Building on a Firm Foundation: Sermon for November 5, 2017

There’s a story about a woman whose life was going all wrong. She was in her late 20’s. Her short first marriage had just failed. She had a small child to care for. She was out of a job. She was relying on government benefits to survive, and feared that she would soon be homeless. And she was depressed; the kind of depression that makes you wonder whether life is really worth living.

She had always been scared to death of failing and now, that one thing she had always been terrified would happen had indeed happened. She was, in her own eyes and she believed in everyone else’s, a complete failure. To put it another way, she had hit rock bottom.

I’ll come back to her, but think for a minute about that phrase: rock bottom. When we use it we are often talking about the absolute nadir of our lives. You may have heard it said of someone who is going through some struggle that they just have to hit rock bottom on their own before they will get better. I believe that’s true.

I believe that because I’ve had my own rock bottom moments and so, probably, have many of you. These are the times when nothing has gone the way I’ve planned, or I’ve failed in some spectacular way, or something has happened that has felt so devastating that I haven’t been sure how to get back back up again. That’s rock bottom, and it hurts just as surely as falling on rock.

It’s hard not to think of “rock bottom” when we hear today’s Scripture. Jesus is telling a parable, a story, about two men: one wise, and one foolish, who are both building houses. One man gets everything he needs to build his house, but then he picks out where to put it, and he chooses to build it on sand. It’s fine for a little while but then the rains come, and the wind and floods, and the whole house is washed away.

The wise man does something different. He gets all of his materials, and he chooses to build his house on rock. So the rain and winds come, even the floods, but nothing is able to touch his house. It’s built on rock, and that means it is built to last.

If that story sounds familiar to you it’s probably because we all heard a similar story as kids. It’s the story of the three little pigs. One big builds with straw, one sticks, and the last bricks. When the big bad wolf comes around, the first two houses fall apart, the the brick house does not. Both stories have the same message: build well, build solidly, and you will withstand whatever comes next.

This is what we teach our kids. But this is what, so often, we forget as adults.

So what does any of this have to do with rock bottom? Well, as it turns out, we’re teaching your kids about rock bottom in Sunday school class today. All the parents are second-guessing their decision to come to church right now. But really, it’s okay. We’re teaching your kids the story of the house built on the rock, and we’re teaching them about where to build their spiritual homes, and by extension, where to build their whole lives.

Jesus was trying to teach his disciples about the value of making something solid your bedrock. This passage comes at the end of his sermon on the mount, when he was trying to teach the crowds what it meant to follow him, and to live a holy life. And he was trying to show them how our foundation matters.

If we have a sandy foundation, one that is always shifting on us, one that is not stable, then our spiritual lives are about as stable as a house of cards. And let’s be clear…there is a lot of sand out there. There are a lot of things that tell you they are important, but are not. At the end of the day, they are as worthless as quicksand. But if we have one that is as solid as rock, as steady as can possibly be, then even when the winds and rains and even the floods come, we will survive.

And here’s what’s important to remember: the winds and rains will come. Jesus did not say that the man who built on rock would have good weather. He was going to face all of the same storms. So will we. And yet, the man who built on the rock, he would make it through.

So here’s the tough question: how do we get that firm foundation?

I’d like to tell you that it’s easy. Just trust in God and do the right things, like what Jesus taught the crowd. I’d like to tell you that if you raise your kids that way they’ll build their houses on rocks, and they will never fall. But the world doesn’t work that way.

The reality is that all of us have to learn this the hard way. Each one of us is human, and that means that each one of us has a foundation that could use a little work. We build up our hopes and our dreams, and then a storm comes, and we find that our foundations were more sand than rock. That’s when we have to get out our hard hats, dig deep, and lay a new foundation, one that allows us to truly be embedded in the love and grace of God.

Sometimes we get a little warning, and we’re able to do some quick emergency repairs. But sometimes, the house comes crashing down, and we have to rebuild once again.

The woman at the beginning of this story, the one who had lost everything and hit rock bottom, she knew what that was like. And her story has come to inspire me. And so I want to tell you a little more about her.

The woman’s name is JK Rowling. She is arguably the most successful writer of the last 25 years. And she told this story in a commencement address that she gave to Harvard students several years ago. She told them about how she was by every measure an abysmal failure before the age of 30, and about how she had absolutely hit her rock bottom.

And then she something that I’ve come back to again and again. “Rock bottom,” Rowling said, “became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”

At rock bottom she began to write a story about a young wizard named Harry Potter and his friends. She didn’t know what would happen with that story. She submitted it to publishers and it was rejected time after time. It ended up in the slush pile of a publishing house, a place manuscripts go to die, and an editor just happened to pick it up and decided to take a chance on it. And the rest is history.

I don’t tell you that story to say “go and write a bestseller”. I mean, if that’s your thing, go for it. I tell it because it shows an incredible truth: hitting rock bottom is not the worst thing that can happen. Indeed, perhaps it is a blessing in disguise. Solid rock, no matter how we get there, is the only place from which we can hope to build something that will truly last.

Over the next three weeks, from now to thanksgiving, I’m going to be preaching on what it means to invest our lives well. During this same time we are conducting our stewardship campaign, so I’ll be talking about what it means to be good stewards, good investors, of our whole lives and all we have been given.

Each one of us has been given exactly one life to invest. Today we start this series by talking about the foundation we choose to build our lives upon. It could be that your spiritual life is rooted in the solid foundation of rock bottom. Or, it could be that you feel the sand shifting below your house as we speak. Here’s the good news. Even if that’s true, God’s love and grace are the rock upon which you can rebuild. And unlike any other kind of real estate, that love and grace know no limits…there’s plenty of land for all of us.
On this All Saints’ Sunday, I’ll close with this. I know this is true, because others have helped me to find a good foundation upon which to build my life. They’ve shown me where to set up my spiritual house, and they’ve taught me how to survive the winds and rains.

Maybe that’s true for you too. Maybe there has been someone who has been with you at rock bottom, and helped you to look around, and to find hope there. Maybe they’ve laid that solid foundation with you on that rock. God knows I have had those people. My guess is you have too.

The beauty of the Christian life is that we all get second chances at solid foundations. And the obligation of this life is that, once we have, it’s our job to help others to have the same. In large part, the measure of our lives will have nothing to do with how big we build our own houses, but in what we do to provide solid foundations to all we know, and especially to the next generation.

We do this, because God has worked through so many others in order to do it for us. And so, on this All Saints’ Sunday, let us speak the names of the ones who have gone before us, in the sure hope of God’s rock solid love…


Gradual Transfigurations: Sermon for February 26, 2017

My favorite books of all time are the Harry Potter books. I was an adult when they came out, and at first the idea of reading books that were written for children held no appeal. But over time everyone kept saying to me, “You’ve just got to read these books…they’re amazing!”

So I gave them a shot, and I thought they were pretty amazing too. I tore through all of the books that were out at the time, and then I went at midnight on the release dates for the rest of them, just waiting for the moment I could get the next part of the story.

rehost-2016-9-13-4685a819-e442-4e36-af5b-9c8c42bfbf00One of my favorite characters is a teacher at the school Harry attends named “Professor McGonagall”. She is brilliant and stern, yet deeply courageous, and she teaches a subject called “Transfiguration”. Transfiguration is a class all the students take, where they learn to change one thing into another, like a mouse into a tea cup or a match into a needle. McGonagall was so skilled at this, in fact, that she could transfigure herself from a human to a cat and back again.

They’re such great books. But…Jesus never went to Hogwarts. So you might be wondering, “What does any of this have to do with church?” Well, maybe not much, except for this: the only two places in my life I ever recall hearing the word “transfiguration” are in church and in Harry Potter.

Once a year, on the last Sunday before Lent starts, we observe “Transfiguration Sunday”, and we read this story. Jesus goes up to the top of the mountain with three of his disciples, Peter, James, and John. And when he gets to the top, Scripture tells us that he was “transfigured”, and his face “shined like the sun” and his clothes were “dazzling white”. And then, Moses and Elijah, two guys from centuries back, appear too. And a voice booms out from nowhere and says, “this is my son, the beloved…listen to him.”

Peter, James and John, understandably, were a little dumbstruck. At my seminary there was a wooden carving of this moment that showed the faces of the three, and what I remember the most is that the eyes were wide open like this.

Fair. Mine would have been too.

The disciples are, understandably, scared to death. They are on the ground, terrified, but Jesus puts his hand on them and says this: “Get up. Don’t be afraid.”

When they get up Moses and Elijah and the booming voice are all gone, and the whole group starts walking back down the mountain. But, one more thing, says Jesus, “don’t tell anyone about this until after I’m raised from the dead”.

Now, had I been up on that mountain, and had I seen Jesus go all glowy, hanging out with Moses and Elijah, with what was probably the voice of God talking to me, I would have had some questions. I would have at least wanted to check in with the others who were up there to make sure we’d all seen the same thing. I’d need to process this. But apparently the three guys came down and didn’t say a word to anyone else.

But they knew. They had literally just had a mountain-top experience, and now they knew that Jesus was even more unusual and amazing than they had thought. And they were supposed to just go back to the world and live their life like nothing had happened.

But something had happened. And they had been changed.

I wonder what their lives were like in the days and weeks that followed. I wonder how they reconciled what they had seen with their everyday lives. I wonder if they wondered why Jesus hadn’t let them tell the world. It would have been a whole lot easier for them if he had.

But sometimes when we are changed, our world isn’t. And that can feel unbearable. It can even make us forget what we have seen, and try to just go back to the way things have always been.


John Newton

There’s a story about a man named John Newton. In the 1700’s he was a captain of ships that brought enslaved people from Africa to America. He was deeply complicit in the evil of slavery. But one night in 1748 his ship was caught in a bad storm, and it started with water. He was about to die. But he called out to God, and some cargo shifted in the hull, plugging the holes, and saving the crew.

From that point on he was a changed man. He became devoutly religious. He even wrote a hymn that we still sing today: Amazing Grace. He gave us swearing, stopped drinking, and didn’t gamble again. He had been to the mountaintop, just like Peter, John and James, and he had been changed.

But, here’s the curious part…he didn’t stop being involved in the slave trade. Maybe it was fact that he was living in a world where most still thought this was acceptable. Maybe he didn’t know how to get out. Maybe he didn’t really understand yet the evil he was committing. For whatever reason, he didn’t stop for a few more years. And even after that, he was silent. In fact, it took him 34 years after leaving the slave trade to finally speak out and become a full-fledged abolitionist. That’s 34 years of being complicit.

When we sing his first lines, “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me” we can understand in a real way that he got to a point where he realized what he had done, and he truly repented, and he truly changed. But as much as that life or death experience had changed him, that conversion didn’t come right away, and it didn’t come soon enough.

Peter knew what that was like too. He had seen the Transfiguration of Jesus. And Peter had been changed. Truth be told, it wasn’t Jesus who was changed so much in the Transfiguration. It was Peter. Jesus was just shown more clearly than ever. He was simply revealed as holy, and the son of God. But Peter, James, and John…they got to see it. And they were changed because of it. And even thought Jesus told them not to tell anyone, they could never be the same again.

Even still, it took Peter to really get it. In fact, when the stakes were highest, Peter didn’t stick by this son of God he had seen glowing on the mountain top. Instead, on the night before Jesus is killed, Peter runs away when the authorities come and he denies even knowing Jesus. Not just once, but three times.

Transfiguration is hard. I don’t mean the transfiguration of Jesus. I mean the transfiguration of ourselves. We see the truth, and like Newton yet we drag our feet and don’t do what is right. Like Peter we see God’s glory, and we run away. We see something that changes us right down to our core, and is scares us to death.

Jesus knew that would happen, though. He knew it when Peter, James, and John were lying on the top of that mountain, terrified. He knew it when he reached down, and touched them, and said “get up…and don’t be afraid.”

I think that one of the reasons so many people love the Harry Potter books is because they are about seeing the truth, telling the truth, and responding to the truth with courage. They’re about getting up…even when you are afraid. And, at their core, they are about being changed for the better. They’re about being transfigured.

Maybe it isn’t such a coincidence that “transfiguration” is found in these two places: Holy Scripture and Harry Potter. Maybe it’s a word that only fits when nothing less than life-changing transformation, the kind that will ultimately demand courage from you, will do.

Peter ran away. But that’s not the last of his story.

In the Gospels Peter is right there after Jesus is resurrected. He’s there as the early church is built. His very name, Peter, is taken from the word “rock” or “petros”, and as Jesus says, Peter himself becomes the “rock” upon which the church is built. In fact, in the end Peter is courageous even onto death, ultimately becoming a martyr of the faith and a saint.

It was a long journey from that mountaintop to sainthood, though. And for those of us who have not yet achieved sainthood, it will likely be even longer.

And so here’s where Jesus’ words ring true: Get up, and don’t be afraid.

We have all likely experienced God’s grace or love at some point in your life. The transfiguration of our hearts has been begun. But sometimes it goes so slow. And sometimes it demands from us more than we are comfortable giving.

But go ahead and take that next step anyway. Be transfigured. And get up, and don’t be afraid. Amen?

Journey Through Lent: Day 8

Copyright, Warner Bros.

Copyright, Warner Bros.

I absolutely love Harry Potter. I’ve read all the books, seen all the movies (multiple times), and I continue to be enamored of the stories. I read broadly, from James Joyce to John Irving, but I don’t return again and again to any other books the way I return to Harry Potter.

Which is why the harshest criticism I ever received about one of my sermons is especially memorable to me. One Sunday I talked about Harry Potter briefly in a sermon, and preached about how the books gave examples of some of the best qualities to which Christian believers can aspire: loyalty, courage, fellowship, perseverance, and love. My congregation has more than a few devoted Harry Potter fans, so it was a fitting comparison for them.

But after the sermon, as I shook hands at the door, an out-of-town visitor berated me for including something as “satanic” as Harry Potter. She informed me that JK Rowling, the author, had been educated at the “London School of Satanism” and that “we weren’t supposed to read those”. The “we” meant Christians.  (I assured her that JK Rowling was, in fact, a member of the Church of Scotland, and that Presbyterians were not well-known for their devil-worshipping ways. I also questioned the existence of a London School of Satanism, though I admitted I had heard of the London School of Economics.)

Her adamant insistence that we Christians should not read books like Harry Potter series stuck with me, though. Why do some Christians fear the secular things that could draw us closer to understanding Christ? Why are books, movies, and music all suspect? I’ve never liked censorship on principle, but I especially grow frustrated with it when it comes from Christians who are trying to protect the faith.

I majored it two subjects in college: English and religion. And, ironically, I think the first major taught me more about what it means to be a Christian than the second. The same has been true for friends of mine who are film buffs, theatre-goers, and devoted music fans. If we believe that God is the God of all, then surely God can speak to us through more books than just one. Surely glimpses of Christ can be seen on the big screen. And surely God can be praised in music that doesn’t come with the stamp of a Christian record label.

This Lent I find myself returning to Harry Potter. Harry’s self-doubt as he prepared for his final stand against Voldemort is not equivalent in my mind to Christ’s time in the garden of Gethsemane, but it sure sheds a little more light on it for me. And, if that’s true, then why shouldn’t I give thanks for something that helps me draw closer to Christ? This Lent I give thanks for Harry Potter, and for all the books, and music, and films that have helped me draw closer to Christ. And I invite you to seek Christ in all the places you visit this season. (Including the inside of a good book.)

“Here I Stand” – Sermon for March 11, 2012

John 2:13-22
2:13 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.

2:14 In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables.

2:15 Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.

2:16 He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

2:17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

2:18 The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?”

2:19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

2:20 The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?”

2:21 But he was speaking of the temple of his body.

2:22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

When most of us think about Jesus we have this certain image. We picture a loving, non-violent, peaceful man who is kind to everyone. We don’t picture someone who is angry. We don’t picture someone who knocks over tables and yells. We think that’s the exact opposite of who Jesus really is. But then we have passages like this, and we’re often not really sure what to make of them. And we have to ask ourselves, what in the world could have made Jesus so enraged? The answer is in the story.

Jesus went to Jerusalem. It was almost the Passover, and he went, along with many other people, to the Temple. The holiest site in Jerusalem. The physical center of the faith. The people who came to the Temple did two things: they made sacrifices and they paid their taxes. Giving to the Temple was not optional. It wasn’t like a Sunday morning offering. It was something you had to do to go in.

And in order to make sure all the mandatory religious activities were able to happen, this industry sprang out in the Temple. There were people who sold sheep and cows and doves for the sacrifices. And there were money changers who would convert Roman currency to Hebrew money, sometimes at rates as high as 300%. It was usury at its worst, but they had the market cornered. Every observant person would not risk not paying the rates. This is how religion had been done for a long time in Jerusalem, and no one could really question it.

Which is why they were so shaken when Jesus came and, literally, turned everything upside down. Throws animals out. Takes the tables and knocks them over. Money was probably going everywhere. And the religious leaders came to him and said, “What gives you the right to do this?”

He tells them, “you can destroy this Temple, and in 3 days I’ll raise it up again.” They think he’s crazy because the temple has been being rebuilt for years. But Jesus was talking about himself and how he knew they were about kill him, and how he would rise up again. He was telling them, though they didn’t know it, that everything was about to change, and business as usual was over.

They killed him not long after. The religious leaders knew he was a threat. If he would overturn tables and cause a scene in their Temple, what would he do next? They thought they could overturn him just as easily as he overturned those tables. Who did this son of a carpenter from some backwoods town think he was?

But he rose again. And in the new movement he started there was no room for animal sacrifices or money changers. At least not for a while.

Fast forward 15 centuries. To Germany. And to a monk named Martin. The church was trying to build a new temple, this time in Rome. It was called St. Peter’s. And they had a fundraising problem. So they started to sell these indulgences. Pay a little and your sins will be forgiven. Pay a lot and the soul of your dear departed mother or spouse will be sprung from purgatory and released to heaven.

These were poor believers paying this money. As poor as the Jewish people who journeyed to the Temple in Jerusalem and paid three times what they should have to change their money. But they were good people, willing to pay the price to be faithful. Willing to pay into this corrupt system because they didn’t think there was any other way.

And so the young monk wrote a list of things he thought were wrong. And he posted them in a town called Wittenberg. And Christian faith would never be the same. We Protestants are spiritual descendants from Martin Luther. But his reforms shaped even what the Catholic Church has since become. Because Luther, like Christ, had the courage to stand up to the ones who had corrupted the faith, to turn their world upside down, and to reclaim what was good in the name of God.

They didn’t kill Luther, though they tried. But he paid heavily. He was excommunicated and thrown out of the faith. But when he was asked to recant, he couldn’t. He said only, “Here I stand. I can do no other.”

Jesus and Luther were cut from the same cloth. And the people around them thought they were heretics. Thought they were anti-faith. Thought they were misguided at best, and downright sinful at worst. And yet, in the end, they ushered in new faith, and new life. We wouldn’t be Christians without Christ, of course. But we also wouldn’t be the Christians we are without Luther.

But being an alternative religious voice doesn’t always make you popular. That doesn’t always mean that you have the most people who agree with you. It often makes you a bit of a target. Churches that stand up against what they see as being against the true message of Christ often incur the wrath of others who say they’re not really Christian. They’re getting it all wrong. They’re out in left field.

But they’ve said that in the past about others. And they’ve been wrong.

I’ve been thinking about what the church has become, especially in our North American context. I’ve been thinking about what people think being a Christian means in America. As the division and rhetoric picks up in this country, the dominant images of Christianity are often becoming less and less flattering. The voices that speak the loudest, the ones who stand in front of the Temple changing money and demanding payment, are often not kind ones or compassionate ones or ones that tell you much at all about the love of Christ.

They may not speak for us, but they’re what people think of when they think of what it means to be Christian. And whether we realize it or not, they’re the ones who may be stopping people from feeling like they’d ever have a place in our temple.

One Sunday about five years ago I was preaching down South at a church that was a lot like ours. It was a welcoming place. Warm, ready to embrace the stranger, slow to judge. The service ended and I processed out into the narthex. And there was a young woman, about 18 or 19, sitting there waiting to talk to me.

She was a student at a very fundamentalist Bible college down the road. Her father was a preacher, but that brand of Christianity wasn’t working for her anymore. The faith she was a member of was so strict that she could have been thrown out for drinking a beer. And if the people at her college had found out who she really was deep down, she would have been thrown out for that too.

She had been so wounded by the faith. So wounded by those who sat at the doors of the Temple and told her the price she would have to pay to enter, a price that would mean denying who she was, that when she came to this church that would have totally welcomed her, she sat out in the narthex. Because she didn’t know she had a place in the sanctuary. It broke my heart.

But the saddest thing is, she came a lot further than a lot of people do. I wonder if there were good Jewish people in Jesus day who were never able to go to the Temple and worship because they just couldn’t pay the price. I wonder how many good Catholics in Luther’s day lay awake at night afraid because they couldn’t buy their way into heaven. And I wonder how many of our neighbors want to walk through the doors of a place that would love them as they are?

We say we will welcome everyone who walks into our doors. And I believe that’s true. But how will we welcome the ones who would never dare to do that on their own. How do we welcome those who have grown accustomed to a representation of Christianity that has come to be defined not so much by the face of Christ, but by the faces of modern day moneychangers at the front of the Temple? The ones who would distort Christ’s message of love for something so different?

We are a welcoming place, that is for sure. But when I meet people in this area, and they find out I’m the pastor, I still get all sorts of questions . And they’re not because you have been doing anything wrong. They’re because the voices of faith they have heard the loudest in our culture cause them to have to wonder. Here are some real questions I’ve heard about us:

Would I be welcome in your church if I drink alcohol? If f I believe women are not inferior to men? If I think maybe the world was not created in six 24 hour days? Would I be welcome if I like to read Harry Potter? If my kids can’t sit quietly for an hour? Would I be welcome if my daughter is gay? If I’m a recovering alcoholic? If on some days, I doubt?

You and I hear these questions and we think “of course”. Of course you would. But they don’t know that. And their questions are reflective of just how far some have to come to walk through the doors of our church.

You might say, “We’re not that kind of church!” And we’re not. But here’s the thing. They think we’re that kind of church. Not because of anything you’ve been doing wrong, but because they think every church is that kind of church.

Because if all they’ve ever seen standing in front of the Temple, standing between them and God, are the faces of the moneychangers and the sacrifice sellers, the faces of the ones who twist faith into something different than it is, the ones who go on the evening news preaching hatred instead of Christ, can you blame them?

So what is at the front of your temple? Because if we are all members of Christ’s body, then we are all part of his temple. When people come to know you at the most sacred places, what do they see first? Do they see a religion as they’ve always seen it done before? Or do they see grace, and a Christ who would sweep away what doesn’t matter and replace it with a new creation?

There are people outside of these doors who belong here. Who would be loved here. Who would be welcome. And we know that. But they don’t. So when you go back into the world this week, how can you tell them about the Christ you know? How can you lead them into the temple, past what doesn’t matter, and into what does? Don’t take for granted that they know what kind of Christian you are. Show them.

We who are the “frozen chosen”, we don’t like to talk about our faith or our religion much. I get that. But when we aren’t talking, others still are. And they’re the voices your neighbors, who may love to be here, are hearing. So this week, think of one way you can represent the Christ you know in your life to those who might need to know there’s a place for them here. I’m not saying go door to door handing out Bibles. I’m saying a simple word of welcome may mean as much to someone who needs it as Jesus turning over tables may have meant to those who had been standing outside the temple, waiting for a new day to come.

And so, this Lent, decide where you are going to stand. Will it be idly by as Jesus turns over the tables of religion at its worst? Or will it be with Christ, who is turning us into something new? I know where I’m going to stand. I hope you will stand with me. As Martin Luther said better, “Here I stand. I can do none other.” Amen.