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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Identity Theft

2013-04-14 Identity Theft
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church (USA)

Deuteronomy 6:4-9
Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

Scripture                                                                                                   1 John 5:1-5
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?


I want to start today by giving you a chance to show off. I know, it’s church. You’re not supposed to show off. I won’t tell if you won’t.

Ready? Raise your hand if you have never, ever been lost. Go ahead. Let’s see them. You’re all very smart people. I’m sure at least one of you has never, ever been lost.

Would it help if I said, I want to give you a chance to LIE in church? Now. Who’s never, ever been lost?

So, what this tells me is that every one of you, at one time or another, in one way or another, have been lost.

OK, now. You’re already remembering a time when you were lost. Hold that thought. Maybe you were physically lost. You wandered off from your mom in the mall. You found your way to Customer Service and they called for your parents over the loudspeaker and they cried and hugged you and bought you ice cream.

(We have a church member who used to do that all the time. He was never really lost. He just liked embarrassing his mom by having her name called out. And ice cream.)

Maybe you were physically lost. There are other ways of being lost. What are they?

You can be emotionally lost. Something bewildering happens. Something catastrophic happens. Something breathtakingly weird, or random. You don’t know how you feel. Have you been lost like that? You can’t make even the simplest decision. “You want fries with that?” “Don’t pressure me!” You’re emotionally lost.

You can be personally lost. Like you don’t know who you really are. We’re always asking kids, “What do you want to be when you grow up? C’mon. Tell me. Because preschool starts next month and we want you on the right track.” You lose a job. You discover a family secret. “Luke, I am your father.” “Noooo!” You’re personally lost. You’ve lost your identity.

And that’s the thing about being lost. Whether it’s physical, or emotional, or personal, or some other way you’re thinking of that I’m not -- at its root -- being lost means you don’t know who you are. You don’t know who you are in relation to people who have left you. You don’t know who you are in relation to life’s trail markers. You don’t know who you are because your feelings aren’t reading right. Pages from your life’s story have been torn out, or rearranged. Being lost is -- at its root -- not knowing where you stand. You have no bearings. And without bearings, it’s not just where you are that’s lost, it’s who you are. Lost is the loss of identity. That’s why lost is so scary. And when it happens to you, it’s full-blown identity theft.


Well, surprise. Or not. You come from a long, long line of people who were experts at getting lost. Remember Moses and the Children of Israel? Who wandered in the wilderness for 40 years? Lost. Remember the Prodigal Son who ran away from home and ended up broke, and covered in pig slop? Lost. Remember the 12 year-old Jesus whose parents left him home alone in the Temple for three days and searched frantically for him? Lost.

The good thing about church is that you don’t have to show off. You can admit it. You’ve been lost. We’ve all been lost. And so have a huge number of your heroes and heroines of faith. We’ve got a Bible full of them. Do you think identity theft is unique to the age of the Internet? No way. Identity theft has been happening ever since God said to Moses, or God said to Abraham, or Jesus said to the disciples, “Follow me.” And they said, “Where are we going?” “What do you want us to do?” “What do we call you?” “What do we call ourselves?”

There’s good news in the Bible, and there’s tough news. Here’s the tough news: You’ve got to be lost before you can be found. You’ve got to lose your identity before you find a new one. Identity loss is scary, but necessary, if you’re a follower of Christ.


In his First Letter, the Apostle John writes to an early church that’s trying to figure out their identity. And he says,

“Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child.”

Now, how is that supposed to be helpful?

OK. Bear with me a minute, because I want you to think about the most boring part of all the Bible. It turns more kids off of Sunday School than nuns with rulers. It’s where we lose people. You open to the New Testament. It’s supposed to be good news. And there it is on the first page: The Begats.

...and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat Judas; 3 And Judas begat Phares and Zara of Thamar; and Phares begat Esrom; and Esrom begat Aram; 4 And Aram begat Aminadab; and Aminadab begat Naasson...

Is anyone still awake? Preachers will tell you that when you delve into it this is fascinating. Preachers are so weird.

Why, in the world, would God want the good news of Jesus Christ to start out so dull?

Now, remember. Jesus did not have a Social Security card. He didn’t have doctors with record charts already an inch thick (before he was born) measuring length, weight, fluids, and whether his paternal great-grandmother was a smoker. He didn’t have his DNA on file. Back in Bible times you were who you were, and you knew who you were, because you could trace your family line all the way back to Adam and Eve. That’s how you knew your identity. “Who are you?” “Well, how much time do you have?”

So, excuse the Bible. It didn’t mean to be boring. It was trying to say, “Hello. I’d like you to meet Jesus.” His genealogy was his ID bracelet, his LinkedIn page, his business card, his Facebook profile. His identity.

But then, the church grew. It started reaching out to people who didn’t have blue blood. To which the bluebloods said, “Boy, are they lost.” And these new people, who wanted to follow Jesus, wherever this faith in Jesus was leading them, needed to know where they stood, and who they were.

So, John writes, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God [notice the shorter, less-boring genealogy that skips over all the middlemen], and everyone who loves the parent loves the child.”

So, people found their identity. They found a new identity. They located their coordinates on the map that said, “You are here. You are a child of God. You belong to God, who loves you.”

And there you go. It works for us, too. This is who you are. This is who WE are. And it sounds so good.


Except. Remember, the Bible was written for real people like you and me, who live in the real world. And the real world has a million ways to steal your identity.

Even if you go to church. Even if you get all revivaled-up and dance like David (which is a story for another day), even if you start each day, leaping from bed and singing happy hymns of praise (like we all do), even if you are such an annoyingly cheerful child of God,

there will be days, there are times, when you lose it. It’s church; you can admit it. Even if you’re this close to being Mother Teresa, there will be days, there are times, when you are lost. The world has a million ways to do identity theft, and only a small percentage have to do with your credit card number.

Have you ever wondered if God even knows your name? Have there ever been blue periods, when it not only doesn’t feel like you’re a child of God, but you’re not even sure you want to be one?

On a very bad Friday afternoon, about 2000 years ago, the Son of God himself cried out from a cross, “My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?” Lost. Even Jesus.

The world has a million ways to steal your identity. Even if you’re Jesus.


So how do you reclaim who you are? Well, one way is, you accept that the world’s going to try to make you feel lost, and you fight.

In Deuteronomy - another book that loses some people, but ministers just love - I know - it says,

Keep these words... in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

In other words, fight. Fight against any and all earthly forces that rob you of identity. Fight against anything that makes you compromise your morals. Fight against anything that makes you forsake the good, the right, the godly. Fight! Fight the pharaohs. Fight the devils. Fight the power!

Enlist friends and family to help you. It’s kinda why we do so many church group gatherings. Join a Sunday School. Come to Youth Group. Sign up for the Habitat House. Fight!

Put post-it notes on your mirror: “This is a child of God,” with an arrow pointing to where you stand. Read books. Read the Bible. Take one minute every day to stand still and think about who you are in God’s love. Fight - to keep your identity. Fight - to keep it from being taken away, or more likely, being put on the back burner because you don’t have time, and we’re all too tired to fight.

Fight! That’s an excellent way to reclaim who you are as a child of God, one way to remember your identity. You accept the fact that the world’s going to make you feel lost, and you launch preemptive strikes. Fight, fight, fight!

That’s an excellent way. But there’s another way, too. An odd way. A counter-intuitive way. It’s the way the Apostle Paul talks about when he says, “I will show you a still more excellent way.”

And it’s built around this: You’ve got to lose your identity, before God can give you a new one.


There was once a very powerful man, a leader in the faith, a man who knew all about fighting to keep your identity. His name was Nicodemus.

Nicodemus came to Jesus one night, when no one else was around, and asked Jesus about identity. Jesus tells him,

“Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” (3:3)

And Nicodemus says, “How can these things be?”

Jesus tells him that if he really wants to know who he is, he has to start fresh.

In another place, the Bible says,
But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. 6 (Titus 3:4-5)

How do you protect yourself from identity theft? Well, the final answer is, you don’t. You don’t. In fact, the Bible says, you can’t. Fighting to keep who you are is good, but it’s never, ever going to be enough. Everyone gets lost. If you deny it, you’re just showing off. You’re lying to yourself. Everyone gets lost, no matter how saintly you try so hard to be.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Fighting to be saintly, keeping habits of faith - that’s excellent stuff. Keep it up. Do it more. Attack the things that rob you of identity.

But know this. No matter how hard you work, no matter how much you fight, it’s never, ever going to be enough.

The goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appears and saves us, not because of any [of OUR] works of righteousness, but by his mercy.

God’s mercy. God’s grace. You don’t have to win them. The fight’s over. They’re yours. That’s the amazing good news of Jesus Christ.

“Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God.”

You’ve already got a new identity. You’re already a new person. You’re not lost. God found you a long time ago. You may not know that. You might have forgotten it. You might not believe it. But I believe it’s true.


There’s a very fine line between being lost and “going exploring.” “No, I’m not lost; I’m exploring.” “I’m not too stubborn to follow directions; I’m on an adventure.” It’s a fine line, but it makes a difference. You get lost, you think, “I’m so dumb.” But you go exploring, you say, “I’m discovering new things.” Like Dora the Explorer.

The life of faith is a path of spiritual adventure. Whenever Jesus called disciples, what did he say? “Follow me.” And then they’d go somewhere new. They weren’t lost. They had Jesus. They may not have known where they were, but they knew who they were. They were followers of Jesus. That was their identity, wherever they went.

The world will confuse you. It’ll tie a blindfold on you and spin you around. You can feel awfully lost, just plain robbed of your identity. But whether or not you know it, even when you forget it, even when you refuse it, you are a child of God. Already. You belong to God who loves you. Forever. You are found. You are not lost. You’re already home.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Doubt It Out

2013-04-07 John 20:19-31

"Doubt It Out"

Acts 4:32-35

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

32 Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and
soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but
everything they owned was held in common. 33 With great power the
apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus,
and great grace was upon them all. 34 There was not a needy person
among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought
the proceeds of what was sold. 35 They laid it at the apostles' feet,
and it was distributed to each as any had need.

John 20:19-31

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the
doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of
the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with
you." 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side.
Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to
them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send
you." 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them,
"Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are
forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."

24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin[a]), one of the twelve, was not
with them when Jesus came.25 So the other disciples told him, "We have
seen the Lord." But he said to them, "Unless I see the mark of the
nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my
hand in his side, I will not believe."

26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was
with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among
them and said, "Peace be with you." 27 Then he said to Thomas, "Put
your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in
my side. Do not doubt but believe." 28 Thomas answered him, "My Lord
and my God!" 29 Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have
seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to

30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples,
which are not written in this book.31 But these are written so that
you may come to believe[b] that Jesus is the Messiah,[c] the Son of
God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.


So. In the Bible, there's Easter. The disciples discover Christ is
Risen. Christ is risen! It's news that will change the world.

But as soon as Easter's over, what do they do? They go home. They
wait. And they start to doubt.

A lot of disciples doubt. Even modern-day disciples, like you and like
me. A lot of Christians are scared of doubt. They think doubt is the
enemy of faith. They can be terrified that even the littlest doubt
puts their souls in peril.

But that's not what Jesus says. Jesus says there are many times, when
you just have to "doubt it out."


You're familiar with the laundry stick whose advertising tells you to,
"Shout it out!" You may have recently been told, "Take that off right
now and rub stain stick on it!" Maybe you were the one shouting it.

The very name, "Shout!" says you're gonna attack that ugly stain right
now. No you're not. The point of stain stick is procrastination. You
rub it on as fast as you can, so you can do the laundry later.

"Ah, I put stain stick on it."

"It can wait."

Shout it out? No. It's more like, holler at the person wearing it,
then pile it in a hamper, and hope everything comes out OK.


Easter is kind of like the church's annual stain stick.

Christ is risen! We shout it out. Shout it big. The music is big. The
crowds are big. The sermon's... the very best the preacher can do,
bless his heart.

Everybody gets cleaned and pressed - and comes. The Easter shouts are
applied vigorously to the accumulated stains of sin.

But then, 12:15. It's over. We head home. Head to lunch. Head back to
normal. Back to waiting. Waiting to see if the big sin stain stick
stuck. Waiting. Waiting to see what difference Easter makes, really.
Wondering if it makes any difference at all.

After the shouting comes the doubting. And that's not weird, or
abnormal, or evil. In fact, the Bible says that's exactly what the
disciples did, too.


Easter was over. The disciples went back home and locked the doors.
Jesus appeared with them and said, "Be at peace."

The Bible says,

24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not
with them when Jesus came.25 So the other disciples told him, "We have
seen the Lord."

[I imagine they shouted.]

But [Thomas] said to them, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his
hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his
side, I will not believe."

So what happens next? Nothing. Another week drags by before Jesus
appears again. This time when Thomas was with them.

In the Bible, there's a lot of waiting. Anytime you've got waiting,
there's wondering. Anytime we get to wondering, we question. We doubt.
We all do. Doubt's the dirty laundry of all disciples that we step
over and pretend not to see.

The Bible says: Doubt it out.


The New Testament was written by and for the people of the First
Century church. Today's first reading, the book of Acts, paints a very
rosy picture. It sees the early church as a very collaborative,
socially-minded enterprise, where no one (quote) "claimed private
ownership" of anything. Everybody shared everything and no one had
unmet needs. They would have held hands and sung "Kum By Yah" if only
it had been written.

But the rest of the New Testament shows the church as more like a
fringe movement, of weird people, hanging together by the skin of
their teeth.

People took their lives in their hands to follow a crucified savior.
They claimed the true King of Kings had risen from the dead. Not only
that, they claimed he was coming back to rule the world. And they made
these claims without any visible evidence.

That became a problem. The first believers expected Jesus to come
back. Right away. Not next Sunday. Not tomorrow. Today. They didn't
have a plan for waiting. The Easter shout had rung out, but, where was
Jesus? Where was the evidence? After a few years, after a couple of
generations, even the most faithful insiders were beginning to doubt.

Is that so hard to understand? Not really.

I think this is the deeper meaning of the story of Doubting Thomas.
Because if you know that the church wasn't everybody holding hands and
shouting Easter all the time, then you can read between the lines.

Once you know who the Bible was written for, and what they were
enduring, you can see Jesus isn't shaming Thomas as much as he's
encouraging the people who do have doubts.

Jesus says, "Peace be with you," to the people who missed him the
first time, and the second. People who are left waiting, waiting,
waiting, for the his return. You can hear it in what the Bible says.

Jesus said to [Thomas], "Have you believed because you have seen me?
Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."

From the days of the Apostles, from the days of the first believers in
the first churches, Easter works like this:

After the shout comes the doubt.

Through the doubt, comes blessing.


Doubt is nothing to be afraid of.

So much of the Bible is about waiting. In fact, you could read the
whole Bible as encouragement for people who doubt God is really going
to work.

The Bible says, so many, many times, "Wait for the Lord."

"Wait, for the Lord is hiding his face..." says Isaiah 8:17.

"Wait for the Lord and take courage." Psalm 31.

"Wait with patience," says Romans 8:25.

"Be patient for the coming of the Lord," says James 5:7.

Second Peter, 3:14 says, "While you are waiting, strive [strive!] to
be at peace."

So very, very much of the Bible is about waiting. Waiting. Until the
next big thing. Waiting. Until the day when you know that it worked.

After the shouting comes the doubting.

But through the doubting comes blessing.

Doubt it out.


Doubt can be a very good thing. It makes us sharpen the spear before
leaving the cave. Makes us look both ways before crossing the street.
It protects us. It's probably instinctive. All people doubt. Even
people who come to church.

But any good thing can be taken too far. These days, doubt's epidemic.
It makes us physically ill. We doubt the government. We doubt the
banks. We question our health care. We can't trust what's in our food.
We worry that someone's going to steal our identity.

It's good to be aware of the dangers out there. But after a point,
doubt turns inward. We begin to doubt ourselves, at the most basic,
spiritual level. Chronic doubt is identity theft.

How can we, as people who believe - How can we appreciate our healthy
doubt and feed our faith at the same time?

Can you shout, "Christ is risen!" but still use your brain?

Well, if you wonder about that, you've got a lot in common with
Thomas, and with all the other saints of the early church. They
discovered - and maybe you can discover, too - doubt isn't the end of
faith. Many times, it's the waiting period for enduring faith.


After the story of Doubting Thomas, John writes some of the most
grace-filled words in all the Bible.

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which
are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may
come to believe....

That you may COME TO believe. Not instantly and overnight. Over time.

In the silence. In the waiting room. By the bedside. In the lunchroom,
at the table NOT populated by the cool people. Late at night, when you
can't sleep. In the real world. When you don't want to sing, "Kum By
Yah." In the doubt.

These things are written so that you may COME TO believe, even though
there are so many good reasons not to.

That you may come to believe, over time, that Jesus is the Messiah,
the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his

After the shouting. In the waiting. In the in-between. The peace of
Christ grows slowly, in the stains of doubt's dark, fertile soil.


After Easter, the disciples went home and locked the doors. Don't you
think they've been locked long enough?

It's time to unlock the doors. If you're afraid that your faith isn't
strong enough, unlock the doors.

If you're scared that your doubts make you less of a Christian than
someone else, unlock the doors. There are a lot of other people just
like you, waiting outside.

The great mystery of faith and doubt is this:

When you're OK coming to faith through your doubts, instead of hiding
them in shame... when you're OK accepting your doubts instead of
hating them... THAT'S when you're ready to welcome the people out
there with their doubts. And let me tell you: they don't come any
other way.

In this time between the shouting and the next big thing, try this.
Instead of waiting for Jesus to reach out his hand to you, reach out
your hand to someone else who's got doubts. Tell the truth about what
you don't get. But also be honest about the peace and love of Christ
you do get.

Wait for the Lord.

Doubt it out.

Come to believe.


Let's pray.

Oh Lord, we believe. Help our unbelief. We have doubts. It's true. You
know that. So why are we so afraid to admit it to ourselves, and to
you? Help us to come to faith through our doubts instead of shoving
them aside and pretending that we're bigger than we are. Bless us,
bless us who have not seen, and yet have come to believe. In Jesus'
name. Amen.