Wednesday, April 26, 2017

What is the (real) Good News of Jesus Christ?

Today (officially April 25), the Church recognizes the Feast Day of St. Mark the Evangelist by reading the first verses of the evangelist’s gospel.  He begins his gospel like you might expect an evangelist to begin.  The evangelist says, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ…”  As you probably already know, evangelist translated from the original Greek literally means “bringer of the good news.”  

            As a preacher, I realize I throw this word around a lot — good news or gospel.  But what are we really saying when we talk about the good news or the gospel of Jesus Christ?  Are we talking about the salvation of our souls?  Are we talking about our ticket to heaven?  Are we talking about the forgiveness of our sins?  Yes, but this assessment doesn't paint the bigger picture - a picture that puts the former into perspective. According to Mark, sharing the good news news is much more cosmic in nature.
            The good news of salvation is much bigger than the salvation of individual souls.  In the last verse of today’s gospel lesson we are clued into the kind of good news Mark is sharing.  He says, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
            Ultimately, the good news of Jesus Christ is all about the kingdom that he is bringing to this world.  As we read further along in the gospel, we discover that the kingdom of heaven looks quite a bit different than the kingdoms of this world.  
            In Mark’s eyes, the kingdom of heaven looks like a place for healing, even if such healing breaks cultural, social, and religious norms.  In the kingdoms of this world, healing is most readily available to those who can afford health care while the poor have to listen to the rest of us fight about how we are going to take care of the least of these.
            In Mark’s eyes, the kingdom of heaven is a place that is void of evil or unclean spirits.  In the kingdoms of this world, those who are possessed with evil or unclean spirits are hidden from society - out of sight and out of mind.  We build large, dark institutions for these people.
            In Mark’s eyes, the kingdom of heaven is place where its citizens go out of their way to welcome the foreigner — whatever the cost.  Our kingdoms are seized by fear and consider the pursuit of safety to be a higher virtue than acts of compassion.
            In Mark’s eyes, the kingdom of heaven is a place where daily self-sacrifice is a practiced, a place where we find that when we sacrifice all that we have for the sake of the gospel we find that we have all that we need.  In the kingdoms of this world, we believe that we will only find what we need by aimlessly accumulating more — no matter who we run over to get it.
            Ultimately, the kingdom of heaven for Mark is a place where the first will be last and the last will be first.  And judging by the brevity of the gospel, this news is urgent.  The news is so urgent that we don’t even have time to be comforted by the Nativity Story.  Instead, we get John the Baptist in the wilderness proclaiming, “Repent!”
            I can’t speak for you but I guesstimate that I am living 80% of my life in the kingdoms of this world and 20% of my life in the kingdom of heaven.  I wish I could be “all in” and I am working on it.  I hope that when I am Henry’s age those numbers will be reversed — 80% in the kingdom of heaven and 20% in the kingdoms of this world.  
            A part of the good news tells me that I am a work in progress and so are you.  And this work in progress begins when I am willing to fall to my knees and repent of all the ways that I am putting my trust in the kingdoms of this world rather than the kingdom of heaven, when I am willing to let the truth of God’s word confront me and make me see that the kingdom of heaven is the way to life and peace while the kingdoms of this world only lead to death and destruction.

            Beloved, may the call to repentance burn away all the sin that convinces you to put your trust in the kingdoms of this world, so that you may see yourself more and more as a living member of the kingdom of heaven on earth, a kingdom where peace and unity prevail, a kingdom whose king is servant to all.  Amen.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

"God's Love Changes the Rules"

            Hatch Bearden, one of our four-year-olds and one of Mary Katherine’s boyfriends, recently had a conversation with his mother that went like this.  His mother, Carrie, said to her son, “Now Hatch, remember that Mommy and Daddy make the rules.”  Hatch agreed but went on to say, “But Hatch changes the rules.”
            On Easter Sunday, as we gather to celebrate the Resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, we celebrate the truth that God changes the rules.  We celebrate how God changes a story of death into a story of life, a story of fear into a story of grace, a story of hatred into a story of love. 
A world that was once bound by the forces of death, fear, and hatred is now free to live with a love that undoes even the power of death and the grave, with a love that makes the heart believe in grace, with a love that has the power to move hearts of stone.  Alleluia, Alleluia, the Lord is Risen, Indeed!
It has been said that original sin is the belief that we are not loved.  Sin is rooted in feelings of inadequacy, in the idea that we must do something to earn love, in the belief that we are not good enough.  But on Easter Sunday God wants you to believe in something else. 
God wants you to believe that you are a beloved child of God and that nothing can change that truth – a truth that we will celebrate in just a few minutes when John Bryars Alvey is baptized and marked with the words – Christ’s own forever.    
God wants you to stop living according to the law of fear, a law that convinces you that you aren’t good enough, so that you can start living according to the law of mercy, a law that is meant to tell you that God’s love in Christ makes you and everyone else good enough, a law that teaches you to live according to grace.
I realize that for some of you this new story of unconditional love might sound more like a fairy-tale than eternal truth, some of you have been hurt by a life lived according to grace.  I realize that some of you might even believe in this eternal truth of God’s love but you just can’t come to trust this truth in your daily lives.  Like the famous prayer in scripture says, you pray, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief."
Tiffany Window at St. Paul's by Clara Weaver Parrish
I hear this same prayer through the tears of Mary Magdalene this morning.  Behind her tears, I hear Mary saying, “I so wanted Jesus to be true but now he is gone.  I so wanted to believe that my Lord would restore beauty and love to a world that has been destroyed by hatred and sin and death, but maybe that story was too good to be true.”
“Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.”  Underneath your Easter best, I imagine some of you are weeping with Mary.  You’ve done everything you're supposed to do but life keeps dealing you a bad hand.  Loss and disappointment have drained your heart and soul from all hope.     
As the tears pour down Mary’s face, I also see the emptying out of her heart and soul. Two angels ask why she is weeping and she says, “Someone has taken my Lord and I don’t know where they put him.”  Just then Jesus appears behind her but she didn’t recognize him through her tears and again she is asked, “Why are you weeping?”
Again, Mary asks who she supposes to be the gardener, “Please tell me where you have laid my Lord.”  Jesus says to her, “Mary!”  Immediately, Mary can see past her tears and says, “Rabbouni!”  Mary has seen the Lord.  The story is true – “I have called you by name; you are mine.”  It is true – “Jesus will wipe away every tear from our eyes.”
Jesus tells Mary to go at once and tell the others what she has seen.  So, Mary goes and tells the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.”   And with that, the truth “I have seen the Lord” has echoed from generation to generation.  These five words continue to restore hope to lives that are drowned with tears of sin and sadness. 
Our life and witness to Jesus Christ is informed by these five words – I have seen the Lord.  Beginning with Mary, to Peter, to John, and on down the line, Christians have proclaimed, I have seen with my own two eyes that love really does win.  We proclaim, I have seen how love lifts the sick to life.  I have seen how love transforms communities.  I have seen how love brings peace in the midst of chaos.  I have seen how love turns anger and bitterness into mercy and compassion.  I have seen how the commitment to love others unconditional covers a multitude of sins.       
I have seen the Lord means that I can trust love every time – no matter what happens along the way because love can never be defeated.  And because Easter allows us to trust love we are free to trust grace. 
We are free to trust the truth that God will make whole anything and everything that is broken by human sin and death.  We can’t stop worrying about how we can ever make things right and put our trust in the way of love, in the way of Jesus who makes all things right.
Love is what puts us back together again.  Love has the power to restore ourselves, our families, our churches, our communities and even the world.  Love is what makes us hope again.  Love does what the law will never do, love heals the world from the darkness of sin. 
But love is not a magic trick.  Love is not a software that can be download.  Love is something we grow into through a life time of grace which inevitably includes a lifetime of failure, a lifetime of starting over, of being born again.
We grow in love by practicing our faith.  We grow in love by following the perfecter of our faith, the One who is risen from the dead.  We can trust the way of love even when it causes us grief and pain because Jesus, the One who loves perfectly, lives beyond grief and pain. 
Ultimately, we grow in love by finding our lives hid within the life of Christ, by giving up on our own ideas of greatness and finding greatness in the One who came not to be served but to serve.  God’s love changes the rules on the true meaning of greatness.
I received a call from Margie Burk the other day about a homeless man she found sleeping outside of Wal-Mart.  She said he looked beaten up by life and wanted to know how she could help.  There are no homeless shelters in Selma so the only thing should could do was buy him a dinner plate and tell him about the Bosco Center food kitchen.   
In addition to noticing this homeless man and giving him food, Margie introduced herself and asked him what his name was.  The man told her his name – John.  Margie also noticed his eyes.  She said he had the bluest eyes she had ever seen.  Upon reflection, one of her friends made the comment, “it could have been Jesus!”
This man sleeping outside of Wal-Mart went from “the homeless man” to “John” to “Jesus.”  How did that happen?  How did this man go from low-life to human to God?  Love made this happen.  God’s love changes the rules.
God’s love notices the people the world declares the most unlovable.  God’s love notices the people who have lost all hope.  And the good news of the risen Lord tells us that God’s love changes the trajectory of the story. In the end, God’s love turns a story of despair into a story of hope.
I know that tears will, again, blind us to the truth that love wins after the Easter glow begins to fade.  You may find yourself saying one day, “I thought the story was true, but I must be mistaken.”  But the truth of the resurrection tells us that love will not be held back. 
The power of love can and will resurrect any story that seems to be at a dead end.  The risen Lord Jesus gives us reason enough to keep hoping, to keep showing up at the empty tomb in the hope that love will once again change the rules regarding the powers of sin and death.
Easter morning signals the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry but it marks the beginning of our ministry that declares, “I have seen the Lord!”  Even more, our ministry includes showing forth in our lives what we say with our mouths.  As followers of Jesus, we give ourselves up to Christ’s service by seeking the least and lost for these are the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, these the those whom the Church, the body of Christ has the greatest responsibility for.  We do this because we have seen the Lord and know the joy of resurrection life.
On this Easter morning, may the power of God’s love change the rules about how you view sin and death – not as things to fear but as vehicles that you lead you depend on grace.  May the power of God’s love that raises even the dead to life raise you to a life where you see in yourself and in the face of all others a beloved child of God.  May the power of God’s love open your eyes to how the risen Lord is loving the whole world back to life again.  Amen.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Good Advice, or Good News?

            I invite you to consider a question that I hope you consider every time you come to worship – it’s a question that I ask myself constantly when writing a sermon or reading scripture: are you looking for good advice or good news?  Are you looking for tips on how to live a better life or are you looking for a message that will heal and save your soul?
            If you are looking for advice, be warned, you are likely to miss the good news of the gospel.  If you are looking for advice, you probably won’t like today’s sermon.  If you are looking for advice, then Jesus’ trial and execution will fall on deaf ears. 
I know this because I, too, know what it is like to believe that good advice will save my life.  I, too, know what it is like to look for ways to be a better person instead of looking for the way that God makes us better, by no merit of our own, through the sacrificial love of Christ. 
            Don’t get me wrong.  The Bible, Jesus is full of wisdom and good advice.  But good advice is no substitute for the good news revealed to us in Jesus Christ.  As St. Paul tells the Corinthians, “Jews demand signs, Greeks desire wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified.”  The truth that Jesus brings into this world cannot be fully grasped through signs and wisdom or advice.  Rather, the truth of the gospel changes our heart through Christ crucified.
            Former Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, once said, “We contribute nothing to our salvation except the sin from which we need to be redeemed.”  In other words, the only thing we can offer to our salvation story is our sin.  And never is this truth more apparent than in today’s Passion Narrative.  It is human sin that condemns Jesus to death, and ultimately human sin is what creates the instrument of our salvation – the cross.
            In today’s Passion Narrative, we see how sin infects the heart of the religious authorities, the political machine, the crowd, and even Jesus’ closest followers.  And the cross is the place where the shame, the sadness, the emptiness, the disgrace, the pain, the separation of human sin is revealed.  The cross is the place where our human sin is exposed as much worse than we could have ever imagined.  The cross is the place where we see how sin ultimately destroys the image of God in each other.
            If there is any advice that is warranted today, it would go, “Don’t underestimate the destructive forces of your sin.  Don’t underestimate the power fear has over your life.  Don’t underestimate how far humanity will go just to hold on to the illusion of power and control.  Don’t believe for a second that you or your church or even your country is somehow innocent from the crimes that nail Jesus to the cross, from the crimes that destroy the image of God in each other.”  
            As the collect for last week reads, “only God can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners.”  And how does God bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners?  Only through Christ crucified.  Christ crucified is how God turns our heads and our hearts to see that the only way out of this endless abyss of sin and death is the way of the immeasurable love of God revealed in Christ crucified.
            While the cross reveals that human sin causes more harm that we could have ever imagined, the cross is also the place where we see that God’s love for us is bigger than we can even begin to comprehend.  The cross is not a place where we come to receive advice.  Rather, the cross is the place we come to be convicted and nourished by the message of the gospel – you are weak but he is strong.
            As Bishop Sloan reminded us last week, Lent is not a season when we count how many sins we have committed as if it is some sort of race.  Rather, Lent is a time spent reflecting on our sin, owning our sin as destructive, and ultimately offering our sin to God through confession.  In this offering of our sin as confession, we are letting God deal with our sin instead of ourselves.
            This is important because we as human beings tend to deal with sin, well, sinfully.  We minimize sin as not that bad.  We sweep it under the rug for someone else to clean up later.  We kick the can down the road to deal with at a later date.  We justify sin by assigning it to someone else – particularly the weak and most vulnerable.  We make comparisons like – well at least I don’t sin like they do.
            But God in Christ deals with our sin in a way that we cannot.  Jesus takes on the full force and weight of our sin on the cross.  The cross bears all of our sin and reveals it as totally destructive.  The cross makes it impossible for us, impossible for the world to hide from our transgressions.  But the good news tells us that the cross is where the impossible is made possible.  The cross is the place where the power of love overcomes the most destructive forces of sin and death.   
            Palm Sunday reminds us of a day we call good (Good Friday).  The day of Christ’s crucifixion is good not because of good advice but because of good news.  This good news starts by telling us that we are not as innocent as we like to think and ends by telling us that God’s mercy and goodness exceeds human understanding.  God’s mercy and goodness makes us good.
            Good advice, as helpful as it may be at times, will not save your life.  Rather, the good news of the Christ crucified is meant to tell you that God has already saved your life with a love that is more powerful than the devastating forces of human sin. 
The good news of Christ crucified is news that is meant to create in you a longing to trust and believe in the truth that love wins.  The Good news of Christ crucified is news that will make you die to a life of your own choosing so that you might rise to a life of God’s choosing.   The good news of Christ crucified is news that is meant to help you see that the way of the cross is the only way that will save you in a world that will otherwise leave you for dead. Amen.
Beloved, may your Holy Week be marked by a willingness to hear and know the good news of Christ crucified, news that has the power to heal and save your life.  Amen.