Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Greatest Gift of All

(This was our Christmas Eve message at the American Church in London.)

John 1:1-5

Did you see the news this past week about a group of volunteers called The Kindness Offensive? They drove around London in an old Routemaster bus, and gave more than 4000 gifts away to people around town. Most of the people who got the gifts looked a little stunned. It was billed as the largest random act of kindness in London’s history. A TV reporter talked to a boy who received a gift. ‘What do you think about all of this?’ the reporter asked. The boy said: ‘It's good.’ Then he paused and said: ‘It’s quite mad, really.’ When asked why, he said: ‘Because they're giving things away for nothing.’

There is something heartwarming about this kind of charitable work. But there’s also something strange and unfamiliar about it. It’s ironic that to some, the Kindness Offensive ends up being, in a way, offensive. Our text this morning is a bit off the beaten path for Christmas messages: John 1:1-5

1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was with God in the beginning.
3Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4In him was life, and that life was the light of men. 5The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.

We’ve been talking over these past few weeks about God’s gifts to us at Christmas—what the coming of the Christ means for us. So far we’ve looked at God’s giving and nurturing of Faith. We described Joy as the deep, settled confidence in the character of Jesus Christ. Love, it turns out, is why God sent his Son in the first place. And last Sunday we talked about Hope as believing that God is who he says he is, and that he’ll do what he promised to do. Tonight we get to the big one—the point of God sending his son, the Messiah. Tonight we’re going to spend a few minutes thinking about God’s gift of Life.

We’ve heard part of our text in one of the Christmas hymns we sing. ‘Light and life to all he brings, risen with healing in his wings.’

Over the Advent Season we hear the details of the strange events of that first Christmas. Angels making speeches and singing. Wise men and kings bringing gifts. King Herod and his crew trying to make sure the newborn Jesus doesn’t survive. Hotels with no vacancies. A baby born in a barn and laid in a trough to sleep. And then there’s the business about the star.

The Scriptures tell us that King Herod called the Magi together and asked them what the star was all about. When they left him, Matthew’s gospel tells us, ‘they went on their way and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.

I’ve mentioned my grandparents a few times this holiday season. They are great examples of the immigrant story in America. They got married in 1922, and after the birth of their first child my grandfather came to the States to try to earn enough money to make a life for his family. He went back after 9 years or so, had another child, then went back to his job in the US. It was 1939 before the family lived permanently under the same roof. Amazing.

One of their most treasured possessions was something they wished they’d never received. Within just a few years of their arrival in America, their oldest son was drafted and sent to fight. He was killed at Anzio—fighting in the US Army…in Italy.

During WWII, households who had suffered the loss of a family member were given a gold star to hang in the window. It was a token—a sign to the neighbors and passersby that someone from that house had paid the price—given what Lincoln had called the last full measure of devotion.

On a bigger scale, in Washington DC you can visit the WWII Memorial. On one wall there are 4000 of those gold stars, each honoring the death of a hundred Americans in the war. On that wall there is one dramatic sentence of explanation: HERE WE MARK THE PRICE OF FREEDOM.

I suppose the point here is that in these places a star represented a death. Whether it was the star hanging in the window of a home, or one of the thousands of stars at the large memorial, the star meant death.

The good news of Christmas—the good news of great joy that we all get to share in is this: The star of Bethlehem—the one that guided those early visitors to the Christ Child—that star means life. Now we know on this side of Jesus’ ministry that the gift of life came at a cost, but in the end what we have offered is life—life that is more full and meaningful than we could ever ask or even imagine—life more abundant than we’ve come to expect—eternal life in the presence of God.

Those stars in Washington DC honor the price of freedom. The star of Bethlehem reminds us of the price Christ paid for our lives.

The good news for us this Christmas and every Christmas for the last 2000 years is this: While we were yet sinners, Christ came and showed us the way back to God. That gift of life isn’t a random act of kindness at all. It’s a part of God’s plan to show his creation how much he loves us and cares about us. That gift of life remains on offer for all of us, and it all began with a star.

My prayer for all of us tonight is that we’ll hear this story like we’re hearing it for the first time.

If you’ve been at this faith for a long time, I hope you can experience some new joy in the coming of the Messiah.

If you’re new to the faith I hope the excitement you feel will never fade or wear out.

If you’re still not sure about what all this means, let me invite you to take a chance—to take a leap of faith—to follow that star to the place where you find Jesus, the Christ Child, the one who brings light and life to all of us. Merry Christmas!


Monday, December 22, 2008

O Little Town of London

(This message was a part of our Advent series titled, 'Christmas Gifts You Can Use.')

Luke 2:25-32

When I was young I played a lot of baseball. Now those of us who are from a certain era will remember that the best gloves and mitts felt like they were made out of wood when you first bought them. Cheap ones flopped around and felt good right away, but they never lasted. With the good ones you had to spend a lot of time breaking them in. Anyone remember that process? You’d put some oil in the palm of the glove and rub it in, then put some more on and rub it into the fingers and the back. You’d put a baseball in the pocket and tie it up and leave it over night, then do the same thing for a few days in a row. It took a lot of work, but in the end what you had was a glove that fit your hand perfectly. Along the way you’d keep the leather healthy by applying more oil every so often. If you didn’t, the leather would crack and the glove would be useless.

That connects with an old Scottish proverb I learned a long time ago: ‘Were it not for hope, the heart would break.’

We’ve been talking about God’s gifts to us at Christmas. So far we’ve looked at Faith, Joy and Love. Today we’re going to spend some time on the gift of Hope. Our text this morning is from Luke’s gospel, 2:25-32.

Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord's Christ. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:
“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you now dismiss your servant in peace.
For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all people,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.”

Luke’s gospel has the most detailed account of the birth of Jesus. It’s in Luke’s gospel that we find the extended story of John the Baptist, of the angels and the shepherds, and of there being no room in the inn. Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth ends with two stories of people who had been waiting for the Messiah to come. Simeon is the first of those two.

Being born into a good Jewish family meant that Jesus was circumcised on the 8th day after he was born. His parents took him to the Temple in Jerusalem to dedicate him to the Lord, which was the practice for all firstborns back then. While they were there, Simeon came up to them and told a very strange story.

He said that God had told him that he wouldn’t die before the ‘Lord’s Christ’—the Messiah was born. Then Simeon held the baby and sang a song of praise to God. For those of you who are from liturgical traditions, this is the origin of the Nunc Dimittis, which is still used in vespers and other traditional prayers.

Luke tells us that Simeon was waiting for ‘The consolation of Israel’. In the Bible that phrase can mean a range of things: comfort, encouragement, refreshment. What it shows us in this passage is that God’s promise of a Messiah was central to Simeon’s faith and practice. Simeon was waiting, hoping that God would deliver, where we pick up the story he’s praising God for making good on his promise.

Simeon shows us a lot of what a life of hope looks like. He’s righteous and devout, the text tells us, which means that the practice of his faith is important to him. His life, whatever else he did for a living, was built around study and prayer and service. Whatever his 9 to 5 job demanded of him, his reason for living was to wait and hope for the ‘consolation of Israel’.

Consolation is an interesting word. It doesn’t mean taking away all the problems or pain that a person might be going through—it’s more like coming alongside—being present with someone in their sufferings, and easing their pain. When it describes the coming of the Messiah, this consolation describes God reaching out to us—coming alongside us to be present with us in our lives.

What could happen that would bring some form of consolation to London?

To the world?

What is it that could possibly provide consolation for you this Christmas?

I’ve been hearing the great Christmas songs everywhere—it’s a part of the season. We heard all three of our choirs last week sing a whole range of Christmas songs. I told you that I’d heard ‘Joy to the World’ on a ringtone. In the shops and on television you can hear songs that describe the events and the theology of the birth of the Messiah.

In Angels We Have Heard on High we hear: ‘Come to Bethlehem and see, Him whose birth the angels sing.’

In We Three Kings we hear: ‘Glorious now behold him arise, King and God and Sacrifice.’

And in Hark the Herald Angels Sing, the Christmas hymn with the deepest theological understanding, we hear: ‘Veil’d in flesh the Godhead see. Hail the incarnate deity.’

We could—and maybe we should do this—we could spend a year or so exploring what the Christmas hymns say about Christ—about the Messiah—about God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There is a lifetime’s worth of understanding wrapped into these melodies we sing every year.

In O Little Town of Bethlehem we learn something about what the coming of Jesus meant and means for us.

The line that always gets me in this song is this one: ‘The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.’

Really? What does it mean to have our hopes and fears ‘met’ in the events of Christmas?

More importantly, how do we maintain an attitude of hope, even when things around us appear to be, well, hopeless? In practical terms, we live hopeful lives when we follow the example of Simeon—when whatever else we have to do, we build our lives on prayer and study and service.

But still, how do we sustain hope in our lives?

First, hope calls us to trust that God is who he says he is, and that he’ll do what he promised to do.

Second, hope gives us eyes to look for the fulfillment of God’s promises in our lives—in the life of this church—and in the world. I know that can be hard sometimes, but it’s a part of being hopeful people…of keeping a posture of hope.

Finally, hope reminds us that the life God calls us to—the life we hope for—is a life of service and the sharing of God’s blessings. God’s salvation comes not just for our benefit, but so that we can be a light to the world and bring glory to God’s people. Enjoying God’s blessings in our lives always brings with it the call to share those blessings with others.

Brennan Manning, who I mentioned last week, talks about what life looks like when we allow our Christmas faith to color all of it. He says:

“If Christ really ruled in every part of me, that is, if my faith were deep, burning, powerful and passionate, my life would be very different. My self-esteem would cease to be based upon the worldly values of possessions, prestige, status, and privilege…With burning faith I would speak of Jesus not as some distant being, but as a close friend with whom I have a personal relationship. The invisible world would become more real than the visible, the world of what I believe more real than the world of what I see. Christmas would be more than a breathless finale to a frantic shopping season, more than sentimental music, a liturgical pageant, or boozy good will toward the world.”

The only thing I would add to that is this: If we lived as if we believed, even when we struggle, we could be shining examples of hope in a world that needs it badly, but has forgotten where to find it.

‘The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.’

‘Were it not for hope, the heart would break.’

My hope for all of us this Christmas season is that we’ll get a little taste of the promise we hear in that song. That in the celebration of the Christ Child we’ll experience just a touch of the consolation God promises through his son.

That’s what it means to live with Christian hope—the hope that keeps us from breaking under the weight of our lives. Like the oil that keeps a baseball glove alive over a long period of time, hope keeps us from cracking no matter what.

A few weeks ago Kate talked about ‘re-gifting’, when you take a gift you’ve received, wrap it again and give it to someone else. This Christmas, one of the best gifts you can give—or re-give—is your sense of hope in Christ—to show your friends and family what it means to live faithful, hope-filled lives, trusting that God, the one who came to us and for us, will complete his story in our stories—his life in our lives, in this church, and in this world.


Thursday, December 18, 2008

A Christmas Feast

Well, it happened again.

Regular readers here will remember last year's report about the meal our staff had together at a local Italian restaurant. Fitzrovia is around the corner from the church, and I tend to eat there about once a week. The Palermo family own the place, and I've enjoyed getting to know them over the last almost two years. Last year our staff had our Christmas meal there, and yesterday we did the same thing. Here's how it went.

Gianni started us off with some steamed asparagus and slices of eggplant roasted with cheese and marinara sauce. He makes a garlic bread out of pizza dough, and we soaked up the extra, well, everything with that.

Next we each got a small portion of gnocchi with fresh pesto sauce, which was unbelievable.

The main course was duck breast in a blackcurrant glaze, along with spinach, broccoli and roasted potatoes. None of us probably would have ordered duck for our meal, but it was delicious and interesting and we ate every bit of it.

We finished with tiramisu and creme brulee, and then waddled back to the church.

There are two things I'd like to say publicly about our staff Christmas lunch. First, thanks to Gianni and his family for hosting us again. Having friends in the neighborhood makes working here so much better, and being able to celebrate with them is a special blessing.

Mostly, though, I want to say thank you to the great team we have at the American Church in London. We're on a good run right now: attendance is up, people are making commitments to give of their time, talent and treasure, and we're all growing in our faith in Christ and our sense of call in his name.

None of this would be happening without the gifts and hard work of the team at our church, and I want to say here how grateful I am for their support, their challenge and their commitment to this place.

Merry Christmas.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

A Reason to Dance

(This message was a part of our Advent series titled, 'Christmas Gifts You Can Use.')

John 3:16

I’m an awful dancer. It’s true—there’s no false modesty in that statement at all. I’m a painfully awful dancer. If there were a 12-step group for bad dancers, I’d have my 25 year chip at least. I’m clumsy, self-conscious, and almost supernaturally aware that I’m literally never moving attractively or even well. If I want to get a belly laugh out of Julie or Ian, five seconds of dancing will do the trick.

It’s not that I’m not musical. Most of you know that I love music. I use my iPod daily, and I generally have something playing on the stereo during dinner. On the nights when I do the washing up after dinner I crank the music loud enough to drive Julie and Ian into other rooms. Sometimes I get my guitar out and have a mini-concert in the living room at the manse. We are proud—or at least I’m proud—to be the loudest resident that our church-owned home has ever housed.

So it’s not a problem with music. But it also doesn’t change the fact that dancing isn’t my preferred way to express anything other than total humility…or maybe self-loathing.

I do remember enjoying one evening of dancing, though. It was at our daughter’s wedding a few years ago. I performed the service, then sat down to a meal with people I loved and loved to be with. We laughed and ate and told stories. We looked at childhood pictures of the bride and groom. It was a great night. When the music started, it felt natural to get up and dance a little. I danced with Julie, and also with our daughter Ericka. As cheesy as it may sound, there was so much love in that place—so much good, honest love among the people who were at the wedding—that there wasn’t time to think about what we looked like on the dance floor.

I know people who dance to express all kinds of emotions with grace and beauty. People who dance with a sort of creative recklessness that tells you more than they ever could with words. For a brief moment I could see how that might be the case. I actually enjoyed the dancing that night—I’m not sure why it worked out so well. Maybe I’d just been waiting for a good enough reason.

In the Bible, King David also had a good reason to dance. He was so caught up in God’s love for him—and in his love for God—that he forgot to put all his clothes on before dancing down the street. His wife scolded him…but David told her that nothing was going to get in the way of his celebrating before the Lord.

Our text this morning is a celebration in a single verse—John 3:16—one of the best-known texts in the entire Bible. It’s also one of the best reasons to dance that ever was. Hear the great news for us this morning.

For God so loved the world that he sent his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.

I hope that passage of Scripture never gets old for you. “For God so loved the world…” I know that’s not a traditional Christmas passage, but it has the whole story there, all wrapped up in one flowing sentence. God sends his only son to his creation to break the power of sin and death and despair—“to save us all from Satan’s power when we had gone astray.”

And why did he do it? Because he loved us so much. If you ever took a journalism class you know that you’re never supposed to bury the lead of your story. Well John the Evangelist knew this 2000 years ago. Before he gets to telling the story about what happened because God sent his son, he tells us why he did it in the first place.

“For God so loved the world…” Because God loved the world so much.

It’s easy to get wrapped up in the presents and other commercial pressures of Christmas. It’s easy to worry about meals and family relationships and whether or not someone’s feelings are going to get hurt by something you do. Those are important, up to a point, but none of them are the reason we’re all here today.

We celebrate Christmas—Virgin birth, baby in a manger, big star in Bethlehem, angels, shepherds, kings, gold, frankincense and myrrh—our enjoyment of this holy day stems from one single amazing truth:

“For God so loved the world.” Because God loved the world so much.

At the end of a very difficult year, with another one right on its heels, isn’t that good news? Even if we’re having a hard time feeling it or believing it, isn’t it an encouragement to be reminded that the God we struggle to follow loves us?

Brennan Manning wrote a book one of the best titles ever. It was called Lion and Lamb: The Relentless Tenderness of Jesus. In that book he wrote this about the gift of love in Jesus Christ:

For those who claim his name, Christmas heralds this one luminous truth: the God of Jesus Christ is our absolute future. Such is the deeply hopeful character of this sacred season. By God’s free doing in Bethlehem, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Light, Life and Love are on our side.

We started out by talking about dancing, but this day and this service have really been about the music—the songs of Christmas and how they tell the story in ways that we can hear and sing and remember. It’s an important reminder of something we don’t really ever forget: good songs can communicate important things.

A Christian singer I used to listen to wrote a song called ‘Madness Dancing’. In it he describes the feeling of coming to God in prayer and being so overjoyed in the presence of the Almighty that he can only muster up one response. He sings:

In the middle of this madness I am dancing,
Though I’m not sure why just now.
I tried to be sober—tried to be logical,
But I could not stop my feet.

Is there anything about this season that makes you want to dance? In all the planning and work and worry that goes into the Christmas season, can you leave a little space for the Christ child to stir you up a little bit and make you want to move?

“For God so loved the world.” Because God loved the world so much.

If you’ve been in this faith for a while, take this message with you and make it a part of your Christmas celebration. As you look at lights and banners and nativity scenes, remember that the foundation for Christmas is God’s immeasurable love for us, love that gave up so much for our benefit.

If you’re here today and you’re not sure about what all this means, let me invite you to take a chance today. This life of faith that we talk about here is messy and hard and confusing and frustrating sometimes, but it’s the life God meant for us to live, full of meaning and challenge and service.

Don’t leave today without talking with someone. In the music and prayers and readings of this Christmas season, hear these words in each one: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”

There is no better reason to dance.


(The choir followed this with Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day.)

Monday, December 08, 2008

The Best News Ever

(This message is a part of our Advent Series titled, Christmas Gifts You Can Use.

Luke 2:8-15

‘Joy to the World, Joy to the World!’ People keep singing that. I hear it in shops and in the background during TV commercials. On the bus last week I heard it as someone’s ringtone on their mobile phone. ‘Joy to the World, Joy to the World!’

It’s one of the great songs of this season—we’re going to sing it at the end of this service. It’s one of the great Christmas songs, but have you seen the newspapers lately?

Hard times of all kinds seem to be hitting people all over the world. Financial meltdown, natural disasters, the threat of violent attack.

Joy to the World?

I decided this past week to read up on the topic of joy, and found something interesting. You know what it was? I don’t have a single book on joy—not one. I checked the index in Calvin’s two-volume theology and found just one single reference to the word ‘joy’. When I looked it up it turned out to be a footnote alerting me to the fact that the word had been incorrectly translated, and doesn’t mean joy at all.

I have books on worship and missions and community and history and peacemaking. I have commentaries and novels and collections of poetry. I have important works of philosophy and theology—including a classic by Soren Kierkegaard with this title: The Concept of Dread. Isn’t that priceless? Out of 1200 or so books in my office, I have one on dread, but not a single title on joy.

What in the world is up with that?

Our text this morning is from Luke’s gospel, in the middle of the Christmas story. Luke 2:8-15.

8And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. 12This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger."
13Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 14"Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests."
15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about."

There are some important things to notice in this story. First, well, it’s a pretty dramatic story. There are angels and heavenly choirs and a message from on high. This is not your run-of-the-mill, ‘a couple of guys walking down a road having a chat’ story—this is big.

Second, notice that at the end the shepherds didn’t just go back to what they were doing. Did you catch that as soon as they heard the angels they dropped everything and went to see if it was true? There’s a sermon crawling around in that part of the story, too.

Most importantly, as we read this story we should be aware that the angels appeared to shepherds who were probably in a pretty lousy mood. Not much holiday spirit for shepherds back then. They’re at the low end of the economic food chain—out in the middle of the night, watching someone else’s sheep—in a country occupied and controlled by the most powerful army the world had ever seen.

And to top it off they were religious people—you can tell because it meant something to them to hear the angels announce the coming of the Messiah—they were religious people, struggling to believe that God would keep his promises to somehow make their lives mean something—that God would send the one who would show them that their prayers were answered.

There wasn’t much joy in the shepherds’ world before the angels came and told their story.

When I was in seminary I lived with 4 other guys who were training to be therapists. A lot of my friends felt sorry for me—they asked if I was always being analyzed or if my housemates used me as a counseling dummy. You know, like a tackling dummy, only instead of hitting me they would always ask me how I was feeling.

The fact is that I loved it. One of those therapists-in-training married another seminary friend, and that was the first wedding I ever performed. The groom in that wedding ended up being the best man in our wedding, so I don’t think having therapists as housemates was much of a problem.

What I loved was learning some of their subject matter, and picking up some of their skills. I learned a lot from them, and one of the important things I learned was how difficult the Christmas season could be for some people. At some level I think we all know that—the holiday blues can strike anyone at any time—we know this season can be hard for any number of reasons.

This time of year brings back memories of past Christmases that might have been sad or marked by conflict or loss somehow. I still miss my grandparents, every Christmas, and wish I could have another holiday with them. Those of us who have come to London from other places might miss being with our families and old friends—as glad we are to experience Christmas in a new place, we’re missing our home and traditions this Christmastime.

What I learned from my therapist friends is that there aren’t enough hours in the day to see all the new clients who come for help during the holiday season. This time of year can be so hard.

Joy to the World? What does that mean? What does that mean when we’re feeling anything but joyful?

At one level we know that ‘joy’ is synonymous with happiness, right? Even the newspapers talk about happiness. The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Reuters all ran stories last week about the importance of happiness in our lives, and how interconnected we all are in the way we share that happiness with others.

Dennis Prager, a radio talk show host in the US, wrote a book a few years ago called Happiness is a Serious Problem: A Human Nature Repair Manual. In the book he talked about cultivating a philosophy of life that focused on the really important things: integrity, having a purpose in life, doing good, and nurturing deep friendships. Happiness, Prager wrote, is the by-product of focusing on other, more important things. We’re going to spend some time on that idea after the first of the year.

But there’s more to joy than simply being happy, right?

Wes Harty was a Bible teacher in Southern California, and he used to come and teach at our church once a year. Back when I was still in high school he came and taught a series on Joy, and his definition has stuck with me for all these years. He said: ‘Joy is the deep, settled confidence in the character of Jesus Christ.’ That sounds like something completely different from just feeling happy.

One of my early childhood memories is really a sensory memory—something that gets recalled by a sound or smell or a touch. Here’s the thing I remember: I would be drifting off to sleep, and then I’d hear a sound that made me feel safe and loved and protected. It was the sound of my Dad checking the doors and windows every night before going to bed. Now we didn’t live in a dangerous area or anything, but it was still comforting to know that we were secure as we slept.

In this deeper sense, joy is partly about the present, and partly about the future. Joy describes our response to Christ’s presence in our lives right now, in this place, in our hearts and in our actions. It’s about feeling safe and loved and protected no matter what is happening in our lives. Joy is about the here and now—right now—it’s about Immanuel, God with us—it’s about Christmas.

But joy is about the future, too. It’s about believing that the promises of Jesus are just that: Promises of Jesus—promises made to us by the Messiah himself—secure promises made to us by God.

Joy describes the deep, settled confidence we have in the character of Jesus Christ, even when we struggle to believe. Even when the teachings of the faith seem so far from our own experience. Even when we doubt they’re true at all. Joy steps in—when we let it—and replaces the fear and the dread we carry about our lives and problems and histories.

Joy is what happens when we trust that Jesus Christ is who he says he is, and that he’ll do what he said he would do.

That’s what the angel in our text was telling the shepherds.

Don’t be afraid.
I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people.
Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you.
He is the Christ, the Messiah, the Lord.

Then more angels came and praised God right then and there, saying ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace to all people.’ The promise there isn’t that life will somehow magically become easy or painless or problem-free. The promise is that no matter what happens, in the midst of that struggle we can have peace with God and each other through the ministry of the Messiah.

However bad the news can get, it can’t overshadow the good news of great joy we find in Jesus Christ. But like any promise, it has to be received and accepted if it’s ever going to be fully enjoyed. It’s like an engagement between two people: if it’s ever going to grow from a promise into a marriage, you’re going to have to set a wedding date.

If this is your struggle. If you find yourself this year waiting for a promise to turn into something more substantial, then take a moment to hear the words of the angels one more time:

Don’t be afraid.
I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people.
Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you.
He is the Christ, the Messiah, the Lord.

If that’s something you want to talk about this Christmas season, don’t let it go by. Find someone to talk to after the service, or slip me a note, or send an email or text. Don’t let it go by.

As we come to the Table this morning we come as the church, the community of the struggling faithful, and ultimately as the Bride of Christ.

In Communion we celebrate the past, present and future of our lives as disciples of Jesus. We come to celebrate our joy—our deep, settled confidence in the character of Jesus Christ. In Communion we get a glimpse of what ‘Joy to the World’ really means.


Friday, December 05, 2008


I tried to think of something to post this week, but I have a lousy cold. Check back for something new on Sunday or Monday.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Thanksgiving Service Offering

On Thanksgiving Day I participated in the annual service at St. Paul's Cathedral here in London. It's an amazing of the largest gatherings of Americans each year in the city. You can see some coverage here:

Part of the service involves choosing a charity as the recipient of the offering, and this year I had the chance to introduce the organization we selected.

Some of you know that I worked for two different service providers for homeless people in the LA area. One of those was a 'rolling shelter' in Pasadena, where seven churches committed to one night per week during the winter months. It was a great way to use space and people power that already existed to accomplish something important and helpful and loving.

Through some friends here in London I met the staff of the Camden and City Churches Cold Weather Shelter, otherwise known as C4WS. (See I wasn't surprised to be impressed by their passion and concern for homeless people...there is no shortage of either in most charitable organizations that help the needy. What did impress me was the resourcefulness and competence of the Shelter staff...qualities which are often lacking in a lot of charities. Jhoana and Jamie are good, caring people, who know how to do their jobs well with minimal resources and facilities. We could all learn a lot from them.

We were impressed enough to sign on with C4WS for the coming winter season. The American Church in London will host 14 homeless men and women for the 12 Wednesday nights during January, February and March. We're busy now securing volunteers, buying supplies and planning out meals. At every step of the way, the Shelter staff (all two of them) have been encouraging, inspirational, and most of all, helpful.

So back to the Thanksgiving Day service.

It was my privilege to stand in front of the 2200 people there and ask them for money to support the work of C4WS. Below are my remarks as I shared them in the service.

Happy Thanksgiving to all of you!

Like many Americans, Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. It combines the best foods, the best of our families and friends, and even the best sports—all in one special day. It’s a day of sharing, of welcoming, of setting the extra place at the table.

I was speaking with a reporter yesterday who had been posted in the US for a few years, and she was still amazed at how many American families had invited her to join in their Thanksgiving meals. She thought she was intruding, until she understood the meaning behind the holiday.

At Thanksgiving we pause to remember, and to be grateful for the material blessings in our lives. That makes it a perfect day to pause and remember those among us who have fallen on difficult times—who have needs that seem far away from our own circumstances—in particular today we pause to think about the homeless here in London.

Each year the churches who host this service choose a charitable organization to receive the proceeds of the offering. This year we have selected the Camden and City Churches Cold Weather Shelter.

This amazing group of people hosts a rolling shelter, in which a group of churches commit to welcoming homeless men and women for a home cooked dinner, some conversation and fellowship, a warm bed for the night and a hot breakfast in the morning. This year my congregation will be participating for the first time, and we can’t wait to begin.

London, for all its beauty and history and opportunity, can be a tough place to live in the best of circumstances. To be homeless in London brings with it almost unimaginable challenges and dangers. Statistics can tempt us into thinking of homelessness as an abstract idea—something faceless and without much meaning. I’ll share just two related statistics with you this morning.

The life expectancy of a homeless person in London is 42.

The average age of those served by the Cold Weather Shelter is 38.

Think about that for a moment. This shelter is rescuing men and women who are literally nearing the end of their days. The shelter provides a safe place, good food, and a healthy dose of hope for its guests.

But the Cold Weather Shelter doesn’t only provide beds and meals. They also help people find permanent housing, medical assistance, and opportunities to work. One of the Shelter staff told me last week that their goal is to make sure that last year’s guests don’t need the services of the Shelter this year.

The passage of Scripture we just heard (Colossians 3:12-17) reminded us that it is important to be clothed with compassion. That’s one of those everyday truths, but it takes on even more significance as we gather in this beautiful place, to celebrate God’s rich provision for us.

As you consider your offering today, I encourage you to clothe yourself with compassion for the homeless in this great city. If I can be so bold, please consider giving £20 today to support the work of the Camden and City Churches Cold Weather Shelter.

Add this moment to the list of things you’re thankful for today.

Add saving a life to the list of gifts you and your family will share this holiday season.

Thank you very much, God bless you all, and Happy Thanksgiving.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Whose Life is it Anyway?

(This is the eighth and final message in a series titled, 'A Declaration of Dependence: The Lord's Prayer')

You learn pretty early in life that there are some things that shouldn’t be mentioned in polite conversation. The obvious ones are religion and politics, and to that you can usually add the concept of sin and anything to do with money. These things are important to all of us, which accounts for the heat they generate around the dinner table. But we don’t always give them their due.

The real question is: Who’s in control?

Today we complete our journey through the Lord’s Prayer. We’ve been saying that this prayer of Jesus is at the core of our faith—that it shows us the heart of what we believe and also what we’re called to do about it. The Lord’s Prayer functions like a heart in that it takes us in wherever we are: broken, wounded, afraid, and depleted. It takes us in and restores us—it gives us back our spiritual energy—it renews us and sends us out for service again.

Even though we say it over and over, we’re different each time—we’re in different places each time, and that makes the prayer new and different and life-changing…each time.

We’ve prayed the entire prayer already:

Our Father, the one who really exists,
You reveal yourself to us as holy and loving,
Bring your Kingdom,
Make this world into the world you meant it to be from the beginning.
Provide for us, O God, and teach us to provide for others.
Forgive us, and teach us to be agents of forgiveness and reconciliation everywhere.
Don’t test us beyond our limits, O God, and while you’re at it, protect all of us, especially the weakest, from the evil all around us.

The version of the prayer we’ve all learned adds a benediction, a restatement of the themes of the prayer, as a way of communicating the hope that goes along with our faith and our call to action. The last part of the Lord’s Prayer turns us outward—it’s meant to be inspiring—it’s meant to call us to action.

“For thine is the Kingdom and the power and the glory forever.” My life, my family, my possessions—it’s all yours, O God. We believe you. Amen.

This last part of the Lord’s Prayer as we say it isn’t even in the Bible. But it was a common part of the teaching in the early church, and has been a part of Christian practice since the 4th century or so.

So back to religion and politics. The Lord’s Prayer has some important things to say about what we believe, and also about how we think we should be governed. These are two crucial questions about our lives and how we live them—no wonder they cause so much tension and conflict.

We find the Lord’s Prayer in the Sermon on the Mount, the longest stretch of teaching by Jesus himself in the entire New Testament. Remember that the Sermon on the Mount has a point—it’s not just a list of interesting things that Jesus said. The point of the Sermon is to describe what the world would be like if people lived according to the values of the Kingdom of God—as if God really existed and meant what he promised. Prayer is a part of that life—of those values—and so Jesus pauses in his sermon to teach his disciples how to pray.

It makes sense that the Lord’s Prayer starts with clear, unmistakable statements about both religion and politics

Our Father, the one who truly exists.
This is your kingdom—run it according to your perfect will.

Now that’s some serious religion, or faith, and it’s also a pretty bold political manifesto.

Believing that God exists is a powerful statement of faith. Part of that comes from our own personal spiritual awareness, part of it is a level of trust that the biblical record is accurate, and the rest comes from our interaction and shared experience with other Christians—with the community of faith you see in this room.

In other words, our belief in God is something we know in a way that is different from the way we know everything else. It’s not a list of facts or theorems or forensic evidence—they’re never going to prove or disprove the existence of God on CSI. And yet our belief in God is just as real—just as valid—just as important as the things we know in other ways.

Believing that God exists is also a powerful political statement. ‘Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done’ is the most radical statement anyone in this room has ever made—that includes those of you who protested the Vietnam War in the 60s, or in the fight for civil rights, or in any other demonstration to accomplish an earthly goal. ‘Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done’ tops all of those other revolutions—even the ones that were driven by faith.

Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done’ is a statement of our belief that the Kingdom of God is exactly that—God’s Kingdom, Christ’s reign, the eternal rule of Father, Son and Holy Spirit over everyone and everything, even death. No revolution or coronation or election can compare to what the world is like when faithful people acknowledge that God is sovereign—that God is in control.

But control is still a huge issue for us, isn’t it? The people who poke fun at Christian faith will call it a crutch—an act of neediness—an unwillingness or inability to take control over our lives. And yet, when the Scriptures talk about what the life of faith is all about, they say things like: ‘the first will be last and the last will be first’; ‘in order to be truly free, you have to become a slave’; and the big one…'Present your bodies as a living sacrifice—this is your spiritual act of service.’ Not a lot in there about winning or controlling.

As we look at the Lord’s Prayer, what do we make of that? As we move ahead as individuals and as a community of faith—as a church, what do we make of the Lord’s Prayer?

Do you remember the play and film called “Whose Life is it Anyway?” An artist is paralyzed in an accident, and over the course of the story decides that he doesn’t want to live any longer. The man is hopeless—wanting to have control over his life—and in the end, wanting to die.

The message of the Lord’s Prayer is the polar opposite of the answer given in this play and movie. The prayer is about surrendering control to the one who made us and redeems us. It’s about wanting to live—to live life the way God intended.

“For thine is the Kingdom and the power and the glory forever.” My life, my family, my possessions—it’s all yours, O God. We believe you. Amen

After getting religion and politics out of the way, the Lord’s Prayer turns to the problem of sin, as we saw over the last two Sundays. We forgive as we’ve been forgiven, and we trust that God will keep us out of the way of temptation, and that he’ll protect us from the evil that exists around us and in us. There isn’t much that this prayer leaves untouched.

And then we come to the benediction: “For thine is the Kingdom and the power and the glory forever.” My life, my family, my possessions—it’s all yours, O God. We believe you. Amen.

Everything belongs to God. We could wallow in some pretty deep theological waters on this one, but the basic teaching of the Lord’s Prayer is simple. Everything belongs to God. God is in control. That brings us back to the question from the story we talked about earlier:

Whose life is it anyway?

I read an amazing story in the Guardian last week. Martin Burton was 16 years old when he died, and his family had to make some incredibly difficult decisions at the most awful time of their lives. In the end Martin’s parents decided to allow his heart and other vital organs to be transplanted into a half dozen other people who faced death without those gifts. These are familiar stories these days, but no less touching and powerful when we hear them again. The bare details of the story are what caught my eye.

A boy died—someone’s son died—and some other people now get to live. I know I’ve heard that story somewhere before…

Whose life is it anyway?

“For thine is the Kingdom and the power and the glory forever.” My life, my family, my possessions—it’s all yours, O God. We believe you. Amen.

This last line of the Lord’s Prayer, even if it was added later, is the point of the entire passage. It’s the lesson that we take away from the prayer no matter how many times we mumble through it on a Sunday morning, or say it as the break between our ten Hail Marys, or when we spend two and a half months hearing about it in church. As we think about pledging our time and talent and money, let the point of this prayer be your guide. God is in control.

Whose life is it anyway? Everything belongs to God. God is in control.

“For thine is the Kingdom and the power and the glory forever.” My life, my family, my possessions—it’s all yours, O God. We believe you. Amen.

In a few minutes we’re going to demonstrate our response to that prayer as we bring up our pledges and pray for the ministry of the church.

As you bring your pledge to the front this morning, let the good news of the Lord’s Prayer wash all over you: Everything belongs to God. God is in control.

As we go downstairs to enjoy a wonderful Thanksgiving feast together, remember what we’re really thankful for: Everything belongs to God. God is in control.

Let’s stand and pray the Lord’s Prayer together.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Preparing for the Worst

(This is the seventh in a series titled A Declaration of Dependence: The Lord's Prayer.)

When I was in grade school I remember having disaster preparedness drills. The first Monday morning of the month, a horn would sound in our town, testing the warning system for a nuclear attack. Seriously. We saw films and had classroom lessons on what to do if the Soviets hit us with a missile—we learned how to survive the blast, how to deal with the fallout and the effects of radiation… It’s amazing that any of us came out of that era with our sanity intact.

But in Southern California there was another kind of disaster to worry about. I was in 2nd grade when the Sylmar earthquake hit in 1971. It shook our apartment and I can remember my dad running into the room I shared with my baby sister—he grabbed the baby and told me to get out of the building. After 1971, people in California started talking about The Big One, and we all lived under the shadow—under the threat of an enormous earthquake.

Kids in my part of the world grew up with the constant threat of two different types of disaster—of catastrophe either from nuclear war or massive earthquakes. And so we all learned how to be prepared. We all knew—or thought we knew—what we had to do to survive these massive threats.

We continue our journey through the Lord’s Prayer. We’ve been saying that this prayer of Jesus is at the core of our faith—that it shows us the heart of what we believe and also what we’re called to do about it. The Lord’s Prayer functions like a heart in that it takes us in wherever we are: broken, wounded, afraid, and depleted. It takes us in and restores us—it gives us back our spiritual energy—it renews us and sends us out for service again.

It functions, at times, a lot like a disaster preparedness exercise.

Even though we say the Lord’s Prayer over and over, we’re different each time—we’re in different places each time, and that makes the prayer new and different and life-changing…each time.

We’ve prayed most of the prayer already:

Our Father, who really exists,
You reveal yourself to us as holy and loving,
Bring your Kingdom,
Make this world into the world you meant it to be from the beginning.
Provide for us, O God, and teach us to provide for others.
Forgive us, and teach us to be agents of forgiveness and reconciliation everywhere.

Today we get to the end of the prayer the way it appears in the Bible. In the Scriptures the Lord’s Prayer doesn’t end with that great victorious chorus—it doesn’t have the Hollywood ending of ‘For thine is the Kingdom and the power and the glory for ever and ever.’ In the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus teaches us how to pray, the prayer ends like this:

‘And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.’

Well. That’s not very nice or positive or happy sounding at all. You might see French movies and maybe independent films ending with everyone cowering and afraid…or dead. But that’s not the way we like our stories most of the time. That’s certainly not the way we want the Lord’s Prayer to end.

‘And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.’ Don’t test us beyond our limits, O God, and while you’re at it, protect all of us, especially the weakest, from the evil all around us.

I’ll confess to you all right now, before we go any further with this text: I’ve never liked this part of the Lord’s Prayer. There have been times in my life where I didn’t even say it out loud—it sounded so strange or even wrong to me. It’s always sounded like Jesus was telling us to pray to God for protection from, well, God. Like he was the one who was the source or the cause of whatever was tempting me at the time. ‘Deliver us from evil’ always made sense to me, but why do I have to ask God not to shove me into the path of a train full of temptation?

I’ve been using a book on the Lord’s Prayer by Telford Work, a theologian at Westmont College—where the fires destroyed part of the campus this week. He writes that “The Lord’s Prayer repeatedly makes requests that are obvious to the point of absurdity.”

Of course the Father will give his children their daily bread. Of course his name is holy. Of course his will will be done. The last petition of the prayer is just as obvious: Of course God won’t lead us into temptation or fail to deliver us from evil. These things are exactly what God does, right?


He finishes by saying: “Readers get into trouble when they treat this prayer as less obvious than it is. Instead of ‘Amen’ at the end of this prayer, we should be saying ‘Duh.’ The clarity and authenticity of this prayer are a function of its bone-headed straightforwardness.”

We’ve been saying all along here that the Lord’s Prayer tells us something about who God is and what he’s promised to do. It also tells us what we’re supposed to do in response. In this last line of the prayer we’re called to trust that God loves us and cares for us and has a disaster plan in place for our salvation.

But what about this business of being delivered from evil? Aren’t we a little too well-educated—a little too sophisticated to be talking about evil? Have you been watching the news this week? On this Sunday especially, when we’re focusing on our ministry to children, is it possible to have seen the two trials that started this past week and still believe that ‘evil’ is an outdated idea? The mother and friends of Baby P and the family of Shannon Matthews are just the most extreme examples of the terrible blend of cruelty and stupidity and deceit and shamelessness that make up just one strand of what we have to call evil.

With that in mind, denying the existence of evil is really an insult to those who live every day as prisoners to evil’s power. In this part of the Lord’s Prayer we pray today that all children in hellish homes like the ones we’ve been hearing about would be delivered…from evil. We also pray today for people who aren’t abused by monsters, but who suffer the effects of evil in the world just the same. For anyone trapped in a place or a situation that prevents them from living and loving and thriving like God intended.

Bruce Thornton is a classics professor in California. In a book called Plagues of the Mind: The New Epidemic of False Knowledge, he wrote this:

“The idea that evil doesn’t exist, or that it is a metaphor for some as yet unknown physical phenomenon, is the most dangerous piece of false knowledge circulating in the modern world—for the simple reason that inexplicable evil does exist, not just in the atrocities of monsters but in every one of our own hearts.”

How does that sound? That last part is a kicker, right? I can see the emails and notes in my inbox now: ‘John, I didn’t know you were going to talk about us having evil in our hearts.’

But of course I was going to talk about that. You don’t pay me to stand up here and lie to you. If I said to you that there wasn’t evil in each one of our hearts—in yours and in mine—I’d be cutting the legs out from under the Gospel. Because only when we acknowledge and confess the evil in our own hearts can we fully experience the renewing, restoring, forgiving grace of Jesus Christ.

‘Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.’ Don’t test us beyond our limits, O God, and while you’re at it, protect all of us, especially the weakest, from the evil all around us.

The point here is to remind ourselves that the Kingdom of God—that Christ’s reign—is both now and not yet. Jesus taught that the Kingdom had arrived, and he also taught that it is still on its way. The answers to each petition of the Lord’s Prayer reflect the now and not yet of our lives—of our struggles to remain faithful.

It may sound quaint or backward somehow to talk about the struggle to be faithful in the face of temptation, but that doesn’t make it any less true. It would also be silly for me to stand up here and say that each person here is somehow immune from temptation—you might want to agree with me, but that would just be a way to cover up the temptations that we all want to hide from each other. There’s no need for me to list them here. You know exactly what they are for you—they might even have crossed your mind as soon as I said that—I know they did for me.

The bottom line is this: We don’t try to resist temptation just to follow the rules. Think about that for a moment. We don’t try to resist temptation just to follow the rules. We try to avoid these things because they keep us from living according to the values of the Kingdom. They prevent us from being living witnesses to the rest of the world of what it means to be disciples of Jesus Christ—living under his reign, in obedience to his call on our lives.

On the other hand, when we accept God’s gracious gift of deliverance—his gift of standing in front of that train full of temptation, in our place—we experience the full presence of Christ in our lives. We experience the full measure of the Kingdom of God here, now, in this place and everywhere we go.

‘Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.’ Don’t test us beyond our limits, O God, and while you’re at it, protect all of us, especially the weakest, from the evil all around us.

Remember the disaster preparedness drills at my school? The Lord’s Prayer, and especially this last plea for salvation and help, teaches us what to do to be prepared for the threats we face in our lives. Praying this prayer like we mean it doesn’t mean that temptations and other disasters won’t happen, but it does mean that we don’t have to face them alone.

Telford Work, who I’ve quoted already, wrote that ‘every biblical drama features ungodly characters who rely on their own devices and whose love for God grows cold. Faithful ones, on the other hand, rely on God their savior and endure to the end.”

We’ve called the Lord’s Prayer our ‘declaration of dependence,’ and nowhere is that more true than when we try to stand firm against the temptations to live as if God didn’t exist. As we pray this prayer together this morning, claim your piece of God’s promise to stand beside you, to work within you, and to go before you in everything you do. Pray that your love for God won’t grow cold. Pray that God will help you endure to the end. Let’s stand and pray together.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Sorry Isn’t Enough

(This is the sixth in a series titled 'A Declaration of Dependence: The Lord's Prayer.)

In the film The Mission, Robert De Niro plays a very bad man—he’s a slave trader who at one point kills his own brother over a woman. He comes to a point where he’s stricken with guilt, and confesses his sin to a priest. For penance, De Niro’s character climbs a muddy mountain with a huge load of junk on his back. It takes him forever to get up the hill, only to be confronted by a child from a tribe he had sold into slavery. The child comes up to him with a knife, pauses, then cuts the rope that tied the heavy burden to his back, and pushed it over the side and down the mountain.

That scene is about forgiveness, but it’s also an illustration of the difference between justice and mercy. Justice is getting what we deserve, but mercy is getting something better than we deserve. The character in the film carried his burden to the point of exhaustion, and in the end expected to be punished. But that’s not what happened.

We continue our journey through the Lord’s Prayer. We’ve been saying that this prayer of Jesus is at the core of our faith—that it shows us the heart of what we believe and also what we’re called to do about it. The Lord’s Prayer functions like a heart in that it takes us in wherever we are: broken, wounded, afraid, and depleted. It takes us in and restores us—it gives us back our spiritual energy—it renews us and sends us out for service again.

Even though we say it over and over, we’re different each time—we’re in different places each time, and that makes the prayer new and different and life-changing…each time.

We’ve prayed more than half of the prayer already:

Our Father, who really exists,
You reveal yourself to us as holy and loving,
Bring your Kingdom,
Make this world into the world you meant it to be from the beginning.
Provide for us, O God, and teach us to provide for others.

Today we start to focus on being living examples of God’s Kingdom on earth—living examples of God’s mercy.

‘Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.’ Teach us to live by the values of your Kingdom. Teach us to be agents of forgiveness and reconciliation everywhere.

It’s interesting how different church traditions have translated this part of the prayer. You hear it each time we pray the prayer together: Some people say ‘debts’, then have to wait for the ‘trespasses’ crowd to catch up. The real word translates most accurately to sins, and so the variation tells us something about the way this part of the prayer has been understood in the history of the church.

Debts and Trespasses are breaches of human relationships. We owe people debts that they can reasonably expect to be paid, and we trespass onto property owned by others. I suppose the point here is that these examples of brokenness among and between people matter somehow to God. But the bigger point is that—from the perspective of the Cross and Resurrection, our relationships with each other mattered enough to God for him to do something decisive to heal them.

‘Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.’ Teach us to live by the values of your Kingdom. Teach us to be agents of forgiveness and reconciliation everywhere.

Forgiveness has fallen out of fashion in our culture. It makes us appear weak. To ask for forgiveness is to need something from someone else, and we’re pretty well trained not to do that these days.

But it also gives control over to another person. In our ‘master of our own destiny’ culture, giving this kind of power to another person seems ridiculous. Giving this kind of power to someone else goes against all of our conditioning and even our therapy.

But the biggest reason we don’t talk much about forgiveness anymore is that we’ve been taught by the culture that we don’t have anything we need forgiven. We’ve individualized faith so much that we’ve lost touch with the idea that there’s anything we might do that, well, we shouldn’t do.

Someone told me recently that the church or the Christian faith wasn’t in a position to discuss ‘moral imperatives’, but what they really meant was that they didn’t want anyone—and certainly not the church—telling them right from wrong. But if we’ve lost our sense of what sin is, how do we go about confessing and forgiving? If it’s not in our cultural language anymore, who exactly is listening when we confess and forgive?

The Christian faith is based on the idea that God made the world to be a certain way, but that things were broken—shattered—by our rebellion. Now the story doesn’t end there. God didn’t reject or condemn or turn his back on his creation. He allows it to be self-governing, to a certain extent, but he is also active in trying to repair and restore what we’ve broken. More importantly, God has acted—acted decisively through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, to reconcile his creation to himself.

The Second Helvetic Confession, which dates back to the Reformation, describes it like this: ‘By Christ’s passion and death and everything which he did and endured for our sake by his coming in the flesh, our Lord reconciled all the faithful to the heavenly Father.’

Four hundred years later, the United Presbyterian Church—which ironically was still divided at that time from the Southern Presbyterian Church—described God’s actions on our behalf like this: ‘The reconciling work of Jesus was the supreme crisis in the life of humankind. His cross and resurrection become personal crisis and present hope for men and women when the gospel is proclaimed and believed. In this experience, the Spirit brings God’s forgiveness to all people, moves us to respond in faith, repentance, and obedience, and initiates the new life in Christ.’

God’s reconciling work—his forgiveness of our rebellion—is truly an amazing thing.

Last week one of my friends in California sent me a link to a singer songwriter with a new CD out. His name is Dustin Kensrue, and one of the new songs retells the story of The Prodigal Son, a parable that isn’t really about the son at all. It’s about the Father who waits, ready to run out and meet his wayward child—to put his arms around him and kiss him and throw a party for him. The song goes like this:

And now you've hit bottom,
all those open doors have shut,
and you're hungry stomach's tied in knots,
but I know what you're thinking,
that you troubled me enough,
nothing could ever separate you from my love.

I still stand here waiting,

with my eyes fixed on the road,
and I fight back tears and I wonder,
if you're ever coming home,
don't you know son that I love you,
and I don't care where you've been,
so please come home.

The foundation of God’s forgiveness toward us is the simple fact that he loves us more than we can ever understand. No matter where we’ve been or what we’ve done or even believed before. God loves us and waits to run to us and throw a party.

But all of this so far is about what God has done for us, which is great—don’t get me wrong. The saving, restoring, reconciling work of God through Jesus Christ is the single most important event in human history. No war, no peace, no election can even come close to what God has offered to his creation through Jesus Christ. But in our prayer this morning we see that there’s a little more to this story that saying simply saying sorry to God, and being forgiven.

The Lord’s Prayer is telling a bigger story than that.

The Lord’s Prayer is calling us to a far more radical action than that.

The Lord’s Prayer is our way of proclaiming not only God’s work in our own lives, but also his work on behalf of the world he made and loves.

‘Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.’ Teach us to live by the values of your Kingdom. Teach us to be agents of forgiveness and reconciliation everywhere.

Last week we talked about our role in bringing ‘daily bread’ to people who need it. This week is no different: we hear a clear call in this part of the Lord’s Prayer to not only receive forgiveness, but to share that gift with the rest of the world. Sorry isn’t enough—there’s more to God’s reconciling work than simply receiving it.

‘Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.’

Here’s the dark question that confronts us in this ancient prayer. Do we forgive those who sin against us? Whose burdens do we release and push down the side of a mountain somewhere?

Forgiving is hard—for the reasons I said earlier and for countless more. Forgiving is hard.

But forgiving is also one of a handful of indicators that shows Christ living in us and through us. Remember that the Lord’s Prayer is a part of the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus describes what life would be like if God’s people lived as if God really existed—what relationships would be like if God’s people lived and loved as if God truly reigned.

In that sense it’s not really about whether forgiving is hard or easy. The real question is the extent to which each one of us will allow Christ to work—to love and help and serve and forgive—in and through our lives.

Miroslav Volf was a professor at Fuller Seminary, and now teaches at Yale Divinity School. In his book, Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a World Stripped of Grace, he wrote this:

“Just as Christ grieved more over our sin than over the injury our sin caused him, so we can grieve for others if Christ lives in us. Just as Christ overcame evil with the power of good rather than avenging himself, so can we. Just as Christ absorbed the effect of wrongdoing so as to free wrongdoers from punishment, so can we if we’re united with Christ. Just as Christ lifted the guilt from their shoulders, so can we.”

The discipline of forgiveness—of forgiving those who sin against us—that’s really the discipline of allowing Christ to live and work through us. It’s the decision to live according to the radical rules of the Kingdom of God—of Christ’s reign over all creation and his power over all things, even death. The discipline of forgiveness is the foundation of living as a disciple of Jesus Christ—of being a Christian in the truest sense.

‘Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.’ Teach us to live by the values of your Kingdom. Teach us to be agents of forgiveness and reconciliation everywhere

The invitation to all of us today comes in two parts. First, it’s to experience the amazing gift of reconciliation that God offers through Jesus Christ. It’s to see the Father waiting along the road—waiting for us to turn his way so he can throw that party. It’s to acknowledge that even if we can’t know, we can still believe and experience the presence and promises of God.

But that invitation calls us to be not only forgiven, but also to be people who forgive. The sign of Christ’s work in us is when we can show someone else what it means to live according the values of the Kingdom of God—of Christ’s reign. When we can help someone lose the bag of junk on their back—whatever burden they carry that keeps them from enjoying the presence of God and fullness of the life he made—when we can do that we are living as agents of the Kingdom—we’re living as citizens under God’s reign, where the love and mercy of God splashes around freely and gets all over everything.

That’s what we pray for in the Lord’s Prayer. Let’s stand together and pray it now.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Another Night to Remember

So I've been working with a member of the clergy team at St. Paul's Cathedral to organize this year's Thanksgiving Service. She called me this week and invited our family to watch a fireworks show from the Stone Gallery--a balcony along the ridge of the Cathedral Dome, almost 200 feet high.

Here's the view at dusk from the Dome, looking out over the front of the Cathedral.
Fireworks over the River Thames, celebrating the Lord Mayor's Parade.
That's us, at our viewing spot.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

One Moment Among Many

It's hard to find the right words to describe my reaction to Barack Obama's election to the presidency. My 8-year-old son will never know what it's like not to have had a black president. I'm moved, proud, happier than I expected, and a little awestruck, but I'm not surprised. I think that I'm most pleased about that last bit.

I'm not surprised.

What a great feeling. What an incredible thing it is to see an American of African descent elected to that high office, and to not be surprised. Sen. Obama is young and untested in many ways, but on the other hand is so obviously gifted and intelligent. And besides, he ran an amazing campaign: he emerged as a candidate because of his ability to articulate the American idea in a new way, he defeated a powerful and well-funded political machine within his own party, and then showed himself to be calm, reasoned and unflappable right up to the general election. This 'morning after' feeling is all the more special for the sense that it was inevitable and right, rather than shocking.

I watched his speech this morning and it put tears in my eyes. It is the job of a leader to define reality...Max De Pree said that in one of his books on leadership. Sen. Obama defined a peculiarly American understanding of the world, and the reality he described is the same one my parents, both lifelong conservatives, raised me to believe in. I do believe that the American idea...the American political experiment...remains the best this world has to offer. It has been a while since someone has put that idea into such beautiful words on such a grand stage, but Sen. Obama wasn't alone.

In your celebration (or know who you are) of this election's outcome, don't allow the words of another very special American to be drowned out. Sen John McCain is a unique American political figure in his own right, and his concession speech was the best I've ever heard. If you supported Sen. Obama, make sure you hear what this man said about your candidate. If you were a McCain supporter, hear this call to remember that your political identity isn't primarily with your party, but with your country.

Both of these men ran honorable, hard campaigns, treating each other with respect and even grace at times. Both ended their campaigns in much the same way. Think about that. Two politicians, both after the same job, competing vigorously without losing their sense of honor and integrity. You know what?

I'm not surprised.

Here's most of John McCain's speech (I took out his comments to his campaign team):

My friends, we have come to the end of a long journey. The American people have spoken, and they have spoken clearly.

A little while ago, I had the honor of calling Sen. Barack Obama to congratulate him. To congratulate him on being elected the next president of the country that we both love. In a contest as long and difficult as this campaign has been, his success alone commands my respect for his ability and perseverance. But that he managed to do so by inspiring the hopes of so many millions of Americans who had once wrongly believed that they had little at stake or little influence in the election of an American president is something I deeply admire and commend him for achieving.

This is an historic election, and I recognize the special significance it has for African-Americans and for the special pride that must be theirs tonight. I've always believed that America offers opportunities to all who have the industry and will to seize it. Sen. Obama believes that, too.

But we both recognize that, though we have come a long way from the old injustices that once stained our nation's reputation and denied some Americans the full blessings of American citizenship, the memory of them still had the power to wound. A century ago, President Theodore Roosevelt's invitation of Booker T. Washington to dine at the White House was taken as an outrage in many quarters. America today is a world away from the cruel and frightful bigotry of that time. There is no better evidence of this than the election of an African-American to the presidency of the United States.

Let there be no reason now for any American to fail to cherish their citizenship in this, the greatest nation on Earth.

Sen. Obama has achieved a great thing for himself and for his country. I applaud him for it, and offer him my sincere sympathy that his beloved grandmother did not live to see this day, though our faith assures us she is at rest in the presence of her creator and so very proud of the good man she helped raise.

Sen. Obama and I have had and argued our differences, and he has prevailed. No doubt many of those differences remain. These are difficult times for our country. And I pledge to him tonight to do all in my power to help him lead us through the many challenges we face. I urge all Americans who supported me to join me in not just congratulating him, but offering our next president our good will and earnest effort to find ways to come together to find the necessary compromises to bridge our differences and help restore our prosperity, defend our security in a dangerous world, and leave our children and grandchildren a stronger, better country than we inherited.

Whatever our differences, we are fellow Americans. And please believe me when I say no association has ever meant more to me than that.

It is natural. It's natural, tonight, to feel some disappointment. But tomorrow, we must move beyond it and work together to get our country moving again. We fought—we fought as hard as we could. And though we fell short, the failure is mine, not yours. I am so deeply grateful to all of you for the great honor of your support and for all you have done for me. I wish the outcome had been different, my friends.

The road was a difficult one from the outset, but your support and friendship never wavered. I cannot adequately express how deeply indebted I am to you. I'm especially grateful to my wife, Cindy, my children, my dear mother and all my family, and to the many old and dear friends who have stood by my side through the many ups and downs of this long campaign. I have always been a fortunate man, and never more so for the love and encouragement you have given me. You know, campaigns are often harder on a candidate's family than on the candidate, and that's been true in this campaign. All I can offer in compensation is my love and gratitude and the promise of more peaceful years ahead…

I don't know what more we could have done to try to win this election. I'll leave that to others to determine. Every candidate makes mistakes, and I'm sure I made my share of them. But I won't spend a moment of the future regretting what might have been. This campaign was and will remain the great honor of my life, and my heart is filled with nothing but gratitude for the experience and to the American people for giving me a fair hearing before deciding that Sen. Obama and my old friend Sen. Joe Biden should have the honor of leading us for the next four years.

I would not be an American worthy of the name should I regret a fate that has allowed me the extraordinary privilege of serving this country for a half a century. Today, I was a candidate for the highest office in the country I love so much. And tonight, I remain her servant. That is blessing enough for anyone, and I thank the people of Arizona for it.

Tonight, more than any night, I hold in my heart nothing but love for this country and for all its citizens, whether they supported me or Sen. Obama—whether they supported me or Sen. Obama.

I wish Godspeed to the man who was my former opponent and will be my president. And I call on all Americans, as I have often in this campaign, to not despair of our present difficulties, but to believe, always, in the promise and greatness of America, because nothing is inevitable here.

Americans never quit. We never surrender.

We never hide from history. We make history.

Thank you, and God bless you, and God bless America. Thank you all very much.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Supply Lines

(This is the fifth in a series titled 'A Declaration of Dependence: The Lord's Prayer.')

Matthew 6:9-13

I love bread. I like all kinds of bread, from French baguettes to Italian focaccia—from really good California sourdough to a nice slice of Wonder bread. The worst thing that ever happened to my enjoyment of bread was the Atkins diet—the low-carb diet. The last thing I ever needed was to have a hint of guilt to spoil my enjoyment of a good cinnamon twist or some Rye toast.

My love for bread goes back to my childhood. My Italian grandmother used to make bread every week. When I was little she used to let me help—I had a little single-serving bread pan, and she would give me a lump of dough to make my own mini-loaf of bread. When it came out she would make a fuss over it like I had done this amazing thing. She’d hide the 6 large loaves she made and call my grandfather in from the garden to show him the little bun I made. When she got older she would have me do the kneading—she’d stand next to me and tell me what to do, and she’d toss flour onto the big table so the dough wouldn’t stick.

What I remember most about those days at my grandma’s house was the smell of the baking bread. It was strong—but if you were indoors for a long time it would seem to fade. But if you went outside for even a minute and came back into the house, it would seem just as strong as ever.

My grandmother died in 1995, and I haven’t made bread since. But every so often I go into someone’s house, or by a bakery, and I get that smell again, just as strong as ever. The aroma of baking bread reminds me of my Italian grandparents, but it also reminds me of what it was like to be filled in their presence—filled with food, loved unconditionally, and completely satisfied.

We’ve been talking about the Lord’s Prayer as the heart of our faith—it expresses what we believe about God and ourselves, and reminds us of the call on each of our lives to live according to the values of the Kingdom, of Christ’ reign over all things and all places and all people.

We’ve already prayed:

Our Father, the one that truly exists,
Your name is above all other names.
Bring your Kingdom,
Help us make this world the way you made it to be in the first place.

And so we come to the text for today: ‘Give us this day our daily bread.’ Sustain us for the journey. Feed all of us, O God. Show us how we can help.

In the reading from Exodus today we saw the way God provided manna to his people who were wandering in the desert for 40 years. It was like bread—it actually says later that it tasted like wafers made with honey, which sounds kind of nice. They were commanded to take some for everyone—even if they couldn’t get it themselves—but they were also commanded not to hoard it. God would provide their daily bread, if they would just trust him to do it.

It may seem like a strange time to talk about God’s provision for us. The financial crisis has hit many people in this room very hard. There are shrill, frightened voices coming out of our TVs and radios saying that a terrible recession is unavoidable.

It may seem like a strange time to talk about having faith in God’s care for us—in God’s concern for us—in the way God provides for our needs. Does God really care about us?

Now in this election year, and in honor of the last two presidents, I’m going to focus on a small word—actually the smallest word in our text this morning: Us.

‘Give us this day our daily bread.’ Sustain us for the journey. Feed all of us, O God. Show us how we can help.

Who’s us? Which us is Jesus talking about—and asking us to pray about—in the Lord’s Prayer?

Instead of me laboring through some long, complicated response to that question, let me give you a hint about how simple the answer really is: ‘Us’ means everyone. That’s it, that’s as specific an interpretation of this passage as an honest preacher can give you. ‘Us’ means everyone. Uh-oh.

Take a minute to think about what a radical statement that is. Does God really care for us? Yes. It’s just that the ‘us’ God had in mind includes more people than we normally think about when we pray his prayer.

We’ve been saying that the Lord’s Prayer takes us in wherever we are—broken, wounded, depleted—that it takes us in and replenishes us—that it renews us and sends us out into service again. The point of that is that we are a part of the process—a part of the very blessing—that we are asking for in the prayer.

Because we know that there are people all over the world who don’t have enough to eat. We know that there are people in this city—maybe even at this church—who are wondering how they’ll provide for themselves—for their families—during these difficult times. It’s too easy to see hunger and deprivation as abstractions—as things that happen to ‘the other guy’—but if the economic forecasts are right, these issues of need and provision are about to get a lot more real to all of us. What do we do about that? What do we say?

‘Give us this day our daily bread.’ Sustain us for the journey. Feed all of us, O God. Show us how we can help.

It’s important to read ‘Give us this day our daily bread’ as a two-way street.

First, it’s a recognition that in some mysterious way we rely on God to provide for our needs. We acknowledge that all good things come from him, and that we ought to remember him when things are good, rather that only when we’re facing some kind of disaster or suffering. People of faith used to call this Providence.

But the second part of this is what calls each one of us to action. Why? Because we all get our provisions in different measures. Some people get a lot, while others get very little—or nothing. Before we dive into that, we need to step back and review a crucial point of theology.

However it came about, Christians believe that God is the one who created the heavens and the earth and everyone and everything in it. We may wrestle or debate over the how and the when, but for people of faith the ‘who’ is not in question.

Because I believe that—because I believe that God is the origin of every thing and every person on this earth—I can say this: God didn’t go to the trouble of making anyone who was doomed to starve to death. If he did then we should all go home and get an early start on our Sunday afternoon plans.

God didn’t make anyone to starve to death. The problem is not production—the problem is distribution. Does that make sense? The problem is not production—the problem is distribution.

Military organizations give an enormous amount of thought to their supply lines or logistics. The five principles of logistics accepted by NATO are foresight, economy, flexibility, simplicity, and co-operation. That’s a good definition for our role in this verse from the Lord’s Prayer.

So what are we called to do? Give us this day our daily bread could just as easily mean: ‘Give all of us—give everyone their bread—even if you give it through me.’ Help me to serve with ‘foresight, economy, flexibility, simplicity, and co-operation.’

In the end we shouldn’t need the government to share the wealth. What we need is people who pray the Lord’s Prayer—and mean it—to share the wealth.

We come to the Table this morning in need of the life sustaining nourishment that God promises. But it’s not just our own hunger we ask for—we come to the Table to be restored, replenished, and renewed for service. We come to experience this blessing in the way God intended it: so that we would turn right around and become a blessing to all the nations—a blessing to the rest of what we mean by ‘us’.

And so our stewardship theme continues. You heard about some of our fellowship ministries last week, and today we remember the way our music programs lead and inspire our worship together. Don’t miss next Sunday, as we talk about what this church hopes to accomplish in Christ’s name for the needy in this area. Don’t miss it. Bring friends. Come ready to be inspired.

For today we come to the table as people who are thankful for God’s Providence, and eager to share that blessing with others. That’s what the Lord’s Prayer is all about. Let’s stand and pray the prayer together as we prepare our hearts for Communion.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Are We There Yet?

(This is the fourth in a series of sermons titled 'A Declaration of Dependence: The Lord's Prayer.')

I went to school with a guy named Paul—we had classes together from 3rd grade into high school. When I got involved in school music programs in 7th grade, when I was 12 or so, Paul and I ended up in the same performances pretty regularly. Paul was an unbelievable guitarist—he had the first Fender Stratocaster of anyone I knew, and he could play it beautifully. In the 1978 John Muir Jr. High School Talent Show, when I was in 8th grade, I sang in a madrigal quartet—we did a song called ‘Il le bel e bon’—I still have no idea what that song was about. Paul and his band followed us (and erased us from all memory) with a blistering performance of Lynyrd Skynrd’s ‘Free Bird’ that I can still remember today, more than 30 years later.

I tell you that story because on Friday Paul found me on Facebook, and we’ve been swapping memories over the weekend. Facebook does that for a lot of people, I think. Old friends find us after years and years, and we remember relationships that used to exist. I knew Paul really well for a few years a long time ago, but haven’t talked to him or heard anything about him for decades.

The point is that we all have these deep friendships that for some reason don’t last or endure. We form connections that in the end become, well, disconnected.

We’ve been on a journey through the Lord’s Prayer. The prayer is a part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, which is an important stretch of teach that introduces us to what life can look like under God’s reign—his Kingdom. The prayer is a summary of both the beliefs and practices of the life of Christian discipleship.

Mostly, the Lord’s Prayer is a declaration of dependence. It is a statement of our need for God not just in the shape of hunger or thirst, but a need for God in the form of completion or connection—the kind of connection that grows and nourishes and renews and lasts.

We’ve been talking about the Lord’s Prayer as the heart of the Christian faith—as a place where we come in our brokenness and exhaustion and confusion and isolation, and where we receive healing and renewal and faithful wisdom and fellowship. The Lord’s Prayer takes us in depleted, then refills us with oxygen and pumps us back out into fullness and service.

So this prayer that many of us have recited for years is shaping up to be a pretty life-changing set of words. In the prayer we acknowledge our belief or at least our hope that God exists. We recognize that God in his own way has brought us into his plan for the world—that we serve each other because God has called us into relationship with him. Last week we got to the radical part of the prayer when we said:

‘Thy Kingdom Come.’ Let your reign take over. Rule in our hearts.

Our text this week is the knockout punch that last week’s text set us up for. Thy Kingdom come is one thing, but right after that we pray: ‘Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’ In other words: We choose your ways, God. We long for things to be the way you made them to be from the beginning.

There was an old Burger King commercial when I was a kid where they tried to distinguish themselves from McDonald’s by showing that you could order a hamburger just how you liked it. Remember the song? ‘Have it your way…’

‘Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’

If there was ever a time when it was appropriate to say ‘be careful what you ask for,’ this is it.

We choose your ways, God. We long for things to be the way you made them to be. Have it—have everything, O God—your way.

There is a moment that happens in conversation between friends and relatives, coworkers and husbands and wives. You get into an argument about the way to do something, and then there’s the dramatic turning point where one person says to the other: ‘OK, we’ll do it your way!’

Now, we all know what’s really meant by that phrase, right? What we mean by that is that we’ll do it the other person’s way because it is so obviously doomed to total and catastrophic failure. Then, after the dust settles, not only will we be proved right, but we’ll also get to do it our way after all.

That’s not what we’re praying in this part of the Lord’s Prayer. When we say ‘thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,’ we’re admitting that we finally see that God’s ways are better and purer than ours. Our way may not always lead to total and catastrophic failure, but mature faith will show that our attempts to go it alone just can’t compare with God’s way of living and deciding and spending and loving.

Well what is that way? What is it that God wants from us and for us? What does it mean to say ‘on earth as it is in heaven? Some of that we’re just never going to fully understand.

When we were getting ready to move to London, Julie and I went to Ian’s 1st grade class to talk about where we were going. Some of the kids had been here before, or had seen pictures of some landmarks. We talked about the flight and how Ian would go to a new school. When we were done a little girl raised her hand, and with tears in her eyes asked: Where was Ian going to sleep, if his bed was still here? We explained to her that we were moving our things with us, but she had a hard time picturing how our new home could compare to our old one.

There is a lot that we don’t understand about eternity—about what heaven is like—but there are some things about it that we can begin to grasp.

Maybe it’s easier to think of heaven as a place where everything is as God intends for it to be—where his plan and priorities are understood and lived. The best clues to God’s priorities, of course, are found in the Scriptures, where the teachings of the Bible call us to a new way of living. That’s what’s happening in much of the Old Testament, and when Jesus appears, talking about the values of the Kingdom, he represents the beginning of the end of that conversation between God and his creation.

But how do we find those priorities? And when we do find them, how do we make them our own? Because we can’t look at God with a straight face and say: ‘have it your way,’ then elbow him in the ribs and say something like: ‘but only if it’s really my way.’

‘Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’

We choose your ways, God. We long for things to be the way you made them to be from the beginning. Have it—have everything—your way.

What is that way? There’s so much to say about this, but for now it’s enough to say that biblical priorities can be found in three main categories:

Faith in God
Justice for the world
Love for each other.

The first priority is to have Faith in God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Now it’s important to say here that having faith includes all of our struggles and doubts and wondering and frustration. The opposite of faith isn’t doubt, or despair or even science. The opposite of faith is the illusion of certainty—believing that we’re capable of knowing all and seeing all. Last time I checked, those two qualities were above our pay-grade.

Having faith is developing an attitude of trust that God is who he says he is, and that he will do what he promised to do. God never says to anyone in the Scriptures: ‘Figure me out, and then I’ll love you and sustain you and redeem you.’ What he does is say: ‘I’ve loved you and sustained you and redeemed you already, and all I ask is that you believe in me in return.’

The second priority is to be on the side of Justice for the world. This one is so easy to miss, but it’s clearly a top-three priority in both testaments. How we defend the cause of the weak and hopeless, how we meet the needs of those who live in poverty, how we engage the political process not only to make our own lives better, but also to improve the lives of others. Those are not just nice, Western values that make us feel warm all over. It’s not the American Way, or what it means to be British, or even what it means to be good. Being an active agent for justice in the world is a big part of what it means to say ‘your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’

Finally, God calls is to show Love for each other. The concept of heaven, or eternity, whatever else it might mean, promises that the deep friendships and connections we make with God and each other will last forever—they won’t rise and fall or flash and fade. It won’t be like the friends that find us after years of silence on Facebook.

That’s why the focus today was on our fellowship ministries. It’s not just that we like to get together for meals and parties and Quiz Nights, although that’s a great thing. It’s also not that fellowship is somehow less important than the other things we do. I’ve said it dozens of times already from this very spot: True fellowship, alongside our worship, discipleship and mission work, is a sign of a healthy and thriving church of Jesus Christ. Fellowship ministries are a sign of hope. The fellowship that we build here—the relationships we make and tend and nurture—they represent for us a glimpse of what heaven might be like. Deep relationships—surrounded by the deep relationships of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit—living and lasting forever.

To answer the question in the title of this message: No, we’re not there yet. But the promise of the Scriptures—and the promise of the Lord’s Prayer—is that God wants this for us—that he calls us to believe it and live it even as we pray it over and over. When we declare our dependence on God we aren’t throwing ourselves into a big empty hole. Recognizing how much we need God isn’t a cause for despair or depression. Praying the Lord’s Prayer is a celebration—a celebration of communion and connection and completion.

Let’s declare our dependence on God, as we pray that prayer once again...