Freedom! A sermon for Independence Day

Primary Text: Romans 6:15-23

Independence Day. The day Americans celebrate their freedom from tyranny by drinking beer and blowing stuff up. In American, freedom means the right to do whatever you want. Thoughtful Americans add, “as long as it doesn’t interfere with anyone else’s freedom to do what they want.” Not only is this circular, it’s also not biblical.

How many of you have ever heard someone say it’s okay to do something they know is wrong, because God is going to forgive them anyway? It’s the old deathbed confession trick, right? You live life however you want, and then it a last-minute you pray, “Jesus, I’m sorry. Amen.” And he’s got to let you in, right? That’s totally a thing. Jesus is a nice guy. He’s gotta let me in.

There’s only one problem. It’s a lie. Not Jesus being a nice guy. He is! No normal, non-broken person looks at someone they love and thanks, “Wow. That is one amazing human being. I love them so much, I think I’ll punch them in the face. I’ve always wanted to punch someone in the face, and now, at last, after years of friendship, I’ve found someone so loving, so gracious, so forgiving, that I could punch him right in the face and know that they will forgive me. Finally!” Kapow!

It’s ridiculous. And yet we’ve all said it. Like that guy who parked in my spot last year. I introduced myself and do you remember what he said? “Yeah, we saw the sign said pastor’s parking. But we figured you’re a pastor so you have to forgive us.” Kapow!

They said it, I believed it, and it’s a lie. He didn’t park in that spot because I’m a pastor. He parked there because he didn’t want to walk four extra blocks. He doesn’t care if I forgave him. He’s just a regular human being who will do the right thing as long as it isn’t harder than the other available options. Then why did he say it? And why did I believe it?

Because it’s easier than facing the truth. Paul asks the church in Rome “Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace? By no means!” Doing whatever you want and then apologizing on Sunday is not okay. Even in Bible times they knew that.

But he doesn’t just say it’s wrong. He says it’s a lie. “Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you will obey?”

When we run run around doing whatever we want, we are actually slaves to our own passions. When we run around chasing the American dream, we are actually slaves to consumerism. When we dance to the tune of whatever controls us, we are already slaves.

I told you it was uncomfortable. And it leads us strange places. If we were slaves to sin, does that mean we are now slaves to God? God is a slaveholder? Paul admits it’s a weak metaphor. He says, “I’m using an example from everyday life because of your human limitations.”

Slaves were about as common as a BMW or a Cadillac. A sign of status, but not something that would make you stare. So Paul grabs that as an example. When you obey like a slave, you already are one.

And to summarize Paul loosely, “How’s that workin’ for ya?” Sin is not breaking a rule and getting away with it. Hee hee hee hee. Sin is what ever kills you. Even if it kills you slow. Even if it only kills your soul. Sin is whatever kills you, and when you know it and you do it anyway, the metaphor Paul uses is slavery, the slow death that eats away at your humanity.

And what do slaves need? A lecture? Someone to tell them slavery is wrong and they should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps? Do slaves need a motivational speaker? Someone to teach them the power of positive thinking? Slaves need two things: hope and help. And they need them yesterday. Thankfully, I know a place built on infinite hope, and practical help. Yes, you can do it on your own, but again to quote Paul, “How’s that workin’ for ya?”

If you park in my space will I forgive you? Yes. But that won’t help you stop being a jerk. If you drink yourself stupid every night and then pray for forgiveness on your deathbed, will God still love you? Yes. But that won’t fix your liver. When I have a hard time being a better dad, or a better husband, will my family forgive me? Probably. They’re awesome like that. But that’s not what I need.

I need parents who will come alongside me, people I trust enough to be honest, people gentle enough to be helpful. I need people who’ve already walked that road, who can show by their example what might be possible. We need people who love us enough to tell us the truth, who love us so much that they’ll speak it so we understand. That’s real help. And it happens here every week.

And hope? Paul says, “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Sin pays wages. As much work as we spent getting into trouble, it’s going to take at least that much work getting out again.

The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life. Sin is work, but life is a gift. We didn’t earn it. We don’t deserve it. God loves us, and that settles it. That’s the secret that kicked this whole conversation off. God loves us. Does that mean we can go do whatever we want? Sure. You can hold firecrackers in your teeth too. But I wouldn’t call it freedom.

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How do you prep for sermons?

I hope for your sake you have as least as much fun as me! 

Communion sermon by Rev. Tom Van Tassell

For the 2014 NACCC annual meeting in Omaha

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Simple And Free Security Boost

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Simple And Free Security Boost

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Sermon on Matthew 10:24-39 Not Peace, But a Sword

Primary Text: Matthew 10:24-39
Video Here

“Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.”

If you are a Christian, and you are paying attention, these words ought to trouble you. I’ll go a step further. If these words don’t trouble you, I don’t think you can honestly call yourself a Christian.

Jesus Christ, the guy you claim to follow, the guy you claim is your Lord, the guy you say is God, says, “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross (which was not a pretty thing that hangs around your neck, it was a torture device) and follow me is not worthy of me.”

Which means any disciple, any real disciple, who loves their family and doesn’t want to die, has a problem. The traditional way of getting around verses like this is simple. You just don’t read them. That’s how human beings deal with things we don’t want to hear. We stop listening. We do whatever we want to do, until life intrudes on whatever it is we’re doing.

Let me offer you another option, one with a little more integrity. Let’s completely reverse that point of view. What if we walked into church expecting to be confronted? Because the thing about truth is it surprises you, it doesn’t do what you expect.

My wife surprises me every day. My children surprise me every day. My job surprises me every day. Because they are real. Rather than limiting themselves to the size of my current smallness, all of those things are challenging me to grow. Not because they try to, just because they exist.

So here’s the question of the day. Do we come to church looking to be affirmed, or confronted? Challenged? Or comforted. Because that’s what Jesus is doing today.
He’s been teaching and preaching, performing miracles, and he’s collected this pile of followers. Now it’s time to separate the looky-loos from the true disciples. Who’s really in, and who’s just along for the ride? I’ve found two ways I can read this text with any kind of authenticity.

I have to interpret it, because if it’s a flat, straight, literal reading I think I’m out. If Jesus were to come back, put a gun in my hand and tell me to shoot my own mother, I don’t think I could do it. If God gave me Abraham’s choice, your faith or your son, I think I’m done.

But what if we put this back into it’s historical context? At this time Christianity is a Jewish splinter sect. That’s how all this got started. Jesus was a Jew. The disciples were all Jews. The collection of followers, they were all Jews. And the instant we step out from underneath the umbrella of Judaism, become our own separate religion, Rome is coming down on us like a hammer.

Jesus sees all this coming, and he warns his followers. If you’re really my followers, expect to get what I got. If you read it that way, it reads differently. “What if your mom turns you in? What if your own children turn on you? What is someone you love calls for your humiliation, your excommunication? Your execution? Is that the end of your faith?”
That’s the first way I can read this with some level of authenticity. The only problem, is it’s completely outside of my experience.

I’ve been a Christian for as long as I’ve been aware of Christianity. My mom dragged me to church, and I’ve never, in my life, been persecuted for my faith. You hear someone say that on the TV? On the radio? “We’re being persecuted. Christians in America are being persecuted!” Baloney. Get over yourself. You have no idea.

This is a newsletter from Pastor Philip. He’s the leader of Indian Community Fellowship, our mission emphasis for this month. And in the middle of all of these stories, about training new pastors, and teaching a woman how to sew so she can become self-sustaining, there’s a tiny little picture, mismatched chairs, and a hand-painted sign that says ICF.

The title is, “Get out!” The article reads, “This is the house church which was attacked on the first day after the new Indian government was elected. A few people came at 10 AM and said ‘do not worship here from today on… get out of here right now… this is your first warning.’” And they ask us for their prayers. That’s persecution. We have no idea.

But there is a way I can read this that speaks to where I live. Again, you have to put it in context. In that culture, in that day, family ties were the social order. Remember the 10 Commandments? Honor your father and mother. If America wrote the 10 commandments, I guarantee that would not make the list, but for them it was central. When you are little, your parents will train you up, and when you are grown, you take care of them. This is the pattern of their life. It’s the glue that holds their society together.

So when Jesus says, “I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother…” he is upending the social order. The old way of doing things is not good enough any more. Just because someone in authority says you have to do a thing, doesn’t mean you do it. To be a follower of Jesus, your moral compass must point to something higher than, “because I said so” or, “I was just following orders.”

I don’t think I’ll ever face a firing squad, but this hits me right where I live.The standing order of the day is to buy junk you don’t need to impress people you don’t like. The standing order of the day is to overeat while others starve. The standing order of small-town life is don’t make waves. Guilty on all counts.

For the most part, American Christianity has made peace with our society. The two things most Christians are willing to fight about are what? Homosexuality. Maybe the death penalty. And abortion. Everything else, we just go along with whatever everybody else does.

But Jesus did not come to bring peace. He came to confront us, to challenge us, to grow us into something worthy of his name. Jesus cane to put a stake through consumerism, and conformity, and the thousand other tiny fears that bind us and keep us small.

So how do we make this real this week in our lives? My challenge to you is to do one hard thing. Think about it for a little bit, and let your fear be your compass. Your fear is pointing you directly toward the thing you don’t want to do. Maybe, you don’t want to call someone and apologize. Maybe, you don’t want to speak up for what’s right. I don’t know what it is, but I do know you are not the only one facing that problem. I guarantee it.

So, if you already know what you need to do, and you want help, one thing you could do is write it down. Use the little bulletin tear-off. Or pick up the phone. These are your fellow travelers. They’re all walking the same road. They all heard the same text. They’re all being confronted by the same Lord. So call one of them. And if they tell you exactly what you are expecting, exactly what you wanted to hear, hang up the phone and call another one. And keep calling until you find one brave enough to tell you something that stretches you, that challenges, you that confronts you. That’s how you know they are real.

That’s how we know our friends are real, our church is real, our faith is real. When they don’t just comfort us, when they don’t just tell us what we want to hear, but when they confront us.

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Hey Teens, this post is for you

Just last week our youth group watched “Mean Girls” in honor of the 10 year anniversary of it’s release. It’s been 10 years, and it’s still relevant. Doesn’t it make you wonder what might have happened to those plastics after they graduated?  This study suggests things might not have gone so well for them.  There’s plenty of scientific language, but the short of it is that engaging in risky behaviors when you’re young as a way of being cool, correlates with higher risks of problems later in life. You aren’t just “getting through school,” you are setting a pattern for you life.  Having the courage to be yourself might hurt your in-school popularity, but out in the real world, it’s going to be an asset. Be you!

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Productivity 101: first win of the day!

Lift people up, share good news, and don’t forget to laugh. Commentary on life, creativity, and whatever catches my eye.

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Happy Birthday, Uncle Kevin!

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Wisdom from my 9 year old

“Dad, why does Eli like classical music so much?”

“Because we're all different. Otherwise it would get boring.”

“True, but there would be less arguing in the car.”

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