Friday, February 23, 2007

Thoughts on 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12

Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you , so that your daily live may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.

I was just working on a Sunday School lesson on 1 Thessalonians, and this passage hit me in a way it really hasn’t before. Maybe there’s a sermon in it someday, but there’s at least room for some initial unformed thoughts here, I hope.

I am so challenged by Paul’s writing—always, really, but especially here: “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life.” I never used to think of ambition this way. I have had several ambitions in my life.

Go to college: check.
Meet a lovely girl and get married: check.
Go to seminary: check.
Get a Ph.D. in Old Testament Studies: no check. Thankfully. I can’t believe I used to want to do this.
Become a dad: check.
Pastor a church: check.
Get a Ph.D. in Liturgical Studies: che. (Half a check.)
Write a book. Not yet…

I used to think I was going to achieve this out of my own strength and sheer force of will. Then I discovered that some mountains simply don’t move, no matter how hard you shove them.

So I discovered the usefulness of a “quiet life.” A quiet life has been invaluable to me in pursuing my ambitions. I have found that a life and spirit rightly ordered, a quiet life where God is in control and I learn to be happy in submission, does amazing things. It is a quiet life that enables me to pursue these ambitions, ambitions that I deeply believe God wants me to pursue. A quiet spirit is essential to all my tasks now: without it, I couldn’t pastor, go to school, be a husband, be a father, nothing. In fact, I believe my performance in these areas is often tied to how quiet my spirit is.

So I was feeling pretty happy with my spiritual growth in the last few years, and this key recognition about a “quiet life” that changed my way of thinking.
Yet Paul wants to push me deeper.

Apparently, a “quiet life,” for Paul, is not a tool to be used to achieve ambitions. A quiet life is itself a worthy ambition. A quiet life is the goal, not the tool used to acheive goals. This, of course, carries a lot of connotations. If your sink is leaking, and the proper tools are not close at hand, then you can rig something else up to stop the leak. It might not be exactly what the tool was designed for, but in the end, it’ll work (at least for a little while).

When we treat a quiet life as a tool, this is the risk we run. Paul doesn’t want us to see the quiet life as a tool because it’s all too easy for some of us to forget the quiet life altogether and use inferior tools which seem to get the job done but are doomed to failure. We fall back on our personality or our intellect or our drive and soon forget the quiet life altogether.

For Christians, a “quiet life” is not a tool, but the goal. It is that we must pursue recklessly, even when it makes no sense to others, even others we care about. Not because we need it to accomplish something, but because if we don’t have it, we miss something essential to Christianity.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Sermon for Sunday, February 25

Hi all--thought I'd try something new this week. I'm posting a (rough) draft of my sermon for next Sunday, February 25. I'm hoping that you all can give me some constructive feedback on it before I preach it on Sunday. What do you like about it? What do you not like about it? More to the point, what's right about it and what's wrong with it? It's a thorny issue, to be sure.

Your comments are welcome (and encouraged!) whether you're a part of our church or whether you're someone reading from a distance. You are welcome to post anonymously, but comments posted with a name will be treated with greater regard than hit and runs.

If this seems to catch on, I'll try it again next week.

The text is Luke 4:1-13, the Temptation of Jesus, but especially focusing on v. 1: "Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness."

The story of Jesus’ temptation is one that we read almost every year during Lent. So if you’ve been here in previous years, you’ve probably heard me talk about it before; and you’re probably pretty sure that at this point, you could preach the sermon yourself.

Yes, yes; Jesus went out into the wilderness, and there he was tempted by the devil. After he had fasted for forty days, the devil shows up and says, “You’re really hungry, aren’t you? Why don’t you command these stones to become bread?” And Jesus says, “Ah, but don’t you know that we don’t live by bread alone?”

Yes, yes, you know the story. You know how after this, the devil took Jesus up to a high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of this world, and said, “Jesus, you can have all of these kingdoms if you will worship me.” But Jesus says, “Haven’t you ever read in the Scriptures where it says, “Worship the Lord your God and serve only Him?”

Then, of course, the devil took him to Jerusalem, to the highest pinnacle of the Temple and said, “If you’re the Son of God, just throw yourself off of this roof.” By this time, of course, Satan has caught on that Jesus is just quoting Scripture to him, so Satan quotes Scripture too: “It is written,” he said, “‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” And Jesus says, “Ah, but it is also written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

As I say, you know the story backwards and forwards by this point no doubt. And it is sort of a disturbing story in many ways: Jesus meets with the devil face-to-face? And he is tempted first to throw away his integrity by turning stones to bread; and then he is tempted to throw away his status as the Son of God by worshiping Satan; and then he is tempted to throw away his very life by hurling himself off of the pinnacle of the temple. It’s disturbing to think of our Savior face-to-face with evil itself, staring it down but nonetheless looking human in the process.

But sometimes, when we read this familiar passage, we miss what is perhaps the most disturbing piece of all, and it is to be found in verse 1: “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness...” Luke wants to make clear to us something that we would really rather not consider: that it was the Holy Spirit of God who led Jesus into the wilderness.

Of course, as I say, we would really rather not think about this passage because the wilderness was a place no one wanted to be. In modern suburban culture, it’s hard for us to imagine the connotations of the wilderness. Around here, I’m not exactly sure where the line between Exton and Downingtown really is. And past that, I’m not sure where the line between Downingtown and Thorndale is. And past that, I’m not sure where the line between Thorndale and Coatesville is. Each town just kind of bleeds into the next town. And so you might live in Thorndale, go to school in Coatesville, go to church in Exton and do your shopping in Downingtown. In fact, only approximately 16% of our church’s regular attendees live in Exton. We are a commuter church in a commuter culture.

But in those days, cities were walled-in and very very self-sufficient. Cities and towns were walled-in to keep the wilderness at bay. Within the city walls, there was safety and the rule of law prevailed. But in the wilderness, anything could happen. You never ever wanted to be cast out of the city because it was not as simple as driving down the road a little bit into the next city. If you were outside of the city, you were in the wilderness and forced to survive alone. It was basically a death sentence to be pushed out into the wilderness.

Because the ancient Jews feared the wilderness so much, there arose a general understanding in the culture of the time that the wilderness was haunted by evil spirits and demons. In Isaiah 13, the prophet Isaiah is prophesying the destruction of Babylon and saying that that city will once again become wilderness and he says, “Wild animals will lie down there, and its houses will be full of howling creatures; there ostriches will live, and there goat-demons will dance.” Dangers both physical and spiritual were understood to exist in the wilderness.

In our culture, of course, we do not have to worry about being put out into the wilderness and so often, for us, the wilderness carries romantic connotations; we love the thought of striking out into the wilderness and conquering the Appalachian Trail; those of us who are a little more sedate like to glorify the wilderness by watching movies like Castaway or TV shows like Survivor, which pretends to be a wilderness of sorts. But there was no such glorification of the wilderness in that culture; there was only terror, because the wilderness meant certain death.

And so it is especially disturbing to read this passage where we read that Jesus was full of the Holy Spirit and led by that Holy Spirit into the wilderness. How could God’s Spirit do such a thing to him? How could God’s Spirit take Jesus away from everything he knew, everything that was safe, to go and meet the devil face-to-face? It seems so foreign to how we understand God; it seems so strange to think of God leading someone out into a place that just inspires sheer terror! We like to think about God’s Spirit as the Comforter, and indeed, God’s Spirit does bring us comfort. Or we like to think about God’s Spirit as our Advocate, the one who teaches, reveals and interprets Jesus to us and us to God. But we most certainly do not like to think of the Holy Spirit as one who would push someone out into the wilderness.

What is the wilderness in your life? While we do not fear the physical wilderness anymore, the wilderness metaphor is an important one for understanding the gospel, I think. We all have wildernesses in our lives. We all have safe places, places within our “city limits,” and we all have wildernesses, places outside those “city limits” where we fear going because we are sure we will not survive if we go there.

For some of us, the wilderness is sickness. We are so sure that we will be fine as long as we are physically well, but sure if we get sick, that something in us will crumble. We are certain that sickness will defeat us. We men are especially like this and so we don’t like to go see doctors. We are fine as long as we can trick ourselves into thinking that we are OK, that we’re not going to have to face the vulnerability and unpleasantness of sickness. As long as we do not have to go into that wilderness called sickness, we’ll be OK.

For some of us, the wilderness is grief. We can’t imagine life without a certain other person: a parent, perhaps, or a spouse. As long as that person is with us, we feel we are within the city limits, that everything is OK, that everything will work out. But if that person were to leave us, or were to pass away, that would put us out into the wilderness, and we are sure that if we ever were to be separate from that person, we might just not survive.

For some of us, the wilderness is having to depend on someone else. We treasure our autonomy, our independence, so much, that we just can’t imagine life without it. And so we are just certain that if we were to lose our independence, we would die. If we were to have to rely on another person to cook for us, clean for us, bathe us, or wheel us around, we think we no longer would be really alive. For some of us, that’s a real wilderness.

For some of us, the wilderness is letting go of a dream we had long held dear. Perhaps you had always had a certain dream for your life, a certain hope that one day you would be able to live in a certain part of the world, or have a certain type of job, or have a certain type of family. I think I’ve told you before that growing up with a name like Michael Jordan, I always wanted to be a professional basketball player. But there comes a time when a paunchy 29-year-old has to look at himself in the mirror and say, “You know–that’s just not happening.” Now, of course, that is a silly dream and one I can gratefully let go of. But there are simpler dreams that many of us have: to have a big, happy family; to have a job doing something you love and feel called to; to see the world, to travel; to live in a quiet home in a quiet place. And dreams like that are hard to let go of for many of us; in fact, letting go of that dream can be like plunging into the wilderness.

No matter what your wilderness is, we all have one. For some of us, it is a place we are currently avoiding like the plague; and some of us find ourselves in the midst of the wilderness right now.

And the terrifying implication of this passage is that sometimes the Holy Spirit pushes people into the wilderness. Now, please, don’t hear me wrong. I’m not saying that the Holy Spirit makes people sick, I’m not saying that God took your wife or husband away, I’m not saying that the Holy Spirit made you ill to the point you had to be dependent on someone else, I’m not saying the Holy Spirit shattered your dreams. But one of the foundational truths that we have to acknowledge as Christians is that God could eliminate all those troubles from our lives and yet God doesn’t. God is powerful enough to eliminate sickness, grief and pain and yet they remain in all of our lives; my pain is surely different from your pain, but it is pain nonetheless. It is a wilderness to us.

So what then are we to say? Are we in the hands of a powerful, cruel God who would drive us into the wilderness just for sport and watch while we writhe in pain? Can we talk sensibly about an all-loving, all-powerful God in a world with such pain?

The gospel is, of course, good news. And there is good news here, even though we often cannot see it with the blinders we wear. Yes, dreams die. Yes, there is pain of all kinds, brokenness of all sorts, and death around us: these things have been here since Adam and Eve first sinned in the Garden. The wilderness is part of what it means to be human.

The good news is that God takes our wildernesses, our wilderness experiences, and uses them to make us into new people. God uses the wilderness to do what cannot be done in any other way.

Do you know why? Because it is there in the wilderness that we have let all hope go; it is there in the wilderness that we have abandoned all of our dreams. It is only when we abandon our little dreams that God can give us his great dreams for our lives. It is there, in the wilderness, where God can look at us and say, “Your body may have disappointed you, your family may have disappointed you, your independence may have disappointed you, your dreams may have disappointed you, but I, the Lord, am holy and I do not disappoint. Now that you have stopped looking for satisfaction–and salvation–in yourself and in others, now you can finally seek it in me, and the one who seeks it will find it.”

Michael Card is one of my favorite musicians–he’s a Christian singer-songwriter, and has been at it for about 25 years. He writes thoughtful music, and recently he released an album that has songs of lament on it–songs of crying out to God when God seems hidden. It’s a powerful album. In an interview with Christianity Today, Card talked about a pastor friend of his who was on the way to visit someone in the hospital when he was struck by a drunk driver and paralyzed. And so he went into a long period of depression, as you or I or anyone would.

One day, he was lamenting in prayer; he was crying out to God, and he had a profound sense of God’s presence. Michael Card doesn’t exactly explain what that was, but I get the impression that he was just caught up in an ecstatic moment where he sensed the presence of God very close. If you’ve never been in one of those situations, I can’t really explain it, but it was this deep, profound sense that God is here. And as he was caught up in this sensation, he began to feel his sense of God’s presence departing. Not that God was leaving him, but just that that feeling of closeness was beginning to slip away. And so he found himself saying, “You don’t have to heal me. Just don’t leave me. You don’t have to heal me. Just don’t leave me.”

Children of God, that is the power of the wilderness. It is in the wilderness that we realize how valuable God’s presence is. It is in the wilderness that we realize that God’s presence is far more valuable than God’s healing. It is in the wilderness that we realize that our dreams can break, our bodies can fail, our families can falter, but God’s presence with us will never disappoint us. It is only when we are in the wilderness that we realize how precious God’s presence is, how his presence is far more important than all of the gifts he gives us. When everything else is taken away and we are reduced to sitting alone with God, we realize how good it is to sit alone with God. Michael Card sums it up by saying, “You experience God’s worth in the wilderness, not in the picnic grounds.” It is there we learn to love God, not only the things God does for us.

In the Christian year, Lent functions as a kind of invitation to the wilderness. It says, “Don’t wait for life to come and steal away your dreams. Lay them down yourself. Stop being concerned over all these dreams that will never bring you happiness anyway. Lay them down and come to the wilderness, where God will give you a taste of his presence that you will never forget. Lay them down so that I can give you new dreams, great dreams, dreams for your life so big and so powerful that you never could have dreamed for yourself. Lay down your dreams and come to the wilderness.”

I don’t profess to know what dreams you are holding on to today. You may have a dream of a nice life, a spouse, two kids and a white picket fence. Or you may have the American Dream of going from rags to riches, creating a new life for yourself. No matter what your dreams are, I want you to know that there is a wilderness awaiting, a wilderness day when those dreams may abandon you. But there is a good and a loving God whose Spirit goes with us into that wilderness, and takes that horrible, awful experience and makes it holy by shaping us into new and different people who can dream not just earthly dreams, but dreams of the Kingdom of God.

The Spirit is with us in all the different wilderness days of our lives, and until that day we cross into that great wilderness, beyond the Jordan River. None of us has been to that wilderness yet; but we can know that in that great wilderness, the same Spirit will strip off our surly attachment to this flawed life, and grant us a greater life in the very presence of God.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Sermon from Sunday, Feb 18

Based on Luke 6:27-36 (read it here: )

OK, I confess–I love old Monty Python sketches. For those of you who might not know about Monty Python, they were a British comedy troupe in the 1970s; they had a hit TV show in Britain, Monty Python’s Flying Circus. They also had a number of successful movies, most famously Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail. I never really got into the movies, but my dad was a big fan of the TV show, so I loved to sit around and watch it with my dad. It was a sketch comedy show, so there would be these 4-5 minute sketches and they sketches were just so silly. They’re the kind of silly that would lose something if I tried to tell you about them now; they’re the kind of silly that you just have to be there to really get. There was the one about the Spanish Inquisition showing up and tormenting an ordinary British married couple; the one where Vikings sit in an ordinary restaurant and sing a song about Spam. There was the one where a person bought a parrot only to find out it was dead, and so returned it to the pet store where the owner insisted it wasn’t dead, it was only lonely for its native Norwegian homeland. It’s hard to say exactly what made Monty Python so funny–I think it appeals to me because it’s just absurd, relentlessly absurd. It took everything normal and proper and simply turned it on its head, and so it was laugh-out-loud funny.

Of course, Monty Python in and of itself doesn’t have much to do with today’s Scripture passage. But you could use the same two words to describe the kinds of things Jesus is talking about here: relentlessly absurd. Here, Jesus outlines a way of thinking, and even more importantly, a way of living, that is simply, relentlessly absurd. I went through this short passage, just these ten verses, and look at all the absurd stuff that I found:
1. “Love your enemies.” Huh? Yeah, that’s nice, pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by stuff, but how’s that going to work out when the rubber meets the road?
2. “Do good to those who hate you.” That’s about as absurd as it comes; when it comes to dealing with people who hate you, there are two kinds of people: people who attack people who hate them, and those that fantasize about attacking people who hate them.
3. “Bless those who curse you.” Have you ever been cursed? Has anyone ever looked at you and told you they wished evil upon you, wished you were dead? Has anyone ever told you they wished something terrible would happen to you? Yeah, go ahead, bless that person, I dare you. How absurd!
4. “Pray for those who abuse you.” Umm, yeah, do you know what it’s like to be abused, misused? Do you know what it’s like to be treated like a nobody, an object, rather than a person? It’s not fun–and I’m supposed to pray for that person? How absurd!
5. “If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also.” Ummm...have you ever been struck on the cheek? Do you know how hard it is to stand there and take it again? I remember being in 7th grade and a boy named Keith slapped me on my cheek. I didn’t know what to do, and I was paralyzed, so I sat there and took it. Do you know how people laugh when you don’t fight back? I do, and I still don’t like thinking about it today.
6. “If someone takes away your coat, give that person your shirt as well.” Well, I don’t know about you, but in weather like we’ve been having recently, I rather like having a coat, thank you. And if you tried to take it away from me, I’d probably snatch it right back from you and tweak your nose to boot. I wouldn’t give you my shirt too!
7. “Give to everyone who begs from you.” Umm...this is absurd too. Do you have any idea how many times when you give money to a beggar it goes for some sort of addiction instead of for something worthwhile? Give to everyone who begs from you?
8. “If anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.” I hate when I lend a book or something to someone and they don’t return it. Is this for real? Am I never again supposed to ask them to get my book back? How absurd!
9. “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” So if I’m secretly wishing you would take me to lunch, I’m supposed to take you to lunch? If I’m secretly wishing for the good life in some way, I should go out of my way to give someone else the good life? How absurd!
Jesus sums all of this absurdity up in verse 35: “But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.” In short: “Be merciful, just as your Father [God] is merciful.” Perhaps, in non-Scriptural language, we could say: “Love other people extravagantly without any guarantee that they’ll return the favor. Love other people recklessly, without concern for your own heart.”

Now, I don’t want to be simplistic about all this. I don’t think all of these things are as easy as they sound, and I’m not even sure whether we can literally do all of them. Take, for example, the instruction to “turn the other cheek.” Remember that when Jesus was arrested, he was taken before the high priest. And the high priest asked him a question, and Jesus gave an answer that they didn’t like and a bystander struck him in the face. And Jesus didn’t hit back, but he didn’t exactly turn the other cheek so that he’d get hit again.

Or take the question about giving to anyone who begs. While Jesus says, “Give to anyone who begs,” the early church very clearly had rules about who was eligible and who was not eligible to receive aid from the church. In those days, the prime group that needed financial help were widows, because they often had no way of earning income once their husbands had died. But still, the need was so great that in 1 Timothy, Paul had to lay down rules about which widows could get assistance and which could not. “Let a widow be put on the list if she is not less than sixty years old and has been married only once; she must be well attested for her good works, as one who has brought up children, shown hospitality, washed the saints’ feet, helped the afflicted, and devoted herself to doing good in every way.” (1 Tim 5:9-10) Even then, it was a little more complicated than simply giving to everyone who was in need.

So I’m not looking at it simplistically. But even when you get past that, you cannot avoid the fact that what this passage of Scripture is asking you to do is to live an upside-down kind of life. In this passage, Jesus is asking you, at every turn, to do unnatural things. He is asking you to be kind to people who just don’t deserve your kindness. He is asking you to not worry first about self-preservation, but to undergo trials without worrying about yourself. He is asking you to have so little attachment to possessions that you can give them away without even caring if you ever get them back. When Jesus says, “Be merciful even as your Father [God] is merciful,” he’s saying a mouthful. When Jesus talks about God’s mercy, he’s not just talking about some syrupy sweet sentiment God has toward us. He’s saying, “Look at all the good gifts God gives freely to everybody. Look at nature, the gifts of the sun, moon and stars; look at the fields and the farms, how they grow; look how the rain comes both on the just and the unjust; look at the breath of life, that precious gift given to us, and look how it is given to people who just don’t deserve it.” Jesus says, that God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.” Life–all of it–is a gift that none of us deserves; no one is more aware of how little we deserve it than God himself, but yet he continues to give, gift after gift after gift, and though we fail, he continues to give. And Jesus says, “That’s the way you’re supposed to be–that’s mercy, that’s what God is, that’s what I want you to be.”

How do we do it? How do we live this upside-down kind of life? That’s the great unanswered question of this Scripture, the great unanswered question of a lot of Scripture really. How do we get our hearts to the point where this kind of upside-down life is possible? I think there are two real answers to that question. The first has to do with our mindset. How do we get our minds adjusted to start thinking upside down from the rest of the world?

Well, good preachers try to find examples from natural life that speak to the spiritual life. So I started to think–when do we go through other things in our lives that turn us upside down? Naturally, my thoughts immediately turned to marriage. Getting married turns your world upside down, on its head; that’s why, I think, that it’s not for everybody; it’s mainly for those of us who need to have our worlds turned upside down.

Anyway, when you get married, you are called on to make a major life switch. You are no longer to think of yourself primarily as your own individual; you now are pre-eminently part of a team, a team that needs protecting. You get married because you think you can serve God better as a team than you could on your own; and so since you believe God wants you in a team, you have to totally change your mindset to that of being one of a team. So how do you change your mindset?

Well, for one thing, you move in with your spouse. You surround yourself with that other person. Every time you turn around, there that person is; when you want that person around, when you don’t want that person around, all the time, that person is living where you are living. And that person’s presence is a constant reminder that things are different now. Now I’m part of a team; now I’m not my own person, now I’m not looking out only for my own interests; now I’m not looking to serve God only in the way I think best; now I’m part of a team and we work together. So we move in together not just because it makes us happy; we move in together as part of a strategy to strengthen our team for God’s sake. Now I suppose it’s technically possible for two people to be married but not live together; but it will be very very difficult for them to start thinking of themselves as a team, because there won’t be that day-in, day-out, sometimes delightful, sometimes difficult, interaction with each other. It’s hard for a marriage to survive and thrive without the day-in, day-out interaction of living together.

Christianity, in essence, “marries” us to God. We stand in the waters of baptism and we make vows to God. Today, I ask those who are being baptized, “Do you affirm in this act of baptism your faith in the Lord Jesus Christ?” Then I say, “Is it your intention, then, to follow Christ in word and deed, throughout your life?” You make promises, vows, that marry you to God.

Yet too often we Christians would say that we are married to God but in all reality we don’t live together. Our lives often are not characterized by day-in, day-out interaction with Jesus. We don’t take seriously the idea that our relationship with Christ is at the very center of our lives, impacting all the decisions we make just like a marriage. We put our lives here and Christ here; if I did that with my marriage, if put Jill here and the rest of my life here, my marriage would suffer and probably die. If we do that with our faith, our relationship with Christ will suffer and probably die.

If we want to learn to see the world upside down, if we want to be loving in a hateful world, if we want to turn the other cheek in a vengeful world, we will have to find real and tangible ways to put Christ at the center of our lives. We will have to recommit to weekly public worship and daily prayer, because those practices put Christ at the center and form our spirit. We will have to start viewing all of those difficult questions in life–how to spend our money, how to spend our time–not as ordinary single people, but as the bride of Christ. When we start to view those questions as the bride of Christ instead of on our own, our minds are changed, our spirits are formed, we are shaped to see the world differently. This marvelous ideal that Jesus gives us is only attainable in so much as we are willing to be shaped and formed by our relationship with Jesus. In other words, this “upside-down” way of life is the natural result of being married to Jesus and living with Him each day; and we simply cannot expect to do it if we insist on keeping our faith at arm’s length, if we insist on living alone.

So it starts in our mindset. But there is a second truth here in this passage that we dare not miss. This passage is rather relentless in using action verbs. “ good...bless...pray...turn the other cheek...give your to others as you would have them do to good...lend.” This passage reminds us that truly follow Christ is not merely to intend well, it is to do well. When Jesus sums this up by saying, “Be merciful even as God is merciful,” he is reminding us not of God’s inner feelings toward us, but toward his loving acts toward people. “He is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked,” says Jesus and we are reminded that God gives great gifts even to people who do not appreciate them, even to people who abuse those gifts by using them to hurt others. For instance, you can grow poppies for two reasons: beautiful flowers or to make heroin. Does God look down from heaven and say, OK, these poppies are clean, I’ll send rain on them; but these poppies are being used for evil, I won’t send any rain to them? No–rain is a gift from God given freely to all people, no matter if they’re good or bad. For God, mercy isn’t in the thinking, it’s in the doing.

And it is just so for us; if we are to be truly merciful, it can’t be something only in our hearts, it must be something also in our hands and feet. It means taking the hard first step in reconciling with someone you don’t think deserves your reconciliation. It means creating a real, living, breathing relationship with someone who it’s difficult to relate to. It is measured not in intentions but in doing–sometimes in hours, sometimes in dollars, sometimes in tears.

We embark this week on the season of Lent. This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, when we start that 46-day season that leads us through the last weeks of Christ’s earthly life and his death, up to his resurrection. And it is during this time of year that the upside-down life comes most into focus. We worship a God who brought life through his death; we worship a God whose crowning moment of glory came when he died the death of a criminal; we worship a God who said no to all those things that would make him comfortable by earthly standards and yes to an upside-down way of life.

If you want to live the upside-down life, now is the time to start. Now is the time to think different, to give yourself to a whole new way of living and thinking. Now may be the time for you to “Move in” with Jesus, to begin a day-in, day-out relationship with Jesus. If this is you, we have a way to help. Dick Rusbuldt, our founding pastor, has once again written a daily devotion book that takes us through the stories of Lent. As you read the Scriptures, as you read Dick’s thoughts, you will be challenged to think differently. This year, Pastor Steve is also going to lead an online discussion about the book, which you can find out more about in your bulletin. This is a chance to have your heart and mind shaped to think differently, to think upside-down. You also will be challenged to live mercifully–to live in love towards others, not just with your head, but with your hands and your feet as well.