Posts Tagged ‘Mockingbird Ministries’

Sermon 03-19-17: “Dealing with Doubt”

March 30, 2017

Do you ever have doubts about your faith in Jesus Christ? In today’s scripture, John the Baptist, surely one of the most headstrong of Bible heroes, expresses doubt in Jesus. He sends his disciples to Jesus to ask, “Are you the One”—meaning “Are you the Messiah”—”or should we expect someone else?” How could John, of all people, ask this, unless doubt is a normal experience for Christians? Nevertheless, God doesn’t want us to remain in a state of doubt. This sermon explores reasons we often doubt and potential traps we may fall into while we’re doubting. If you’re in a season of doubt, I pray that this message encourages you.

Sermon Text: Matthew 11:1-15

My boys and I have been bachelors this weekend, since Lisa and Elisa are out of town, which means we’ve had the TV all to ourselves. On Friday, we watched that recent Tom Hanks movie Captain Phillips. It’s based on a true story about a cargo ship that got taken over by pirates off the coast of Somalia in 2009. It was good—suspenseful—and Tom Hanks, as usual, was outstanding.

Last April, Hanks gave an interview to Terry Gross on the NPR interview show Fresh Air. He said something that may surprise you. He admitted that he was plagued by self-doubt. He said,

No matter what we’ve done, there comes a point where you think, ‘How did I get here? When are they going to discover that I am, in fact, a fraud and take everything away from me?’…

There are days when I know that 3 o’clock tomorrow afternoon I am going to have to deliver some degree of emotional goods, and if I can’t do it, that means I’m going to have to fake it. If I fake it, that means they might catch me at faking it, and if they catch me at faking it, well, then it’s just doomsday.[1]

I guess I’m naive. I thought that acting was supposed to be about faking it, but what do I know?

Tom Hanks is one of the most successful and critically acclaimed actors in the history of Hollywood. He’s starred in some of the most beloved movies of the past 30 years, which have earned $8.5 billion worldwide. He’s won two Oscars and two Golden Globes—and he’s been nominated for a ton more. Literally a ton, if you could add up the weight of all those trophies. In 2014, President Obama awarded him a Kennedy Center Honors medallion.

If someone like Tom Hanks can doubt something—in spite of all this evidence to the contrary—is it any wonder that we Christians will sometimes also have doubts—about God, about Jesus? Read the rest of this entry »

Being grateful that our lives don’t go according to plan

March 29, 2017

I shared a version of the following in a recent sermon, which I’ll post later today.

It’s become a cliché these days to talk about “narratives”—a pretentious word for stories. If you’ve studied liberal arts in college, you’ve learned a lot about narratives. In theology school, homiletics professors speak of “narrative preaching.” Even on political news shows and in White House press conferences, we often hear about narratives—for example, someone is always trying to “change the narrative.” In a recent episode of Mockingbird Ministries’ podcast, The Mockingcast, co-host Scott Jones interviews a positive psychologist named Emily Esfani Smith, who also had something to say about narratives.

Smith has written a book about what it takes to live a meaningful life. She said that one thing we need to do is to see the way in which all the events in our lives weave together to tell a story: which means, “Taking your experiences,” she said, “and knitting them together into a narrative that explains who you are, where you came from, and where you’re going.” She said,

Storytelling is particularly powerful when it comes to dealing with a low point or an adversity that you’ve experienced because these are kind of blips in our narrative—these are places where the story that we’re living was not the story we expected to live. And so we have to integrate those experiences into our story and kind of understand how they shaped us.

She said that this involves what academics call “counterfactual thinking”:

Thinking about some pivotal event in your life and imagining that it hadn’t happened and asking yourself how your life would have been different if that hadn’t have happened. So if you went to X college, what if you had gone to Y college? You moved to X city. What if you had stayed home or moved to Y city?

Researchers find that this is a powerful builder of meaning because it helps you realize the benefits of taking the path you did end up taking.

In other words, people who are happiest and most fulfilled in life are those who have learned to be grateful that their lives don’t go according to their own plans. The low points, the adversity, the setbacks, the failures, the disappointments—all of these things, which we might have dreaded at the time, are good and necessary for us because they help to shape us into the people that we are.

I completely agree—even though she’s speaking from a purely secular perspective.

From a Christian perspective, however, this seems even more true. Why? Because we understand that our heavenly Father is constantly working through adversity, setbacks, failures, and disappointments. He’s constantly redeeming these events—making them work out for our good, for the world’s good, and for his glory.

Sure, things may not be going according to our plans—but that doesn’t mean they aren’t going according to his!

Like Joseph, who was sold into slavery by his brothers and faced one adversity after another, we can say of any evil or harmful thing that the devil sends our way: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done.” We can say with Jesus, “In this world we will have tribulation. But take heart: Christ has overcome the world.” We can say with Paul, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?… No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” We can say, “In all things, God works for the good of those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.”

As I’ve said many times on this blog, nothing has helped me more during these past five years than learning to appreciate that God is in charge, and I can trust that he knows what’s best for me. Yet, for reasons that have nothing to do with Mr. Wesley—who spoke of God’s sovereignty often—we Methodists tend to be allergic to the idea.

Not me! I’m gratified to know that Dr. Smith’s research hints at the Story, even if she doesn’t name the Storyteller.

Sermon 02-05-17: “Are We Committing Spiritual Murder?”

February 15, 2017

matthew_graphic

Jesus’ uncompromising words against anger in today’s scripture puts us on the defensive: “Yes, in most cases, anger is sinful and unjustified, but not in my case!” We often feel perfectly justified in our anger. What if we’re wrong? What makes anger sinful? What do we need to overcome anger in our lives?

Sermon Text: Matthew 5:21-26

[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3.]

Big game today. Passions are running high. Even churches are getting into the spirit. Some of you may have seen on “Fox 5” news report that the St. Andrew United Methodist Church in Carrollton posted the following message on their church sign: “Even Jesus rose up. Rise Up, Falcons.” I know the pastor there! Then, the church sign in front of First Baptist Church of Sandy Springs reads, “God has no favorites, but this sign guy does. Go Falcons!”

Remember those happy days before the Super Bowl?

Remember those happy days before the Super Bowl?

And I’m excited, too. In fact, this week I even let myself get into an online argument about the Super Bowl. It started innocently enough: A Facebook friend posted his prediction for a Falcons victory. He said he really thinks the Falcons are going to win. And I replied to his comment—voicing my agreement, and offering a few reasons why I thought it would happen. A lot of it has to do with our team’s offense. And then one of his friends—someone I don’t even know—replied to my comment: “It’s easy to have a great offense against teams that don’t have a defense.” Read the rest of this entry »

Remember: When angry, direct your anger toward God

January 28, 2017

mockingbird_devotionalI realize I’m going to the well of The Mockingbird Devotional twice in one week, but there’s a reason this book was my go-to gift this past Christmas. It’s good!

In today’s devotional, Paul Zahl reflects on Exodus 17:2, which describes the Israelites’ anger at Moses shortly after being delivered from the Egyptians:

Therefore the people quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.” And Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?”

Notice that Moses rightly understands that the people’s anger was misdirected: Despite their words and actions, they weren’t angry at Moses; they were angry at God. “Why do you test the Lord?” He was the One who was ultimately responsible for their being in this predicament—on the verge of dying of thirst—not Moses. And that’s true for all of us who are facing any kind of hardship.

After all, even if God didn’t cause it, God certainly had the power to prevent it. Why didn’t he?

Of course, you might say that we shouldn’t get angry at all, and I’m sure that’s true. Anger is almost always destructive. And don’t resort to saying, “Yes, but Jesus was angry when he overturned the money-changers’ tables.”

Do I need to point out that we’re not Jesus?

No, by all means we should trust that, despite the fact that our lives aren’t going according to our plans, they are going according to God’s—and that God’s plans are always better than our own.

I don’t deny that we ought to feel that way. But when we don’t, which—let’s face facts—is most of the time, here’s some good news: we can do something productive with our anger: we can blame God!

One recurring theme of my blog over the past few years is my affirmation of God’s sovereignty and providence, which is another way of saying that God is, indeed, “pulling the strings.” That being the case, when we find ourselves angry, at whom ought we to be angry? As Zahl says in his devotional, nothing good comes from being angry at people. God, however, is big enough to absorb our anger. Let’s be angry at him.

Try it. For a second, stop blaming the “SOB” ruining your life, and instead blame God, who, by definition, must be pulling the strings. It will be for your good to have done so, though I don’t expect anyone to pickup on that until… “Afterward” (Edith Wharton).[†]

Paul Zahl, “January 28” in The Mockingbird Devotional (Charlottesville, VA: Mockingbird, 2013), 57-8.

Either God sanctifies us—or it doesn’t happen at all!

January 26, 2017

A clergy friend posted the following on Facebook last week:

pope_francis_quote

I hated to be an ecumenical wet blanket, but I thought the last part of Pope Francis’s quote was overly optimistic. If there’s something about our “alliance” with Christ that “makes” us live without sin—indeed, to be “far away from” it—I haven’t discovered it. So I quoted Luther’s maxim concerning our nature as Christians: In Christ, we are “simultaneously righteous and sinners.”

My friend, a Methodist pastor, demurred:

Is your assumption that the pope is referring to some before justification or after? I take his meaning to be at the moment of or after. At the point of justification one would then be simultaneously progressing in a state of sanctifying grace. That would be most Wesleyan. Otherwise it’s purely Lutheran and therefore holiness or justification has little if nothing to do with your progress in holiness since it doesn’t require your participation, i.e., it’s all imputed.

To which I replied:

But suppose you die moments after being justified and born again. On what basis are you fit for heaven other than Christ’s righteousness—imputed or not? Certainly not your own “holiness,” such as it is. I don’t think the imputed righteousness of Christ negates personal responsibility. But I also don’t think that sanctification is ever more than our saying “yes” to God’s grace, just as we do when we are justified. Grace is still grace. Our participation, whatever it is, isn’t something of which we get to be proud. Sanctification isn’t “we do a little, then God does a little,” although I agree that’s how it’s popularly understood.

The truth is, I have become slightly more Lutheran and more Reformed in my theological perspective. (Of course, I had already been indoctrinated in Augustine by Candler’s only conservative professor [at the time], Lewis Ayres, so I wasn’t far from this perspective—at least as soon as I started believing the Bible again). If that makes me less comfortably Wesleyan, so be it. But Wesley wasn’t too far from this. Didn’t he compare sanctification to respiration: God breathes in, we breathe out? What we do is very small compared to what Christ did and the Holy Spirit does.

So twice my friend referred to our “progress” in holiness and implies that it’s something that we do, or something for which we’re (mostly? 50-50?) responsible. From my own experience, talk of “progress” in the Christian life makes me nervous. We are not sanctified by what we do! God is going to have to do the sanctifying in our relationship with him, or it won’t happen at all! 

While I don’t think my friend accurately represents John Wesley’s thinking on the subject, who cares what Wesley says? We have to contend, as always, with the Bible. Like Wesley, “I am a man of one book”—or I strive to be. We are saved by grace from first to last. Our cooperation in this salvific process, while not nothing, is minimal—certainly in comparison to what God does. It’s never something about which we get to boast and say, “Look what I’ve done!”

All that to say, I embrace the Reformation affirmation of imputed righteousness. As a result, these words by Matt Johnson from the Mockingbird Devotional are sweet music to my ears:

In reflecting on the temptations we’ve faced and the the sufferings we’ve undergone, no doubt we’ve been faithless amidst life’s domestic complexities. Juggling home, career and family; coming to terms with illness, debt, death—it hasn’t gone too well. We’ve not laid our burdens down like we should have. And with this failure comes shame…

We often have similar experiences where we feel this close. We had great plans, and we almost got there, but now the hope of deliverance seems too good to be true—and now it’s back to the old life.

In those moments of regress or failure, nothing quite pegs our identity like shame does. It becomes the way we self-describe. The “Who am I?” framework only shows us what we aren’t: an ineffective employee. A failed father. A basket case. A pervert. Your shame has the power to terminally name you. Sure, Jesus-loves-me-this-I-know and all that—but what about here and now? What about this sea of shame?[1]

Let me interject here to say that my clergy friend’s notion of “progress” as something we accomplish, even in part, does nothing but contribute to this “sea of shame”—at least in my experience. (His mileage may vary.) I need to be reminded again and again of God’s grace.

Johnson continues:

In Christ, you are God’s treasured possession. As part of His family, you are the beloved first-born son. Rather than receiving the wrath of Pharaoh, the chaos of the sea is the moment of His salvation. Naturally you’ve forgotten that and have placed an old shame back onto your shoulders again, but it was never yours to lug around in the first place. As Jesus says, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” In Christ, you are clothed in righteousness and when God sees you, there is nothing more to be ashamed of. He sees the perfection of Jesus.[2]

1. Matt Johnson, “January 24” in The Mockingbird Devotional (Charlottesville, VA: Mockingbird, 2013), 53.

2. Ibid.

Approaching Christ with empty hands

December 22, 2016

The following comes from an Advent sermon in 2008 by Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher to the Pontifical household. It’s a poignant illustration about justification by faith alone (h/t Mockingbird, emphasis theirs).

This is the most necessary conversion for those who have already followed Christ and have lived at his service in the Church. An altogether special conversion, which does not consist in abandoning what is evil, but, in a certain sense, in abandoning what is good! Namely, in detaching oneself from everything that one has done…

This emptying of one’s hands and pockets of every pretension, in a spirit of poverty and humility, is the best way to prepare for Christmas. We are reminded of it by a delightful Christmas legend that I would like to mention again. It narrates that among the shepherds that ran on Christmas night to adore the Child there was one who was so poor that he had nothing to offer and was very ashamed. Reaching the grotto, all competed to offer their gifts. Mary did not know what to do to receive them all, having to hold the Child in her arms. Then, seeing the shepherd with his hands free, she entrusted Jesus to him. To have empty hands was his fortune and, on another plane, will also be ours.

Sermon 11-27-16: “Mary, Servant of the Lord”

December 9, 2016

dreamstime_m_14219263

There’s a popular expression in Alcoholics Anonymous, “Expectation is a planned resentment.” Has you seen how this is true in your own experience? What God asks of Mary is beyond any expectations that she had. Yet she’s able to say “yes” to God, not because unafraid or unsure, but because she trusts that God is ultimately in control.

Please note: No video this week.

Sermon Text: Luke 1:26-38

[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3.]

Last September, there was a marathon near Philadelphia. This marathon is an important qualifying race for the Boston Marathon, so many of the runners who ran it were attempting to do just that—and this race was their last chance. A part of the race course crossed railroad tracks, and wouldn’t you know it? Despite assurances from Norfolk Southern that no train would interfere with the race, about a hundred runners got stopped by a very slow-moving train. For ten minutes. One runner quoted in the article I read missed qualifying for the Boston Marathon by eight minutes—so he would have made it if not for the train!

Can you imagine: Standing there, waiting for a slow train to pass, knowing that every passing second puts you further and further from your goal?

Heartbreaking! I mean, it’s one thing to pull a hamstring, or tear an MCL, or sprain an ankle, or—as I know from experience—suffer plantar fasciitis. These are all runners’ injuries—and runners accept these risks when they run. But to miss out on your dream of running in the Boston Marathon on account of a train, of all things? Who expects that to happen?

No one expects that!

Just like Mary would never have expected this angel to come to her and tell her about the role that she would play in bringing salvation to the world—this awesome privilege and responsibility that she would have have in giving birth to God’s Son Jesus and raising him as her son. Mary has often been called the “first Christian,” and when we consider her faithful response to God, we probably imagine that she’s a much better Christian than we are. She’s up on this pedestal and we’re way down here. We have trouble identifying with her. But in this sermon I want us to see how much we have in common with her. Read the rest of this entry »

“Expectation is a planned resentment”

November 22, 2016

I read the following from the November 22 entry in The Mockingbird Devotional. I’m including the first paragraph here, so I can remind myself of it from time to time:

Alcoholics Anonymous has a popular saying: “Expectation is a planned resentment.” We expect to get the promotion at work, and when we don’t, we are resentful. We expect our fellow motorists to follow traffic laws (and common sense), and when they cut us off, we are resentful. We expect our spouse to meet all our needs, and when they don’t, we are resentful. We expect the church to be a functional, loving institution, and when it isn’t, we are resentful. Yet resentment is useless, like a weapon aimed at a target that always, somehow, boomerangs back at the shooter. And over time, resentment can turn into bitterness, or worse, hate.[†]

To these examples of unmet expectations that turn to resentment, we can add plenty more. I myself have been, at times, a raging cauldron of resentment—whose culprit, I now see, was an unmet expectation, a sense that life wasn’t going the way it ought to go; that life wasn’t fair; that I wasn’t getting what I “deserved.” Worse, I felt as if other people were getting something I wanted, which they didn’t deserve.

Last week, I wondered aloud how we can “enjoy God forever,” as the first article of the Westminster Shorter Catechism says. One way, surely, is to surrender to God our expectations: If I recognize I have no right to anything good, I can receive the good that comes my way as nothing but pure gift.

Wouldn’t that be something? Don’t you want to live that way? Wouldn’t you be happier if you could live that way?

On second thought, let’s hold on to one expectation only: that God will continue to love us and work through every circumstance for our good. Let’s replace every other expectation with that one. Let’s learn to say, “This may not be what I planned. This may not be what I wanted. But it is what God wanted for me at this moment. God will give me the grace to handle it. And God will use it for my good.”

There’s probably a Thanksgiving message in there somewhere.

David Zahl, “November 22” in The Mockingbird Devotional (Charlottesville, VA: Mockingbird, 2013), 388.

I don’t need self-improvement. I need Jesus!

October 27, 2016

This Sunday I’m preaching on Luke 17:3-10, a collection of teachings that seems, at first, like a hodgepodge. N.T. Wright, however, believes that they are linked by our need for humility. Regarding the disciples’ plea for greater faith in verse 5 and Jesus’ response, he writes the following (emphasis mine):

Perhaps not surprisingly, the disciples realize in verse 5 that all this [i.e., what Jesus has said in vv. 1-4] will require more faith than they think they have. Jesus is quick to respond. It’s not great faith you need; it is faith in a great God. Faith is like a window through which you can see something. What matters is not whether the window is six inches or six feet high; what matters is the God that your faith is looking out on. If it’s the creator God, the God active in Jesus and the Spirit, then the tiniest little peep-hole of a window will give you access to power like you never dreamed of.[1]

So faith, like most things related to the life of the spirit, is not about us; it’s about God. Of course.

Anyway, in today’s devotional from The Mockingbird Devotional, John Zahl shares a related thought about faith (emphasis mine):

Faith means trusting Him to be all the things you need Him to be, despite your own inadequacies, and, for that matter, in light of the fact that you don’t actually know what you need or what success actually looks like. He won’t give you strength; He will be your strength.[2]

Finally, I tried to make a similar point in a sermon earlier this month about the power of the Holy Spirit in Acts 4:1-22:

Consider Peter… Even though he seems so brave and strong and powerful in today’s scripture, he wasn’t so different from that scaredy-cat that we saw the night that Jesus was arrested. He hadn’t changed that much in a just a couple of months! Especially if we consider what Paul writes about Peter in Galatians 2.

There, Paul describes a situation in which, he says, he confronted Peter “to his face” for his hypocrisy.

Why did this happen? This was a time in the early church when Jewish Christians weren’t so sure how they were supposed to relate to their non-Jewish brothers and sisters. Many of them believed that these Gentile believers had to first become Jewish—by being circumcised and following other Jewish customs. And unless or until they did these things, Jewish Christians wouldn’t mingle with them. They wouldn’t sit down at a table and share a meal.

Paul, of course, would have none of this: As he writes in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” And Peter was on Paul’s side—at least at first. When Peter came to visit Paul’s church he enjoyed table fellowship with Gentiles.

Until some Jewish Christians from Jerusalem showed up—then Peter stopped associating with them. Paul says in Galatians 2:12 that Peter did this because he was “afraid of the circumcision party.”

So let’s get this straight: In Galatians 2, years after the events described in today’s scripture, this same Peter, who wasn’t even afraid of being killed as he stood before the high priest and the Sanhedrin, was afraid of other people’s opinions—he was afraid for his reputation; he was afraid of what others might think about him!

So much for brave and fearless Peter!

I’m not saying this because I think Peter is a bad guy. Not at all. I’m saying this because Peter isn’t so different from us! Aside from being filled with the Spirit in today’s scripture, he was mostly the same old person he always was!

I know it seems obvious to say out loud, but Peter’s success as an apostle isn’t because he—to whatever extent he had been sanctified—had become a much holier person; it was because of God’s power working in him.

Our Wesleyan emphasis on sanctification, while true and fitting, is also potentially dangerous, as I’ve discussed in the past. “Yes, yes,” we say, “even sanctification is a gift of God.” But is it really? Or is it something we achieve as we apply ourselves to the task? Is it, in other words, self-improvement by another name?

I don’t need self-improvement. I need Jesus! At every moment! Because I’m a disaster left to my own devices. Because I’m utterly lost and helpless without him.

I’m not kidding. I have enough emotional scars to prove it. Scars on top of scars. And so do people who get closest to me. Thank God many of them still love me!

1. N.T. Wright, Luke for Everyone (Louisville, KY: WJK, 2004), 204.

2. John Zahl, “October 27” in The Mockingbird Devotional (Charlottesville, VA: Mockingbird, 2013), 362.

Why did Ananias and Sapphira drop dead?

September 1, 2016

mockingbird_devotionalAny pastor who preaches annual stewardship sermons knows that the Bible doesn’t say what we want it to say when it comes to financial giving. We’ll take free grace over Law every day of the year except “Commitment Sunday.” I’m talking, of course, about the Old Testament law of the tithe. If only we could convince our parishioners that Christ has set them free from every law except that one!

No one believes me when I point to the generosity of Zacchaeus or greed of the Rich Young Ruler and say, “See… Ten percent may not be enough for us Christians!”

All that to say, I like this insight concerning Ananias and Sapphira (in Acts 5:1-11) from Jeremy Coleman in The Mockingbird Devotional:

What’s terrifying, then, is that Ananias and Saphhira don’t drop dead for deceiving or withholding truth from God, but for believing what is untrue of God. They believe they must give something; that in order to be acceptable before God and church, something is required. Ananias and Sapphira hold as truth their requirements and pretenses, and reject the truth of Christ’s freedom. Because they believe their lives are being tallied, God takes their lives, leaving them in the only thing Jesus needs for their resurrection: their death.[†]

While I would have modified that first sentence (“…Ananias and Saphhira don’t drop dead merely for deceiving or withholding truth from God, but also for believing what is untrue of God.”), I still like it.

Jeremy Coleman, “September 11” in The Mockingbird Devotional (Charlottesville, VA: Mockingbird, 2013), 311.