Monday, July 28, 2008

Prayer - July 27, 2008

Romans 8:26-39

Persevere in prayer (Romans 12:12).

Devote yourselves to prayer (Colossians 4:2).

Pray in the Spirit (Ephesians 6:18).

My house shall be called a house of prayer (Matthew 21:13).

Teach us to pray, said the disciples.

Prayer, whatever it is, is very much a part of our life.

A universal thing … every human being prays … an instinct hardwired into our DNA.

We cry out in a hard moment, “O God” whether we believe or not.

It’s a rare person who does not pray … I suppose there are some, but I suspect they are few and far between.

What is prayer?

I don’t know!

“Preacher, you’re supposed to know. You’ve been to seminary; you have a theological degree; preacher, you oughta know.”

But I don’t know.

Do I pray?
I pray most every morning … my Forty Days of Prayer Journal.

I pray before I eat … I pray while I’m driving (but I never close my eyes) …
I pray a lot.
I’ve prayed all of my life.

Everything from:
“Come LORD Jesus, be our guest, let thy gifts to us be blessed. Amen.”
… to …
“Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the LORD my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the LORD my soul to take. Amen.”

Do I know what prayer is?
No, I don’t know.

Sort of like asking,
What’s bicycle riding?
Sitting on a porch at Lake Tahoe with a great book?
Having dinner at a fine restaurant with the one you love?
Going to sleep?
Taking a shower after a hard day’s work?
Sitting and crying with a friend who’s lost her husband?
What are any of these things?
Can we put ‘em into a computer, or a test tube?

What is prayer?
I have no clear idea what is it … but I pray, and I pray a lot, and I know that you do, too.
We’re human beings.
That means we pray.

There are different ways of praying … different postures … standing, sitting, kneeling … hands folded, hands open; arms raised … head bowed or head raised upward … eyes closed, eyes open.

A part of praying is learning something about God.

A little refrain that’s been popular in recent years:

God is good … all the time.
All the time … God is good.

O taste and see that the LORD is good (Psalm 38:4).

Someone might ask, “But how can a good God allow all of this suffering?”

Let’s think about it for a moment … “What should God do?”

Should God hold up every airplane in the sky?
Should God stop every mutating cell?
Should God eliminate every dangerous microbe and virus?
Should God prevent every auto accident, every robbery, every argument, all disagreement?
Should God halt arms dealers, border disputes and ethnic issues?
Should God put an end to capital punishment?
Should God replenish oil supplies, modulate the weather and manage the commodities market?
Should God wipe away every negative thought, every jealousy, every angry emotion, every moment of doubt and fear?
Should God answer every question, resolve every cognitive dissonance, make everything black and white?
Should God put a stop to hurricanes, earthquakes and lightening strikes?
Should God eliminate every wolf that takes a cow, every bear who attacks a hiker, every ant who crawls on our kitchen counter, and every one who speaks unkindly?
Should God do away with death?
Should God make time stand still and the sun never set?

Where would God draw a line?
What should God manage and what should God leave alone?
If I don’t want it to rain on my parade, what about the farmer who needs rain for the wheat?
The tectonic plates move only because our planet has a molten core that generates a gravity field that prevents oxygen from escaping.
We channel our rivers so that folks can live beside them, and when the rains comes, the channels force the river every higher, and higher levels weaken the levees, and the levees are more likely to fail … and when they fail upriver, the downriver threat lessens.

It’s a complicated thing being God, hearing the prayers of billions of people – all at the same time – enemies engaged in war praying for victory over the other … basketball teams and soccer clubs praying for a win …

Everyone of us in this room has prayed mightily for something or someone … but nothing happens, or the worst happens.
Sometimes we hold God accountable for this … maybe we walk away from God – angry that we didn’t get what we wanted … because in our mind, what we wanted was really good; it made sense, and would have been terrific, if only God had come through on God’s part of the program.

What’s a good God to do?

I wouldn’t want to be God even for a moment.
Bruce Nolan finds that out in Bruce Almighty.
At first, when given the chance, Bruce is taken with the absolute power of it all – “I can do anything I want” … but slowly realizes that power alone isn’t the answer to anything … in time, Bruce “Almighty” realizes how small his mind and heart are … and when it’s all done, he’s glad to turn it all back to God!

So what’s up with prayer?

Paul says, we don’t know how to pray as we ought.
Is that true?
Do we know how to pray?

Most everyone prays …
Prayer is a natural instinct …
But then so is eating … but we learn to how to eat well.
Love is an instinct … but we learn to love wholesomely.
Being a parent is a natural thing … but we learn how to be a wise mother or father.

Prayer is a natural thing … but we learn to pray rightly.

A father and his five year old son were headed to McDonald's one day, and passed a car accident. Usually when they saw something terrible like that, they’d say a prayer for those who might be hurt, so the pointed and said to his son, "We should pray."
From the back seat he heard his son’s earnest prayer: "Please, God, don't let those cars block the entrance to McDonald's."

How then shall we pray?
Is there a right way or a wrong way to pray?

Let begin with affirmation: “God hears every prayer, no matter what, and God answers every prayer appropriately.”

The essential answers to prayer:
Not yet.

Sometimes we hear someone say: “God didn’t answer my prayer.”
Well, yes, God did answer.
It’s just not the answer we’d hoped for.
Sometimes the answer comes slowly … over a period of time … in unexpected ways.
In one of my espionage books, an Alan Furst character says: “This is a war, and, in a war, sometimes you lose, sometimes you win, and, sometimes, when you think you’ve lost, you’ve won” (The Foreign Correspondant, p.58).

How shall we pray?

The Spirit helps us, says Paul.
The Spirit of God … at work in our spirit … helping us to pray.

Jesus says: Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive (Matthew 21:22).

LORD, let me win the lotto.
LORD, let me have a fabulous career.
Let my loved one get better.
Help my children do well.

Who doesn’t want to win the lotto, and who wouldn’t do good things with the money?

Who doesn’t want a good career … or a loved one to recover … or our children to do well?

Is this what Jesus means?

Whatever you ask for in prayer, says Jesus … with faith.

The key word is “faith” – whatever you ask for in faith.
We could substitute the word “love” – whatever you ask for in love … in love with God, in love with your neighbor, in love with life …
We could substitute the word trust … whatever you ask for, with trust in the goodness and reliability of God … with trust, that God is at work in all things for good … with trust, that God has His eye on the sparrow.
We might use the word patience … we are those who wait with patience for the things of God … we wait upon the LORD … as Abraham and Sarah had to wait for the promised son … as Israel had to wait a long time in slavery until God set them free … and then had to wait 40 years until the Promised Land … waiting is a part of the program … and patience is the virtue.

We learn to ask in ways consistent with God’s will and purpose.
We learn how to align our heart with God’s heart.
Our tastes are elevated … we begin to desire what God wills, and we begin to will what God desires.

Prayer, too, is very much about remembering grace … paying attention to how many times we’ve been saved and didn’t know it … how often good things have come our way, and we didn’t notice … how many accidents didn’t happen; how many illness were averted … how much the luck of the draw on our investments was really the hand of God.
Remembering grace … all the free lunches we’ve had … gracious moments that came in the blink of an eye, and we didn’t even say thanks.

Paul says, pray without ceasing …
To live gratefully.
To live generously.
To live kindly.
To hunger and thirst for righteousness.
To be peace-maker.
To love Christ.

Thank you LORD for the gifts of life.
For the folks who love me.
For everyone I love.
For opportunities and possibilities.
For doors that close, and doors that open.
For the hard times that have sharpened me.
For the good times that have delighted me.
For all the dear and sweet people who keep this world going, who build things and manage things … who protect us at night and take care of us in the hospital … for teachers and dancers, for magicians and car mechanics, for painters and producers, for Hollywood and New York City, for Phoenix and Dallas, for Fords and Chevys and the Honda Prius … for Vons and Ralphs, Bristol Farms and Trader Joe’s …
O LORD my God, thank you, thank you, and thank you.

Thanksgiving opens our eyes to the abundance of life.
I remember, in my first calling – two small churches in the mountains of West Virginia south of Charleston – Toots Adkins – Toots had never worked a day in his life, always sickly, always frail; not a tooth in his head, and he lived in a little tar paper shack no bigger than my office, at the head of Camp Creek.

He was an elder in the Camp Creek Presbyterian Church … and taught himself to read by reading the Bible, and when the kids had a dance at Pee Wee Sutphin’s place, someone playing the fiddle, Toots would do a mountain clog that was both wonderful and funny, as he clogged away with shoes too big for his tiny frame.
Toots was a man of prayer.
Every prayer - a prayer of deep thanks.
For the simple thing of life.
The grace of God.
Jesus and the Bible.
The church and its missionaries.
Preachers and teachers.
Birds and flowers.
Streams and clouds.
Rain and sunshine.

Toots was a man poor by the standards of the world.
But his heart was rich with the grace of God.
Toots had everything.

Toots was a man of prayer.

What is prayer?
I really don’t know.
I pray every day … you do, too.

There’s always something to learn about prayer.

And the Spirit helps us. Amen and Amen!

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Identity - July 20, 2008

Romans 8:12-25

Remarkable time this past week … Week Two of interim training … incredible setting: the Presbyterian Conference Center at Lake Tahoe.

My first week – 4 years ago – Pittsburgh Theo. Seminary … great faculty then, and a great faculty this last week … including Charles Svendsen, interim at Brentwood - 70 of us, but only 16 in Week Two training.

We divided into small groups of five or six – our group jelled quickly, and we grew rather close to one another … four Presbyterians and a Lutheran … two pastors from northern California, one from Phoenix, one from Corpus Christi, Texas … and then me from LA.

Part of our prep time: prepare and give a message to the group – nothing more challenging than preaching to preachers – as the expression goes: a preacher will go a thousands mile to preach, but not walk across the street to hear another preacher.
And prepare and present an ILE – Integrated Learning Experience – a verbatim, a snapshot, of some portion of our ministry.
To share with the group a chunk of our life:
Here’s who I am.
Here’s I operate.
Here’s what I value.

Which is exactly what Interim Pastors seek to do with their congregations … this remarkable interim time … an in between time … valuable and vital … a time to put our life up for review:
Who are we?
How do we operate?
What do we value?

Several pastors suggested, rightly I believe, that all pastors are interims … no matter how long a pastor stays, it’s always between times … something came before; something comes afterward … I guess that’s true for life, isn’t it? – we’re all interims; we’re only here for the time being … between what was, and what shall be.

We can all stand to do interim work:
Who are we?
How do we operate?
What do we value?

Lily Tomlin said: “I've always wanted to be somebody, but I see now I should have been more specific” (Jane Wagner, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe).

Not a bad idea for each of us … to be specific:
Who are we?
How do we operate?
What do we value?

Christians ponder these questions with a special tool.
Investors use the Wall Street Journal.
Sports fans read Sports Illustrated.
News buffs read the New York Times.
Christians use the Bible.
To get a handle on things … to get specific:
Who are we?
How do we operate?
What do we value?

Take a look at our Bible Text for the day – Romans 8:12-25 … Paul’s letter to the Roman church … and not a church as we might think … likely 30 or 40 house churches scattered throughout the city of Rome …

[read text]

The church in the city of Rome – a cosmopolitan church in the middle of a vast city.
Every nationality, tongue and creed – every religious expression imaginable - from the sublime to the hideous … rich and poor, slave and free – the powerful and the oppressed … all roads lead to Rome.
As Rome determined, so went the Mediterranean world … and the church in the midst of this mixing bowl …

Not a whole lot different than our time and place.

Think of it … Los Angeles … a world-class city … a trend-setter … our movies touch the world … every imaginable religious expression – from the sublime to the hideous … super-rich and profoundly poor … a destination city … a dreamland for millions of people around the world … Hollywood … Universal City … the Academy Awards and the Beach Boys … I wish they all could be California girls.

So here we are …

In this mixing bowl … Covenant Presbyterian Church – Covenant on the Corner.

Who are we?
How do we operate?
What do we value?

The first point Paul makes: we’re God’s people.
That’s the universal piece of the puzzle – the biggest picture … we’re God’s people … we share a common identity with 25 folks singing hymns beneath a palm frond roof in Haiti … or 10,000 souls gathered at a Chicago Megachurch using the latest technology … and everything in between … we’re all God’s people, and Jesus is our LORD.

Here’s where Paul introduces a fascinating idea … we’re adopted …

We were once a child of the streets … lost and frightened … and Abba God, our Father in Heaven, creates a family … Jesus is the first born of the clan …
Brothers and sisters added every day.
For reasons known but to God, we’re the ones, here and now, to worship the LORD, to engage in prayer – to be servants of the Most High God.

It’s a slow process … one-by-one … a little here, and a little there …

Like cooking chili … low heat, stir it now and then … give it a taste … a little more chili powder; a couple more hours … now add the beans

It’s a slow process … starting with Abraham and Sarah … right down to this very moment.
God adopts us …

Once I was not, now I am.
Once I was blind, but now I see.
Once I was lost, but now I’m found.

One of the great anchor passages of the Bible – from 1 Peter 2 … Morrey’s favorite …

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, _ in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
Once you were not a people,
but now you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy,
but now you have received mercy.

Now we cry Abba, Father.
Abba … not just a music group.

It has the feel of “Dad” to it …
My children call me Dad.
I love them … they love me.
We’re close … we enjoy being together.
We’re a family.

When we come into the family of God … something good happens; we get an elder brother who fights for us … who stands up for us … who carries a cross for us.
And we get a Father.
We get a Dad … Abba … our Father who art in heaven … hallowed be your name.
And our Mother – the Holy Spirit and the Church.
And sisters and brothers across the world.

Suddenly, we have a family …
A story …
An identity …

And a future!

Heirs of the family fortune, says Paul.
Joint heirs with Christ.

What belongs to Jesus belongs to us, too.
What God gives to the Son, God gives to the family.

When we stand by a beloved’s grave, when we weep bitterly in the valley of the shadow of death, the Spirit of God speaks tenderly to us … your beloved is with Christ and all is well … what God gives to the Son, God gives to the family.

But with the glory goes the grunt work …
Take up your cross and follow me, says Jesus.
Carry the burden of justice.
Hold high the flame of faith, hope and love.
Engage the powers.
Battle the giants.
Just like Jesus.

And just like Jesus, the giants are tough and dangerous.
Countless times, Jesus warns the disciples:
They will seek to extinguish the light … they will intimidate you and try to buy you off … they will threaten and try to seduce … they want your silence; they want your blessing, but they don’t want the word of God.

I think of Billy Graham … a giant of man … a man of Christ; a servant of God.
In his later-years of reflection, Dr. Graham acknowledges that he got too cozy with the powers that be – powers that wanted to use him for their own special interests, gain and greed.
Partisan politics and narrow religion.
Now I believe that religion and politics belong together, but only at a distance … too close, and the picture grows fuzzy … and dangerous.
Billy Graham enjoyed the privilege and prestige that comes with power … but it’s pleasure lasted but for a time … it wasn’t long before Billy Graham found himself embroiled and embattled, saying things he didn’t mean.
Only the grace of God enabled Mr. Graham to extricate himself from the tentacles pulling him under the waves … the grace of God enabled him to reclaim his identity … a preacher of the gospel … a friend to all, a pawn of no earthly power … just a servant of Jesus Christ.

When we sign on with Jesus, we sign on with His program, and it isn’t always easy:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Paul speaks of suffering.
If we were Christians in Latin America or parts of Asia or Africa, we’d know the suffering of an underground church … a church persecuted … the threat of death and imprisonment for the name of Jesus.

But even here, from sea to shining sea, we have our own kind of suffering:

We stand with the poor and defend their cause.
We uphold the rights of the excluded and the forgotten.
We welcome everyone who wants to know God.
We care about the environment.
We pray for peace.
We seek justice.
We walk a picket line with LAX hotel workers.
We read the newspaper with the eyes of Jesus.
We hear the cry of a single mom trying to raise three children on a minimum-wage salary.
We weep with the family who’s just lost a daughter in Iraq, or a son in Afghanistan.

The world doesn’t come after us with guns or machetes.

The world comes after us with doodads and gimmicks.
Promises it can never deliver.
Frightening us endlessly until we’re dizzy from all of it.
The world:
Works us to the bone.
Entertains us when we’re bored.
Leave us too weary to worship … too lethargic to love … too frightened to be faithful …

That’s the world for ya’ … it’s always been the same … for Paul in the first century, or you and me today … it’s always a challenge to take up the cross and follow Jesus … but oh the glory, the goodness, the joy and the peace …. I wouldn’t have it any other way, and I know that you wouldn’t either … following Jesus is the best thing we’ve got!

I like how Paul ends the passage … we’re folks who wait with patience … we know how it’s going to end, and we work toward that day one deed at a time … every prayer, every kindly thought … every time we catch ourselves and choose the high road … every good intention … every time we worship and gather together for Bible study, or plan a mission trip, eat together; enjoy one another’s company … we make this a better world.
We wait … with patience.

When it will work out?
When will peace come?
When will we cease killing one another?
When will hatred pass away?
When will God’s kingdom come?
And God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven?

It’s not easy following Jesus.
But then it’s a whole easier than being lost.

It’s not easy following Jesus.
But it’s a whole lot easier than being homeless in the universe.

It’s not easy following Jesus.
But it’s a whole lot easier than being all alone.

So we labor on.
We pray.
We love.

We rejoice in our LORD and Savior.
We give thanks for grace and mercy.
We forgive and are forgiven.

We are the people of God, here and now – in this amazing city called Los Angeles.
We’re Covenant on the Corner.
We follow Jesus.
And we know how it’s going to end, and it’s going to end well.

That’s who we are.
That’s how we live.
That’s what we value … Jesus my LORD. Amen!

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Challenging Responsibilities - July 13, 2008

A message by the Rev. Violeta DeRosas, Enrollment Associate, San Francisco Theological Seminary/Southern California - Pasadena.

Genesis 25:19-34

The Lord said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.”

The story of Jacob and Esau who were born twins is not an ordinary event. It is a story of cheating, betrayal, favoritism, broken relationship, hatred, anger and rivalry. Of course, if this story will be made into a movie, perhaps, it is a block buster. The twists and turns of the event are very unusual. Movie goers nowadays prefer to watch a movie that makes them think critically, and apply the event to the present situation. Others prefer realistic scenario and at the same time engaging, and applicable to life experience.

I remember one time I watched a Filipino movie together with my co-worker. The movie was melancholic that after watching it my co-worker and I could not stop crying. Instead of enjoying the movie, we ended up going home sad. I told myself, I will never again watch a sad movie. Going back to the story of Jacob and Esau, if we engaged in the story deeply, there is more we will learn out of it.

The story tells us the character of the twins. Esau grew up to become a skillful hunter, a man of the open country, an outdoor kind of guy who loved to do the things a father could take pride in. Jacob on the other hand was a quiet man and preferred to stay at tents. He was a man of peaceful habits. What a contrast? The story also tells us that Rebekah favored Jacob while Isaac favored or loved Esau. Picture it; the story gives us a hint that there is something wrong in the household of Isaac. Both parents showed favoritism and their family relationship was not at all healthy. Can you picture yourself as a parent doing the same thing?

Of course, in the story, Isaac and Rebekah’s favoritism served to widen the gap between the twins. Parents please don’t be guilty of this type of favoritism. While a child’s interests or disposition may tempt you to be partial, do not succumb. Love each of your children equally; if favoritism exists in the family it will cause division and disunity.

If we go further, the story tells us that one day; Esau came home hungry and asked for a bowl of lentils. Jacob took the opportunity and asked if Esau could sell his birthright for a bowl of lentil soup. In which, of course, the story tells us that Esau sold his birthright to Jacob.
What is this birthright that I am talking about and how important it is for us as Christians. Let me explain it first. In the case of Esau, the birthright that he received involves the right of the first-born to a larger part or portion of the inheritance, than what the other son received. The portion of the firstborn child was two times larger than what the others received. In the story, Esau wasted his birthright in exchange with a bowl of lentil soup.

What lesson we can get out of this situation? Sometimes, we as Christians trade the birthright or the spiritual inheritance that we receive from God for a short pleasure that we can get out from this world. We exchange our integrity, our family relationship, values in life, lust for material things and money and we forget the birthright that God has entrusted to us.

We, as Christians fail to acknowledge the birthright that we should always carry wherever we go and what ever we do. Sometimes the outside world can not recognize and experience the love of God because as Christ’s followers we do not know how to show it to those who really need it.

Sometimes our birthright is clouded by the pressure of the world. We exchange our birthright by our worldly priorities in life. When we are succumbed to this kind of life our spiritual line which is connected directly to God is drifting away or drifting apart. We do not realize that the connection is broken and our birthright is gone.

How could we then make a difference and practice the real essence of our birthright as children of God.

I would like to share three things. First, we will learn from the story itself, and that is learning from their mistakes. The story of Jacob and Esau is clear that there was a mistake done by the parents; favoritism. Favoritism ruins dreams and lives. Sometimes, we ignore this act or practice simply because we thought that it is not a big deal. But in real essence, this small act of impartiality brings injustice, put a wall between the ways, we treat people, and hinders the love of God that we as Christians are encouraged to bring to the world. As an encouragement to all of us, we will continue to practice our spiritual birthright or inheritance. The way we talk, act, and treat others is a constant reminder that our spiritual birthright should always be on. Do not turn it off. One of my favorite verses found in 2 Timothy 2:15 says, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman or workwoman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.

Second, the story of Jacob and Esau reminds us of making choices. Yes, I say, “choices”. Esau made a choice to sell his birthright in exchange for a bowl of lentils. In our life, when we make choices or decisions, do we always include or ask God for guidance and leading. Human as we are, we make mistakes and bad choices or decisions in life. When we fail and stumble because of wrong decisions we make, do we blame God for it? When was the last time you asked God to totally control your life and wait for God’s will?

Making choices are not that easy, whether looking for a life partner, changing career, moving or buying a house, as a church hiring or calling for a new pastor, or as a pastor looking for another church assignment and the list goes on and on. Of all of these things, we should remember, God is waiting to hear our prayers and ready to usher us into a new beginning. In Philippians 4:5-7 say, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Whatever decisions and choices we are going to make let it be known to God. Pray and believe that God’s assurance of comfort, peace and guidance will abide us as we journey to the unknown.

Lastly, the story reminds us of “God’s plan and not our plan.” Verse 23 says, “The Lord said to her, (Rebekah) “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger that the other, and the older will serve the younger.” God has a plan in the lives of Jacob and Esau.

How about you? How about this church? As a church located in Los Angeles, what kind of spiritual and social actions planning that this church is involved in? Can the outside world see Christ in this church? Can people say, “This church is open for changes and challenges and ready to embrace a new beginning? If God ask this church today, whom I am going to send? I s there somebody in this congregation who will stand up and say, “here I am Lord send me.” God’s plan for all of us is to prosper. Are you ready to accept the challenging responsibilities right now? Brothers and Sisters in Christ, we can, if we continue to walk together with God and as we build for our future; we should include God in our planning.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, the challenging responsibilities are presented in front of us. In our decision makings, in our planning and in our dealing with other people or to the outside world, may we find God’s guiding hands leading us “the way the truth and the life.”
I would like to end my sermon by sharing with you a poem entitled,
“God Is Present Everywhere”

Those who seek the throne of grace, Find that throne in every place;
If we live a life of prayer, God is present everywhere.
In our sickness and our health, In our want, or in our wealth,
If we look to God in prayer, God is present everywhere.
When our earthly comforts fail, When the woes of life prevail, ‘Tis the time for earnest prayer; God is present everywhere.
Then, my soul, in every strait, To thy Father come, and wait;
He will answer every prayer: God is present everywhere.

As we continue to serve God, may God find us faithful in doing his service and at the end of the day, may we experience and feel the smile and nod of God. Amen.

Monday, July 7, 2008


Matthew 20:20-28

I’ve been blessed with good role models.
Family … church and school.

My father died when I was 22, but he left me some good memories.

My mother, a troubled person, nonetheless gave me a sense of humor and a passion for reading.

I had a favorite uncle who was always kind … and a favorite aunt who always made me feel ten feet tall.

After my father died, I grew close to Donna’s parents – they were great!

I remember good pastors … men (and it was only men, then) who preached with conviction and content … and a 3rd grade Sunday School teacher named Bert … I think his brother was named Ernie.

Going to a Christian high school, I had some terrific teachers who modeled a life of faith and learning … and those models were reinforced at Calvin College.

Don Wilson, an anthropology professor, opened my eyes to other cultures, and the cultural mistakes made too often by the church.

Roger Rice, a sociology professor, made it possible for me to shed my prejudice.

Wallace Bratt, a Bible professor, welded together faith and science.

Then on to seminary – professors who modeled intelligence and faith.

Lester Kuyper, my Hebrew professor – we called him the student – he’d bounce into the classroom all a-smile, to tell us all about his latest discovery … I’ll never forget one occasion: as he had on hundreds of similar mornings, he was reading and studying the Hebrew Bible, when he solved a 20-year old translation problem.

My own wife: to her I owe a debt of gratitude – she has modeled for me everything good and kind … a wife of endurance and forgiveness … a mother of much love and devotion.

All along my way, God has provided a wealth of role models … ordinary people who lived ordinary lives with faith, hope and love.

I’ve have never lived this life on my own … but have been surrounded by a cloud of witnesses pointing the way to Jesus.

And even now my own children demonstrate wisdom and courage, faithfulness and kindness … I have learned the joy of listening to my children – their take on things, the books they read and the views they hold.

A cloud of witnesses on every side …

God be praised for everyone of them …

We all have our own role models, don’t we?

Women and men who influenced us, told us good stories; fired our imagination; believed in us – pastors, teachers, youth directors, Sunday School teachers, choir directors, college professors, counselors, and the list goes on.

But most of all … at the center of our stories … Jesus!
In His light, we see light.
He is the image of the invisible God … He is the head of the body … He’s the vine and we are the branches … He’s the Alpha and the Omega … He’s the Bread of Heaven and the Living water.
Karl Barth says: “Everything that deserves to be called knowledge in the Christian sense lives from the knowledge of Jesus Christ” (Dogmatics in Outline, p. 67).

Through Jesus and His story, we learn our story.

Let’s take a look at a delightful story from Matthew 20:20-28 – read text here …

Mom goes to bat for her boys … and boys they were – likely in their late teens, early twenties at the most – their Mom goes to bat for them.

Ever done that for one of your children?
Go the soccer coach and suggest that your daughter should have made first string?
Go to the teacher and defend your son’s behavior?
Go to a neighbor whose son beat up your boy?
Or that catty little girl down the street who lied about your daughter?

It’s called a parent’s heart – there’s nothing more devoted or more determined … nothing more ferocious if a child has been harmed, or in some way slighted.

I have a parent’s heart, and you do, too.
Let something happen, or not happen, and we’re prepared to move heaven and earth for the sake of our children.

Mama went to bat for her boys!

She believed that Jesus was going to be something … and when he made it big, she wanted her boys to be there.

She asks with great politeness … she kneels before Jesus and puts her case – when the time comes, I want my two boys to be at your side.

Do ya’ think Mama came up with this all by herself?
Or did the boys prompt her?

Did James or John say, Mama, can ya’ put in a good word for us?

And what’s a Mama to do?

But things get a little dicey right now … Jesus sees ahead alright, to what’s going to be … neither fame nor fortune; He’s not going to be voted “most likely to succeed” – no, it’s a hard road He sees… the road to Calvary and the Cross.

When the other disciples hear about it, they’re furious.
They’d been trumped.
Do ya’ think they wanted to ask the same favor?
A little competition here?
A little jealousy?

“How come my name didn’t get into the bulletin?”
“Edna gets the award, but I worked just as hard as she did!”
“Why did they ask Jim to be an elder instead of me?”

We all feel these things, don’t we?

Preachers do, too.

“Rev. Hairdo down the street has the big church, but I’m just as good.”
“I could write a book, too, if I wanted.”
“I should have been asked to be the chairperson.”
“How come she gets all the notice, and no one notices me?”

This remarkable moment: two clear examples of human nature on the darker side … grasping for position, and angry when we’ve been bested by someone else.

Yes, it’s a portrait of humanity … a portrait of you and me.

Well, at least you! Ha!

Jesus uses this as a teaching moment … to say something to these good women and men who mean so much to Him … how He loves them … but they’re eyes are clouded by dreams of fame, their hearts disturbed by jealousy.

Yup, it’s not always a pretty picture.

I’m reminded of the poet, Robert Burns

Burns is in church one Sunday
Behind a lovely young lady
Hair all done up
Beautiful bonnet of ribbons and bows
And there upon her hat,
Crawls a louse.

Burns ends his poem:

O would some Power the gift to give us
To see ourselves as others see us!

The Bible mirrors our humanity …
God’s gift … to see ourselves … not always a pretty picture … but a necessary step to move on …
Read the Bible … it’s an honest piece of work.
Genesis has more dysfunctional families then Dr. Phil.
Scheming brothers …
Lustful maidens …
Boastful men …
Violence and villainy .
In the remarkable Tony Randall film, Seven Faces of Dr. Lao (1964), there’s a remarkable moment when someone says to the bad guy, “Who wants to lose?”
The bad guy says, “I do. Every time I bet on weakness, corruption, fallibility, I want to lose. But I always win.”

A bit later, he tells the “good guy:”
“I used to be just like you, a long time ago.”
“I believed in the dignity of man, decency, humanity. But I was lucky. I found out the truth early. It’s all very simple. There’s no such thing as the dignity of man. Man is a base, pathetic, vulgar animal.”
Well, the truth be told, we’re not always a pretty picture, are we?

O would some power gift to give us
To see ourselves as others see us.

Am I not like these disciples?
Their Mama?

Is this not my story?
Your story?

Of course it is.

O would some power gift to give us
To see ourselves as others see us.

But if jaded characters see only the worst …
God sees something else.

Jesus sees the original design …
Jesus reveals a counter-portrait …
Alternative image …
Something better …

To those disciples who wanted to sit on top of the heap, Jesus says:

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them … not so for you!

Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant.
Whoever wishes to be first must be your slave.

How does that sound?
That’s a counter-portrait if I’ve ever heard one.
Runs against the grain doesn’t it?
Like fingernails on a chalkboard.

Just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.

The next story provides a counterpoint in action:
Jesus and the disciples on their way out of Jericho meet two blind men by the road … they cry for mercy, and Jesus asks, What do you want me to do for you?

His question is all the more poignant for what just happened.
James and John ask for position and privilege.

What will the two blind men ask for?

LORD, let our eyes be opened!”

Jesus is moved with compassion, says the text; He touches their eyes, and immediately they regain their sight and follow Him.

They’re blind but now they see.
James and John are blind, too … their blindness is harder to cure.

O would some power gift to give us
To see ourselves as others see us.

To see ourselves, yes, as we often are …
And to see ourselves for something better.

To let Jesus be our model.
To spend time with Him.
To get acquainted with Him.
To let His grace make us gracious.
His mercy, merciful.
His kindness, kindly.
His love, loving.

To be like Jesus … hmmm … sounds like a tall order, doesn’t it?

But this is what God is working for in our life.
To conform us to the image of His Son … in order that He might be the firstborn within a large family … (Romans 8:29).

That folks could look at us and say, “You look just like your older brother. You sort of walk like Him, talk like Him, and carry on like Him.”

Now let’s be clear.
Jesus is no wallflower.
His passion puts Him front and center.
His goal is the glory of God.
And that means challenging the powers that be.
It means breaking all sorts of conventions and violating all sorts of laws.

Jesus never takes a backseat when it comes to setting things right.

He takes profound chances for the welfare of others.

That’s the role model Jesus sets before us.
What it could be like when human beings discover their true potential for greatness …
Not the greatness of the world – but the greatness of God’s kingdom.

Who are your role models?

I’m grateful for those who have modeled the Christian life.
I’m grateful most of all for Jesus my LORD.