Monday, January 26, 2015

No gimmicks, no brainwashing, just the Gospel

No gimmicks, no brainwashing, just the Gospel

              Recently the Wall Street Journal ran a story entitled “God isn’t dead in Gotham.”  And no, the article doesn’t say anything about Batman. The article talks about the unlikely growth of a church in New York City, a city where God is supposed to be dead, and like one pastor said, “a city where churches go to die.” 
            This successful church plant was started by Tim Keller who is a pastor in the Presbyterian Church of America.  Keller held his first service at Redeemer Church in 1989 and the church grew from 200 to 1200 members in just three years.  Keller estimates that a third of those members had never attended church before in their lives.  As of September of 2001, Redeemer had an average Sunday attendance of about 2,900.  The Sunday after 9/11 Redeemer welcomed 5,700 for worship.
            While every church or place of worship in New York saw a spike in worship on the Sundays following the 9/11 attacks, most churches returned to normal attendance levels in the following months.  However, Redeemer never went back under 3,700 people for worship.
            At this point you might be asking, what is the catch?  What was this guy preaching?  Is Keller another Joel Osteen?  Is he another prosperity gospel preacher who tells the people only what they want to hear, a preacher who says that God blesses those who do good and pray hard enough.  What is the gimmick?  Is this guy handing sacks of candy to children?  How is he brainwashing these poor souls, right?
            Turns out there are no gimmicks.  There are no tricks, no brainwashing.  There is only the message of the gospel.  In his interview with the WSJ, Keller is quoted for saying, “Cheer up, you’re worse than you think.  As humans, we are more fallen than we ever dare admit or even believe.”  But Keller follows with the good news.  At the same time people are “more loved in Christ and more accepted than they could ever imagine or hope.”
            Is that really the gospel you might be asking?  Well let’s go to the source and look at the very first words out of Jesus’ mouth in Mark’s gospel.  Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”  These words from our Savior provide the foundation of the good news—repent and believe in the good news
            Everything we stand for as Christians, as followers of Christ hang on these two statements—repent and believe in the good news.  Everything we believe starts by realizing that we can never achieve salvation on our own, no matter how good we are.  The only way to salvation is through the righteousness of Christ, through the one who makes us good by his blood through his atoning sacrifice on the cross.
            Today’s gospel lesson makes abundantly clear that Jesus’ first followers are hungry to hear this good news and this good news starts with these two words—repent and believe.  Scripture says that Jesus calls out to Simon and his brother Andrew as they are casting their nets out into the sea.  Jesus calls out to these brothers in a very personal way.  He uses words that they understand as fishermen and says, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”  And immediately they drop their nets and follow him. 
            Immediately.  No prayers. No discernment. No huddle.  Immediately Simon and Andrew drop their nets and follow Jesus.  They leave their jobs, their families, their way of life and follow him.  It is obvious that these fishermen are hungry for the message of salvation.  Why else would they leave everything they know? Why else would they leave good jobs to follow this Jesus character into the wilderness?  Because they are hungry, just like Keller’s congregation in New York, to hear the words repent and believe in the good news.
            But why are these fishermen so hungry for this news?  What is so wrong with the world they are living in?  It can’t be that bad.  At least they have jobs and family and a way of life.  I won’t bore you with too much church history but you have to remember that Jesus was born when tensions between Jerusalem and Rome were at their worst.  Once again, the people of Israel are about to lose their land and livelihood to a foreign invader.  Once again, the people of Israel are on the brink of defeat and their God is nowhere to be found.   
            The consequence is that more and more people are losing faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in favor of the false promises that are being handed out by the Roman Empire.  These promises say that Rome can give you anything you could ever dream of-wealth, security, prosperity, you name it, Rome’s got it.  Rome is the new world power.  Rome can give you salvation now because Rome can give you anything you want.
            The first disciples Simon, Andrew, James, and John are very aware of this Roman propaganda.  They know that Rome is giving their people a false message of salvation.  But they are helpless as they watch those they love leave the one true God for a message that says, believe in Rome and all your fantasies will come true. 
            They are helpless as their friends fall for a false message of hope, a message that seems tempting on the front end but a message that will only fail them in the end.  But what can they do about it?  They are simple peaceful fishermen.  The way they see it all they can do is go on casting their nets into the sea like they have always done. 
            But God has other plans.  God plucks these fishermen off the boat and gives them a message they can get behind—repent and believe in the good news.  God is promising them another kingdom, a kingdom where promises actually amount to something, a kingdom that won’t disappoint, a kingdom that they can be a part of if they just leave the old world behind.                
            They do leave the old world behind and they do so with haste.  Again, Simon, Andrew, James, and John immediately drop their nets to follow Jesus.  Why?  Because they know that there must be a better way than the false promises of Rome, than the way of instant gratification, than the way of putting one’s own needs before the needs of others.  Even 2,000 years later, we all know what it is like to live in Rome.  We all know the false promises that the world tries to feed us everyday—in media, in politics, even in the church.   
            The question before us this morning asks, how ready are you to leave the old world behind?  How hungry are you to drop your nets and follow Jesus?  Maybe you are like these first disciples.  Like the old spiritual says, there’s no turnin’ back.  You’ve already dropped your net.  But then again, maybe you aren’t quite ready.  Maybe that net is a little too comfortable in your hand.  You can’t drop it, not yet—you need more time.  Or maybe you don’t even know you are holding onto a net.  Maybe you aren’t ready to face your deepest darkest fears and disappointments.
            I think we all weave back and forth through these various stages of discipleship.  Even Simon the first disciple, the one whom Jesus will eventually name Peter, will deny Christ.  Even the one whom Christ builds his church upon will stumble and lose faith.  But remember there is good news.  The good news is that we have a God whose property is always to have mercy.  With every fall, with every stumble, with every lapse in judgment, our God is right there to call us back up and try again.
            Simon Peter knew this truth of God’s mercy better than most because Simon Peter stumbled and and fell a lot.  But Jesus was always right there to call him back.  The best example of this starts during Jesus’ trial and sentencing, when Peter denies Christ three times in order to save his own skin.  Peter would be first to admit this was his biggest failure. 
            But on the beach after the day of resurrection Jesus calls to Peter again three separate times, Do you love me?  And three times Peter replies, “Yes Lord, you know that I love you.”  And once again, Jesus issues the call to Simon Peter, “follow me.”  And Peter follows Christ until his martyrdom.
            In the same way, Jesus is trying to reach you through your biggest disappointments and greatest failures.  Jesus is trying to tell you not to be afraid of your brokenness because your brokenness is the very part of you that Jesus wants to heal.  You don’t have to hide behind your nets anymore.  There is good news.  There is a better way and it starts when you repent, when you turn around and look to Jesus. 
            To repent is going to mean something a little different for everyone.  For some of us, repent means that we need to stop trying to find our ultimate value through our careers or our jobs.  For others, repent means that we need to stop trying to find our identity through what others think about us especially those closest to us.  Sometimes repent simply means that we need to stop labeling ourselves and others: conservative or liberal; republican and democrat; Episcopalian or Presbyterian; rich or poor; happy or sad; gay or straight; white or black and simply see one another as beloved sons and daughters of God.  
            Ultimately, to repent literally means to turn around, to reorient your life.  Jesus is in the wilderness calling us to reorient our lives toward God.  Think about it like this.  What is your ultimate concern right now?  Is it…money? your career? your family? escaping to another planet? a sporting event? fame? power? social status? your health? proving that you are right? maintaining your self image? What or who are you living for right now?  If your answer isnt God, then Jesus is calling you to repent. 
            Jesus is calling us to turn around and believe the good news.  The good news of Christ means that we can turn away from the false promises of Rome.  We can turn away from these false measures of value and self-worth that the media and culture try to convince we need. 
            God is trying to tell us that we don’t need to be the skinniest, smartest, best-looking, healthiest, trendiest, highest paid person on our block in ordered to be seen as important.  Through Christ, God valued and accepted you long before any of your accomplishments and will continue to value you long after your moment in the sun. 
            When we drop our nets, when we turn away from these false promises, these promises that will ultimately fail us, we are free to live a life in the promise of God, a promise that will never fail us, and as Keller said, a promise that says, “we are all more loved and accepted in Christ than we could ever imagine or hope.”  Amen.       

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

New Year's Resolutions: Why Bother?

"New Year's Resolutions"
(excerpt of Sermon from Christmas 2 - January 4, 2015)

           As we usher in a new year, a prayer that is dear to me has been on my mind and in my heart a lot lately.  While the prayer is technically supposed to be said at night time, I believe the prayer is appropriate as the sun sets on 2014.  The prayer that I am talking about is from the New Zealand Prayer Book and a part of it goes like this…
“What has been done has been done; what has not been done has not been done. Let it be… Let us look expectantly to a new day, new joys, new possibilities.”

            As we reflect on 2014, we can’t help but to dwell on the bad, hold onto the good, and long for what will never be.  We can’t help but to celebrate the good times, grieve for our losses, and feel remorse for our mistakes.  Through reflection some of us may come to realize how fortunate we are for all the blessings of this life.  Others of us may be overcome by all the pain and failure and bad luck the year brought us.  To some degree, 2014 probably brought you a little bit of everything.
            So what do we do with all this reflecting?  Traditionally, we make resolutions; we resolve to make changes in our life.  Based on our shortcomings in the previous year, we think of ways to be better the next year.  So we make resolutions that anticipate a new and better “me.”      
This past week Jamie, Mary Katherine, and I spent some time with good friends.  And over breakfast on New Year’s Day, we talked about our new year’s resolutions.  There was the usual talk of eating better, getting more exercise, getting involved in the community, praying more, and so on.  Our resolutions were earnest and sincere, and I hope that we succeed.  But what if we don’t succeed?  What if we fail?
On some level, we were all a little reticent to name a resolution because we have all tried to keep new year’s resolutions before and we have all failed at keeping our resolutions before.   So what is the point?  Why keep on setting ourselves up for failure?  Why bother if the only thing we will succeed at doing is making ourselves feel bad about ourselves? 
Now, I do not want you to think that having new year’s resolutions is inherently a bad thing.  I do believe amendment of life is critical to our spiritual journey.  If we truly want to follow Jesus, then we will have no other choice but to change how we live and what we live for.  If we truly want to follow Jesus, we are going to have to venture into places that we have never gone before; we are also going to have to refrain from going to places where we have always been.
However, when we follow Jesus, the metric by which we measure success and failure is going to have to change.  Currently, we live in a world that says success means life and failure means death.  Even more, we live in world that says if we don’t check everything off the list, whatever list is trending at the time, we are a failure.  If we don’t eat enough vitamins, exercise three times a day, have 17.65 close friends, play three musical instruments, and run an 8 minute mile—all at the same time, then we aren’t good enough, then we are a failure.      
The way of Jesus, the way of the cross, tells us something different.  If we follow Jesus, our eyes are opened to the paradox of God’s kingdom, a paradox that Jesus’ own mother recognized from the beginning, “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.”  In other words, success and failure isn’t defined by anything we do or don’t do.  Instead, we are accepted and loved and made worthy through what Christ did and nothing else—even if we do manage to check off all the items on our list.
Salvation in Christ means that you no longer have to live a life where your value is based on how many boxes you check off on the “how to be a perfect person” checklist—as if that exists.  Instead, you get to live a life from a place where you know you are loved and accepted already, from a place where you know that we have been made worthy through the blood of Christ.  Our motivation to live is not born out of fear.  Instead, God hopes that our motivation to live is born out of gratitude for a God who gave his only Son to die for us.
  A friend reminded me that if you make any resolution this year, then let it begin out of a place of gratitude.  We are only setting ourselves up for disappointment if we make resolutions out of a place of fear or obligation or guilt; we are only setting ourselves up for failure if we make resolutions so we can show others or even ourselves how good we are.  I have found that damage is done to my soul and to my spiritual life if I resolve to do anything that is self-fulfilling.  So if we begin by giving thanks, we resolve to look outside of ourselves, more specifically, we resolve to look to God and to others for the opportunity for life.   
  So as you seek amendment of life for 2015, start by giving thanks for a heavenly Father who loves you for who you are no matter what.  Give thanks for the Holy Spirit who calls you back again and again to a life in the way of Christ.  Give thanks for a church community who is here to support you in this journey called life, in your journey for amendment of life.  Give thanks for the love of Christ our Savior who makes you the person that God intends for you to be. 

Nothing other than the love of God in Christ can make you the person that you were made to be.  So whatever happened or didn’t happen in 2014-let it be—for better, for worse you cannot change 2014.  Let it be and trust that God accepts you for exactly who you are, God loves you for who you are right now, not the you that you hope to be or the you that you used to be but the “you” you are right now.  Let it be and trust that Jesus is leading you to a new day, to new joys, to new possibilities.