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Leather covered bible lying on a tableHow are you a part of God’s story today?

There are several things that we are required to do in a worship service in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Prayer is one – it can be spoken or sung, but we must pray. Preaching is another. It can be spoken or performed, but there must be some kind of interpretation of God’s word for God’s people. Offerings are also required, oddly enough. That’s not because of the pragmatic need to pay the light bill. The category of “offering” is much broader than just the money we give. Instead, our weekly “offering” is a reminder to offer ourselves to God continually. And, in order to worship, we must read from the Bible.

It’s important to remember why it is that we read from the Bible. We do so not because we worship the Bible. After all, God alone is worthy of worship. We read from the Bible, from Scripture, because it points us toward God. The Bible is not the only book in which we can find meaning. After all, there are valuable lessons in fairy tales and ancient mythologies. Authors from Shakespeare to J.K. Rowling can teach and move us. But what we believe about the Bible is that it is, in its own unique way, God’s own word. It is not merely a historical curiosity. It is the story of God’s love for God’s creation, and as such, its wisdom is one from which we continue to draw meaning for our lives.

So: how are you a part of God’s story today?

This is the question I want to lift up this morning. And I want to do so by triangulating it with three other questions.

People come to worship for all kinds of reasons. Some come because they are full of joy and want that joy magnified. Others come because they are hopeless and want to know that God hasn’t given up on us yet. Some come because they are angry…or anxious…or afraid…or looking for direction. Others are looking for confirmation for what they already know. Some are auditioning a new church, looking for a more permanent sense of community, trying on a church to see if it fits. And others come because it’s the rhythm of their week: without worship, it isn’t Sunday.

Whatever your reason for coming, here is the first question I want you to answer:

What is it that you need to hear today?

This question is one way to enter the lesson. Do you need a word of hope? Challenge? Comfort? Wisdom? Surprise? Purpose? Reassurance? Direction? Forgiveness? Before we dive into our lesson from the Book of Acts, I invite you to take a moment right now. Anchor yourself in this place at this time and let your answer rise to the top: what is it that you need to hear today?

In our lesson today, the disciples have left the nest. They have overcome the shock of the risen and ascended Christ, regrouping and moving forward. The eleven have replaced Judas the betrayer, becoming the twelve again. Pentecost has multiplied them into the thousands. And now, they are spreading their wings and taking flight.

Peter and John are the first ones out of the gate. Going up to the Temple for daily prayer, they encounter a man begging for his livelihood. We learn that he was born with a disability, meaning that reliance on the kindness of others was his primary means of earning a living.

Peter and John, rather than turning their heads like the bulk of the crowds, or tossing a coin as some might do, stop and speak to him. Peter comes right out and tells him: we are broke. We can’t give you any money. But what we can give you is far more powerful: healing. The man leaps to his feat. As he heads into the Temple, his very presence usurps the sacrifices and prayers of the altar. He is the surest sign of God’s power in evidence that day.

Who do you identify with? Is it Peter and John, the disciples who represent the early church? Is it the beggar, the one who is tolerated but not embraced? Or is it the crowds, spectators to it all?

This, too, is a good way to enter the lesson. My hunch is that if you are feeling empowered, you are more likely to see yourself in Peter or John. If you are feeling beaten down, you might look to the one who is miraculously healed. And if you are unsure of what this lesson might teach, you could see yourself in the unnamed crowds, sitting back and watching it all take place, unsure where to jump in and take part.

So let’s introduce a second question alongside our first:

Who are you in this story?

Take another moment. Which character resonates with you? Inhabit that character. Hold that character alongside your first answer, reminding yourself what you have come here needing to hear this morning.

Peter is the compulsive one, the disciple who rushes into the water to walk alongside Jesus, only to sink beneath the waves. He’s the one who identifies Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, but then tries to turn Jesus away from the cross. He defends Jesus’ life in the Garden, but then denies ever having known him a few hours later. Peter is the rock. And after Jesus’ ascension, Peter takes over the reigns of leadership, doing so with a great deal more maturity than he had exhibited up to that point.

John is also known as the “beloved disciple”. He’s the one in whom Jesus confides. Along with Peter and James, John is part of Jesus’ inner circle. From the cross, Jesus urges John to take Mary into his home as though she were his own mother. John never utters a word in our story – and yet, his presence is important and powerful. In modern terms, John is the introvert to Peter’s extrovert.

Then there’s the man who is healed. Unnamed, he serves as a living parable of God’s mercy. He is a fixture, the man who begs daily by the Beautiful Gate. He has known nothing but brokenness his whole life. This brokenness, while it makes him vulnerable, also makes him virtually invisible. Ignored. In his healing, he takes center stage, a witness to Jesus, himself an embodiment of the power of resurrection.

And let’s not forget the crowds, the Bible’s version of the Greek chorus. The nameless, faceless crowds are the ones who pursue Jesus throughout the Galilee. They parade him into Jerusalem, pronouncing him the Messiah, the Son of David; and within a week, they proclaim their allegiance to Caesar, calling for Jesus’ death. They are the same ones who swarm the streets on Pentecost, their lives changed at a moment’s notice. And here they are again, marveling at the transformation that has taken place. Of course, it is not long before they are back to their old ways, part of the movement to oppress the early church.

Who are you in the story? And how does that connect with what it is you need to hear?

And before we get too far down the road, let’s add our third question:

What is it that God needs you to hear today?

We come here with our hopes and desires. And God always, always meets us where we are. And yet, that doesn’t mean that we stay there. No one in our lesson today leaves it the way they entered it. Each one experiences transformation – each one in just the way they needed it, too.

The man who receives healing is the clearest example of this transforming power of God. As the story begins, it is just another day for him. He has made it to his usual spot, along the roadside, waiting for the Temple pilgrims to come by so that he might survive from their gleanings. As Peter and John arrive, he looks to them for alms. And when they respond, he expects they will come through in some small way.

And when Peter first begins to speak, we can imagine the man’s disappointment: “I have no silver or gold.”

I can almost imagine him thinking, “Unless your next words are going to be, ‘but here’s a sandwich’, then just keep on moving.” Instead, Peter offers him the one thing he has truly been seeking his entire life: wholeness.

Think about that: this man’s whole life has been one of waiting, of a routine marked by helplessness and vulnerability. And now, in the blink of an eye, he receives not only the ability to walk for the first time. He is given the gift of an unknown future, full of possibility and imaginings!

So what about you? How are you a part of God’s story today?

Are you among the crowds – watching from the sidelines, eager to react, but not to jump in? If so, will you take that chance today? Will you not just keep on watching, but to join Peter and John and the other disciples, living in the footsteps of Christ?

Are you Peter, holding onto some precious gift that, if you were bold enough to release it, would change someone’s life forever? If so, will you do it? Will you open your hands and your heart in order that the world might look just a little bit more like the way God desires it to be?

Are you John, not taking the lead necessarily, but being that steady, loving, quiet presence that nonetheless communicates volumes about the healing and encouraging power of God? If so, will you lend your strength? Will you give that gift of reassurance and encouragement to someone who truly needs it?

Are you the broken man made whole, coming here out of habit or routine, not expecting much to change, and yet open to the possibility that, once you leave here, life will never be the same? If so, will you embody that resurrection? Will you leave here today not just a little more whole than when you arrived, but dancing in your heart for all the world to see?

How are you part of God’s story – not just today, but from now on?

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preview1_450_03Easter does not sit still. Easter is on the move!

We have become so familiar with the Easter story that becomes difficult to see how dramatic it really is. For a moment, let’s flash back to Friday. Just two days ago, we witnessed the betrayal and arrest in the garden, the trial and torture and sentence at the hands of Pilate, the execution and burial that seemed to bring an end to this Jesus and his status quo threatening revolutionary movement.

When we do that, it is a little bit easier to walk in the footsteps of the disciples. We can imagine their shock and horror as they realize they had followed Jesus into the deathtrap of Jerusalem. No doubt they were terrified, frozen, numb. The arrival of the Sabbath may have even come as a welcome, giving them religious cover for the passivity they would have felt already. They were unable to move – afraid to move – and the Sabbath arrived, commanding them to stay put.

And then Sunday comes. The sun has barely poked its head above the horizon when the three women hustle to the tomb to embalm Jesus. They wonder aloud how they’re going to pry the giant entrance stone out of the way, only to discover that their worry was unfounded: it has already been rolled aside. As for Jesus? He’s not there. Instead, there’s a young man in a white robe, an angel or messenger of some kind, telling them to head north to the Galilee to meet up with Jesus. In response to this news, they flee with a confusing mixture of joy and fear.

Apart from the seated figure in white, the whole story is one of frenetic energy: swift movement to and from the tomb, a large stone mysteriously moved, a command to move on to the Galilee.

Easter does not sit still. Easter is on the move!

I will be honest with you. As a pastor, having gutted out the Holy Week grind, there is probably nothing I look forward to more than that most sacred of family traditions, the Easter afternoon nap. I am sure there are many church professionals and busy members who feel the same way. Don’t get me wrong – the power of Easter morning still grabs me. A sunrise service where the sky passes from night to day still feels almost miraculous. A full sanctuary singing “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today” gives me chills. That uncertain pause at the end of the “Hallelujah Chorus”, just a little bit longer than you think it’s going to be, almost reduces me to tears every time.

But if you tell me on Easter afternoon that I need to move…

That’s the thing about following Jesus. To be a Christian, to call Jesus Lord, demands a shift in thinking. It’s a shift from the fear of Good Friday and the paralysis of Holy Saturday into the hopeful motion of Easter Sunday. And that shift is what makes all the difference. It is, in a nutshell, the reward of discipleship.

I don’t know about you, but it seems that there are days where the fear and the paralysis make a lot more sense. Whether we are talking about political races or legislative decisions or wars and rumors of wars, fear seems like a healthy response. We can also pushed out of Sunday’s hope back into the despair of Friday and Saturday with things that are much closer to home. Just a quick scroll through the Facebook feed of our friends and family can be enough for us to question whether there’s any hope at all. There are times when it feels like the world is filled with the mean, the unfair, the inhuman. And these are the moments when hope feels nothing short of delusional.

That’s why the rhythm of this whole week is critical. If we take a leap from waving branches on Palm Sunday to singing resurrection hymns on Easter, then our joy is not rooted in reality, but in selective ignorance during the rest of the week. And that really is deluded. Hope does not come from pretending that the bad stuff isn’t there. Hope is born out of the hopelessness that looks that bad stuff right in the eye and lives to tell about it anyway.

For the disciples, there was no way around the awful truth of that week. For three years, they had ridden high on the expectations they had placed in Jesus. They followed him around the Galilee, hearing his teaching and seeing his miracles, while the crowds around him swelled to the point that they could not be contained.

When Jesus told them it was time to head to Jerusalem, no doubt they were filled with a mix of emotions: sad to leave behind the fame and glory they had gathered, but anticipating an even greater power as they rose to power by his side. The esteemed theologians Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber got it right with their catchy show tunes about the disciples jockeying for position in the upcoming political revolution, and being thrown into confusion and despair by the sudden appearance of swords and whips and spears and crosses and burial cloths and tombs.

Along with everything else Friday and Saturday brought, they revealed how badly the disciples had misunderstood the whole point of their mission. Yes – they had followed him at a moment’s notice. Yes – they recognized the truth and wisdom in his preaching. Yes – they knew the power in his healing. And yes – they saw the fear and anger he caused in the religious authorities of the day. And when they put it all together, they were convinced it had been in service of the liberation of a small strip of land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. It was as though everything to that point was preparing them to rule an earthly fiefdom.

You can’t blame Jesus. He tried to tell them. He told them about taking up the cross. He told them about dying and rising. But these things didn’t fit into the worldview they had already constructed for themselves. They couldn’t assimilate these things into their existing assumptions. When he talked about these things, they tried to silence him. And when that didn’t work, they just compartmentalized the stuff they didn’t want to hear. They became selective about which parts of Jesus they wanted to believe. Then Friday and Saturday suddenly made that impossible. They had seen his body pulled off the cross and buried in a tomb – and with him, all of their hopes and dreams had become lifeless.

Staring into the hopeless pit of Friday and Saturday is what makes the hope of Sunday so incredible. It’s what ought to ignite us to follow Christ and follow him faithfully. The reward of discipleship doesn’t come from showing up when you find out that the tomb is empty. The reward of discipleship is sticking with it through the horrors – the betrayal, the anguish, the death – so that the hope you find in the rolled away stone is deep, like a wellspring of life itself.

And that hope – that resurrection, moving through crucifixion, hope – that life that comes out of death hope – is why Easter puts us on the move!

You see: faith in Jesus doesn’t work like some Ancient Near East themed Monopoly “Get out of Hell Free” card. It’s not a one-time payment, eternal life insurance policy. It is a movement, a call to new, hopeful ways of being in the world! What happens on Sunday matters. Yes! And what happens every day after that matters, too. Because, as the Jesuit author James Martin writes, “Resurrection makes a claim on you.” That claim means that you cannot just “set aside those teachings you disagree with or that make you uncomfortable – say, forgiving your enemies, praying for your persecutors, living simply or helping the poor.” It means, instead, that you’re all in.

Following Jesus means leaving behind Friday and Saturday’s fear and paralysis, because we can actually grow quite comfortable in our helplessness. Following Jesus also means heading to the Galilee to meet the risen Christ on Sunday and Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday…I think you know the rest.

This is why we ought care about what happens in tiny strips of land all over the world. We don’t root for tribes or nations like we cheer for NCAA brackets. We care and we are there because those people and places drowning in their hopeless Fridays and Saturdays, whether near or far, deserve to know that Sunday is coming!

That is why we are part of a national and global movement of Presbyterians who provide comfort and strength and encouragement, who preach and live out messages of justice and fairness and righteousness. That is why we teach our children to share their resources, to gather up their coins and pool them together, bringing the hope of fish and chickens and pigs through the Presbyterian Giving Catalog – because even if we cannot be there ourselves, we know that we are there with the church that is already there!

Friends, this Jesus – this won’t stay dead Jesus – this Christ is risen he is risen indeed Jesus – does not sit still. Jesus is on the move! If we are going to follow, we better get going!

Amen.

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he-qui-triumphal-entryIt’s time to value the “in-between.”

We have reached the beginning of what the Church calls “Holy Week”. Beginning with Palm Sunday and ending with Easter Sunday, these intense eight days are the focus of the gospel. If there was ever a time to pay attention, to break the infrequent attending to our faith, this is the time.

This is what the forty nights and days of Lent have been leading toward – toward a full week of focus and attention of what God desires of us.

This is a week in which not even the Sundays are enough. Missing the days in between can even be misleading this week. If we take part in today’s triumphal procession into Jerusalem and jump ahead to the empty tomb and the risen Christ, we might think that this Jesus we follow rides from crest of victory to victory, and that this Christian faith is one of puppies and butterflies. Of all weeks, this is the week to pay attention to the details.

When we piece the story together from the four gospel accounts, we learn that Jesus enters Jerusalem and heads straight to the Temple, where he flips over tables and directly challenges the powers that be. The priests and religious authorities culminate their plot to eliminate this threat, finding in the disciple Judas a willing accomplice.

As Jesus gathers his disciples for the Passover meal, breaking bread and washing feet, he lets them know that his betrayer is one from his circle of trust. As they head to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray among the ancient olive trees, he is arrested. On Friday, he is tried and tortured, and then sentenced to die. The writers do not turn away from the pain of the cross, either, painting a picture of Jesus’ suffering in excruciating detail. Once dead, he is buried in a tomb, sealed with a large rock over the mouth of the cave.

If we contain the gospel to the two Sundays that bookend it, it would be understandable to call the week “holy” and to call its Friday “good”. But when we look closely at what happens in between, these words begin to lose their meaning…

Friends, we increasingly live in a culture where our “faith” is of our own making. No respecter of political affiliation, this “faith” is Christian in flavor, but one where we discard the things that make us squirm and add in the things that reinforce what we already think is true. For many, faith in Christ has become “one and done” – once baptized or confirmed or born again, there is no need to darken the door of the church. From now on, it’s me and Jesus.

Let’s make no mistake. Churches have helped to erode this relationship. The scandals of child abuse make for headlines and sell papers. The self-righteous hypocrisy of preachers is cartoonish in its villainy, holding their people hold to an unreasonably high standard while taking gross advantage of the power and influence they hold.

Meanwhile, as the world seems to move at a million miles an hour, churches – for the most part – have chosen either to throw their lot in with the whims of today, priding innovation over tradition, or they have stuck their heads in the sand, believing that nothing good can come from our cultural Nazareths. Those who, in past generations, might have become active church members have been turned away by the parallel idolatries of entertainment and institutional preservation.

In other words, the bookends matter, and matter a great deal; and so does everything in between. The difference is that it’s a lot harder to live in the in between. The very place that the Church has abandoned is the very place that we need to value and need to be.

This year, Holy Week is the week for spending time in the in-between.

It’s the second half of this morning’s lesson that highlights how much more difficult it is to stay with the in-between. Jesus, at the home of Simon the Leper, becomes himself an object lesson. An unnamed woman carries in an expensive alabaster jar filled with expensive perfume. In an over the top act of affection and adoration, she shatters the jar and pours the perfume on Jesus’ head.

Almost immediately, there are those who leap up to criticize. If she had chosen to sell that jar and its perfume, so much good could have been done! What a waste!

Jesus, much to our surprise, defends the woman. She has done a good thing. There will always be poor people. But Jesus will not be around that much longer, as she seems to know, offering a ritual of burial, if a bit prematurely.

This is a critical, in-between moment. On the one hand, we can sympathize with those who think the value of the perfume jar could have been used more justly. On the other hand, we can see how some could take Jesus’ words “the poor you will always have with you” as permission to ignore the poor so that we can focus on glorifying God. And yet, neither of these gives voice to the holiness of Holy Week.

Jesus is the incarnation of God’s holy presence. This is something truly worthy of adoration, something that only this woman seems to notice. And, at the same time, listen carefully to what Jesus actually says: “You always have the poor with you. You can show them kindness whenever you want.” In other words, the poor deserve to be treated with kindness. It is the faithful thing to do. In fact, in Jesus’ absence, being kind to those who are unlike us may be the closest we can get to pouring costly perfume on his head.

You see: instead of planting ourselves at one extreme or another, self-righteously proclaiming that true holiness is found only in serving the poor or only in serving Jesus, we ought to nestle in-between, recognizing that they are one and the same! After all, look at the Palm Sunday procession: the colt on which he rode into Jerusalem was a borrowed one. And look at the Friday burial: the tomb where his body was laid had been donated for that purpose. To love and serve those at the margins of society is to love and serve Christ himself. And if there was any doubt about that, Jesus says it himself: “I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat…I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink…I was a stranger and you welcomed me…Just as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.”

You see, in the kingdom of God, in the world the way God desires it to be, we value people – because by doing so, we value the image of God imprinted within them. It is not enough to show up only on the Sundays of faith. We must also be there on the Thursdays and the Fridays. We share at the table, not only with Jesus, but with his betrayer, experiencing the heartbreak first-hand. We pray with him in the Garden, faithfully putting away our swords even when we would rather raise them in anger. We take the lashes with him, and stand at the foot of the cross, suffering with him as he dies.

It is not enough to stand beside the road and shout “Hosanna!” as Jesus enters to Jerusalem and then sing “Alleluia!” as we discover the tomb is empty. We must also cry “I am thirsty!” and “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and “It is finished” at the foot of his cross. We must value the in-between. And when we do, that is when the triumphal processions begin to deepen and offer the hope that they are meant to bring.

There is no resurrection unless there is a crucifixion. There is no ultimate victory unless there is defeat. There can be no “new life” without death first taking hold. It is only when we live in-between that we can understand that “Hosanna” is not a shout of victory, an anachronistic synonym for “Yay!” It is, instead, an ancient cry for help – an adaptation of a Hebrew prayer meaning “Save us!”

Friends, life is not an endless series of “good news” – you only have to live in order to know that this is true. There is much from which we have to be saved, not least of all, ourselves. And when we are saved, when we are pulled out of trials and into the arms of mercy, we cannot turn around and lord it over those who are left, still in-between, still in despair. We must, instead, recognize that we ourselves might just be the very instruments of saving that God calls us to be.

That is the place of the Church. We are meant to be those who do not fear the past, the present, or the future, because God is present in all of them. We do not fear innovation, because we know that God can be at work in our transformation. We do not fear history, because God redeems it all for the sake of God’s desires. We do not fear the death of institutions, because we are a people of resurrection. And we do not fear the in-between, because we know that God holds it all!

My prayer is that this table today would be a solid reminder of all of this. Once we are fed, God is not honored if we take it as a sign of favor above those who go hungry. Instead, we lift it up as a sign of undeserved grace. And so, our hunger fed and our thirst sated, we go out to feed the world. For in so doing, we love and serve Christ the Lord himself.

Amen.

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yihivStay awake.

It’s a fitting message for this morning, isn’t it, when the alarm went off an hour earlier than desired? Stay awake…

Jesus’ message to his disciples, to stay awake, comes as they have arrived in Jerusalem. The events of the coming weeks have already begun to unfold. It is now only a matter of time before he is betrayed, arrested, tried, and executed, filling the disciples with doubt and fear. If there was any week that they might have chosen to sleep in, this is it.

Stay awake.

Our lesson this morning opens as Jesus and the disciples exit the Temple, the center of Jewish ritual and religious life. The building itself loomed large in the imagination of the people. It was actually the Second Temple to stand on that site. The first, built by King Solomon, had long ago been destroyed and the people carried off into exile. The Persian King Cyrus had freed them, sending them to Jerusalem to rebuild. What they constructed was a mere shadow of the original.

The disciples would have had all of this in mind as they took in the view. The Second Temple was a sad reminder of what once was: a powerful nation, free of foreign entanglements. Even so, the building was magnificent. We get the impression that they were like hicks in the big city, staring up in amazement at the skyscrapers towering above.

The stones had been cut from massive limestone, weighing anywhere from a few tons to 160,000 pounds each. It may not have compared to the original, but it was still quite the sight to behold. Surely nothing could be more permanent than this.

And yet, it was not to be.

The first thing Jesus tells his disciples is that these stones are nothing. They will be torn down, knocked over, such that even the mighty Jerusalem Temple would stand as a ruin – nothing more. History proved Jesus right. It was in the year 70 CE that the Romans did just that – knocked the Temple down, razed it to the ground. Even those permanent-looking 80-ton stones were demolished. They were broken down, repurposed, reused in other parts of the region. For those who saw the destruction with their own eyes, surely it must have seemed like the end of the world.

That’s the thing about the way we see the world, isn’t it? We are, by nature the extent of our years, short-sighted folk. It is hard for us to imagine things that predated us and will outlast us. In other places, there are ruins of bygone years – the pyramids of Giza, the coliseum of Rome, the temples of Machu Pichu – reminders that human history has a much larger footprint than the one that we can imagine. And yet, none of this is permanent.

We have this odd sense of the way time works. And we impose that view on the way we read the lessons of Scripture, don’t we? In some ways, it couldn’t be clearer. As Jesus paints the picture of the way it will all come to an end, he describes a world in which there are wars and rumors of wars. Nations and kingdoms will fight, he says, and earthquakes and hunger will rock the world. For more than 1500 years, people have tried to read the tealeaves, predicting that this season or that is the one that Jesus promised.

2016 is no different. You would think that we would be used to it by now, but every four years, as a presidential race ramps up yet again, we are thrown into this sense that the world is shaken to its core, that things are about to explode, erupt, and that we are on the precipice of the end of history.

But look what Jesus says: wars, natural disasters, these are just the beginning. They are nothing. We will know that things are drawing to a close not when things are unstable. Rather, we will know that things are drawing to a close when the cosmos itself begins to change. The sun turns dark, giving the moon no light to reflect. The stars and planets will appear as though they have become unmoored from their fixed spots in the heavens.

In other words, God’s timeline looks quite a bit further down the road than ours does. Just like the disciples, we might look at the grandness of our own culture and assume it is indestructible. Or when we begin to see that there might be cracks in the surface, we panic. We are cornered into fear, which is a dangerous thing. And we then project our own fear out onto the entirety of creation. In other words: if what I thought I knew was reliable is now ending, then everything must be ending.

That’s what’s hard about this faith thing – and it is what frees us, if we allow it to do so. Faith in what Jesus lived and died and rose for calls us far beyond ourselves, into this grander, universal reality of God’s eternal timeline. It lifts us above our myopic self-interest and out into the reality that, no matter what, God is at work!

For years now, we have heard predictions about the end of Mainline Protestantism. Membership numbers are on the decline. Worship attendance is down. Churches are closing, and buildings are being sold. Every year, we find something to blame for our demise. Every week, there is a dire prophecy that the “end is nigh”. Every day, there is a new “fix all” solution – if only churches and leaders were brave enough to step up.

Folks, I’ve got news: God’s future is much, much bigger than the structures we build up. God looks beyond Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church. God’s desires encompass far more than the destiny of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). God’s history extends far beyond the reach of the United States of America. If we can’t say that, then our faith isn’t ultimately in God at all. Instead of believing that God has fashioned us to seek God’s desires, we have fashioned a god that suits our desires.

Look: I’m not saying that what we do is unimportant. Quite the contrary: what we do matters, and matters a great deal. That’s actually the point. Because the invitation is not to stick our heads in the sand and wait for the inevitable collapse of society. Instead, the invitation is to pay attention and to respond in faith.

A farmer sees the leaves change and knows that summer is just around the corner. A servant sees the owner returning down the road and knows it is time to get the house in order. If we stay awake, if we are alert, aware, attentive to the world around us and beyond it, then, sure: we will know when all of this is really coming to an end. But more importantly, we will be in tune with what it is that God is calling us to do in the here and now.

After all, God is not just God of the past. And God is not just God of the future. God is God of the present. That’s what this incarnate faith of ours reminds us: God chose flesh. God chose to be embodied. God chose to become material in Jesus. Because this stuff matters!

The tension of faith is what it means to live as though it matters while keeping that greater, divine perspective intact. Yes: there are wars. Yes: there are rumors of wars. Yes: there are pretenders to faithful leadership. Yes: there are nations rising and collapsing and earthquakes and floods and destruction and death and violence. And: we are still called to faithfulness in the midst of it all.

When there is war, we are the peacemakers. When there are those who preach false gospels, we speak – and live – the truth in love. When there is hunger, we feed. When the world is shaken, we extend a steady hand.

And when we seek war, we trust that the peacemakers will stand in the way. When we preach false gospels, we hope for the wisdom to hear those who tell us the loving truth. When we are hungry, we know that we will be fed. When our world is shaken, we depend on God’s steady presence.

And in all of this, we keep the true lesson of history in mind: in all of human history, there has never been a time of perfect faithfulness. Even the Garden of Eden was nothing more than a flash in the pan. We don’t look back to find the blueprint for looking forward. Instead, we look back to learn from those who have, in each time and in every place, followed the call to faithful living, giving God’s desires shape and form and breath and life. And in so doing, we learn something about what it means to be faithful in this time and place, as well as in the days to come, whatever they may bring.

This, friends, as we say each and every week, is the truth of the gospel: in Jesus Christ, we are forgiven. May our lives be living examples of this faith, mirroring the grace we receive and reflecting it out onto this broken, hurting, and fleeting world – today, tomorrow, and all the days to come.

Amen.

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screen-shot-2015-09-24-at-2-31-17-pm“Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.”

These are, really, the clearest words we have from Jesus about how to be a faithful citizen. They came as his clever response to those who were trying to trap him. The Pharisees and supporters of Herod thought they had asked him the perfect question: does the Law of Moses allow observant Jews to pay tax to the Romans? A simple “yes” would render him a traitor in the eyes of his own people, and a simple “no” would make him a threat to the Roman authority. Jesus manages to dodge all of this complexity by saying, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.”

Unfortunately for us, Jesus did not leave us with a handy little Christian voter guide to know the “correct” stance on political issues so that we would know to vote for the candidate that lines up most closely with Christian values. And as we are already fully aware, there are plenty of politicians who would use the label “Christian” to their own political advantage with no regard to what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.

“Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.” We are told, in the lesson, that Jesus’ reply leaves his questioners speechless. Boy, what a gift that must be! It would be wonderful to know how we might be able to do that with our current crop of candidates: leave them speechless. A boy can dream…

Here’s the one thing I want to leave with you today: no matter which candidate you vote for, no matter whom you think will be the best person for the job, know this: no matter who wins, God will still be God. Nothing we do can change that. And no matter which party triumphs come November, this nation will still fall far short of the glory of God. No vote will ever correct that outcome.

“Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.”

Our world couldn’t be more different from the world of Jesus. Ancient Israel had long been subjugated to other nations. The Romans were simply the latest manifestation of foreign control of local land. Beyond that, Caesar wasn’t just a ruler. He claimed to be divine, a god, demanding worship from his subjects. When it came to the coin, it belonged to Caesar, because it bore his image and likeness. But everything else in all of creation bears the likeness of God – and, therefore, belongs to God.

Give these differences, what is it that the church could learn from Jesus’ simple saying? Or is it, rather, that we should look back to the parable he told just before this challenge?

Jesus speaks of a landlord who builds a beautiful vineyard. All it needs are caretakers. The tenant farmers come in and till the land. But when the landlord wants the fruit of his harvest, they brutalize his messengers – even killing some of them. The landlord goes so far as to send his own son, whom the tenants seize and murder – because, they reason, if they kill the heir, the inheritance will be theirs.

What are they thinking? If we kill the heir, then we get the inheritance? I know that the laws governing property were probably different back then, but would it really have been possible to kill the son and inherit the property? I doubt it seriously. Instead, the lesson shows how warped their thinking has become in the absence of the landlord. They have forgotten whose vineyard it is, assuming that it is all theirs because they are the ones who have been working it, forgetting that the landlord set it up to be a functioning vineyard in the first place.

The implications of Jesus’ parable would have been crystal clear to those who would have heard it at the time: God set up Israel for God’s people. And when God sent prophets and messengers, the people either ignored or killed them. It is, in a few words, a hearty condemnation of the Pharisees and rulers who would claim to be the current tenant farmers and, therefore, the rightful heirs to the vineyard.

And as much fun as it would be to point our fingers at the Pharisees and laugh at their hypocrisy, the truth is that the apple hasn’t fallen too far from the tree in our case, either. When we look at the work of our hands, how quick are we to take credit for it – or demand recognition for it? Have we already forgotten who it is that gave us the gifts in the first place? Whether it be the mind or the talents or simply just a leg up in society, nothing we achieve is the fruit of our own labors alone. We could never accomplish what we have done if it weren’t for God at work in our lives.

Our response ought to be to live as though this were the case.

The same is true within the church. It would be one thing to take God’s free gift of grace and claim ownership of it, to treat the church more like a “club” where membership has its privileges to be shared, but only if and when we feel like it. But to do so would stray far from where Jesus desires us to be, sharing the grace we have received as freely as it has been given.

What would that look like? What would it look like to live as though everything in all of creation bore God’s imprint and likeness? What would it mean if we were to see this in everything, even when it comes to the citizenship we have been granted? What would it mean to hold it, yes, but loosely enough to trust it to God, the author of all that is good and kind and just?

I don’t know about you, but every four years during presidential election season, I begin to feel as though the whole world is at stake. I don’t mean to minimize the importance of politics and its sway in our lives and in the lives of others. That said, there is nothing that can happen during this election season that will prevent God’s desires from bearing fruit. Caesar is Caesar, and God is still God. Thanks be to God!

I’m reminded of the movie Men in Black, in which Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones play government agents who are responsible for protecting planet earth from alien invasion. On Smith’s first assignment, he causes havoc in a New York City block trying to prevent an alien from escaping. Jones reprimands him for it, which stuns Smith. After all, the world is at stake! Jones’ rebuffs him, saying, “There’s always an Arquillian Battle Cruiser, or a Corillian Death Ray, or an intergalactic plague that is about to wipe out all life on this miserable little planet!”

Maybe that quote doesn’t exactly make the point I wanted it to; but I hope you catch my intention. The point is that, no matter how up in the air life might feel, God is still God and that God is still in control of God’s desires and the world that bears God’s imprint. That is the hope in which we live – today and tomorrow and election day and every day beyond that.

At our very best, our calling is to reflect God’s character to the world we encounter in all that we do. And as we do, we know we will not get it perfect, but will still trust what we do to God’s perfecting mercy and grace.

When we look at the parable: do you notice how patient the landlord is? He sends messenger after messenger to get what is rightly his from the tenant farmers. And each time, they beat, kill, taunt, abuse them, one by one. The landlord is tested at every step of the way, but does not give in to rage until much further along in the story. The landlord, of course, is the story’s stand-in for God. And because of that, we learn of God’s long-suffering patience.

God is willing to put up with all kinds of betrayal, and to show mercy in return – again and again and again and again. And God’s willingness to show that mercy extends even to incarnation – that is, the sending of the Son for the sake of the world, even knowing that this gift, too, is likely to be betrayed. And let’s be clear: judgment is not lost in the parable; and yet, it is made abundantly clear to whom this judgment belongs: God, and God alone.

Amen.

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Power On - textureVision over power.

In our lesson this morning, Jesus and his disciples have finished up their ministry in the bucolic Galilee and are making their way toward urban Jerusalem. Jesus tells the disciples what exactly all of this Messiah stuff entails: betrayal, abuse, torture, and death. This makes such an impression on them that James and John ask if they can call dibs on the seats of power next to him.

You can almost imagine Jesus saying, “Have you been listening to a word I’m saying?!? You still think this is all about the earthly kingdom of Israel, don’t you?” After he sets them back a notch, the rest of the disciples get in on the act, angry at James and John for sneaking around on them. Apparently, they weren’t listening, either.

It’s at this point that they go through Jericho. Jericho, sitting just west of the Jordan River, is an oasis for travelers. For Jesus and the disciples, they would have left the verdant hills of the Galilee, heading along the Jordan down toward the Dead Sea, the vegetation disappearing and the temperature increasing along the way. At Jericho, they would have turned westward, finding the winding road that leads up to Jerusalem. Jericho sits at this crossroads, with numerous springs that have made it a welcome habitation for thousands of years.

And there, almost lost among the pressing crowds, is the blind beggar Bartimaeus, calling out, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

A number of things happen simultaneously in this moment. First, we are told that Bartimaeus means “son of Timaeus”. In other words, though he was a blind beggar, shuffled off to the margins of polite society (and impolite society, for that matter), he had a family that – at least at some point – cared for and loved him.

Second, the crowd gives us some insight into the human condition. At first, because they don’t want to be associated with the likes of him, they try to hide him from Jesus. “Don’t you know who this is? It’s Jesus! Leave him alone! Don’t bother him. He’s got more important things to do!” As soon as Jesus singles him out and calls him forward, the they immediately changes their tune, perhaps hoping to benefit from their connection with Bartimaeus: “Come on! Good news! He wants to see you! Let’s go!” The crowd is fickle; willing to go along with what is popular rather than what is right.

Third, Jesus responds to Bartimaeus plea the same way he had responded to James and John, with the exact same question he had asked them: “What do you want me to do for you?” Though the disciples were his friends and Bartimaeus was a complete stranger, he treated them with equity.

Fourth, Bartimaeus request is simply granted. Unlike James and John’s desire for power, Bartimaeus is given the gift of vision.

And finally, though Jesus tells Bartimaeus to go on his way, he immediately begins following Jesus. His response is gratitude. And that thankfulness leads him into discipleship, into Jesus’ baptism and cup.

For me, the chorus that rings through all of this is “vision over power.”

Power plays a significant role in Jesus’ entire ministry. And today’s lesson is no exception. It is the possibility of power that fools the disciples, filling their ears with false hopes so that they cannot hear what true discipleship costs. The crowd tries to surf the changing perceptions of power – first by silencing Bartimaeus and then by elevating him. And it is powerless Bartimaeus who takes center stage in the lesson as the one that Jesus hears, invites, and heals.

This fits well within Jesus’ overall message, which takes power and flips it on its head. The first shall be last, and the last shall be first. The King is crowned with thorns; his royal robes are stripped away to reveal his nakedness; his throne is a cross, with a title over his head to mock and scorn him. Whoever wants the seat of glory must become a servant.

The truth is that power is seductive, and very, very complicated. What makes it most disturbing is that the ways in which we hold power are the ways we are least likely to know that it is ours. Power is at work in all of society. It plays a role in gender; in age; in sexuality; in ability and disability; in education; in race; in language; in economics; in politics and influence; in religion; in employment; in office and stature.

Every single one of us, without exception, inhabits power roles in our lives. Mostly by virtue of things that are completely out of our control, we have been handed an advantage in this life. The thing is, if we never bother to stop and take stock of that fact, we will never know it. Instead, we are far more likely to focus on the power we don’t have that others do. In other words, power is not something to be ashamed of; it is, at the same time, something to be absolutely aware of.

And that’s because power is tempting. It may be the most desirable temptation there is, And yet Jesus, who had all the power in the world, gave it away in order to bring freedom to any and all who need it. Rather than make power the most important thing, Jesus put healing and wholeness first – in the case of Bartimaeus, Jesus gave him the vision he so desired.

Vision over power.

Like James and John, we may yearn for the power we do not have; but Jesus wants us to be more like Bartimaeus. The truth is that we are blind – maybe not completely, but our vision is far from perfect. We all have blind spots. Acknowledging that fact is the first step, and it’s a crucial one. Our spiritual vision will never be 20/20; and yet, if we invite Jesus to work on our vision, we are more likely to see the things that God desires we see.

For example, the way we typically talk about vision is misleading. We tend to think of those who have “vision” as those who can predict the future, see things that are not there, read the tealeaves. But vision is, simply, the ability to see clearly – to see what is, and what is not, there. And one aspect of that vision is recognizing power: where it is, where it is absent, how it is at work in our lives and the lives of others, and how it is at work throughout the world.

I don’t know about you, but I struggle with this – really struggle with it. It feels like there is inherent hypocrisy in a straight, white, male, able-bodied, educated pastor to talk about who does – and does not – have power. This is one of those moments where those temptations to power can make you come across as preachy. Fair enough. I can come down from the pulpit, but I’ve still got robes that confer some sense of authority. I can remove those, but I’m still the one with the microphone. Even without that, I’ve got title and position, and the privilege that those give me, as well as ten-plus years of history with this particular congregation. And even if those were all to evaporate in an instant, our pews are all pointed in the same direction and bolted in place that way.

So my prayer today, just as it is each and every Sunday, is for the words I speak and the thoughts we all carry to point to God – in other words, that our eyes be filled with what it is that God envisions for us.

And in that vision, the call to follow Jesus is intimately tied up in how we deal with the nature of power. In the kingdom of God, power is transformed into justice – God’s justice. Those who have power are invited to lay it down for the sake of those who do not. And those who do not have it are the ones Jesus is most likely to call to lead.

Are we willing to follow? Would we ever be so bold as to take a chance on the power we hold? Could we loosen our fists, even if that means risking that this power might fall through our fingers, slip through our grasp?

Let’s put it this way: could we ever imagine putting ourselves in the role not of the crowds, nor of the disciples, but to empty ourselves of the power we inhabit and live into the place of a blind beggar named Bartimaeus? Would we be willing, even just for a moment, to admit how helpless, how in need of mercy, we really are? Or are we more likely to pretend that we are in control of our own destinies, that we don’t need or depend on anyone else? Or do we live with the fantasy that this power is realistically within our grasp, if we could just get hold of those elusive advantages that we do not currently have?

Friends, the truth of it all is simply this: we are blind. And Jesus is here, ready to give us vision and send us on our way. The faithful response is to follow him, even if that means going all the way up to Jerusalem. Are we ready to follow?

Amen.

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hqdefaultThere are no volunteers in the kingdom of God; only disciples.

Our lesson this morning concerns a young man eager to meet Jesus and learn what his gospel of eternal life requires. Jesus begins with the expected, answer, one that is almost predictable: “Follow the Ten Commandments.” The young man claims to have mastered these rules when he was a child, which seems hard to believe. Listening the daily news causes me to violate at least three of the ten.

In any case, Jesus takes him at his word and tells him the one thing that stands in his way: selling everything, giving the money to the poor, and following Jesus. Because he was rich, this proved to be too much for him, and he turns away from Jesus.

There are no volunteers in the kingdom of God; only disciples.

In the church, we often make much of the need for volunteers. We need teachers, ushers, people to staff our ministries, folks to lend a hand with this workday project or that mission ministry. There is a problem with this approach, though. When we look at the story of Jesus, there is not a single volunteer who lives up to their promises. Those who follow Jesus are those whom Jesus invites. They have the choice to respond, yes, but the invitation always precedes the willingness.

The young man in our story is a perfect case in point. Here he comes, kneeling down in front of Jesus, apparently ready to do what Jesus requires. He is the perfect volunteer. But when Jesus tells him what he has to do to pass muster, he bails out. Being a volunteer is not enough. We must, first, be invited.

The truth, of course, is that everyone is invited. The difference between the volunteer and the disciple is this: the volunteer thinks they are offering their gifts out of their own generosity; the disciple acknowledges that they are saying “yes” to what God has initiated. This may seem like a small point, but in truth, it makes all of the difference. And that’s what the rest of the lesson bears out.

It’s important to note that this story has been open to wild misinterpretation – which is absolutely unheard of in the history of the Church. In today’s lesson, Jesus tells the young man to sell everything, give the money away to the poor, and follow Jesus. He cannot do it because, we are told, “he had many possessions.”

On the one hand, it is important to remember that Jesus gave this instruction to the one man. And that man’s possessions built an insurmountable barrier to his faithful discipleship. Jesus did not say “Whoever wants to follow me must sell everything they own and give the money to the poor.” This specific challenge was intended for this specific person.

And yet, before we are too quick to let ourselves off the hook, it is at this point that Jesus turns to the disciples and drops this little nugget: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”

And this is where our reinterpretations come into play, efforts to make this statement more palatable. As early as the 5th century there were suggestions of mistranslation. Maybe someone misheard the Greek, because the words for “rope” and “camel” are really very close. Others have tried to force the point that it was a confusion of an Aramaic pun, that the words for “camel” and “louse” are very similar. So Jesus was just telling a joke.

I don’t know about you, but this possibility seems about as likely as “blessed are the cheese makers.”

The interpetation I remember hearing most often as a child was that the image of the camel was intended as a sign of humility. You see, there was a low gate into the old city of Jerusalem called the eye of the needle. For a camel to pass through the gate, it had to kneel. Therefore, the story went, if we can kneel before God, even with our wealth, we can enter the kingdom of God.

Unfortunately, there was no such gate in Jerusalem.

In other words, Jesus was just being really difficult: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”

And remember: this is the same Jesus who said, “If you want to be my disciple, deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow.” I can understand why would we work so hard to wrangle ease out of difficult messages; otherwise, being a Christian is just too hard. It is too bad, therefore, that Jesus often says things that are meant to provoke, challenge, even disturb those who heard. Welcome to the discomfort of discipleship.

Let’s stick with the discomfort for a moment. In the case of today’s lesson, let’s ask this: What does it mean to be “rich”?

Here in the United States, the top one percent includes those whose income is $500,000 a year and up. But since Jesus’ reference to “rich” does not mention anything about nationality, we would do well to expand the question globally.

And in that realm, it takes $34,000 per person, after taxes, to make it into the top one percent. For a family of four, that means a net of $136,000 per year. And by those standards, almost half of the richest 60 million people in the world live in the United States.

Maybe that describes you, maybe it doesn’t. Our family falls short of that mark. But before we breathe a quick sigh of relief and let ourselves off the hook, consider this: on average, the poorest five percent in the United States is on par with the richest five percent in India.

“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Jesus does not give us any caveats. He doesn’t say that people who work really hard are exempt, or that there are different standards based on where they live, or if they inherited their money, or if they have a mortgage, or a student loan debt, or if they’re really nice, or if they go to church every week. There are no exceptions. Being rich is, quite simply, an impediment to being faithful.

I wish I had a neat way to wrap this all up, or that I could find a sideways glance of an interpretation that could help us stick this landing. Instead, the one solution I can see is for us to sell everything we own and give the money away to the poor. That’s it.

All right! Who’s with me?

Yeah, me neither…It’s a terrifying notion! What would it really look like to sell everything? If I were to sell my house, and my car; if I were to empty out my bank accounts and sell my guitars – OK. It just got too real. I don’t think I can do it.

And that is surely part of the point. The breadth of Scripture points to the fact that none of us can ever measure up to the perfection the kingdom of God requires. And because this is true, every single one of us stands in need of grace. It doesn’t matter how good you are. You still ain’t Jesus. And that, friend, is why you need Jesus.

Ultimately, the promise here is one that is meant to convict us, yes, but mostly to free us from the stuff that holds us back. Look: there is this gap between what discipleship requires and how far we are able to fulfill it. And the gap is not small. But if we know – really know – that God bridges that gap for us, what is it that this certainty could free us to do?

Picture this gap between us and God as though it were the Grand Canyon. We stand on one rim, with God barely visible on the other. How will we ever get there? It’s impossible, right? That is, if we think it’s up to us. Trying to reach God on our own is as absurd as leaping into the abyss, Thelma and Louise style. But if it’s up to God, for whom all things are possible, then perhaps we might feel free enough to try and jump anyway. Rather than falling to our doom, we are actually letting ourselves go into God’s limitless embrace!

We can let go of the things that hold us back from following God because God is the one who provides it all anyway. Maybe it is too much to imagine selling it all and giving the money to the poor…perhaps that feels like going full Evil Knievel. So…what would it look like to give up even just a little bit? And what would it look like to respond not as a volunteer, but a disciple, recognizing that the invitation itself comes from God?

Many of you are familiar with the concept of the “tithe” – that is, the giving away of one-tenth of one’s income (which, as you may notice, falls 90% short of the “sell everything” mark). The tithe is probably the most straightforward way to look at how willing we are to give it all away. So with tax season coming upon us in the not-too-distant future, here is one possible invitation to discipleship for you, in four simple steps:

  • Know what your income is.
  • Know how much you give away.
  • Figure out what percentage that is.
  • Figure out what it would mean to increase that percentage.

Let’s try out an example. Your income is $50,000 a year, and you currently give away $3,000. That works out to 6%. If you were to increase your giving to 7%, that would come out to $3,500 a year, or an increase of $10/week on your current giving. Is that doable?

Perhaps yes, perhaps no; but just as Jesus encouraged the rich young man to sell everything, I’m willing to bet that our call to discipleship contains a very real, tangible, financial component. Recognizing this is not something that binds us, but frees us.

And that is the point. Because not only are we invited into this life of discipleship, we are also invited to be an invitation. We are the voices God has chosen to invite others to follow Jesus. You are meant to be Christ’s hands and feet, Christ’s own words for the many who are hungry to hear what it is that God promises.

There are no volunteers in the kingdom of God; only disciples, those who hear the invitation and respond to the freedom it promises! Let us open our ears and hearts to where it is we are being called to go!

Amen.

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