Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The End of War?

Will We Ever See the End of War?

       150 years ago this month the War Between the States officially ended when General Lee surrendered to General Grant in Virginia.  But just days before the surrender, Union Troops invaded Selma burning much of the city including this parish’s original church building.  In an effort to stop the burning of the city and this church, founding member and senior warden Robert Philpot was killed.  
While none of us were alive during the civil war, we all know, on some level, the horror of that war and the horror of all wars.  Some of us even know war first hand.  And we have all been subjected to images on television news or movies.  Even though often inevitable, war is an imperfect solution to conflict and sometimes the only solution. 
However just or right a war might be, it is always evil even if you are one of the good guys.  As C.S. Lewis once suggested, no matter how good or perfect our solutions might be they will always be imperfect because we live in a world that is fundamentally broken.  Yes, the civil war brought an end to the institution of slavery in the United States, an institution that oppressed an entire people.  And yes, we should celebrate a God who worked through our struggle to bring an end to slavery. 
However, we must never call war good under any circumstance.  We can certainly honor those who exhibited extraordinary courage in the face of war—like Commander Catesby Jones, Generals Hardee, Forney, and Polk.  We can give thanks for the brave men and women who were on the front lines so that we don’t have to.  We can rally around our veterans and wounded warriors and support them when they return from war.        
Even more, we are called to pray for our brothers and sisters in combat.  We are called to support our troops who defend our nation’s freedom on our behalf.  Just because we don’t wield a weapon doesn’t mean we are somehow uninvolved in our country’s wars—most of you were reminded of this truth on Wednesday when you paid your taxes! 
As Christians, we are also called to pray for our enemies.  We are called to pray for those who wish us harm.  We are called to pray for the other team because we have faith in a God who is making us one in Jesus Christ.  And we pray for all who are victims of war especially children and the least among us. 
So the fundamental question for today asks, why?  Why is there still war even when we know that it is evil?  Even more, how can a civilized country like ours still participate in war?  Both of these questions are the result of what many call the myth of liberal progress. 
The myth of liberal progress basically says that evil and war and sin can be eradicated by advancements in technology, medicine, and government.  It is a myth that says that an advanced civilization will get beyond the need for war—that each generation is moving toward getting it right.  I am afraid quite the opposite has been true.  Just look at all the wars that have taken place over the last century—during the rise of Western Civilization. 
The reason that liberal progress ultimately fails to solve the problem of evil is because it does not address the fundamental problem.  In many ways, liberal progress actually perpetuates the fundamental problem which is our fear of death and sin.  On some level, medicine, technology, and government give us the illusion that we can evade the power of sin and death—the illusion that we can outsmart evil and death.  And when we want to escape something, we are in essence admitting that we are afraid; we are basically giving what we are afraid of power over how we live our lives.   
Medicine has the power to give us the false illusion of health—so we are surprised when confronted with sickness and death.  No one can out run death; not even the best medicines in the world can save us.  Technology can give us the illusion that we can stay in touch with anyone at any time but the world is starving for authentic relationships. 
And government…  For far too long we have put too much trust in the leaders of this world to solve our problems.  So, why we are so surprised when the government fails to make good on its promise?  Even a democracy like ours will fail.  And why should we not expect our democracy to fail—it is run by imperfect people like you and me, isn’t it? 
It is not that medicine, technology, and government are bad.  In fact, we need doctors and nurses and IT professionals and politicians.  These things are essential to the life of our society, but when we put our hope in these things to save us, we are only setting ourselves up for disappointment. 
When we put our trust in liberal progress to save us, we are enabling the power of sin and death to control our lives; we are in essence creating false goods in the image of medicine, technology, and government.  Instead of confronting the reality of sin and death, we create ways to run or hide from the inevitable.  Ultimately, the reality of sin and death will catch up with us all.
The reality of sin and death sets in with the disciples after the crucifixion of their Lord.  In today’s lesson, we find the disciples huddled behind locked doors in fear of the Jews.  They are afraid because the person who was supposed to save them from the Roman Empire didn’t—at least not in the way they envisioned.  The king that was supposed to protect them from the enemy is dead.  Most envisioned that Jesus would take his place as king on an earthly throne with sword and scepter.  Left without a king, the disciples are terrified. 
But as Jesus said to the authorities at his trial, his kingdom is not from this world.  Jesus’ throne is in heaven and his weapon are his words—words from his Father in heaven.  Jesus even said that the peace that he brings is not of this world.  This world doesn’t know true peace.  From the beginning of time, we have always known war.  And by now we should know that war will not bring an end to war—war is only a temporary and imperfect solution to the problem of evil. 
But there is good news in Jesus Christ.  There is a permanent solution.   And the world first comes to know this permanent solution to evil when the risen Jesus appears to his disciples behind locked doors and says, “Peace be with you.”  How strange, right?  Here we have the disciples hiding for their lives and Jesus says something like, “Peace be with you.”  And this isn’t any regular Jesus.  This Jesus has endured the greatest threat to life of all—death.  This is a Jesus who has come back from the dead.  So if anyone can say, “Peace be with you” in the face of death it is Jesus because he is alive!
In today’s resurrection appearance, the eyes of our faith are opened when the risen Lord is made known to the disciples.  Jesus didn’t come to protect us from the evil regimes of this world.  Jesus didn’t come to build walls and other sophisticated defense systems to shield us from the enemy.  These are temporary solutions for earthly kingdoms.  Jesus’ heavenly kingdom gives us more.  Jesus gives us peace even when our best efforts for security fail us.  Jesus gives us a confidence that says no matter what happens in our earthly life—war, famine, pestilence, disease, disaster, you name it—we are alive in the Lord.
Jesus gives us the confidence to believe that evil is only temporary but love is everlasting.  And we are given reason to believe that love is everlasting because Jesus rose from the dead, love incarnate rose from the dead, God himself rose from the dead and showed the world that evil and sin and death are weak in the face of true love.  Sin and death and evil are all temporary and we know this because love wins for Jesus is risen from the dead.    
Someone framed the good news of resurrection like this, “when you are strong in Christ you can put the neurotic need for security behind you.”  I love that—the good news tells us that we can put the neurotic need for security behind us.  What a relief?!  We don’t have to hide behind our locked doors anymore.  We can believe in a world where fear of sin and death no longer has the power to hold us back from life.  We can trust in a life lived beyond our feelings of inadequacy.  We can live a life that extends beyond the knowledge of pain and evil.  And we can live a life even beyond the sting of death because Jesus Christ is risen today.
Instead of running from pain, instead of running from death, instead of running from our sin or casting it on someone else, we can name evil for what it is.  Evil is small and weak compared to the love we know through our risen Lord. But if we don’t trust the truth of God’s enduring love in Christ, then of course we will run from evil, of course we will live in fear because sin and death are permanent in a world without the risen Lord.  If we don’t trust that Christ lives, then there is no reason we shouldn’t give our whole trust over to medicine and technology and government and war.  If there isn’t a God who lives beyond death, then of course we should resort to worshiping earthly gods.  
But the good news says that our God lives.  God is giving us more in a life lived beyond the cross in the way of Jesus Christ.  We can live a life trusting that evil is only temporary—no matter how horrible it seems at the time.  For we know that evil does not hold Jesus back for long.  Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. 
The good news of a God who lives was first given by an angel of the Lord who said, “He is not here. For he is risen.”  The mosaic over our altar reminds us of this truth every Sunday.  This worship space that was completed in 1875, ten years after war, is a reminder that evil and death are only temporary.  This house of worship is a reminder that God calls us beyond ruin.
The good news that the angel proclaims also says that God’s permanent dwelling is not in this building.  God lives in our hearts and calls us to witness to the risen Lord beyond these walls.  So when you leave this place today, may your life be evidence that you worship a God who lives beyond the power of evil and death.  Amen.  

Friday, April 3, 2015

Good Friday-It ends the same way, every time.

Good Friday: It ends the same way every time

                Have you ever watched a movie for the second or third time hoping it will end differently?  Hoping that the good guy will actually survive or win only to see the movie end the same way every time?  This is kind of like how I feel on Good Friday.  When I remember these events that took place some two thousand years ago in Jerusalem, a part of me hopes for a different ending.  Maybe Jesus doesn’t have to die. 
Maybe Judas will have a change of heart.  Won’t Judas change his mind and decide not to betray Jesus?  Won’t he remember that the riches of God’s grace offer much more than the riches of this world?  But that doesn’t happen.  Judas brings a detachment of soldiers with the police, chief priests, and Pharisees.  They come with lanterns and torches and weapons.  They come to take Jesus away and sentence him to death.  Judas betrays the trust of Jesus and his friends.
Maybe Jesus will cheer Peter on when he takes out his sword and cuts off Malchus’ ear.  Won’t Jesus let Peter fight off the soldiers and police and lead Jesus and his disciples out of town under the cover of darkness?  But Jesus says to Peter, “Put your sword back into its sheath. Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?”  The soldiers and police then bind Jesus and take him away.  Jesus doesn’t even put up a fight. 
Maybe Peter will remember Jesus’ prediction of the cock crowing three times and change his mind.  Won’t Peter wise up and boldly proclaim Christ as Lord as he did so passionately before?  But that doesn’t happen.  Peter denies Christ three times.  Peter thinks only of himself.
Jesus has another chance to save himself when he stands before the religious authorities—the chief priest and the high priest.  Maybe Jesus will finally submit to the religious authorities.  Won’t Jesus just give in to the demands of the power hungry so he can go free?  But it doesn’t happen that way.  The only one whom Jesus will submit to is his Father in heaven.      
But maybe Pilate will see through this power struggle.  Doesn’t Pilate see that the religious authorities have a weak case against Jesus?  But the religious authorities aren’t interested in listening to reason and logic—they are influenced by power and control.  And so is Pilate. So Pilate washes his hands clean of any responsibility and hands Jesus over to death at the request of the religious authorities.  Pilate surrenders his integrity for popularity’s sake.     
But wait, maybe the angry mob will realize that they are out of control.  Won’t they see that Barabbas, a proven criminal, is the person who is really deserving of death?  Won’t they demand his blood instead of the blood of an innocent Jew?  But that doesn’t happen.  They shout even louder—Crucify him!  Crucify him!  The crowd wants a good show; they came to Jerusalem to be entertained. Not even the crowd will save Jesus. 
Pilate sends Jesus away to be crucified and has the title “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” inscribed on the cross Jesus will soon hang upon, a title not even the Jewish elite accept. Meanwhile, Jesus’ mother Mary, Mary Magdalene, Mary wife of Clopas, and Jesus’ beloved disciple watch helplessly as Jesus’ carries his instrument of death to Golgotha.  Surely these people hoped the ending wouldn’t be like this either.  But even those closest to Jesus are blind to see that the will of God sees beyond death and the grave. 
Jesus is taken to the Stone Pavement and crucified between two criminals.  He is crowned with a crown of thorns and mocked when they make him put on a purple robe.  In the end Jesus isn’t even spared the dignity of clothes as they are divided up among the soldiers.  And finally, before Jesus takes his last breath, he tastes the bitterness of the world that he came to save and is given a sponge full of wine on a branch of hyssop.  When Jesus tastes the wine, he says his last words, “It is finished” and breathes his last. The End.  The story of Good Friday ends this way every time. 
This question for us even today, even after the resurrection, asks, how could we call a story like this one “good.”?  How is Jesus’ death a part of the good news?  How can we call a day like today, a day when we remember how the world killed its Savior, “Good Friday?”  What good could possibly come from Christ’s suffering and death?
Now there are a lot of atonement theories out there, theories that tell us why Jesus had to die in order for the world to know life.  I am not going to get all theological on you this afternoon.  But there is something that I want to challenge you to think about and pray about over the next few days as we approach Resurrection Sunday. 
Where do you find yourself in this passion narrative?  Where do you stand at the foot of the cross?  And where you find yourself today is probably different than where you found yourself last year.  Be honest because only when you are honest can you be ready to receive the good news. 
In what ways are you like Judas?  What is it like to live with the knowledge that you have the capacity to betray not only your friends but also your Lord?  In what ways are you like Peter?  What is it like to be excited about serving God one minute but when challenged by your faith you retreat?  In what ways are you like Pilate?  What is it like to put your own convictions aside in order to please the people?  In what ways are you like the crowd?  What is it like to do the popular thing even when you know it is probably wrong?  In what ways are you like Jesus’ family?  What is it like to watch helplessly as your loved one dies?  In a nutshell, what is it like to live in the knowledge that you are a sinner?  What is it like to live in the knowledge that you cannot save the world?
I know these are hard questions to answer.  I know these questions stir up a lot of uncomfortable feelings.  But the good news is that our faith doesn’t leave us to spend our lives in the depth of despair and shame—our faith doesn’t leave us at the foot of the cross.  While the cross of Christ certainly reminds us of where and how we fall short, the empty cross is a reminder that we can live beyond our sin, we can live beyond our death because Jesus lives beyond our sin and beyond our death.  There is life beyond failure.  There is life beyond the grave.
But we will never understand this gospel truth if we can’t accept and acknowledge our sin and failure.  As long as we avoid confronting the hard truth that we are responsible for the death of Jesus, that we can’t save the world—even us fine church going people, then we can never join Jesus in life beyond the cross.  If we can’t admit that the story of Good Friday has to end with the death of Jesus, then we can never be a part of Jesus’ Resurrection story.
Good Friday certainly digs up a lot of bad news, but unless can we name honestly that bad news, unless we can accept the reality of not only our broken world, but also the brokenness of our own lives then we will never be able to fully accept the good news that God is making for us on the other side of the cross.  As Christians, we can call today good because in Christ God gives us grace to confront and name all that is wrong in our world and in our lives with the confidence that through the cross Jesus gives us the ability to live beyond it all.  Amen

God wants to love you, not fix you

God wants to love you, not fix you  

       At the old chapel at Virginia Seminary there was a stained glass window depicting Judas’ betrayal of Jesus at the Last Supper.  The reason that the window was so remarkable was because it portrayed a very anti-Semitic message.  In this window, Judas didn’t look like the other disciples.  Based on some distinct facial features, it was obvious that Judas was the only Jew in the picture—not even Jesus looked like a Jew.
 So the window basically gave you the impression that the Jews were ultimately responsible for killing Jesus.  But if you take a serious look at any of the Passion Narratives, it is obvious that all parties are complicit in nailing Jesus to the cross.  Not even Pilate—the one who washed his hands—can claim that he had nothing to do with Jesus’ death. 
The window stirred quite a debate while on campus.  The knee jerk reaction wanted to remove the window and replace it with a more politically correct window.  Others suggested we get an artist to make Judas look like the rest of the disciples.  The board at the seminary used good judgment and let the conversation take its course. 
Ultimately, the conversation was instructive for me in understanding how humanity deals with sin.  Some want to destroy the painful memory of the past by covering the memory up with more pleasant memories, with “good” memories.  Others would prefer a more nuanced approach—just fix what needs fixing and leave everything else alone. 
I wonder how you deal with sin.  Do you try to replace your bad memories with good memories?  Are you the kind of person who tries to make up for your bad deeds with good deeds?  Or are you more like an urgent care Doc who is mainly interested in treating symptoms?  Are you the kind of person who says, “Well I have this problem, therefore I need to read that book?”
I deal with my sin in both ways and the end result is always disappointing.  For starters, I have learned that trying to forget my painful past does not honor the moments of grace that I experienced in the midst of darkness of sin and suffering.  Trying to block entire episodes out of my memory not only take away the bad memories but also the good ones.  We are much more than the sum of our good memories.  Through Jesus Christ, God is giving us reason to honor even our bad memories, even our transgressions and the transgressions of others because ultimately failure leads us to acknowledge our need and the world’s need for a Savior.      
In addition, despite our many flaws and imperfections, God wants to use all that we are and all that we have as vessels for the light of Christ.  To shut ourselves off to our past is to deny the possibility that God can work out his plan of salvation through the good, the bad, and the ugly.  God is taking all of his creation; God is taking all of you and me—warts and all, in order to reveal his new world in Jesus Christ.  God uses even the betrayal of Judas for the fulfilling of his purpose.              
Even more, trying to cover up our sin with good deeds does not take seriously the truth that God has removed our sin in Jesus Christ.  We don’t have to live our lives trying to make up for our transgressions.  For starters, we can never make up for the wrong that we have committed against God and our neighbor—I don’t care who you are.  
Secondly, God is saving us from living a life of obligation and giving us a life that is lived in gratitude for what Christ did for us on the cross.  On the cross, God is both reminding us that we can never repay the debt that Jesus paid for us but at the same time God is telling us that we don’t have to worry about making up for our sin because Christ has already made up for it on the cross.  Thanks be to God because now we can live free from obligation and live life in a spirit of gratitude and thanksgiving for what Christ did for us.       
                Another temptation is to try and fix ourselves.  Who in here is a fixer?  On some level, we all believe that we can fix the problem.  This “fix it” attitude is compounded by a western culture that believes that it can pick itself up by the bootstraps in order to survive.  While our self-help fix-it problems might offer a temporary solution, they will ultimately fail us. 
                In my experience, when I fix one problem, another problem presents itself.  The problem just gets rearranged and is revealed in a new way.  Ultimately this way of approaching my sin leads to a life where I become absorbed in myself.  My ultimate concern or my god becomes my ability to fix the problem.   And when my efforts fall short, I am ultimately left disappointed.
                The good news is that God isn’t interested in fixing us.  One of you shared with me this week that you spent much of your childhood in environments where teachers tried to fix you.  And the result was devastating.  The result left you thinking there was something wrong or defective with you. 
Friends, God not want to fix you.  God is not trying to force you to be somebody you are not.  Above all else, we have a God who wants you to know how loved you are.  God wants to transform your heart by loving you, not by fixing your problems.  And the love that God wants you to be transformed by is revealed through the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ, flesh and blood that was willing to die for you.  You are that important—God willingly gave up his Son so that you might know true love.    
In a few minutes, we will approach the altar for Holy Communion.  We will eat the flesh and drink the blood of our dear Lord Jesus Christ.  We will have food and drink that is spiritual food, food that lasts forever, food that nourishes our souls and bodies for service in Christ’s kingdom.  We will participate in the most intimate of meals where we are reminded of God’s tender love for all his children through his Son our Savior Jesus Christ. 
As you take this food and drink, acknowledge your sinfulness and brokenness.  God doesn’t need for you to fix your sin.  God doesn’t need for you to try your hardest to forget your sin.  Like the seminary finally did with the stained glass window of Judas, God simply asks that you acknowledge your sin so that you may have the grace to acknowledge that God doesn’t count your sin against you because of the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ.   

 When you approach this altar, instead of asking God how to fix the problem, instead of asking God to remove the painful memory of the past, try asking God to help you know how loved you are in spite of your sin and failure.  Ask God to remind you that through Jesus Christ you aren’t defined by who you fail to be.  You are defined by a God whose love for you is bigger than the painful memory of the past, bigger than your sin, and bigger than any fix-it project can offer.  May the power of God’s love in Christ transform you and make you a new creation in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Amen.