come to think the days will just keep coming along with health and provision. But I’m learning that’s just not true. In light of the overwhelming need, in light of the endless pain humans are willing to inflict on themselves and others, this life is very short. Here in St. Louis Missouri I’m starting to hear among homeless service providers that the need is only going to become greater. The state has already made cuts in services to the mentally ill homeless and will surely continue to do so. Surrounding cities, counties, and states continue to send people to the city year round. In light of all this it would be easy to despair.

 

Haven’t we always had reason enough to despair? Haven’t we Christians always had reason to lose sight of our goal? This is why John the Revelator wrote that Christians before the throne “overcame by the blood of the Lamb, the word of their testimony, and they loved not their lives unto death.” In our social situation we Christians have two options: Grow spiritually blind and lose the use of our God-given limbs, or stay active serving on the battlefield for the Lord. We must never give up for the sake of Christ who has never given up on us.

 

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From Shame and Resentment to Gratitude and Service

From Shame and Resentment to Gratitude and Service

Rev. Chris Rice, Sermon 1/4/11

Dear Friends,

How can we move from the ever present shame and resentment that stalk us on a regular basis into a place of gratitude and service that allows God to really have his way in our lives? Jesus Christ has come to set the captives free and the Word of God shows us how.

Some of you may not like to hear this message today. I’m going to talk about being wronged, specifically, how to handle it when you’re dealt with unjustly. Maybe you feel like your anger is the last defense. The very last thing you still have. And that with your anger is bound your dignity as a person. I understand that feeling.

Our recollection of our memories, and our ability to tell our story is central to our dignity. If we can prove we’re right when we’re wronged, we can prove to ourselves the truthfulness of our daily claims. We can say, “Yes, I’ve still got it. I’m not crazy. I’m still trustworthy.” But life is full of incidents that test our decisions, and cause us to question our way of seeing things. There’s not just one way to see an event. There may be three or four. And very often, to get along we’ve got to compromise.

I love stories about redemption. Where someone wrongly accused, someone society has long lost behind bars, is set free and the story is set straight. Cornelius Dupree, Jr. was accused in 1979 of rape, robbery, and abduction. He was picked up two miles from the scene of a crime, paraded through a witness lineup, and locked up for 30 years before being paroled. But something else was going on. In Dallas Texas they were keeping their DNA samples. Through the work of the Innocence Project in New York this man’s case was reopened long after sentencing and DNA testing revealed his innocence. Dupree was not the only man accused in the case. Anthony Massingil was also found innocent but is still serving time for a different offense.
Jennifer Emily of the Dallas Morning News writes:

“Dupree was paroled in July – two weeks before preliminary tests came back clearing the men. A second DNA test confirmed the results of the first test in December.

The day after Dupree’s release, he married a woman he met 20 years earlier while in prison. He and Selma Perkins Dupree held hands as he spoke to reporters after the hearing. His brother, Steven Dupree, who was 8 when his brother went to prison, stood behind them.
“I’m kind of having mixed emotions. I feel that words won’t make up for what I lost,” Cornelius Dupree said, adding that both his parents have died. “It was only by the grace of God that I was able to sustain the long wait.””

Here is a man who claimed his innocence from the very beginning. He was at the wrong place at the wrong time. A young black man headed to a party. He spent three decades behind bars. His younger brother was a child when he was locked up and now he stands behind him a grown man. If anyone has the right to be crippled by hate it is Cornelius Dupree. But he says somehow God’s grace sustained him through the waiting process. There was something more important than getting back at those who wrongly accused him. It was living life as a free man.

Perhaps the most difficult lesson to learn in life is that it really doesn’t matter what other people say about you. What really matters is what you know about yourself. If you are your own best defense then you can see where you’re going. If you are your own worst enemy then it doesn’t matter what you do, you are out to destroy yourself one way or the other. How can a person be their own worst enemy? By poisoning every hour of their day with resentment toward other people. By acting out of the shame they feel toward themselves. Some people have been so abused throughout their lives that they see any gift given to them as another con. When they hear tell of the grace of God in Christ they think they know what that means. That means listen to a lot of pleasant words and then get ready to give your money or your time.

Real spiritual conversion happens first with the admission of complete powerlessness, the belief in a God greater than myself, and my decision to turn my will over to God with complete abandon. There is no easier softer way. Admitting that I really don’t know what’s best for me runs contrary to every pore of my being, but that’s only the beginning. The real stuff of life involves navigating the 1001 reminders that I am not in control. Cars that don’t start. Broken door handles. Drafty windows. Dog poop on the shoe. Whiney children. Bad breath. Bubbly personalities. This is real life! It’s downright irritating and exhausting.

Life on the advertisements promises sunny landscapes with beautiful people and products that fix everything from spots on the clothing to incontinence to a beer that will make the work week worthwhile. There’s something downright appealing about the idea that a pill or a drink can make all my problems go away, beginning with the fact that I really don’t have to do much to receive it. I would dare to proffer that following Jesus means staring down the fact that there is no easy way out of life’s everyday problems. Jesus calls us from our shame and resentment out into the light of gratitude and service.

The Bible has strong words regarding resentment. “Resentment kills a fool, and envy slays the simple.” (Job 5:2) “The godless in heart harbor resentment; even when he fetters them, they do not cry for help.” (Job 36:13) “Mockers resent correction, so they avoid the wise.” (Proverbs 15:12) In serving the Lord there is no place for resentment. Paul reminded Timothy, “And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful.” (2 Tim. 2:24, NIV)

In my own experience, resentment and shame go hand in hand. When I feel slighted or wronged by another person’s actions it usually goes hand in hand with fear and shame. If I’m in a new place and I feel dependent on others, I feel at their mercy because I don’t really know what’s going on. I go inside my head with resentment and shame in order to find a safe place where I’m in control. Then things spiral downward from there.

Resentment keeps me in my head, trapped in fantasy that believes wrongly in God’s inability to protect me. In my resentment I became convinced anew that I’ve been wronged, dishonored, abused, and that nothing will keep this from happening again in the future. I feel self-righteous, vindicated, noticed, justified in my anger. My recourse is to imagine what I’ll do next time, how I’ll violently react and be justified.

Resentment keeps me from the truth in the present moment. God changes people and he sees them as they really are, not as I imagine them to be. Resentment blinds me from seeing God’s good work in people and believing the best about them. In resentment I lose the gift of forgiveness. I need forgiveness everyday. I need to give it to receive it. Resentment blocks that.

Resentment keeps me from prayer. Instead of praying for the person who wronged me, I’m once again caught in justification and revenge. He needs my prayers as I need his. Our proximity is no simple accident. I have much to learn about patience and forgiveness. I need it from others and I need to give it. God help me.

Resentment keeps me from God. Where God wants to use me in peace, hope, faith, love, resentment isolates me from all others (masks itself as humble and peaceful) and makes me a slave to fear. God’s perfect love casts out all fear. So really I’m a slave to self, shame and pain. All God wants is for me to be free and allow Him to have His way.

Even just a little resentment is toxic to me. I can’t handle a taste. I want to imagine more and then I’m gone in a rage fantasy where I assume I’m the overlooked entity of real value or I’m the despised one who could’ve have saved the show. Either way it’s all about me.
Now I know, this is just my own experience. If you can relate even just a little bit then bear with me. The Bible doesn’t just give us cute little warnings to stop resenting. It gives us powerful redemption stories, where given the opportunity to do great wrong, men and women of God love in return. In the book of Genesis Joseph is one example.

Sold by his brothers into slavery, then wrongly accused of trying to sexually abuse his master’s wife, Joseph gets placed by God into one of the most powerful positions in all of Egypt. Though he’d been mistreated by the Egyptian system, he accepted God’s call to save this pagan land and all the surrounding areas from famine. Given the opportunity to get back at his brothers because of his position and their need for help, Joseph tests them and then finally reveals who he is. After their reconciliation he receives the blessing of their father before he passes away. They have a huge beautiful funeral and then the brothers once again get scared. They think their brother now has the power to get back at them and so they send a message saying that their father sent word before he died that he wanted Joseph to forgive them all for all the wrongs they’d done to him. Then they finish with, “We are your slaves.” Joseph’s response was to weep before them all. What he says next is so powerful.

“’Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.’” (Gen. 50:19-21, NIV)

Given the opportunity to exact justice for himself, Joseph demonstrated mercy. Why? Because Joseph was living his life as a man for others. He saw himself as simply a steward of God’s will, and his many gifts as tools for responsible service. God uses sinful broken people to accomplish his work in the world. Everyone here in this room is full of God given potential. Maybe you’ve seen him use you today to help someone else. Don’t take that for granted. Take stock of where you’ve come from and know that God loves you and has not left you alone.

Your story matters. Everything that has happened to you in life can be used by God to share his faithfulness with someone else. God is not done with you yet. But what he is doing in you is not for you alone. You may feel that like Joseph you are in a strange new place. You didn’t ask to be here. And you’re just trying to make sense of what’s going on. God knows. If you’re willing to let go God will use you to help someone else. It often happens in places where you least expect it. Let me share a secret. Unexpected gifts are everywhere when we have grateful hearts.

Now here’s another story, and this is more of a cautionary tale. In Luke 15:11-32 Jesus tells a story of two lost sons and their father. You may remember the first son. He says to his father, “Give me my share of the estate” and then he gathers his stuff together and leaves for a far off country where he squanders the money in wild living. Then a famine strikes the land and he’s forced to hire himself out feeding pigs. He was so hungry that all he wanted was what the pigs had to eat, but no one gave him anything. You may remember that it says he came to his senses and then had a plan to go back and divest himself of all his rights as a son and simply become his father’s slave.

He thought this would be just. He believed he had given up any right to his father’s respect because of the way he treated the household. This was his plan just to stay alive. But what happens in the story?
“So he got up and went to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.” (Luke 15:20-24, NIV)

The son does not get to finish his prepared statement. His divestment is interrupted by the father’s command for the party to begin. Instead of getting the dung scooping duty he gets the royal treatment. And this is completely unexpected. You’ll remember this is the story of two lost sons. There is an older brother who is none to excited about this son’s return. We all love this story of the young prodigal returning. We can obviously see that we’ve all done bad things to run away from God. But we need to see ourselves in the older brother as well.
The older brother, returning from the fields, hears the music from the party and asks what is going on. He hears that his brother has returned and that his father has honored him like a royal guest. He gets so angry that he won’t even go in to the party. So the father comes out to him to plead with him.

Henri Nouwen writes,
“The more I reflect on the elder son in me, the more I realize how deeply rooted this form of lostness really is and how hard it is to return home from there. Returning home from a lustful escapade seems so much easier than returning home from a cold anger that has rooted itself in the deepest corners of my being. My resentment is not something that can be easily distinguished and dealt with rationally.
It is far more pernicious: something that has attached itself to the underside of my virtue. Isn’t it good to be obedient, dutiful, law-abiding, hardworking, and self-sacrificing? And still it seems that my resentments and complaints are mysteriously tied to such praiseworthy attitudes.

This connection often makes me despair. At the very moment I want to speak or act out of my most generous self, I get caught in anger or resentment. And it seems that just as I want to be most selfless, I find myself obsessed about being loved. Just when I do my utmost to accomplish a task well, I find myself questioning why others do not give themselves as I do. Just when I think I am capable of overcoming my temptations, I feel envy toward those who give in to theirs. It seems that wherever my virtuous self is, there also is the resentful complainer.” (The Return of the Prodigal Son, pgs. 75-76)

Where do we find our freedom from this resentment? In the father’s love. The father’s final words to his elder son in the story are, “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’” (Luke 15:31-32, NIV) The father’s love and his house is largest enough for both wayward sons and resentful ones.

In my own life how do I get unstuck from resentment? When I notice particularly nasty thoughts and possibilities of thoughts coming in my head I will stop, surrender before God, pray for the grace to forgive, use the Lord’s prayer or the serenity prayer and then reach out with a phone call or by speaking to someone else.

Getting unstuck involves first being vigilant, taking resentment as seriously as lust, and second, reversing course to seek help. My thoughts are not just thoughts, they are potential actions revealing my heart and my need for God.

I have often thought that I played a good game by being so introverted. I enjoyed my thoughts and feelings more than being with others. I thought I possessed all I needed and I grew to like all my thoughts to myself. Now I’ve come to see the dark cave of resentment as a special kind of hell. I look around and see that my lack of desire to interact with others has affected us all. Others go on without me. They learn by my isolation to count me out.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Henri Nouwen says,

“Resentment and gratitude cannot coexist, since resentment blocks the perception and experience of life as a gift.”

Gratitude is a conscious choice. Some of the most helpful advice I’ve ever received involved simply sitting down and writing out two lists on a piece of paper. On one side I was instructed to write down everything I was afraid of. On the other side everything I had to be grateful for. I have done this many times and it has never failed to help set my thinking straight. In a very short time I come to remember that most of the things I’m afraid of are not matters I can control anyway, and everything I’m grateful for is because of the grace of God! Since I’m not in control, and all of life is gift what have I to get resentful for?!!

If we really want God to change us we have to let the Word of God renew our minds and change us.
“Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice: And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.” (Eph. 4:30-32, KJV)

Let’s pray together now:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen (Prayer attributed to St. Francis)

Benediction:
Peace be to you all and love with faith, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace be with all who have an undying love for our Lord Jesus Christ. (Eph. 6:23)

Yours in His Service,

Chris Rice

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