Stormy Weather and Stormy Lives

by Jordan McKenzie

We’ve had some stormy weather the last couple of days in the Dayton area. After the storms passed yesterday, I realized how lucky I am (and you probably are) be safe inside a cool place with plenty of food and water. When millions of other people around the world have no food to eat for dinner tonight and no home go to this evening, I was reminded that gratitude should be my response. Yet I was also reminded of something else: The Parable of the Wise and the Foolish Builders.

The gospels of Matthew and Luke both record Jesus telling a story about two builders who are building homes. One builds his house on solid rock, while the other builds his house on sand. Not surprisingly, when a storm hits, the house on solid rock stays standing strong, while the house built on sand is blown away when it’s hit by the winds and rain.

This is a story most of us have heard since we were kids. When you’re a kid, this story doesn’t mean much. Sure, it’s a cute story, but it probably stays in the abstract. As adults, this story becomes more powerful. Because the story is an honest account of what really happens in our lives. Storms do come.

I love it that Jesus doesn’t beat around the bush; he’s honest in the fact that storms will come. He’s honest about the reality of pain and disappointment. Yet he offers us hope in the midst of those storms.

However, the hope he gives us is optional. In the story of the two builders, the outcome was ultimately up to the builders themselves. It wasn’t God who destroyed one house and let the other house stand. It was the two builders who each decided where to build: one on the solid rock and one on the sand. They each determined their own fate.

So what are you putting your faith in today? Is it in something fleeting? Maybe a relationship, a career, being well-liked by others, or a having a carefree retirement? These things tempt us, even in ways we wouldn’t like to admit. But the truth is that all of these things will come to an end. So the question is, are you really putting your faith in the solid rock of Christ?

If you’ve made that decision to build on the solid foundation of Christ, what are you doing today to build your faith? Are you taking the steps necessary to strengthen your relationship with Christ so your faith can withstand the storms of life? Are you truly being all that God has called you to be?

I hope your answer is yes. If not, know that in this season of Pentecost the Spirit will give you strength as you do your best to follow Christ. Because the storms will come and the decision is ours. Either we build our lives on the sand or we build our lives on the solid rock. The decision we choose will make all the difference in the world, especially when the weather’s stormy.


Being the Church (not just on Broadway)

This past weekend, we finished our most recent sermon series, called “Finding the Bible on Broadway,” during which we looked at several Broadway musicals and the biblical stories they tell. From “Children of Eden”, to “Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat”,  to “Godspell”, to “Jesus Christ Superstar”,  we found there was lots to talk about in how these plays told these familiar stories. Sometimes the musicals stayed close to biblical portray of events, sometimes they altered them drastically. But there’s no doubt that all these musicals were deeply affected by the spiritual heritage of the Bible and its enduring stories.

As I reflect on the series, I’m thinking about how our culture and the wider world has been affected by the stories in our Bible. Clearly, the stories have impacted our culture in a major way. The majority of people are at least somewhat familiar with these stories and would probably say that they have some important truths to offer. But many won’t move past that to living a life of faith. Many simply admire them from a distance. This is in large part, I believe, because they think the truths these stories may be irrelevant to or impossible in our fast-paced, modern world.

That’s where I believe the Church comes in. We in the Church bring the truths found in these stories to life. Not only in our retelling of these stories in worship, but through our living out of those truths in our everyday life. In our everyday life, we show that the truths in these musicals- like humility, forgiveness, and grace- are not simply fantasies that may happen in these Broadway shows, but can actually be lived out in our world. Thus being the Church means keeping the biblical heritage alive.  By making our lives a living testimony, we offer a witness to our culture. We show that the spiritual truths found on Broadway can truly change not only our lives but the world- if we’re willing to live them out.



Baseball, Sin, and (Not) Repaying Evil with Evil

by Rev. Jordan McKenzie

Those who know me know that I am a proud sports fan. Some may even know that my favorite sport happens to be baseball (Go Reds!).  In the morning I often check what happened in the games from the previous day. Last week one morning I was checking out some of the highlights from the previous day’s games when I came across the latest incident in the series between the Red Sox and Orioles.  To give some context, here’s the background to the incident.

In their game last last Monday night, Orioles star third basemen Manny Machado made an aggressive slide into second base, which injured Red Sox star second baseman, Dustin Pedroia. Later in the game, in retaliation, a Red Sox relief pitcher intentionally thew at Machado when he came up to bat.  In response to that, an Orioles pitcher then threw at a Red Sox player.

In the next game on Tuesday night, Machado came to bat in the first inning. What happened? You guessed it, the Red Sox pitcher threw at Machado again, nearly hitting him in the head with a 100 mph fastball.

If you’re not a baseball fan and you’re following along, here’s a summary: an Orioles star player slid hard into second base, injuring a Red Sox star player. The Red Sox responded by throwing at the Orioles player, who then responded by throwing back at a Red Sox player, who then once again responded by throwing back at an Orioles player.

Confusing? Yes. Complicated? Yes. Unheard of in baseball? Not at all.

This sort of incident is something that happens quite frequently in baseball, as there is an “unwritten rule” in baseball that if someone makes a dirty play against someone on your team, you throw at them the next time they come to bat. This is commonplace. The problem is when both teams continue hitting each other in continued retaliation. This sometimes happens when there is already a pre-existing rivalry, like in this case.

As I was thinking about this, I thought about how this little baseball incident describes our world so well. How many of the conflicts that we get in as people, whether it’s between individuals, family members, different groups, or even different countries, are ultimately unnecessary? How often is it that we get caught up into battles that in the big picture, are really silly? How many of the fights that we get in really come down not to the issue itself, but to our need to be right? Many I would say. But that is the nature of sin. It often pulls us in ways that we don’t anticipate and leads us to places we don’t expect to go. A quick moment of flirting leads to an affair, a jealous thought leads to a grudge, or a feeling of pride leads to a broken relationship.

When we face a situation when we’re upset with someone else, it’s easy to get pulled in and caught up in the passion of the moment. When we feel wronged, our natural response is to wrong someone back. In biblical terms, this is called “repaying evil with evil.” Soon this dance develops into an endless battle of hostility as both parties battle each other.

Yet, our faith teaches us to do otherwise. Jesus tells us not to hurt our enemies, but to pray for them (Matthew 5:44). Paul, echoing Jesus, tells us not to repay evil with evil, but to repay evil with good, even serving and helping them (Romans 12:17-21).

Today, I hope to remember those words. It’s hard for baseball players. But it’s even harder for us in real life.

“You’re a good, good Father”

Rachel Coleman

I try to get to the local rec center early for workouts, partly because it gets me in and out before the local trainer gets there. One of his clients talks non-stop at high volume—a bit much for me before that second cup of coffee! This morning our workouts coincided, but today the loud and ceaseless flow of chatter was heart-breaking rather than annoying. The trainer and the client were sharing stories of broken relationships with parents who had abandoned their families to go after other loves. The deep and shattering pain of that betrayal oozed out with every word, even when it tried to hide under dark humor. Both of them at different points in the conversation summed it up: “They sold us out.”

As they talked and I cycled, I prayed that each of them would encounter the good, good Father who is always for us, always faithful, willing to go to the uttermost because of his love for us. God’s movement is always toward us, never away from us. The whole story of Scripture shows his relentless pursuit of intimacy and communion with us. After the God-human fellowship—walking and talking in the garden in the cool of the day—was broken by sin and intimacy was replaced by alienation, God himself is the one who set out to restore the relationship. Scripture tells of the Father’s progressively more intense pursuit of his children. First, there was the tabernacle: God says, “I will dwell in your midst, in the middle of your camp.” That wasn’t enough, so then there was the Incarnation: God says, “I am here with you—see me, walk with me, laugh with me, touch me, have dinner with me.” But that wasn’t enough either, since the human body of Jesus limited him to one space and one moment in time. God’s longing was for deep intimacy with all of his children, all the time, so then there was Pentecost: God says, “I will dwell within you, through the Holy Spirit.”

May you know the pursuing love of the good, good Father who rejoices over you with songs of joy! (Zephaniah 3:17)

Hold Your Horses!

By Jordan McKenzie

In case you weren’t aware, this week is Holy Week, the week that leads up to Easter. For those actively involved in church, especially pastors and other staff, this is the busiest week of the year. There are invitations to give to potential guests, extra services to plan, and special worship items to prepare.

But it’s not just a busy week for pastors or those that work at churches. Easter week seems to be busy for everyone. Some are getting ready to have friends and family over for Easter Sunday, others are travelling, some are just getting back from a spring break trip. Oh, and that’s doesn’t count the everyday things that make our lives busy this time of year.

When thinking about how busy we are in this season, I think the great temptation is to rush through this week. With everything else happening in our lives, it’s so easy not to be fully present for this week. We think about our plans for Easter Sunday but not so much for the rest of the week.

But I believe there is a power in remembering this week. Not remembering this week in a generic or general sense, but remembering this week in a very real sense, as in this week when Jesus journeyed to the cross. There is a power in remembering the steps that led up to Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection. There is a power in remembering what it was like for him and his disciples when he was betrayed, arrested, put on trial, and killed. There is a power in remembering his sacrifice. In fact, it’s only through remembering that sacrifice that we can fully appreciate Easter Sunday. And that’s the reason why we have special services. So that we can remember the events of this week and feel just a hint of what they must have been like the first time that were lived.

So this week, my prayer is that you and I would be fully present. That in the midst of the busyness of each day this week, you would give some thought to what this week meant to Jesus and his disciples. And in so doing, I pray that we would prepare our hearts for Easter.

Who Wants a Fresh Start?

Do you ever feel like you need a fresh start? Like you go one step forward and two steps back? Or like you keep coming up against the same obstacles over and over again?

During our current sermon series on baggage, one thing God’s been teaching me is the constant opportunity we have for a fresh start. Several characters we’ve been talking about, like Nicodemus, the woman at the well, or the man who was blind, were searching for the same thing when they found Jesus. They desired a fresh start. They wanted to go in a new direction. Even if they weren’t exactly aware of their need, Jesus was always there, with his infinite love and compassion, to offer it to them. That doesn’t mean it was always easy, or that Jesus took this lightly, but these stories remind us that there is constant call with Jesus that a fresh start and new life is available through him.

This isn’t a deep theological insight or something that hasn’t been said before. It just a reminder that no matter how many times we’ve failed or how frustrated we are, Jesus is always there offering us this. He is the way, the truth, and the light, the one who is also there pulling us forward, even when we don’t know it. So don’t waste the opportunity. If you need a fresh start in some part of your life, start anew with boldness and confidence that you can move past his challenge through Jesus.

Life-Shaping Words, Part 2

Rev. Rachel Coleman

(Luke 10:25-37)

(See Part 1 below)

In part 1, we looked at how the Ten Words (Exodus 20) are given to shape the life of the people of God. In Luke 10, we find Jesus’ dramatic illustration of how forgetting the Ten Words deforms our life. Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan to illustrate the difference between knowing the Ten Words and living them. The parable is prompted by a question from “an expert in religious law” (let’s call him Lawyer Dude): “Teacher, what should I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answers the man’s question with a couple of his own. The first is easy for Lawyer Dude: “What does the law of Moses say?” Jesus’ second question cuts deeper: “How do you read it?” In other words, “How do you interpret and apply what you know? Does your reading shape your living?” The man really does seem to get it—he gives a great two-line summary of the Ten Words: “love God”, “love neighbor.” This earns him an authoritative imperative: “Do this and you will live!”

Lawyer Man is uncomfortable with the implications, and wants “to justify his actions.” He is angling for a loophole for wiggling out of some part of the love-God-love-neighbor package that he isn’t willing to fulfill. “Who is my neighbor?” he asks. He’s looking for boundary markers to keep him safe and comfortable. What he really wants to know is: Who is NOT my neighbor? Jesus is drawing Lawyer Dude uncomfortably close to his “squirm point”—where he is uncomfortably aware that what he already knows about God’s will could pose a sharp challenge to his attitudes, actions, and beliefs. We can totally understand Lawyer Dude’s desire for boundaries. Living at the end of decades of shrinking national territory and privilege, the reaction of many Jews was to draw ever-tighter and narrower lines around who was “in,” who counted in the “love your neighbor” command. Gentiles were definitely out; half-breed Samaritans were probably out. The desire to protect their national identity and fear of contaminating their religious traditions led to building metaphorical fences around Judaism—a reaction that went in the opposite direction of the Ten Words themselves! Israel’s life shaped by the Words was intended to spill over in blessing for all people, not be kept inside a wall.

So Jesus tells a story, with the question still hanging in the air: “Who is my neighbor?” There are only five characters: a man who gets robbed, beaten up, and left to die; three passersby; and an innkeeper. The first character, nameless and faceless, is simply human, and he simply lies on the ground, the focal point for the actions of the three passersby. The first two people who come along are good, religious guys. Both men did exactly the same two things: they SAW the wounded man and CROSSED to the other side. Their seeing led them to distance themselves from the victim. Then the story takes an unexpected, unwelcome twist. An anti-hero, a despised Samaritan, someone who should have been cast as one of the robbers, now appears as the good guy. Like the religious men, he SAW. But his seeing leads not to distance, but to kindness and sacrifice, because it is fueled by COMPASSION. In Luke’s Gospel, compassion has characterized both the Father (1:78) and Jesus’ (7:13) response to human need. This despicable Samaritan’s behavior looks a lot like God’s! Jesus closes the story with yet another question to the lawyer: “Which of the three was a neighbor?” Forget about defining the boundaries of neighbor; forget about deciding which categories of persons are covered by the love command. Jesus is interested in his people BEING neighbors. Lawyer Dude gulps and gives the only possible answer, “The one who showed mercy.” Once again, Jesus’ response is: “Go and do likewise.” Don’t just know the Words—live them!

Luke 10 shows us what happens when those life-shaping Words are kept carefully in our “religion box” but not allowed to operate with transforming power in our lives. If that’s where we are today, how do we reclaim a life shaped by the Words? Perhaps two questions will help us begin that process: Do we recognize our “squirm points”? Where are those points where what you know about God and God’s will threatens to challenge your cherished convictions or your personal preferences or your attitudes or your habits? Where are the life-shaping Words pressing in to shape and reshape us? How will you respond? How is the quality of our vision? A vision made keen by compassion is what caused the Samaritan to act in a way that reflected the character of God.

Palabras que forman la vida, Parte 2

(Lucas 10.25-37)

En la primera parte, vimos como las Diez Palabras (Éxodo 20) se dan para formar la vida del pueblo de Dios. En Lucas 10, encontramos la ilustración dramática que Jesús presenta de cómo olvidar las Palabras deforma nuestra vida. Jesús cuenta la parábola del Buen Samaritano para ilustrar la diferencia entre conocer las Palabras y vivirlas. La parábola responde a una pregunta de “un experto en la ley” (llamémoslo Don Abogado): “Maestro, ¿qué debo hacer para heredar la vida eterna?” Jesús le contesta con otras preguntas. La primera es fácil para Don Abogado: “¿Qué dice la ley de Moisés?” La segunda pregunta de Jesús es más aguda: “¿Cómo lo lees?” En otras palabras, “¿Cómo interpretas y aplicas lo que sabes? ¿Tu leer forma tu vivir?” Don Abogado parece comprenderlo bien—da un buen resumen en dos líneas de las Diez Palabras: “ama a Dios”, “ama al prójimo”. Esta respuesta le gana un imperativo autoritativo: “¡Haz esto y vivirás!”

Don Abogado se siente incómodo con las implicaciones, y desea “justificar sus acciones”. Busca un resquicio legal que le perdone alguna parte del paquete ama-a-Dios-ama-al-prójimo que él no está dispuesto a cumplir.  “¿Quién es mi prójimo?” pregunta. Busca marcadores de límite que lo mantengan seguro y cómodo. Lo que realmente desea saber es: ¿Quién NO es mi prójimo? Jesús le está llevando a Don Abogado al punto de máxima incomodidad, el punto donde él estará dolorosamente consciente de que lo que ya conoce de la voluntad de Dios es capaz de enfrentarlo con un desafío fuerte a sus actitudes, acciones y creencias. Entendemos ese deseo para límites. Los judíos de aquella época vivían al final de décadas de disminución de territorios y privilegios nacionales; la reacción de muchos judíos era trazar límites cada vez más estrechos alrededor de los que se incluían en el mandato sobre amar al prójimo. Los gentiles seguramente no entraban en esa categoría; los samaritanos probablemente no contaban como el prójimo. El deseo de proteger su identidad nacional y el miedo de contaminar sus tradiciones religiosas condujo a la construcción de muros metafóricos alrededor del judaísmo—¡una reacción que contradecía directamente la dirección de las Diez Palabras! La vida de Israel, formada por las Palabras, debía rebosar en bendición para todos los pueblos, en vez de ser guardada y protegida dentro de un muro.

Así que Jesús cuenta una historia, con la pregunta pendiente haciendo eco en el contexto: “¿Quién es mi prójimo?” Hay sólo cinco personajes: un hombre que es atacado, robado y dejado medio muerto; tres viajeros; y el dueño del mesón. El primer personaje, sin nombre y sin identidad, es simplemente un ser humano y simplemente yace en el suelo, el punto de enfoque de los tres viajeros. Los primeros dos con hombres buenos y religiosos. Los dos hace exactamente lo mismo: VEN al hombre herido y CRUZAN la calle para seguir con su viaje. Su visión les hizo distanciarse del necesitado. En ese momento la parábola da un turno inesperado y no muy complaciente. Un anti-héroe, un samaritano odiado, alguien que debe haber jugado el papel del ladrón, ahora aparece como el héroe. Como los religiosos, él VE. Pero su visión resulta, no en distancia, sino en bondad y sacrificio, porque es motivado por la COMPASIÓN. En el Evangelio de Lucas, la compasión ha caracterizado al Padre (1.78) y a Jesús (7.13) cuando responden ante la necesidad humana. ¡La conducta de ese samaritano es muy parecido a la de Dios! Jesús termina la narrativa con una pregunta más para Don Abogado: “¿Cuál de los tres actuó como prójimo?” Olvídate de definir los límites de prójimo; olvídate de decidir qué categorías de personas caben dentro del mandamiento de amar. A Jesús le interesa que sus seguidores SEAN prójimos. Don Abogado traga saliva y de la única respuesta posible: “El que le mostró misericordia”. Una vez más, la respuesta de Jesús es: “Ve y haz lo mismo”. No es suficiente conocer las Palabras, ¡vívelas!

Lucas 10 nos muestra qué pasa cuando las Palabras que deben formar nuestras vidas son relegadas a yacer en nuestra “caja de religión” sin que se les permita un poder transformador en nuestra existencia. Si nos encontramos en esa situación hoy, ¿cómo recuperamos una vida formada por las Diez Palabras? Tal vez dos preguntas nos ayudan a comenzar: ¿Reconocemos nuestros puntos de incomodidad? ¿En qué punto existe una confrontación entre lo que ya conoces de la voluntad de Dios y tus convicciones queridas, tus preferencias personales o tus actitudes y hábitos? ¿En qué punto hoy las Palabras de vida nos están apretando, para formar y reformarnos? ¿Cómo vas a responder? ¿Cómo está nuestra visión? Una visión agudizada por la compasión es lo que motivó al samaritano a actuar de una manera que reflejaba el carácter de Dios.