As For You (full sermon)

November 15, 2012 § Leave a comment

II Timothy 3:14-17 As For You November 4, 2012
Today we’re looking at one scripture that has been formative for this church. We chose it as part of the process last week, as we chose 13 scriptures that are important to us as a group.

And I think I know at least one reason we chose this
scripture…because we take scripture seriously here, and these verses speak to that.

But I also know that many of us have had negative experiences with verse 16 in particular.

“All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness”

For some of us, this verse has been used like a flint stone, to put a sharper point on another verse that someone was using as a weapon, to make one point or another.

We’re really good at lifting verses out of their contexts and using them like ammunition in whatever battle we find ourselves in.
And it’s true, that people can pick a verse at random to defend their position, and then use 2 Timothy 3:16 as a way of supporting their particular interpretation of whatever scripture is in question.

I don’t think that’s why we chose this verse.

(…But then again, it’s nice to know it’s there in a pinch, right?)

I say all that to simply acknowledge that there those of us here who love this passage from 2nd Timothy, and there are those of us here who haven’t found it to be helpful.

But before we get into an argument about who’s right or wrong, I think we need to do just a little more homework about why it’s here, what Paul might have meant, and what it means for us today.

And to do that, we need to start with asking ourselves what exactly 2nd Timothy is.

First and Second Timothy are often called “Pastoral Epistles”, along with Titus.

What that means is, they were written to individuals, rather than
whole churches like the other letters that we have.

And I know that in the Bible, the order of the books goes First and Second Timothy, then Titus. It makes sense to put them in that order.

But it can be a little confusing, because you can start to think they were written in that order.

In all probability, Paul wrote first Timothy, then he wrote Titus. He probably wrote those two letters as a free man.

And then he was put in prison for the last time.

He was put on death row, so to speak, and he knew it.

And then he wrote 2 Timothy.

So when we read 2 Timothy, in a way, we’re reading Paul’s last will and testament.

These are the things he chose to pass on to his most beloved and trusted friend, Timothy (whose name, by the way, means “One who Honors God”).

I take that to mean that the things he writes in this letter are be applicable to everyone who seeks to honor God with their lives.
So it’s a letter from jail…and it’s the last letter that Paul will write before his execution in Rome.

That’s a little bit about the context.

Paul is in jail at the end of his ministry, actually at the end of his life.

And he chooses to write a letter to this guy named Timothy.

So who was Timothy?

Well, if 2 Timothy is Paul’s last letter, 1 Thessalonians is the very first one.

Actually, 1 Thessalonians is the oldest book in the entire New Testament.

It’s even older than the gospels as we have them.

And in the very first verse of first Thessalonians, Timothy shows up, along with a guy named Silvanus.

So we know that Timothy was there at the very beginning of Paul’s ministry, and from this final letter, we know they stayed together right up until the end.

They had shared a long and fruitful ministry together. They had planted churches across an unbelievable amount of geography for that time.

Paul had been through years of beatings, prison terms, travel, shipwrecks, and finally as his life is draining away to the final drop, here he is, writing to his most trusted and beloved companion, Timothy.

So we know that Timothy was Paul’s most loyal companion through all the years of his ministry.

But we have enough in scripture to uncover a little bit more about Timothy, too.

See, good Jewish mothers, back in the day, they would kind of brag about how early they were teaching their children the scriptures and the traditions of their people.

They would say they had been teaching their children the stories and the traditions from the age of being swaddled.

It was a sign of pride to have taught your children the ways of the faith from their earliest breath, so that even if they forgot their own name in old age, they would not forget the scriptures, which told the stories of their God.

And there’s evidence to suggest that Timothy wasn’t raised in a home such as that.

His mother was possibly Jewish, but his father was probably Pagan.
In Acts we’re told how Paul circumcised him in order to silence Jewish opposition against him.

So it seems that, even if his mother was a Jew, she didn’t take her religious commitments very seriously. Timothy wasn’t circumcised, and a “good” Jew wouldn’t marry a Pagan anyway.

So when Paul writes this about continuing in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it…he’s probably not talking about Timothy’s mom.

He’s talking about himself.

It’s no wonder he calls him a son.

Our faith is all about all kinds of adoption.

So that’s a brief overview of the who and the why of 2nd Timothy.

And it might help us read the verses we’re looking at today, and to see if they’re applicable today, if we go back a little bit earlier in what he’s writing, to the beginning of chapter three.

That’s where he warns his beloved son, the one who he’s counting on to carry his torch when it’s finally extinguished…he warns him against false teachers.

He says that distressing times will come, “for people will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, arrogant, abusive, (is any of this applicable to presidential politics?) [they’ll be] disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, inhuman, implacable (I’m not exactly sure what that means), [they’ll be] slanderers, profligates (That’s another one I’ll have to look up later), brutes, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to the outward form of godliness but denying its power.”

Don’t you wish Paul would just speak his mind sometimes?

AVOID THEM!! He says to Timothy.

Avoid the False Teachers…the ones who teach what they do not know…the ones who promise what they can’t deliver.

These are going to go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived…that’s just how it’s going to be.

“But as for you,” he says… “continue in what you have learned and firmly believed”.

Continue in the Truth…for in the Truth there is no deception.

“Continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it.”

The world is going to keep doing what the world does.

Paul is saying that the deceivers are going to continue deceiving, and they’re going to continue being deceived.

But he writes… “as for you…you who seek to honor God…you continue in the Truth you have learned.”

You continue in the Truth that has very literally shackled me and taken me prisoner.

The Truth that is leading me to death…but also, mysteriously, into life!

We’re two days away from a presidential election that many people are saying is the single most pivotal event in American history…possibly even in global history.

I’ve been told, time and time again, that our very way of life hangs in the balance as this particular election draws near.

The rhetoric doesn’t just suggest that this race is bigger than politics.

It screams that you and I are on the hook.

That we are responsible for the health and well-being of our nation.
And it goes on to scream…even more loudly…
that choosing sides is the only option we have to control the outcome.
…That One Guy is Good
And the other is Bad.
Not just Bad…
But rather, Evil.
And so, the campaigns scream and yell and holler and thump their chests.

They tend not to tell us how good their guy is.

They rather tend to tell us how evil the other guy is.

And we might almost start to believe them.

We might almost start to believe
that we’re on the hook for the health and the well-being of this nation.

We might start to believe
that the measure of a church is how willing the leadership is to choose a side.

We might want to be told which choice is good, and Christian, and Proper.
And which choice is bad, or evil, or Pagan.

And if you’ve been coming here on Sundays, and if you’ve been looking for those kinds of statements from this church, then hopefully you’ve noticed that we haven’t endorsed anyone.

We haven’t passed out voting guides.

We haven’t talked about “Taking Back America”.

We haven’t posted anybody’s political agenda on the bulletin boards.
Indeed, the most we’ve done is plan a communion service.
Along with more than 700 other churches
in all 50 States
representing more than 25 denominations.

Not because we’re interested in baptizing the political process
or the outcome of this election.

But rather, because we in the church are more than a vote.
We are the body of Christ.

And this election is literally making the body turn against itself.

It’s literally making us sick.

You want to hear from the pulpit, which side is Pagan, and which side is Christian?
I’ll tell you.

The State is Pagan.

The church is Christian.

The only Christian nation in the world…is the church.

It’s been like that since the time of Jesus.

And if you want to know what the Christian response should be to the Pagan government…even when the Pagan government wants your vote…you should look to the cross.

Or you could look to the Roman Jail

Where Paul was writing this letter

Saying “All Scripture points back to Christ.”

Proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.

The Christian way is the way of suffering for your enemies,
and loving them even as they drive the nails through your hands.
Even as they imprison you

I’m not saying don’t vote.

I’m saying don’t –ever- call it “the” Christian vote.
Rome will always be Rome. Don’t expect otherwise.
But as for you…
Continue in what you have learned, knowing from whom you have learned it.


Foxes and Birds

November 15, 2012 § Leave a comment

October 28 2012 Foxes and Birds Luke 9:57-62
This passage is a hard one to swallow, isn’t it?

Just before the passage we’re looking at this morning, there’s this kind of cryptic story about Jesus ‘resolutely’ setting out for Jerusalem, as the time came near for him to be taken up to heaven.

This is Luke’s way of foreshadowing that there’s going to be a showdown in Jerusalem, and the readers better buckle up for the rest of the ride. 🙂

So Jesus sets off, and he sends messengers ahead of him to kind of pave the way through Samaria. You know how celebrities, or sometimes politicians, will send people ahead of them to get things ready…that’s what Jesus is doing. They’re supposed to go find a place to stay and make arrangements for food and that kind of thing.

So these messengers go into a Samaritan village to get things ready, but the people there were not welcoming.

And we’re not left guessing as to “why”.

It says, they did not welcome them, because they were heading for Jerusalem.

We might think that sounds kind of strange.

What’s it matter that they were going to Jerusalem? That’s where the climax of the story is going to come, right? What is it about Jerusalem that’s drawing Jesus, and what is it about Jerusalem that makes these people close their doors against him?

Well, Jerusalem was the capital of Judah, in the south.

And Samaria was the capital of…Samaria…in the North.

Jerusalem was the capital of the Southern kingdom.

Samaria was the capital of the Northern Kingdom.

Remember last week how I talked about Solomon being the best king that kingship can produce, and how at the end of his reign, the kingdom was divided?

It was divided into the northern and the southern kingdoms.
Whenever groups of people are divided from each other…there is resentment, and tension, and strife. And if left to go unchecked, it can develop into generational resentment and tension and strife.
And as the years and the generations pass along, you start to forget that you were all originally part of the same family.

That kind of tension was at work between Samaria in the North, and Judah in the South.

You can see it in the lack of hospitality, and you can see it in the way James and John want to call down fire from heaven to destroy the village.

Jesus rebukes them for it.

The point I’m trying to make is, they were traveling through Samaria…a place they didn’t want to be, and a place that didn’t want them to be there.

So we’re left with the impression that today’s passage also takes place somewhere in Samaria.

And the reason that’s important to start with is because when you follow Jesus, you’re going to be uncomfortable. He’s going to take you through places you’d rather not go, with people you don’t like.
And along the way, he’s going to keep attracting, calling, and repelling would-be disciples.

Think about that the next time you’re tempted to judge someone who isn’t like you, or the next time you gather with your like-minded small group, or your like-minded sunday school class.

Think about that the next time you’re tempted to stay home from church because “so and so” might be there, or you don’t like the crackpot who’s preaching!

It’s easy not to listen to someone because we don’t agree with them. It’s easy to call down fire from heaven, if not literally, at least in our soul as we silently sit as judge, jury, and executioner over the cases that come before us.

Do we have the commitment we need, to confront each other in love, rather than calling down our passive-aggressive fire from heaven?

That’s part one of this story. Jesus sets his face towards Jerusalem, and he’s going through Samaria on his way.

And as they were walking along, a man came up to Jesus, and said “I will follow you wherever you go.”

And this kind of statement is hard for me to take real seriously anymore.

We sing this kind of thing all the time…Step by Step you lead me, and I will follow you all of my days. I will give you all my worship, I will give you all my praise, you alone I long to worship, you alone are worthy of my praise.

They’re good songs, don’t get me wrong.

But do we really mean that when we sing it?

“I will follow you wherever you go” says the Samaritan.

“I will follow you wherever you go” says the Mennonite.

And I like how Jesus responds.

When you follow Jesus, you get very few straight answers. Usually, we’re looking for a “Yes” or a “No”. But Jesus never makes it that simple.

Instead, he says “Foxes have holes, and Birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”

Jesus wasn’t very pastoral.

It’s almost like he didn’t care about gaining followers.
If we follow Jesus’ example here in this passage, I’m guessing church would be a lot smaller.

Not bigger.

People would be turned away.

Not gathered in.

And maybe that would be alright.

Foxes have holes.

Birds have nests.

But the savior of the world was a homeless man.

Did you ever wonder why Jesus chose these particular words?

At this time, Judah and Samaria…both the northern and the southern kingdoms of Israel…both had been ‘conquered’ by Rome.

Rome was the superpower of the day, and back before Jesus came on the scene, they had started occupying the whole region.

So even though there was bad blood between Samaria and Judah, they had a shared experience in their distrust of Rome, as well as the puppet kings that Rome set up to keep tabs on the region.

The puppet kings were like foxes…Luke 13 says as much, where Jesus calls Herod a fox, because he would manipulate information to make himself look good. He did whatever he could to survive. He was someone who couldn’t be trusted, except to look out for his own self-interest..

Foxes couldn’t be trusted…but at least they had a home. And the people who kept them in power…they also had homes. Play nice with the foxes, and you’re guaranteed at least some security.
And Rome itself…The superpower of their day…they had a symbol that they would put on their standards, or their shields, or maybe some banners and things like that.

You know how our national symbol is the bald eagle?

Rome’s symbol was…the eagle.

(I’m not making this up!)

Foxes and birds have homes.

Palaces actually.

But the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.

If you want to follow Jesus, like this first guy did, Jesus is going to expect more from you than just kissing your family goodbye.
He’s saying “if you want to follow me, say goodbye to the security that you might otherwise find in that fox Herod, say goodbye to the safety offered by that Roman Eagle, or that American Dream.”

*Because if and when you join this company, you play by different rules.*

You’re going to lose your sense of “home”, because the foxes and the birds have gotten under your skin, and in your blood.

You’re going to lose everything if and when you choose to go where I’m going.

And if you truly understand the full weight of that commitment, the cost of leaving behind the entire system you’ve come to believe in and call “home”, then you’ll be far less apt to say something as audacious as “I will follow you wherever you go.”

Jesus then calls to another man, saying “follow me.”

And the man replies “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”
And Jesus says to this guy, rather harshly, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”

I remember hearing this passage as a kid, and I always imagined there was a funeral happening like right then. I imagined the casket like 50 yards away, just in the background of the scene.

I understood this guy’s request as wanting just to go ‘finish up’ what had already been started, that his father had died and needed to be buried.

And when you read this like that, Jesus seems like he’s in an awful hurry, doesn’t he?

But I read something this week that suggested that just maybe his dad hadn’t died yet.

That just maybe the nature of his request had more to do with wanting to leave his town with his good reputation and his untarnished family name intact.

Because in that culture, your biological family was your security as you grew older.

And one of the most honorable, respectable things that a son could do was make sure his father died with dignity and respect, surrounded by loved ones, and given a proper burial.

It shed new light on this passage.

This is the guy who wanted to follow Jesus, but also wanted to be well thought of in his community.

This is the guy, who wants to leave his village on good terms, so that if the whole Jesus-thing doesn’t work out, he would have something to fall back on.

Jesus says “no”. The life I’m inviting you into will not wait. It’s so much bigger…life with Jesus is so much bigger…than your reputation and your family name.

It’s like two completely different things.

They’re so different, in fact, that It’s like one way is death, and
one way is life.

One is concerned with foxes and birds and making sure everything is prim and proper and socially respectable…

The other involves crossing boundaries, making disreputable friends, and entering the kingdom of God.

Let the dead bury their own dead. You, go and proclaim the Kingdom!
Anytime you hear the voice of God speaking to you, and your response is “I will…but first…” the chances are, it’s not going to happen. (no matter what it is).

Act when your heart is stirred.

There’s a moment of decision for nearly everything.

Don’t let the moment get away.

Have you ever thought about writing a letter, a note of encouragement, or a sympathy card…or making a phone call to an old friend…you feel the stirring within you, you know you should do it, but then you think “I’ll do that…but first I’ll take care of…this…”.

I’ll do it tomorrow.

It’s generally not going to happen, is it?

When you’re called to act, Act now.

Do not put off until tomorrow what you can do today, and don’t worry about the consequences, or your reputation as you do it.

Still another guy comes up to Jesus and says “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say good-bye to my family.”

Again, we have the “but first”.

And Jesus replies to him, saying “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”

I don’t know that much about farming, but I know that even hoeing a straight line in my garden takes a focus on what’s in front, not what’s behind.

God isn’t interested in slip-shod work.

He’s not interested in leftovers, bad attitudes, or less than %100.

If we’re talking fields, he wants straight lines.

He wants his people looking forward, not back.

We are not a people of the past…and neither are we a people of the future….we are a people of the present tense.

Be here now.

Act now, while the stirring is fresh. Work in the present with an eye on the future…and don’t let the past interfere with what you’re doing right now.

Work in the present, with your eye on the future.

There’s no denying the past, for it has made us into the people we are today.

But following Jesus is done in the moment. Not in the past, not in the future, but right now.

Don’t let this moment pass away.

Would you pray with me? …

Bricks and Kings

November 15, 2012 § Leave a comment

October 21 The Physics of Presence I Kings 3:1-15
An acquaintance of ours in Virginia is a Stone Mason; and if I understand it right, he can charge a good bit more money for his work than a regular mason can, because his skill-set is less common.
It takes more skill to work with stone than it does with brick, because working with stone, you have more issues to contend with. You have to know how to compensate for the irregular shapes and sizes of the stones. It takes more planning and more knowledge to set the different courses of stone as opposed to brick, because stones are shaped in funny ways.

Bricks, on the other hand, are nice and uniform.

Bricks are man-made, and they’re all made the same size and shape. So you can plan for a project, and you’ll know exactly how many you’ll need before you ever get started.

You can work more quickly with bricks, because you don’t have to think about each individual brick and where it will fit best…you can just grab the next one from the pile.

Bricks were one of the earliest technologies that we invented.
(have you ever thought about a brick being ‘invented’?)

Somewhere along the line, our ancestors realized that they could build things a lot more efficiently if we used rocks that were the same shape and size.

So they invented the brick.

And ever since the tower of Babel, we have lived in a world quite literally made of bricks.

-now, when I use the word ‘brick’ this morning, I’m not just talking about the things we find at construction sites or brickyards.

I’m talking about all the technology we use that makes our lives more efficient.

I’m talking about cell phones, and computers, and how we transport ourselves across the country. I’m talking about electricity and gasoline and coal and plastic, and all the ways we use all the combinations of those technologies.

There’s no debate about it; technology has changed the world; and we have benefitted from the technology we embrace.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with technology in and of itself.

But ever since the tower of Babel, it’s been our temptation to use technology to be like God, instead of serving God. At the very least, we’ve tried to use technology to gain access to God instead of recognizing our place before Him.

In ancient times, they had bricks.

Today we have Google. (who needs to pray when the answer is just a click away?)

And so I chose Solomon this morning, because I think he represents the kind of growth and prosperity that many of us are looking for through our use of technology.

He represents the kind of person many of us long to become.

There’s a reason Jesus refers to “King Solomon in all his glory” in the gospels…because it’s an image that would have carried water in his day, even more than in ours.

So it’s easy to look at Solomonn and see a role-model for how leaders should lead, and how the people of God should be living.
And I think that’s misguided.

I think it’s wrong.

In fact, I think that the harder we pursue the kind of Growth that Solomon pursued…the more we’re going to look like Pharaoh (and you might remember that Pharaoh wasn’t a good guy).

I’ll get into that more in a few minutes.

See, Solomon represents the culmination of a course that was set way back when the peopel asked for a king.

If you remember, God didn’t want his people to have a king.

But they persisted in their longing.

And so God relents and gives them a king.

So Solomon, and David before him, and Saul before him…they were all part of Plan B.

1 Sam. 8 relates the whole episode; where the people want a king and God tells them through the prophet Samuel exactly what will happen when they take one.

They’ll be taxed, they’ll be oppressed, and their children will go to serve him.

They will cry out to God because of this King that they wanted and asked for.

But they want to be like the other nations more than they wanted to
be who God created them to be…and so they take a king.

Saul was anointed as the first king.

David was the most celebrated king after him.

And then Solomon took the throne.

He was the third king of Israel, and the last to rule a united kingdom.

And from the evidence, he did a really good job at ruling the people.
It’s like he was the best king that “kingship” can produce.
…but even the best “king” is still a king. (not God).

So Solomon represents the fullest, most mature expression of what it means to be a ‘king’.

Saul and David set the stage, but Solomon’s kingdom was more or less at peace while he reigned, he was widely respected for his wisdom, and at least to some degree, Israel prospered under his leadership.
What more could we ask of any king?

Everyone prospered!
…except for the slaves that carried out his ambitious building programs.

Everyone prospered!
…except for the cities that we read about in chapter 9…the ones he gave to Hiram the king of Tyre because Solomon couldn’t pay his bills for all the Cedar wood that he imported.

Everyone prospered!
…except for the way the nation was divided at the end of his reign because he was a harsh master and his son promised to be even more harsh.

(so actually, if we’re going by today’s standards of church growth, we can call that a victory! Instead of just one kingdom, when Solomon was finished, there were now two kingdoms!)

Obviously I’m speaking tongue in cheek.

Solomon is like the ripe fruit of this tree called “kingship”

And what we read, right here at the beginning of chapter three in I kings is, that this ripe fruit looks curiously like Pharaoh.
“Solomon made an alliance with Pharaoh king of Egypt and married his daughter.”

This is the first thing we’re told Solomon does after the kingdom was firmly established in his hands.

Actually, that wasn’t the first thing he did, because we read in the next sentence that he brought her to the city of david, until he finished a couple three building projects that were already underway. His palace, the temple, and the city wall.

These are details that are easy to overlook, but they set the stage for us to feel the full irony of the situation.

Do you remember what the Israelites did in captivity?

Do you remember how they spent their time in the land of captivity?

They were slaves.

They made bricks.

And then they used those bricks to piece together another man’s dream.

See, Kings love bricks…because they love to build things.

Rather, they love to have things built…by a concentrated base of slave labor.

Bricks build kingdoms. and slaves build bricks.

And the first thing Solomon does after becoming king of Israel, is amp up the brickyards.

He starts churning out the bricks, with the daughter of Pharaoh by his side.

Sound familiar?

I’m not saying he was a bad king.

I’m saying he was really good at doing what kings do.

And we-each of us-are like kings to ourselves.

We each have these similar goals; to build our kingdoms.

But instead of bricks we have boxes made of plastic and glass.

We have cheap chocolate, coffee, and tea (and did you know that October is fair trade month?)

See, the irony of all this, is that the story of God’s people–our story–is a story of Exodus.

Not a story of slavery.

It’s a story Erv is going to get into during a Wednesday night Bible study later in the fall.

But we have been called, like Israel, out of slavery, and into the promised land.

They were called away from the tyranny and the security of pharaoh’s brickyard, towards the risk and the reward of the wilderness, the risk and the reward of life lived in communion with God.

These were the people who had come through the Red Sea. The people who had eaten bread from heaven, who drank water from a rock.
These were the people who were led forth by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.

They had witnessed the saving power of God in ways that still give us goosebumps, and they shared those stories from one generation to the next until this story of exodus became their identity.

And still, they turned to what was familiar; which was kingship.

They turned to what was safe, which was kingship.

They turned to what was predictable and easy, which was kingship.

So I guess one thing I’d say this morning is, don’t get too wrapped up in which king we should choose here in a couple of weeks, because even the best king, president, or Pharaoh is still just a king, or a president, or a pharaoh.

We know what to expect from them…Brickyards.

We as leadership in this church…we want to grow in faith, hope, and love. We want everyone connected with this congregation to grow in faith, hope, and love.

And bricks are awful ways of measuring faith, hope, and love.

The bricks of empire are not the tools we use to build the kingdom of God.

Only relationships can do that.

We need each other to build this thing we call the kingdom of God.
We have come to Christ. The invitation is still there; to come to Him, the Living Stone; rejected by people but chosen by God and precious to him. And you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house (1 Peter 2:5).

So let us put away our bricks; the technology that so often serves us at the expense of our neighbor.

And let us turn our eyes again to Jesus, the author and the perfector of our faith.


As For You

November 4, 2012 § Leave a comment

Sermon thoughts on 2 Timothy 3:14-17

We’re two days away from a presidential election that many people are saying is the single most pivotal event in American history…possibly even in global history.

We’ve been told, time and time again, that our very way of life hangs in the balance as this particular election draws near.

The rhetoric doesn’t just suggest that this race is bigger than politics.
It screams that you and I are on the hook.
That we are responsible for the health and well-being of our nation.
And it goes on to scream
-even more loudly-
that choosing sides is the only option we have to control the outcome.
One Guy is Good
And the other is Bad.
Not just Bad…
But rather, Evil.

And so, the campaigns scream and yell and holler and thump their chests.
They tend not to tell us how good their guy is.
They rather tend to tell us how evil the other guy is.
And we might almost start to believe them.

We might almost start to believe
that we’re on the hook for the health and the well-being of this nation.
We might start to believe
that the measure of a church is how willing the leadership is to choose a side.

We might want to be told which choice is good, and Christian, and Proper.
And which choice is bad, or evil, or Pagan.

And if you’ve been coming here on Sundays,
and if you’ve been looking for those kinds of statements from this church,
then hopefully you’ve noticed that we haven’t endorsed anyone.
We haven’t passed out voting guides.
We haven’t talked about “Taking Back America”.
We haven’t posted anybody’s political agenda on the bulletin boards.

Indeed, the most we’ve done is plan a communion service.
Along with close to 800 other churches
in all 50 States
representing more than 25 denominations.

Not because we’re interested in baptizing the political process
or the outcome of this election.

But rather, because we in the church are more than a vote.

We are the body of Christ.

And this election is literally making the body turn against itself.
It’s literally making us sick.

Do you want to hear from the pulpit, which side is Pagan, and which side is Christian?
I’ll tell you.

The State is Pagan.

The church is Christian.

The only Christian nation in the world…is the church.
It’s been like that since the time of Jesus.

And if you want to know what the Christian response should be to the Pagan government
-even when the Pagan government wants your vote-
Then you should look to the cross.

Or you could look to the Roman Jail
Where Paul was writing this letter,
Saying “All Scripture points back to Christ.”
Proclaim the message
Be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable
Convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.

The Christian way is the way of suffering for your enemies,
and loving them even as they drive the nails through your hands.
Even as they imprison you.

I’m not saying don’t vote.

I’m saying don’t –ever- call it “the” Christian vote.

Rome will always be Rome. Don’t expect otherwise.
But as for you…
Continue in what you have learned, knowing from whom you have learned it.

Be Here Now

October 16, 2012 § Leave a comment

Oct 14, 2012                       Be here now             Numbers 22:21-33, Ephesians 4:29-30

This morning is the first sermon I’m doing in a three part series we’re calling “Grow Where You’re Planted”.  

It’s rooted in a desire to challenge the ongoing temptations many of us feel to spread ourselves too thinly across the many commitments we make that demand our time and attention.

Technology allows us easily, cheaply, and instantly transcend time and space in ways that were once impossible for the human race…and now they’re considered routine ways of relating to the world.

For example, the car is a piece of technology that we pretty much take for granted today.

Do you remember your first car?

Mine was a white 1984 Ford Tempo.  I bought it from my cousin for $600 in 1994.

It lost its muffler soon after I got it, it was rusted through in various places, the radio didn’t work, and I remember one particular adventure where I drove it home from school with no brakes (I went real slow on back-roads and used the emergency brake when I needed to slow down or stop)!

But for all it’s shortcomings, my first car fundamentally changed the way I lived my life.

I no longer had to live by the same rules of time or space…I could drive the 7 miles to my job, or the five miles to school, within minutes, with no effort, and very little cost.

Those assumptions…that I can travel as far as I want to, quickly, cheaply, and easily…those are assumptions I still have.

I could drive home to Iowa this afternoon if I wanted to.

But that doesn’t mean I should.

Because if I’m driving to Iowa, or if I’m in Iowa…it means I’m not here.

No matter how much technology we acquire…we can still only be in one place at one time.

Be.  Here.  Now.

A car is a good example to use, because obviously if I’m talking about driving a car, I’m talking about physical presence.  You can’t physically be in two places at the same time.

But the same is true of things like emotional, mental, or spiritual ‘presence’.

Where are you this morning?

Be. Here. Now.

This morning we’re looking at the story of Balaam.

It’s a story that might be familiar to many of us for one of two reasons.

Either, like me, you heard it as a child in Sunday school, complete with the flannelgraph figures of the angel and the donkey and Balaam and it was just so odd that it stuck in your head…or like Christine, you learned it in the form of a children’s song, and thus had it stick in your head as children’s songs tend to do.  (And unless Sara is planning to have us sing the song as a congregation, I’m sure Christine would sing it for you after the service if you asked real nice!)

What I’m trying to say is, this story about Balaam and his talking donkey…for many of us, it’s hard to take seriously.

We might recognize that there’s some good stuff in it…but for the most part we might think it’s remedial, odd, or even irrelevant.

We don’t use donkeys to get around anymore, and talking animals belong in a C.S. Lewis book; not in our holy scriptures.

Besides that, it’s a pretty violent story.  The angel of God is poised to kill Balaam for nothing more than obeying God!  (In verse 20, God tells Balaam to go, and in verse 33, we learn that the angel would have killed him if it wasn’t for the donkey!)

That doesn’t quite square with what we believe about obedience, does it?

But what’s always bothered me the most, ever since I was little, was the issue of animal rights.
Three times Balaam beats this poor donkey, and even goes so far as to threaten it’s life!

And yet we treat the whole episode as a children’s story.

We’ve done ourselves no favors by relegating Balaam and his donkey to the flannelgraph, or teaching our kids to follow his example.

What I remember from my childhood was that Balaam was the hero.

And certainly, when we read the passage that we’ve read this morning, you can come away with that understanding.  He listens to God, he’s obedient even when it gets dangerous, and he’s God’s instrument to bless the people instead of cursing them.

But there’s another side to Balaam that we don’t teach the kids.

You can find a hint of it in Numbers chapter 31:16, just a little ways after the passage we’re looking at.
In that chapter, we read that Israel goes to war against Midian, they kill five kings of Midian, and they also kill Balaam.

Then we find out why.  The officers of the army bring back all the women of Midian, and Moses says “They were the ones who followed Balaam’s advice and were the means of turning the Israelites away from the LORD in what happened at Peor, so that a plague struck the LORD’s people. “

And what happened at Peor was that the Israelite men were having relations with the Midianite women, and bowing down to their gods as part of it.

In other words, even though God would not let Balaam openly curse His people, Balaam figured out a way to do it.

Tradition holds that Balaam snuck away after blessing the people, and explained to these kings that the women in their country could seduce the people of Israel away from their God.

That’s exactly what happened at Peor.

And that’s why the rest of the Bible holds a pretty negative view of Balaam.
(Deut 23:4-5, 2 Peter 2:15ff, Revelation 2:14)

So the first lesson I’d like you to take this morning is this.

Beware the hero-complex.

I don’t know what it is about us as people…but I know that we love to take these stories (especially the biblical stories) in all their complexity, ambiguity, and mystery…and we love to boil them down until they turn into a story about a hero and a villain.

We love to take stories and turn them into “good versus evil”, or “us versus them”.

And that’s what I’m calling the hero complex.  Beware of it, especially when you approach the Bible and issues of faith…because the truth of any story is more complex than we wish it was.

Now, there are a couple of things about Balaam that are worth mentioning.

He’s known as a prophet, or a “seer” and yet He’s not an Israelite.

He speaks the words of God, he seems to have a special relationship with the God of Israel…and yet he’s not part of the chosen people.

Yet he is well-known for this gift that he has, to the point that the king of Moab sends for him to curse his enemies, which in this case happens to be Israel.

In the words of Balak the king of Moab, “I know that whomever you bless is blessed, and whomever you curse is cursed.”

Now, here’s what we can take from this.  (there are two things actually)

If Balaam’s words had the power to bless and curse…this guy who was not part of God’s people, this guy who was somehow devious enough to sneak around God’s back to lead Israel astray, if his words were as powerful as the Bible says they were…then how much more power must our words carry; as beloved children adopted by the One. True. God, whose spirit dwells within us?

This goes above and beyond simply being respectful of other’s opinions or communicating yourself clearly.

This is the power to bless and to curse!

Our words have power.

Our words bless or curse the people who hear them…so take speaking seriously!!

When you open your mouth, there is much on the line, for out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks…may the Holy Spirit of God be known through our use of language.

The other lesson that goes along with that is this: God is not bound to our notions of who ‘gets it’ and who ‘doesn’t’.

He chose the people of Israel to be his holy people, his set-apart people…they’re like his ‘test plot’ for the kingdom of God.

But this story suggests he also chose Balaam to work with; a foreigner is given access and power to pronounce the blessings and curses of the One True God.

This isn’t the only place where God reveals Himself to foreigners.

The book of Ruth demonstrates the same thing, that foreigners are welcome at God’s table.  

Jesus meeting the woman at the well opens up that invitation even more…that foreigners are welcome to
enter the kingdom of God.  

God works where he will, with whom He will, in ways we will not often understand.


I’ve said a lot about Balaam so far…but not about his adventure on the donkey.

I’ve painted a portrait of a man who had an incredible gift; he spoke the very words of God even though he was not part of the chosen people…yet he had more sinister motives than we sometimes give him credit for.

But there’s more to it than that.

Balaam isn’t a role model, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from him.

He uses a donkey to go with the messengers that Balak sends.

And how does he treat that donkey?

He treats it poorly.

He beats it.  He tries to force it’s course…not just once, but three times.

That, to me, speaks volumes about the condition of Balaam’s heart.

He was so interested in where he was going, that the slightest deviation from his course caused him to fly off in a fit of rage and abuse the creature that was taking him there.

Never trust someone who abuses a beast of burden.

Actually, never trust anyone who abuses anything.  It’s a sign they’re headed towards an angry God.
But that’s not the main message I wanted to share this morning.

Balaam wasn’t present to the donkey, and he wasn’t present to God…because he wasn’t present to himself.  He was so focused on where he was going, that he abused his means of getting there.

Be Here Now.

The way we live our lives today, it’s like we think we can do it all, say it all, and relate to everyone.

We can’t.

Because we are not God.

And our attempts to spread ourselves out using all available means…all it really does is dilute our souls until they are weak and ineffective, apt to lash out when instead we need to listen and practice the art of presence.

Be here now.

And in the words of Paul, Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs (their needs…not your needs), that it may benefit those who listen.

And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.

Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.  Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.

Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly beloved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

For you were bought with a price, adopted as children of God in heaven whose kingdom knows no boundaries and whose reign extends to the gates of hell.

Our words carry the power of God, and if that doesn’t humble you, light your fire, and leave you half-scared to exercise the amazing ability to speak…then I don’t know what to tell you.

Maybe the best advice is just not to speak if you have nothing to say.

For there is no better way to practice being present…than in silence.  

Concerning Prayer

September 11, 2012 § Leave a comment

September 9, 2012                Mt. 6:5-15

Christine and I have found a new show that we really like to watch.  We don’t have cable, so we don’t have a way of watching regular TV…but from time to time we discover shows that we like, and so we check the seasons out from from the library.

That way, we don’t have to wait a whole week between episodes, and we get to skip the commercials!  The only downside is trying to get through the season before you max out your renewals!

So we recently found a British show we really like called “From Lark Rise to Candleford.”

It’s a show that takes place in the late 1800’s somewhere in England, and basically it follows the life and the interactions of a girl who grew up in Lark Rise, which is a very poor, rural community where the people do what they can to get by.

She gets a job at the post office in nearby Candleford, where the people are better off financially, and where they tend to look down on her and the people who live in neighboring Lark Rise.

Anyways, in an episode we saw recently, her brother was interested in making something out of egg shells, something like a necklace.  They would take an egg from a nest, prick it on both ends, and then blow out the insides to keep the shell intact for whatever craft he was making.

The scene that stuck with me was the father talking to his son, explaining that he should take no more than one egg from any nest as he was working on this thing.

“Not for what it does to the bird”, the father says to his son, “but rather for what it does to you”.  

Moments like that are what I love about the show.

The father is a hard working man who seeks to instill in his child a sense of integrity and honest work.  He wants him to learn the value of leaving something behind, even if you have a reason to take it all.

It’s just so rare to hear a message of self-restraint outside of church…that my ears kind of perk up when I hear it, so it stuck with me.

I like this show.

I like it because I think it does a good job at teaching some important lessons, and I like to imagine what life was like a hundred or more years ago.

I’m biased towards simpler times, even though I’d never choose to give up my modern conveniences.

I like this type of show, and it’s especially good when the actors do such a good job at playing their roles.

You can come up with the best storyline in the world, but if an actor can’t pull it off, it’s going to fall flat, right?

(Have you ever suffered through a show or a movie with really bad acting?)

…Well, did you know that in ancient times, the greek word for “actor” was hypocrite?

It’s a word that referred to actors on a stage, not unlike actors in a television show.

The word didn’t always have the negative connotations that it does for us today.

A good Hypocrite was someone who could really stage a performance…someone who could really put themselves into their role and convince the audience that they were the character they were presenting.
It was a pretty neutral word for much of its history, kind of like the word ‘actor’ is for us.

You could be a good hypocrite, or a bad hypocrite.

But at some point the word started to carry more negative connotations…and it should come as no surprise that politics were involved in the transformation of the word!

Around the 4th century before Christ, a guy named Demosthenes ridiculed his political opponent Aeschines because before he got into politics, he had enjoyed a career in acting.

He was a hypocrite.

And the accusation that Demosthenes made was that because he was successful at impersonating characters on stage, he could not be trusted as a politician.

In other words, he made the argument that his opponent had the ability to present a story that wasn’t his own, in order to reap a personal reward.  He couldn’t necessarily be trusted, because you couldn’t be sure it was really him talking.

The Greeks valued integrity in their politicians.  I don’t know if it was the first ‘smear’ campaign…but it’s a tactic that’s been in play for thousands of years.

The Greeks knew that the place for acting out a story was in the theater, where the audience knew the difference between fact and fiction, where the people knew what they were getting into, and where the motive of the actor was clear.

Now, I don’t want to blow my own horn too loud this morning, but I did some acting in high school.  I was pretty good at it, I was a pretty good hypocrite…(or at least that’s what I was told).

Acting gave me something that was worth more to me than money at that point in my life.

I got affirmation.

I got encouragement.

I was told “good job” hundreds of times after a performance, from people who knew me and from complete strangers.

And I’d be flat-out lying if I said that wasn’t a big part of why I did it.   Looking back, it was clear what my motivation was…to tell a story, and to get this affirmation for doing it.

You could say I received my reward in full, after putting on a performance.
Good hypocrites, Good Actors, are so convincing at what they do, that when the show is over they receive their reward.

…Now, when Jesus taught his disciples to pray in the passage we’ve heard today, he told them not to be like the hypocrites, for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others.

That’s their reward.

That’s what any actor longs for.

To be seen and heard, and to convince people that their character can be trusted.

Public recognition is an intoxicating thing.

But if your performance never ends, you can quickly start to lose your sense of self.

I still remember my sixth grade teacher saying something to our class about the difference between our public selves and our private selves.

The point he was getting at was that there are appropriate ways to act in public, even if you don’t want to act in those ways.

Waiting in line, for example, or showing courtesy to a stranger.

These are small performances we put on when we want to be thought well of.

They’re not bad…but if you’re having a bad day, chances are you need to find some time to yourself, some time where the performance ends, and you can remember your true self.   (Otherwise, you can start to forget who you are).
Acting, or Hypocrisy…is a seductive way of life, because it’s so easy to show people what they want to see.

So the first thing Jesus is saying about prayer, is not to do it like the hypocrites, the people who never stop performing.

God is more interested in who we’re becoming than he is in how well we perform.

Prayer is more about choosing not to rob the nest, than it is about getting all the eggs you need.

Go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father who is in secret.
If you’re not able to just “Be”…in solitude with God, it’s easy to start forgetting who you are.

Just read up on almost any really well known celebrity, and you’ll know what I mean.

The “who” of who we are…The Truth of Who We Are…comes out in secret.

The truth of who we are isn’t what we do, it’s who we are when the show is over.  It’s who we are and who we’re becoming when we’re alone.

We pray in secret, not so much because our prayers will change the world, though they might.

Rather, we pray in secret because we need our prayers to change us!
Jesus is teaching his disciples a way of life…not simply a method for manipulating God to do as they would like God to do.

Go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father who is in secret.

Then your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you.

He goes on to say later that God knows what you need before you even ask Him!

So why ask if there are no secrets with God?

Why ask if He already knows?

Jesus goes on, teaching his disciples not to pile up empty phrases when they pray, like the Gentiles are in the habit of doing.

The image makes us remember the story of Elijah challenging the prophets of Baal on the mountain…how each one would pray to their God to light the offering on fire, and the God who would light the offering on fire with no help from his prophets…that would be the true God.

Do you remember how the prophets of Baal prayed loudly, passionately, all day long trying to call down fire for the offering?

That’s the image that’s at work here.

They shouted to their god to send fire…they even cut themselves with swords, thinking that if they just made enough of a scene and put themselves into it enough…eventually their god would answer.

They piled up phrase after phrase in the hopes that Baal would do as they asked.

And of course he didn’t.

The True God will not be manipulated to answer us.  He is not there to serve us, or to prove a point we want to make.

I have a feeling that sometimes God wants us to ask for things, so that we become aware of what it is we’re asking for.

If I’m praying every day for a new car…(if not in so many words, at least in how I’m living my life)…then maybe it’s good to be made aware of that, and then to let God speak to me…in secret…about the desires of my heart and the formation that needs to happen.

What is it you’re asking God for?

Is it the kingdom come?  Is it for God’s will to be done, on earth as it is in heaven?

Sometimes we get our roles reversed.  We think God is there to make the world more to our liking, or to clean up our lives…we think God is there to serve us through prayer, when actually it’s the other way around.

There’s a reason Jesus ends this teaching with the theme of forgiveness.  

Prayer puts us in the posture of recognizing our own brokenness, recognizing the pain we’ve caused others, as well as the pain they’ve caused to us.

And then it moves us towards the mystery of forgiveness.

For in the kingdom of God there are no enemies, there is instead forgiveness and reconciliation.

These are important themes; central themes; in the Christian life, not just nice ideas.

But they’re easy to leave out of the equation if all we’re doing is acting, if we never get to that secret place.

I invite you to find some time this week, every day, not just once, to go to a secret place and listen for the voice of God.  If all that’s there is silence, then listen to yourself and find a good listener to talk to about what comes up.

Would you pray with me as I close, using “sins”

“Our Father, …”

The Eunuch, The Queen, and The Water

September 4, 2012 § 1 Comment

September 2, 2012    The Eunuch, The Queen, and The Water      Acts 8:26-40

I’m hoping this is enough of a farming community that it’s not offensive to talk about what happens when bulls reach a certain age, or a certain size.

At least in Sandy’s case, with the help of a trained Veterinarian, they turned her bulls into steers.

And if you’re not sure what that means…then it’s going to be a long morning.

Apparently there are good reasons to have this done.

Bulls get big, heavy, and strong…and turning a bull into a steer makes them a little easier to work with.  It mellows them out a little bit.

When you take away a bull’s ability to produce testosterone, it’s good for the meat, too.
It becomes a little more tender, and it tastes better…at least these are the things I learned last week when we were talking about it here in the office.  (the things you don’t learn in church, right?)

So that’s our lesson in agriculture for the morning.

It might be a little more than we need to know…but education is a powerful thing!

So, a Bull is born a Bull…but this process of castration turns the bull into a Steer.

Now, just to be sure that we’re all on the same page…the same process that turns a bull into a steer, turns a man into a eunuch.

It’s not pleasant to think about, but there’s a lot in the Bible, as in life, that isn’t pleasant.

This is a pretty familiar story.  We know there are three main characters…Philip, the Ethiopian, and the Holy Spirit.

And we’ve probably learned from countless sermons on this passage, that it’s all about conversion and baptism and obedience and a willingness to go where the Spirit leads and do as the Spirit would have you do.

I’ve heard a lot of sermons on this passage…and a lot of them have focused on either the Spirit, or Philip’s willingness to follow the Spirit’s leading.

Not many have really focused on the Eunuch.

Maybe it’s because it’s uncomfortable to hear about a Eunuch…because it just isn’t natural, and chances are we don’t really know any Eunuchs today…so we don’t have a category in our minds to deal with a Eunuch anymore.

This became clear to me when I was reading some commentaries this week.

Some of them deny that he was a “real” eunuch.  They say that maybe he just carried that title…but didn’t have the physical characteristics that would have made him a eunuch.

Others focus so much on the events in the story…like I said, Philip and the Spirit and the baptism…that they don’t even mention the fact that he was a Eunuch, much less that he was serving the Queen of Ethiopia and had control of her treasury.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, I’ve never paid much attention to this Eunuch before.  All I’ve needed to know is that he was rich and powerful, and that he joined the Jesus movement on this desert road out of Jerusalem.

But it turns out there’s a lot more to this story!

According to the Priestly law, Eunuchs would not have been allowed in the Temple.  (Deuteronomy 23:1 tells you why if you’re interested).

Yet, we read he had gone to Jerusalem to worship.

So we know he was at least a seeker.  He was interested in spiritual things; the things of God.

Who isn’t, right?  Even atheists care about God enough to deny claims of faith.

We also know he was educated, since he was reading to himself from the scroll of Isaiah, and we know he was rich because he had his own copy.
This was before the copy machine…even before the mimeograph!

Scrolls were expensive, and they weren’t for individual use.

We know he was in a position of power, because he was in a chariot, and we’re told he was an important official in charge of all the treasury of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians.

And here’s one point where the NRSV is a little more accurate than the NIV.
The NRSV says “The Candace”…not just “Candace”.

OK…so that’s a lot to digest.  We know the Eunuch was something like a seeker, interested in the things of God.  We also know he was wealthy, powerful, and intelligent in the service of “The Candace”, who was queen of Ethiopia.

He must have had a good life, right?

Except for his unfortunate…operation…we might almost envy his position.

But then I started looking into who this queen might have been.

And of course almost everything you find about ancient people can be debated, with some people thinking this and other people thinking that…but probably, this “Candace” wasn’t really a name as much as a title.

Our Bible talks about Ethiopia…but the region they were referring to was probably a little different than the Ethiopia we know today.

The area in question had this system of government where the Queen was called a “Kandake”…or a “Candace”.  Sometimes these Candaces were referred to as “Warrior Queens”.

The women here might like to hear this!

The Candace actually ruled over the king in their system.

They might not have understood it in quite those terms…but the Candace could actually order the king to kill himself, and he was bound to obey her command.

There’s some disagreement among people who have studied this…some think the Candace was the king’s mother, others believe it was his wife…but the belief that kept it all together was that the king was so divine, that the act of ruling was beneath him.

So the day to day activities of ruling the kingdom were passed to his mother or his wife…The Candace.

In this way, the Candaces…the Warrior-Queens…of this area of ancient Ethiopia, they were responsible to rule the kingdom.

Now, it wasn’t uncommon at this time, that when one people conquered another, they might carry off at least a segment of the population, and they might turn the males into Eunuchs.  It was a brutal reminder of who conquered who…who belonged to who.

These Eunuchs might then become slaves or servants, fit to serve in the royal court of their captors.

This is what Isaiah warns Hezekiah about in 2 Kings 20, verse 18…when he says that his sons will become eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon (2 Kings 20:18).
The only reason I think any of this is important, is that it helps to give me more empathy for this Eunuch than I ever had before.

See, there’s a good chance this guy was a prisoner of war, serving in the royal court against his will.

Sure, he had risen through the ranks, he had gained wealth and power and a certain amount of privilege…but at what cost?

Maybe he had learned to keep his head down, to keep his mouth shut, and just do his job.

Don’t we know that’s how you get promoted when you’re captive to the Warrior-Queen?

Don’t we know that’s how you survive, in service to the Queen of Humiliation?

There’s more to our story than our position and our wealth.

We’re all Eunuchs of a kind.

We’ve all been stripped of something valuable.

We’ve all been marked by shame and humiliation, yet we’re doing the best we can with the lot we’ve been given.

I don’t think it was a coincidence that the Eunuch was reading from Isaiah…reading about being “led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before the shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth.”

This is what you do when you’re bullied into submission.

If you want to survive…you keep your head down and your mouth shut.

But it goes on, and becomes even more personal, saying “In his humiliation he was deprived of justice.  Who can speak of his descendants?  For his life was taken from the earth.”

It’s no wonder he asked Philip about this suffering servant that Isaiah was getting at.

He identified with the imagery in ways that most of us…just can’t.

He found himself in the Biblical story.

Scripture becomes immensely powerful when we find ourselves in it, would you agree?

…Hopefully by now you’ve maybe started to at least think about the twelve scriptures that are most important to you, as part of the twelve scriptures project we’re beginning as a church.

I’m betting that the scriptures you choose are going to be scriptures that you’ve found yourself in.  Scriptures that just perfectly capture some aspect of your human experience.

And that’s all good, but what I’m looking forward to most about our engaging the scriptures over the next several weeks…is the process…not the outcome.

Jesus is known in the process…on the road….in the chariot.

Jesus is known in the space between us…in the asking questions one of another, in the sharing of our pain and humiliation and the scars that have made us who we are.

That’s sacred space, and it’s where conversion happens.

I’ll let you in on a secret.

One of the things that made me most nervous when we started pastoring was situations like Luke is describing here in Acts.

Early on in our ministry, I was full of anxiety about this thing called ‘pastoral counseling’.  It was the part of this job that I probably felt least prepared for, and was most nervous about.

I was afraid I might encounter a Eunuch…that is, someone who doesn’t fit in any of the boxes I have…someone who I don’t understand…someone who has been marked by pain and humiliation, someone who would ask questions that I wouldn’t know how to answer.

Have you ever worried about that?

Have you ever been reluctant to ask probing questions because you’re afraid of what the answer might be?  Have you ever felt unprepared to engage someone on their ‘turf’?

If so, you’ve been on the brink of this ‘sacred space’…and hopefully you’ve taken the plunge and entered it at least a couple of times in your life.

That’s where conversion happens.

It’s where our defenses crumble…it’s where our walls have no meaning…and it’s where our lives begin to take a different direction.

I’d like to invite you into that space this morning.

Conversion is more than a moment.  It’s a commitment that takes you from humiliation to freedom and rejoicing.

Life can feel like it’s just one thing after another; that all we’re doing is putting our heads down, keeping our mouths shut, and getting our job done because that’s what our captor desires.

But that’s not the way of Christ.

Whom do you serve?

Where is the road you’re on leading you?

The Eunuch in today’s story went on his way rejoicing, and Philip continued his work.

It’s never too late to change masters.

We all become scarred by life.  We all go through times of humiliation, times of servitude, times where we put our heads down and get the job done.

But the way of Christ is the way of Freedom.  It’s the way of restoration and transformation.

Committing yourself to this way is not a one time thing.

Is there the possibility that you need to re-commit yourself to Christ and his church, to find yourself again in the pages of scripture?

I’m going to speak on behalf of the ministry team this morning…that if you’d like to talk with someone after the service; an elder or a pastor, we’re available to process commitment with you…what it means to be a part of the church, what the way of Christ means, and the questions about faith that all of us live with.

For Christ is known in that sacred space.

Knowing him is a journey, not a destination.

Enduring Change

August 29, 2012 § Leave a comment

Have you ever wondered why there aren’t more Vegetarians?

There’s plenty of science that’s proven that we’re healthiest when we’re active, and when we eat lots of fruits and vegetables, right?

Ever since I can remember, teachers have been telling me that I should eat a balanced diet full of fresh fruits and vegetables, and get plenty of exercise if I want to be healthy.

We’ve even just heard a good, biblical basis for eating only vegetables and water.

So why aren’t there more Vegetarians?

It’s better for you, you’ll lose weight, and according to Daniel, you’ll be healthier, better looking, and more fit!  Who wouldn’t want these benefits?

Me, apparently!

When I go to the doctor, one of the things he usually says is that I should probably lose some weight.

It’s not that we don’t know what we need to know about things like diet and exercise to be healthier people.

It’s that change is hard.

We like meat, and most of us are comfortable eating the kind of food we’ve always eaten.

Most of us won’t change something as basic as ‘how we eat’ until we’re forced to.

So there are two types of change I’d like to talk about this morning, and both are summed up in my sermon title “Enduring Change”.

…(I love words that end in “ing”, because for the most part, they can be used as either verbs or adjectives.  And this time I meant both when I chose my sermon title.)

The first kind of change I wanted to talk about is the kind of change you endure.

It’s the kind of change you ‘grin and bear’…you’d rather not go through with something, but it’s really not up to you, so you endure it.  And often it will lead to the second kind, which is “enduring change” as in the kind of change that lasts…that endures.

And Daniel is a really good place to start with this, because it’s a book about exile.

And if anything symbolizes change that is both endured and enduring…it’s exile.

…The first two verses of this chapter set the scene…only they don’t give a whole lot of detail.

Basically, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon beseiged Jerusalem.
This was back in the day when cities had walls around them for protection.

Jerusalem had this wall that went around the city, and there would have been gates here and there so people could come and go during peaceful times, and they could be closed during an attack to protect the inhabitants.

So what happened during a seige, was that an army like Babylon could come against a city, and they would attack the city, and then they would just camp out all around the city, and wait.
There was more to it than that…obviously…but when a city was under seige, you were a lot better off being outside the wall than inside.

You were a lot better off laying seige…rather than being seiged.
Because while you were inside the city walls, food would eventually start to run out, disease might start to spread, and there was literally nowhere to run.

The wall that had been meant to protect you, it could be used against you just as easily.

Meanwhile, the army that was beseiging your city; they were healthy and strong.  They could hunt for food, they could train, and they could rest.

They could build seigeworks…there are stories about these earthen ramps being built outside a city…instead of breaking down a wall, they would just mound dirt up to the top of the wall until they could walk right over it.  A seige could last for months or even years.

When the Bible talks about being surrounded by your enemies…it was a very literal thing; a very scary thing.

And what Nebuchadnezzar did after the seige, was carry off the population.

Not all of them, but definitely the best and the brightest, he carried off to Babylon in a couple of waves.

Daniel was among these captive people who had witnessed their wall being used against them.

He was forced to accept this change of events, and he was carried off to Babylon.

Jerusalem; the city that defined these people…was laid waste.
The religion that sustained them; that had given them hope to lean on throughout so much of their history…it had vanished when it seemed they needed it most.

Nebuchadnezzar defiled not only their land; but also their religion.

He took the temple vessels…the instruments that guided their very worship…and put them in his palace, in the treasury devoted to his gods.

Other gods.

More powerful gods.

Surely if there was a God to be mocked, it was the God of Israel…the God of Daniel.

For he couldn’t turn away the seige.

He did not provide for his people.

He did not protect them.

Babylon was stronger than this cult and its God.

Can you start to see what an unwelcome change this marked in the life of Israel?

Land and Religion…in most of the world today, just like in ancient times, those two things are all that really matter in life.
The land sustains the body.  The religion sustains the rest.
Land and Religion are the two most important things any community could ever possess.

Identity, livelihood, protection, motivation…culture, art, you name it.

Chances are, land and religion have influenced it.

And in one fell swoop, the people…Israel…had lost it all.

They were no longer in the promised land.  They no longer had a temple.

All they had was their memories and their songs.

So it comes as no surprise to hear the Psalmist say “By the rivers of Babylon–there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.

On the willows there we hung up our harps.

For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

So…that covers the first two verses!

But I haven’t gotten to the good stuff yet!  

See, we’ve all got these walls that we build.  We can call them ‘boundaries’ if that makes it feel better.

We’ve all got clearly defined edges…who’s in and who’s out.  How we know friend and foe.

We have walls as individuals and we have them as a community of faith, too.

And these walls, or boundaries…they’re not bad!

If there’s one thing they teach you when you study social work like I did…it’s that you need clear boundaries when you’re working with people.  It’s a lesson that’s been helpful for pastoring, too.

Being clear about who gets into your life and who doesn’t is a good thing.  Being clear about our boundaries as a church; what’s acceptable behavior, what’s expected from people, and all that kind of stuff…these are boundaries that we set.

Some of them are formal, some aren’t…but every group of people has boundaries, and every individual has boundaries as well.

They’re like lines that define who you are, and who you are not.
But as good and useful as walls are…they can also trap us, both as individuals and as a community.

See, when we care more about maintaining our walls than we do about the God who led us out of captivity in the first place…when we care more about a last name than a first name when we greet someone new…when our sense of comfort and convenience and security outweigh our sense of God’s will in a given situation…these are signs that maintaining our wall has become too important.

When that happens, it has to come down.

And often, the only way a wall like that comes down is when it’s attacked.

You or I…we’re never going to dismantle the walls we’ve spent our whole lives building and maintaining.

We have too much invested.

So…if they need to come down, they need to be attacked.

Daniel was one of many who were carried off to Babylon in one of the darkest moments in Israel’s history.  They lost everything that was important to them.

But the amazing thing is, that God was in Babylon.  He is not tied to the land like we are.

I think that’s what Paul had in mind when he wrote to the Corinthians, saying “From now on, we regard no one from a human point of view…if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation:  everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!  For God has reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us!

For wherever we are; we are ambassadors of Christ!  God is making his appeal through us…even in Babylon…even to us THROUGH Babylon!

Sometimes it takes the stranger, the alien…the enemy…in order for us to encounter our own monstrosity.  We wish exile upon no-one…but at the same time, we know we are in it.

For this is not our home.

Seek the peace of this city…this world…for we are citizens of the New Jerusalem; the Heavenly city of God, we are ambassadors for change in this foreign land, and we have the message of the Love of God, expressed through Christ, and these fragile jars of clay in which to carry it.

May you receive this benediction as I close;

May your walls come down…as peaceably as possible.

May the Loving, Merciful, and Compassionate God emerge victorious as He lays seige to the defenses you have erected.

And may you surrender to the enduring change that comes
in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit


Breaking With Tradition

August 29, 2012 § 2 Comments

Breaking with Tradition          Matthew 15:1-20      August 19, 2012

I’d like to start this morning by taking a brief poll.

You don’t have to participate, but it would help me out if you’re willing to share a little bit of personal information by simply raising your hand, and keeping it up until we’re done…(it won’t be long).

How many of you, before coming to church this morning…consumed the news…either by reading a physical newspaper or watching TV, or using an internet news site?  

How many of you ate breakfast?  (keep your hands up)

How many of you have had a cup of coffee or tea so far this morning?

Fed the dog or cat or other type of animal?

(here’s the controversial one)
How many of you took a shower before you came to church this morning?

Thank you for participating!

Most of us have these little rituals that we do as part of our morning routines.

I’ve heard of some people who just have to have a Starbucks coffee to get going, or I know some other people who might take walks or go running as part of our routine…some of us might read some scripture or a devotional in the mornings before we get going for the day…some of us might even hit up Wal-Mart or Rhodes for a sugar fix before church.

I’ve even heard rumors that there’s one group that hits up Jitters instead of coming to Sunday School as part of their routine!   

Whatever the routine is that you have…it helps you ‘get ready’ for the day, right?

We all have these little rituals that we perform that help us put the day in perspective.

In other words, having a cup of coffee in the morning is more than just a shot of caffeine.

For many of us, it’s a whole experience that kind of ‘grounds’ us in reality (no pun intended).

Have you ever heard someone say something like “don’t talk to me until I’ve had my coffee”?  I can almost guarantee that it’s not just the caffeine that they’re needing.

There’s more to it.

See, Reality is a very fragile thing.

And over thousands of years of developing something called civilization, we’ve come up with ways to trick ourselves into thinking that it really isn’t all that fragile.

We prefer to believe that the reality we know is predictable, stable, and enduring.

So we develop routines that help create that story.

My making coffee in the morning is actually a ritual that says ‘this coffee and everything I need to make it is here this morning, just like it was yesterday morning, and just like it will be tomorrow’.

Our routines tell the stories we want to be true.

Over time, some routines turn into traditions.

Think of the birthday traditions you grew up with, or that you observe now.

For example, the tradition of giving gifts.  It’s a tradition, that tells the story that the person having the birthday is worth something.  They matter, they’re life matters, and it’s worth marking the occasion by giving them a gift.

It’s an act of celebration, but it’s rooted in a tradition.
Without the tradition of gathering together and enjoying a feast, the most Thanksgiving has to offer is just a day off of work.

Without traditions, Christmas loses some of its meaning.

Our rituals and our traditions tell the stories we want to be true.

Are you with me?

The tradition of giving an engagement ring to the one you love…you’re trying to enact a story of love between two people.

The tradition of shaking hands when you meet someone…you’re hoping to enact a relationship of trust and open-handedness between you.

Many of our most cherished traditions have stood the test of time, and they’re woven tightly into the fabric of our community.

The problem is, traditions can just as easily tear a community apart rather than building it up.

And I think that’s what Jesus was getting at in the passage we’re looking at this morning.

As we heard already, Some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus and asked him “why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders?  They don’t wash their hands before they eat!”

We don’t have to guess as to what this tradition was.

If you turn to Mark chapter 7, verses 3 and 4, you’ll find a description of this tradition that the Pharisees were concerned about.

Matthew was probably looking at Mark’s book when he was writing this, and he probably chose to omit this description because his audience was different than Mark’s.  Matthew’s audience was pretty Jewish, so they were probably already familiar with the tradition that’s being questioned…the washing of hands.

We’re not Jewish, so it’s helpful to see that Mark’s description.
He basically says that the Pharisees would not eat unless they gave their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders.

And he goes on to list a few other traditions they had that were similar in intent…things like washing themselves after being at the market, washing cups, pitchers and kettles.

None of that seems all that unusual, right?

In fact, these seem like healthy, sanitary practices that would be good for the general health of the community.

And yet, Jesus gets a little bit testy when his followers are questioned for not doing these things.

So what are supposed to think?  Are we worshipping a slob?

Aren’t these first disciples worried about hygiene?

I’m kind of with the Pharisees on this one.

I might as well tell you, Christine and I have a tradition of our own that’s very similar…we wash our hands good after we get home from church each Sunday!

Nothing against any of you…we just don’t like being sick, so we take the precaution before we eat Sunday lunch and wash our hands good (and we encourage you to do the same!).

I’m getting off topic though.

I don’t think Jesus was a slob.

I don’t think he or his disciples had anything against washing hands.

These Pharisees and the Teachers of the law, they were pretty sure Jesus and his group were missing the mark.

See, they were students of scripture…they knew the law, they knew about God, and they had been as faithful as they could be to the traditions that had been handed down for centuries.

I think they were honestly concerned about things like how to maintain their distinctively religious identity in a pagan culture, and how to stay ‘clean’, or ceremonially pure so that they could continue to enjoy God’s blessing, and continue to perform the rites of the religious institution they were part of.

I don’t know about you, but I’m sure glad we never think like that.

I’m sure glad we don’t deal with identity issues as the culture changes around us.

I’m glad we never have to worry about how to procure God’s blessing, or how to maintain a religious institution in a world where loyalties are divided and commitments are conflicting.

I’m glad we have the science to back up our washing of hands.
But Jesus isn’t interested in that conversation.

They want to talk about washing hands.  

We might want to talk about Romney or Obama.

But just like Jesus usually does, he doesn’t take the bait!

They want to talk about hand-washing, and he replies with this whole thing about how to honor your parents your whole life long!

See, Leviticus is the book that the Pharisees were getting these traditions from.

There’s a fairly long list in Leviticus that starts around chapter 10, and stretches into the 20’s.

It’s full of ritual laws, like how to avoid defilement, and the importance of washing away defilement as soon as it occurs in order to stay true to God.

It’s a list that urges the people of God to distinguish “between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean.” (Lev. 10:10).

This was important stuff.  You could say it was foundational stuff in the religious life of Israel.

Jesus and his followers weren’t staying clean.

That’s just as true metaphorically as it is literally.

They were guilty.  They were dirty.  They were defiled, according to Leviticus.

But look at what came out of their mouths!  Hope!  And Healing!  And Blessing!!!

It is not what goes into a person that makes them unclean.

It might make them sick…but not ‘unclean’.

It’s what comes out of their mouth…That’s what makes them ‘unclean’.

I’ve worked with some seriously foul-mouthed people.

I’m not talking about the occasional cussword here and there…I’m talking about a gut-level, soul-wrenching, downright disturbing use of language.

So I can tell you, as you probably already know…that what Jesus is naming here is almost common sense.

And the language we choose reflects the reality we live in.

And the reality we live in is even more powerful than the traditions that tell the story we hope comes true.

In other words, the Pharisees want to talk about Leviticus.
But Jesus points back to the Exodus.

He points back to the Ten Commandments…the Big Ten.

And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the one he mentions is about honoring your father and mother.

There’s a sort of parallel passage in John chapter 8, where a fiery Jesus goes so far as to tell the Pharisees that they belong to their father the devil, and they want to carry out their father’s desires.

He doesn’t really mince words.

Let me say it like this.

There was this system in the temple where basically I could wash my hands of caring for my parents by devoting myself and my income to the temple.  Then I could just say “sorry mom and dad…whatever help I could have given you as you grow older is tied up for God”.

God wants nothing to do with that kind of thing.

That’s one point that Jesus was making.

But I think there’s a point behind the point.

Honoring your father and mother is a big commandment.  It’s one of the big ten, so we should probably care about it as we go about our business here on earth.

But we can also think about this in terms of our heavenly lineage.

Remember…out of all the sermons I’ve preached over the past 5 years…remember that we are first and foremost beloved children of God.

Not just us though…the guy or the girl using that gut-wrenching language…they’re children of God too. 

Until we get that in our heads, in our hearts, and reflected in our lives…our witness and our faith are ineffective.

We are first and foremost beloved children of God, not rule-makers and not rule-breakers.  Sometimes we’re both of those things…but never first.

It is not what goes into us that makes us clean or unclean.

It’s what comes out of our mouths…for the mouth speaks from the overflow of the heart.

May the word of God fill each of our hearts to overflowing.


Homeland Security

August 29, 2012 § Leave a comment

Philippians 3:17-4:1          Homeland Security        August 12, 2012
As Christine and I were reading the scriptures from the bulletin last week, I was reminded of an article that I found in a book a number of months ago.  

And as is often the case with things that interest me, I started trying to work it into my sermon for this morning.  

It’s from a magazine called “Homes and Gardens”, in their November issue from a few years back, and the subject is a well-known public political figure whom I think we all know.  

See if you can guess who it’s about.  

The reporter was a guest in the home of our mystery man, and wrote the following article based on his observations while he was there.  It’s quite revealing.  (here we go)…

“There is nothing pretentious about the little estate.  It is one that any merchant…might possess in these lovely hills…Meals are often served on the terrace on little tables shaded by big canvas umbrellas…[the owner] delights in the society of brilliant foreigners, especially painters, musicians and singers.  (he must have a taste for the arts).

…The guest bedrooms are hung with old engravings.  But more interesting than any of these to the visitor are [the owner’s] own water-colour sketches…none measures more than about eight inches square, and each is signed by [the host] himself…

The gardens are laid out simply enough.  Lawns at different levels are planted with flowering shrubs as well as roses and other blooms in due season.  The [host], I may add, has a passion about cut flowers in his home, as well as for music.  

Every morning at nine he goes out for a talk with the gardeners about their day’s work.  These men… are not so much servants as loyal friends.  

A life-long vegetarian…, [our host’s] kitchen plots are both varied and heavy on produce.”  (he must be concerned about his physical health).

I won’t go on.  

The article goes on to describe the mystery man’s love for dog breeding, his love for children, and the graciousness he shows his community in periodically opening up his home for an elaborate ‘fun fair’, complete with cake, fruit, and sweets for the children to enjoy as they frolic around his sprawling, well-kept, and beautiful grounds.

It closes with some parting words from the host as he stands and takes in the estate with the reporter beside him.  

“This place is mine” he says, simply.  “I built it with money that I earned.”  

Any guesses as to who it might be?

Based on this article, he’s an artistic guy who loves music and seeks to surround himself with beauty.  He cares about his physical well-being, and He has a soft spot for children and pets.  He sounds like a gracious host with a good work ethic, who opens his home freely.

Any guesses?

It was Adolph Hitler.    

The article appears in Homes and Gardens magazine, in the November issue from 1938.


…so what are we supposed to think?  

Have the history books gotten the story wrong?  

If we knew Hitler personally, if we would have been a guest on his estate, would we think differently of him today?  

Is it any easier to forgive the atrocities he committed, knowing that he was such a lover of the arts and such a gracious host?  

Of course not.  

If anything, reading this article exposing the ‘softer side’ of Hitler makes the dilemma that much more complex.  

And at least for me, it makes reading the Bible that much more interesting…because if anyone in the world can be considered “wicked” through and through…I’d make the case that it was Adolph Hitler.  

We love to hate Hitler.  His name alone has become symbolic of some of the worst evil our world has ever seen.  

And yet, it’s evident that He told himself, his close friends, and the readers of “Homes and Gardens” magazine a story that’s not all that different than the story I tell about myself….a story I’m guessing you tell about yourselves, too.  

The story is some version of this:  “This place is mine.  I built it with money that I earned.”  

As true as that story might be…as proud of that story as we might be…

It’s not the story that’s going to endure.  

It’s not going to last.  

Paul writes to the Philippians about what will last…and that’s our citizenship in heaven.  

Everything else will pass away.  

So, what are you building right now?  

We live in the age of information, a culture of self-hype.  

It’s never been easier than it is right now, to present the world with a version of ourselves that’s been airbrushed to perfection.  

But the question we’ve got to ask, is how long is it going to last?  

Ten years after you die, Nobody is going to care about your facebook profile, or the story you’re currently telling about yourself.  

Eternity starts now.  

But the question is not how to be remembered well.  

The question is the same as it’s always been…Who is your God?  

Your actions always speak louder than your words…so who is your God?  

It’s interesting, somebody once told me that if  you really want to gauge someone’s character, you should look at how they treat the poor, the lame, the needy…the people who can’t do anything for them in return.  

It’s true of Character, but it’s also true if you want to see someone’s God.  

When we abandon God, we abandon the people on the margins.  

When we abandon God, we’re left with no god but our stomach, as Paul puts it.  We glory in our shame and our destiny is destruction.  

When Earth is our homeland, we begin to exchange God’s Truth for lies…lies about creation, lies about ourselves… when we abandon God, we begin to exchange the glorious mystery of life for easy answers and a bunch of hype about ‘Homeland Security’.  

And that term makes it clear who’s in and who’s out.  

But this is not our home.  

Our citizenship is in heaven.  

And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ.  

I have to believe that even Hitler was not beyond the reach of God.  

I have to believe that even Hitler could have been redeemed by the transformative touch and love of God, because if we’re not holding on to the hope that people can change…that God can transform even the most wicked person…then our faith is worthless and we have no hope.  

But the Truth of a person is always bigger than what we can see.  

We can judge a tree by it’s fruit…don’t hear me wrong.  

We can judge a person’s character by the deeds that they do.  

But hope and judgement are two different things.  

Hope is our job.  

Judgment is God’s.  

That’s why Paul writes to the Philippians, saying “Let us live up to what we have already attained.  Join with others in following my example, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you.”  

Live by example.  

Have role models.  

The surest way to change your character is to change your behavior.  

Seek out good role models.  

Find a mentor.  

Look around, find someone you want to be like…and imitate them.  

Then take it a step further, and listen to what people have to say to you.  Listen to the story other people tell concerning your life.  

It’s hard to hear if it comes in the form of criticism…but it’s important to hear, nonetheless.  

Our actions in this world have eternal consequences.  

And Eternity begins today.  

There is the potential for righteousness and wickedness in each one of us.  
We live in the tension between good and evil.  

The challenge for today, if you should choose to accept it, is this.  

Find someone who will tell you what you need to hear.  

And listen to them.  

You’ll be transformed from this encounter far more than you ever will from a sermon.  

Look at yourself in the mirror and ask yourself “what’s going to last in my life”?  

What kind of difference is there between the story I’m telling about myself, and the story others are telling?  

What are the poor saying about me?

What are those on the margins saying about who I am?

God’s story is bigger than any of ours…but how is it being told in your life?  

Press on.  Stand firm in God.  Do not exchange God’s Truth for the lie that this is all there is…for this is not our homeland, and our citizenship is in heaven.  

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