Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Preaching During a Perfect Storm

           I want to remind you of what we just heard St. Paul say to the Corinthians.  “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”  Let those words sink in.  God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. 
These words from St. Paul start to gain legs as we begin to read Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount, don’t they?  Jesus doesn’t waste anytime dismantling our worldly assumptions about power and wisdom.  There are no jokes to lighten the mood, no cute stories to make you feel warm inside.  Instead, Jesus starts his famous sermon by saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

The sermon continues with Jesus saying more paradoxical statements about the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the humble, blessed are those who thirst for righteousness, blessed are the merciful, blessed are the pure in heart, blessed are the peacemakers, and the final bombshell – blessed are those who are persecuted.
In order to make more sense of the Beatitudes, as they are often called, we must remember what kind of world Jesus is living in.  The Roman Empire has become a world superpower and their rule has extended to include Palestine.  Even more, members of the Jewish religious establishment are in bed with the Romans and are taking advantage of their own people.
Anglican bishop and writer N.T. Wright describes the socio-political climate of 1st Palestine as containing the ingredients for a perfect storm.  A combination of events are intensifying and are about to trigger a ticking time bomb.
Think of the Roman Empire as the high-pressure front and the Jewish establishment as the low-pressure front.  Then think of Jesus as the tropical moisture that turns a thunderstorm into a tornado.  And now you have the April 2011 tornado outbreak or you have the United States in 2017.
Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is given to remind his followers about their vocation as God’s people, a people who embody and reflect the eternal truth of God’s justice, mercy, and kindness.  In order for this sermon to pack a punch, Jesus first reminds his disciples that the kingdom of heaven looks nothing like the world around them.
The places of honor in the kingdom of heaven do not belong to the rich but to the poor.  Those who will be comforted by the eternal truth of God are not those who live in secure palaces but those who are stricken by grief over the violence and destruction of the world.
I read the other day, “A lie doesn’t become truth, wrong doesn’t become right and evil doesn’t become good, just because it’s accepted by a majority.” Jesus is telling his disciples that the kingdoms of this earth are lying to you about what it means to be wise and powerful.
In the kingdom that Jesus is setting up on earth, those who are meek and humble are the ones who will rule with integrity and truth – not those who rule with an iron fist.  Those who seek to be reconciled with God and neighbor are the ones who will find fulfillment in this life – not the ones who seek vengeance and retaliation.
Blessed are the merciful, Jesus says.  Blessed are the merciful because the one who shows mercy receives mercy.  Blessed are the pure in heart because they will see past the lies and deception and see eternal truth in the heart of God. 
Blessed are the peacemakers.  Blessed are the ones who make no peace with oppression and who fearlessly contend against evil.  Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.  Blessed are those who stand to proclaim truth no matter the cost, no matter what kind of evil is uttered behind their back. 
Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.  Using the words of the prophet Micah, “What does the Lord require of you? But to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”  It’s that easy, right?       
The task that God has set before us is both essential and impossible in our vocation as God’s people.  For if we are going to call ourselves Christians, it isn’t enough to show up to church on Sundays.  We must follow Jesus out into the world proclaiming the truth of a God who desires for all the nations of the earth to live in peace and harmony in his kingdom.
But more often than not we fail to follow Jesus out into the world.  At the first sign of resistance, we get nervous and go back to serving whatever idol we have created that keeps us “safe.”  We go back and huddle with the people who sin just like we do and we can forget about the rest of the world’s problems.
  More often than not, when we follow Jesus, we find ourselves in places that make us extremely uncomfortable.  And we don’t like to be uncomfortable so we go find whatever it is we need to make us comfortable again.  Our answer to pain is usually – avoid at all costs.
And let me be perfectly clear – that is fine.  God will love you just the same.  God will forgive you just the same.  But let me also say – this is also the way to a slow painful death.  As a teacher might say, when we stop learning, we stop growing.  Likewise, when we stop trying to follow Jesus, we stop growing as Christians who reveal God’s justice and kindness and humility in the world. 
As we discussed in Sunday School last week, God is going to make his justice and kindness and humility known in the world with or without you.  And the good news is that God has made his justice, kindness, and humility known through the person and work of Jesus.
But don’t you desire to be a part of God’s transformative love in the world?  Now that you see that Jesus lives beyond death and the grave, aren’t you convinced that God’s justice and truth and humility are the way to life?  Lies and half-truths eventually die but truth lives.
Yes, I know it sounds intimidating.  What if I fail?  What if I get hurt?  What if I make somebody mad?  Let me go ahead and ease your worries now.  You will fail.  You will get hurt.  You will make somebody mad!  But the good news tells us that whatever happens God’s grace will be there to catch you and lift you back to life, God will sustain you with a new community of love.
For those of you who have quit smoking, following Jesus isn’t all that much different.  It is difficult but possible.  You will try again and again and again only to fail again and again and again.  But at some you will realize the insanity of it all.  You will begin to wonder why you are holding onto this so-called life of safety and security and realize that you are dying of cancer.
The kingdoms of this world are promising life through power and success and security. But Jesus is promising life when you give up pursuing these things, when you give up trusting that these are things you need to live. For God is saying we need a heart for justice and kindness and humility in order to truly live. And through Christ, God has given us a heart for justice, kindness, and humility and this is the heart that we endure the death and destruction of this world.
Blessed are you who are willing to voice the unpopular truth, for you will be called a saint.  Blessed are you who are willing to show compassion to the unlovable, for you will always be loved.  Blessed are you who are overtaken with grief by the state of our world, for you know the heart of God.  Blessed are you who are poor in spirit, for you are filled with the riches of God’s grace.       
 Blessed are you who trust that God’s foolishness is wiser than your own wisdom, for you will be set free from the lies of this world.  Blessed are you who trust that God’s weakness is stronger than your strength, for you will overcome any obstacle this world has to offer.  Blessed are you who trust that God’s ways are better than our ways, for you know life and peace.  Amen.       

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Evangelism 101: Don't Be a Jerk

            When I was twenty-three, I spent the summer in Birmingham for Clinical Pastoral Education as a part of my seminary education. After being at the hospital for a 36-hour on-call shift, I was finally home for some rest and relaxation.  And just then there was a knock at the door.
            I found on my front porch two young “evangelists” from a local Baptist Church.  They asked me if I knew Jesus.  I told them that I did indeed know Jesus.  I guess they weren’t convinced so they asked me, “when exactly did you say you met Jesus?” I felt like I was being interrogated by the FBI – not that I have! 
            I tried not to be a jerk so I told them about a conversion experience in Valle Crusis, North Carolina on a youth mission trip.  They followed up by asking, “So is that when you asked Jesus into your heart?”  I paused for a minute and said, “I guess that was the moment when I knew Jesus was in my heart.”     
            Again, they didn’t seem to be satisfied.  It’s like they couldn’t take “yes” for an answer.  They said again, “but did you ask Jesus to come into your heart.” I finally replied, “I’m not sure I said, ‘Jesus come into my heart’, but I remember feeling closer to God.”
            The conversation went on like this for several more minutes.  It was clear that they wanted me to recall the day when I explicitly asked Jesus into my heart so they could write it down on their notepad.  And if I couldn’t recall the first time I said, “Jesus come into my heart”, then they were determined to stay at my house until I did in their hearing. 
The young “evangelists” finally left disappointed by the fact that they couldn’t save my soul.  Even more, the left without really getting to know me at all.  They only thing I knew about them was that they were pushy and even rude at times.  And these people were supposed to be Christians sharing the good news of Jesus?!
            Unfortunately, the picture I have pained for you is a picture of how most see evangelists today.  Typically, we see evangelists as people who go around trying to convince people to say the magic words, “I accept Jesus Christ into my heart as my personal Lord and Savior.”  And then poof, everything is better forever and ever, amen.  The work is done.
            But the work of an evangelist isn’t about saving souls.  In fact, saving souls isn’t up to anybody except God.  And God accomplishes the saving of souls through the Lamb of God...more on that later. 
            The work of the evangelist isn’t about pushing people to say, “I accept Jesus Christ as my Savior.”  In fact, the work of the evangelist requires one to listen more and speak less.  Imagine that?!  -- an evangelist who listens more and speaks less!  I imagine Jesus as one who listens more and speaks less. 
In today’s lesson, Jesus doesn’t really say much, does he?  In scripture, when Jesus does speak, it usually follows a question.  Jesus rarely launches into a parable or teaching without asking a question or responding to a question.  Jesus knows the situation and the people before sharing the good news.  And today Jesus asks, “What are you looking for?”  (pause)
            After noticing that he has some followers, Jesus turns around, and asks these first disciples, “What are you looking for?”  What if Jesus suddenly turned around and asked you, “What are you looking for?”  What would you say? (pause)
            If you have no clue, that’s okay.  It doesn’t appear that these two disciples really know what to say either.  And like one does when they don’t know what to say, the two disciples follow a question with a question.  Where are you staying?
Even though the disciples’ question seems rather trivial, where are you staying?  Beneath the surface, they are asking a question that we all long to know – where is the home of the one who created us, redeems, and sustains us?  Where can we first rest for our weary souls?
            Jesus, the ultimate evangelist, the one who embodies the good news of the kingdom, doesn’t respond with an ontological argument that details how he is the home of God – which he is.  Jesus doesn’t respond to their question by saying, “You are supposed to know the answer, and I won’t tell you where I live unless you study harder.”  Jesus simply replies, “Come and see.”
            The work of an evangelist is less interested in telling and commanding and more interested in listening and inviting.  The work of an evangelist is about helping someone make room in their lives to behold the Lamb of God in their presence just like John the Baptist beholds the Lamb of God in today’s lesson.
            And like I wrote in my Christmas message, the only power that can make room for anything that is good is the power of love.  Only when we are loved and love, can there be room to receive good news.    The work of the evangelist is deeply personal and requires us to learn how to love.  It’s not about checking somebody off a list and then moving on. 
And how do we love as followers of Jesus?  Thomas Merton said, “The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves, and not to twist them to fit our own image. Otherwise we love only the reflection of ourselves we find in them.”  I would also argue that this is the beginning of evangelism.
It’s not about waiting for people get their act together so they can join you in the pews at church.  No, it’s about walking out these doors in the knowledge that you are loved beyond measure in order to tell a lost and broken world that they are loved beyond measure.  And you know this truth about love because you are blessed in this place to behold the Lamb of God – the one who takes away your sins and declares that you are loved no matter what.
When you go out into the world to tell of the gospel truth, you don’t need to recite a special formula of words that some book prescribes.  You aren’t called to tell people to do this, this, and this in order to be saved. 
Your vocation is to simply love others for the way they are – especially the sinful part of a person.  Your vocation as an evangelist is about being informed by your experience in the presence of the Jesus, the Lamb of God.  And when someone asks you, “How do you love so well?  Why am I, of all people, worth your time?”  You can invite them to “Come and see.”
The work of evangelist isn’t about forcing yourself onto someone’s front porch.  No, the work of an evangelist is about committing to love others without condition because an evangelist knows that they are loved without condition.  The work of an evangelist doesn’t give up on somebody if they are slow to accept the truth of their belovedness because an evangelist is also someone who struggles to know their belovendess. 
The work of an evangelist is about helping people make room in their lives, in their hearts to hear the invitation of Jesus himself, an invitation for us to come into Jesus’ heart, an invitation to rest in the home of God which is in the heart of Jesus. 
The question isn’t simply, “have you accepted Jesus into your heart?”  But also, “how can I help others see how Jesus is calling all people into his heart.”  How can I help someone want to know that they are loved through the person and work of Jesus, the Lamb of God?
And I’ve learned, that they way to proclaim this truth is through listening and inviting, it is about asking and accepting, it is about praying and waiting, it is about helping someone see how Spirit of God is breaking into their life and proclaiming, “you are a beloved child of God.” 

The work of an evangelist is about helping someone have a personal relationship with Jesus.  But before that work can being, an evangelist must be willing to have a personal relationship with the people whom they encounter and it is my firm belief that through that relationship, Jesus will appear and say to us all, “Come and see.”  Amen.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Make It Sing!

            I once heard someone say, “If you can’t make it sing, then it isn’t good theology.”  Even as a preacher, I must admit that most of the best sermons are found in our hymns.  Something mysterious happens when we match words and phrases with rhythm and melody and harmony.            Hymns have the power to take us from a place of simply reading and hearing truths about God to a place of experiencing the truth of God in our being.  When we sing these hymns, sometimes it feels as if the heavens are opened up.   
Even more, so much of our understanding of God’s character is found in these hymn texts.  In addition to writing eloquent poems, these hymn writers write words that are soaked in theological implications.  So even if you don’t like to sing, I encourage you to pick up your hymnal and at least read along!
              Today’s Old Testament reading is considered the first of four Servant Songs in the Book of the prophet Isaiah.  In our Christian tradition, we understand that Isaiah is singing about the Christ, the Messiah, the One who will be a light in the darkness – a theme we will build on in this season after Epiphany.  In fact, scripture is full of songs that speak to the victory of our God.
            Miriam, the sister of Moses, sings after the people are freed from Pharaoh’s hand.  Hannah sings when she conceives a child after being barren for most of her life.  Mary, the mother of Jesus, sings after the angel Gabriel tells her that she will be the mother of God. 
And so we, too, sing the praises of God.  We sing when our words cannot contain our feelings of gratitude or praise or thanksgiving.  We sing because our theology is only as good as the paper it is written on unless it moves us to experience more fully life with God. 
            “If you can’t make it sing, then it’s not good theology.”  The seemingly natural question for us to explore this morning asks, “Why do we care about making theology sing?  Why do we care about good theology?”  And even more important to today’s theme of Jesus’ baptism, “Why does it matter that we understand the true meaning of baptism?” 
            Some will tell you that baptism is your ticket to heaven so get baptized as soon as possible to ensure that you will avoid the eternal flames.  While there might be a fraction of truth in this statement, it is woefully incomplete.  This would be like writing the second half of the third line of the fourth verse without resolving the melody.  Therefore, this doesn’t sing.
            Others might tell you that you that once you get baptized you won’t ever sin again so make sure your life is together before you get baptized.  Again, there might be a sliver of truth here but it doesn’t sing.  This kind of theology doesn’t allow for a four-part harmony.  This is a very linear and narrow understanding of baptism that cracks after about 10 seconds of singing in the real world. 
            Others will tell you that baptism is for the forgiveness of sins.  Okay, now we are getting somewhere.  We are starting to write a song that has one full verse and even some harmony built in. Baptism marks the truth that God in Christ is the atoning sacrifice for our sins once and for all.
No longer is a priest required to make a sacrifice of an innocent animal in the Temple.   Jesus is the paschal lamb.  Jesus is the innocent one who is sacrificed for the sins of the world.  Jesus is the true High Priest. 
In contemporary terms, no longer do we have to find a scapegoat to take the blame for our sins, no longer do we have to shift the blame or minimize our actions.  We are free to admit that we are sinful creatures who corrupt and destroy for ours is a God who freely forgives and offers new life.
Because of God’s endless mercy and great love for humanity, Jesus, God’s only Son, is the one who experiences the ultimate consequence of our sinful ways when he is beaten and left on a cross to die.  Jesus is the one who takes upon himself the punishment and death that we deserve.  And through baptism, we are assured that the sacrifice of Jesus makes a covering for our sins. 
But like I said, the forgiveness of sins is only the first verse.  There are more lines in this hymn.  Like our baptismal liturgy states, “Heavenly Father, we thank you that by water and the Holy Spirit you have bestowed upon these your servants the forgiveness of sin, and have raised them to the new life of grace.” 
Ultimately, baptism opens our eyes to new life.  And I’m not simply talking about life in heaven when we die.  As scripture says, at Jesus’ baptism the heavens are opened and the Spirit descends.  Baptism signifies to us the truth that ours is a God who is constantly breaking into this world, in this time and place, to remind us that we belong to our Father in heaven.
Baptism tells us that God desires to make his home among mortals, in the flesh of humanity, so our hearts may be fixed on things heavenly. We are given a way to fulfill the vocation of Israel, a vocation to be a light in the darkness, a vocation that is lived into by loving and serving the One whose light will never be extinguished.
At the bank of the Jordan River, God inaugurates his kingdom on earth through his beloved Son.  And by virtue of Jesus’ baptism, we are given access to this heavenly kingdom by following the One who came from heaven to earth to show us the way to justice and peace.
Through Jesus’ baptism, we die to a world that is hungry to use power for selfish needs and rise to a life that uses power to give life to the most vulnerable in our societies – the poor, the lonely, the oppressed.  Baptism gives us a way to live into Jesus’ prayer – your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
The baptized must be warned, however, the truth of God’s heavenly reality is vulnerable in this world, a world that is destined to corrupt and destroy.  We see how vulnerable the truth of God is in Bethlehem when the Word made Flesh is born in a manger and then when King Herod orders that all boys two years old and younger be killed.
But we also see that nothing in this world can destroy the truth of God when the Word made Flesh is raised to life three days after his crucifixion.  And baptism is meant to give us the assurance that no matter how perilous the road, our life is held in the heart of the One who cannot die.       
Baptism tells us that we are not destined to the sin and death that this earthly life will eventually give us all.  Instead, baptism tells us that through Christ we can endure the changes and chances of this life and live life eternally now and forever.  Baptism tells us that the same God who brought the people out of Egypt into the land of promise, the same God who raised Jesus from the dead, will rescue us from a world that is trying to drown us.    
The baptism of Jesus completes God’s restoration project.  In the beginning, God looked down upon creation and declared it “very good.”  But it didn’t take long for us to destroy this good creation.  It didn’t take long for God to start putting up detour sign after detour sign. 
And finally the true nature of humanity is restored on the banks of the muddy River Jordan when the heavens are opened up and God looks down upon Jesus and says, “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

On this day, may the baptisms of Welles and Catesby open up the heavens and remind you of your true nature – God’s beloved sons and daughters.  And may your soul sing out an eternal song of love, a song that the world is longing to hear, a song that points to the light in the darkness - Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.