Monday, May 22, 2017

Know Your Audience

In my preaching class at seminary, our professor emphasized that we should know our audience. Dr. McDaniel encouraged us to ask, “Who am I preaching to?” “What are their challenges?” “What are their strengths?”  “What are they hungry to hear?”  “What kind of admonishment might they need?”  “Are they the kind that will laugh at jokes?” (I added that one!)  I took my professor’s advice seriously because of the time I made a fool of myself as a chaplain intern at a hospital.
            I was called to a patient’s room who requested that I read to her from scripture.  I asked, “What passage would you like me to read?”  She told me that I was the pastor and that I should pick.  Being the very learned seminarian that I thought I was, I looked up the Daily Office readings for the day. 
The epistle for that day was taken from the fifth chapter of Galatians.  I began to read, “Listen! I, Paul, am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you. Once again I testify to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obliged to obey the entire law…”
            When I finally finished reading about the circumcision controversy, there was a brief silence.  As I struggled to figure out to relate circumcision to this woman’s illness, the woman looked at me and said, “How about you read to me from one of the Psalms.”  “Great idea!” I said.  And I read a few favorites from the psalter.
            In today’s lesson from Acts, Paul finds himself preaching to an audience that has no grounding in the Jewish tradition.  He can’t rely on the same sermon he preached to Jewish audiences because this pagan audience doesn’t know the Hebrew scriptures.  Therefore, he can’t talk about how, Jesus, the long-awaited Messiah has fulfilled scripture.  Instead, Paul must learn about pagan culture and customs.  Paul must figure out what they hold sacred. 
As Paul enters the city of Athens, a university town, he notices how extremely religious they are.  More specifically, the Athenians value an intellectual pursuit of the mysterious.   And trophies of their intellectual pursuits are littered throughout the city. (In all reality, the city might have looked a lot like the scene outside of Bryant Denny stadium in Tuscaloosa).  But the most curious idol in Athens is an altar dedicated ‘to an unknown god.’
            Now, if St. Paul was preaching to a Jewish audience, he would immediately remind them of the commandment that says, “thou shalt not make unto me any graven image.”  And then he would tell them to destroy the idol just as Moses commanded the people to destroy the image of the golden calf that Aaron made in the wilderness.
            But something tells me that approach wouldn’t have been a very effective way to share the good news of the gospel.  If he commands the people to tear down the idol, then we’d get yet another story about how religion often gets in the way of truth.  And I imagine Paul would have been escorted out of the city if not stoned to death.
            Paul notes that this altar is dedicated to a god that the Athenians cannot name.  Even after all their study and thinking, the Athenians know that they cannot attain to all truth.  Therefore, they dedicate an altar to a god they know exists but cannot grasp or name. 
And this is Paul’s opportunity to share with the people the good news of the risen Lord.  Paul has the opportunity give them news that will fill this great void.  Paul gets to name how the truth of an unknown god is revealed in the mystery of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.
            During my time at All Saints’, I spent some time with a missionary named Kevin Higgins who is a part of Global Teams.  The mission of Global Teams is to make disciples of Jesus in cultures that are least familiar with the gospel. 
Kevin spends much of his time in Muslim cultures.  And let’s just say he isn’t a John the Baptist type who comes in guns blazing, yelling, “Repent, for the kingdom of God has come near.”  Not only might that get him killed but at the very least would shut down any chance at dialogue.
            Instead, like Paul, Kevin makes a point to learn their culture and customs.  He learns to understand what they hold sacred.  He befriends these Muslims.  Eventually, these Muslims invite Kevin into their homes and even into their places of worship.  Once a level of trust is established, these Muslims start to ask Kevin what he holds sacred.
            They know Kevin to be a Christian, of course, and when the time is right, Kevin names how he sees Jesus alive in their religion.  He names the ways in which the risen Lord is being revealed to him in their culture.  Like scripture often says, some believed, others were intrigued, while others did not believe. 
            One community even let Kevin baptize some of their people in the mosque.  These newly baptized didn’t necessarily stop worshiping in the mosques but they did come to Kevin for training in discipleship.  I know, it is hard to believe but so is the power of the gospel message.
            Just last week we heard Jesus tell his disciples, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”  More often than not, today’s religious people hold people hostage with this statement.  They say things, “you cannot be saved unless you follow Jesus.  It says it right here in scripture.”  There is no effort to understand what non-Christians might hold sacred.  There is no effort to walk alongside them to help them see the mystery of Christ in what they already believe.
            Bishop Willimon, retired Methodist Bishop, said, “The church, rather than standing back from pagan religiosity, pointing our fingers in righteous indignation, should, like Paul in Athens, minister to their searching.”  In today’s lesson from Acts, Paul uses a passage from one of the poets in Athens.  He says, “In him we live and move and have our being.”  And now, centuries later, we use this same saying in our prayers to describe who we believe God in Christ to be.  How wonderful!   
            It is clear that the mystery of God cannot be captured by intellectual ponderings.  The mystery of God cannot be captured by one particular culture or group of people or even in religion itself.  Rather, the mystery of God is most fully expressed in Jesus, the One who is not of this world, the One who transcends culture and even religion, the One who is the fullness of creation in all times and in all places.
            Christians in the United States live in a post-Christian world.  We share the message of the gospel in a country where “88% of households own at least one Bible – and the average household has 4 Bibles.”  But even though the Bible is everywhere, most have not actually read the Bible.  Most people cannot even name one of the gospel writers. 
Therefore, we have a different challenge before us.  We have an audience that is even different than the audience Paul faces in Athens.  How can we preach the gospel to a people who think they know the gospel because they own 4 Bibles?  How can we preach the gospel to a people who think they know the gospel because they go to church every Sunday?  How can we preach the gospel to a country where the gospel has been hijacked by political and social agendas on every side?  
I sure do wish I had the silver bullet to answers these questions.  But the good news of the gospel lesson for today tells me that we have “Another Advocate.”  Jesus gives us the Spirit of truth.  We have a guide.  God gives us a new ark to help us navigate the currents of culture that threaten to sweep us away into a great abyss of nothingness.  We have the life of God perfected and made fully known in Jesus Christ. 
This perfected life of God in Christ is revealed in an abiding love, in a love that will never let us go, in a love that will guide us into all truth.  Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”  In other words, if our love of Jesus is the force that guides us, then we can’t help but to keep the commandments of God.”
We should be mindful of the setting we are in when sharing the good news of the gospel.  Some people need to hear that they are a beloved child of God and nothing can change that truth.  Some people need to hear that just because they are a beloved child of God doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of sin.
Some people need to see how the stories of scripture are relevant to their life today and how that story is saving their life too.  Some people need to see how God’s truth doesn’t stop with the last chapter of Revelation but continues to speak through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. No matter who the audience is we should remember what Presiding Bishop Michael Curry is fond of saying, “If it’s not about love, then it’s not about God

Beloved of God, the gospel of Jesus Christ works because the message of love is a universal language.  The message of love is a language that all of us crave to know – even the enemy.  The message of love is what connects humanity to God and each other.  The message of love is what makes us live and move and have our being.  As seen in the risen Lord Jesus, the message of the love of God in Christ is the only message that will lead to abundant life.  Amen.    

Monday, May 8, 2017

Voice of Love, Not Fear

            “The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not be in want.”  Today, on this Fourth Sunday of Easter, the Church reminds her people that our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords is best described as a shepherd, as someone who tends sheep.  Today is what we call Good Shepherd Sunday.  Scripture says, “the sheep follow [the shepherd] because they know his voice.” 

            Sometimes when I am having a difficult time or feeling particularly alone, I long to hear the voice of my mom or dad.  And occasionally, I do still hear their voices playing in my head.  I can still hear my mother’s soothing voice whispering my name when I was sad, upset.  I can still hear the firm yet assuring voice of my father holding me close when I was mad or frustrated. 
Even though my parents are no longer with me on this earthly pilgrimage, their voices still have the power to call me back to myself where I feel safe and secure no matter how dark or chaotic things are. 
As people of God, we rely on the voice of God to draw us back to ourselves and God’s own heart.  We rely on the voice of God give us clarity in the midst of chaos. We rely on the voice of God to make us see the light shining in the darkness.  We rely on the voice of God to remind us of who we are when we forget that we are a sheep of his own fold, a lamb of his own flock, a sinner of his own redeeming.
But sometimes it is hard to hear the voice of God.  Sometimes there are too many distractions, too many competing voices that keep us from hearing the truth of God.  And as I grow older, I realize that most of those voices that are born out of fear and anxiety. 
I give the voices that are born of fear and anxiety too much power.  Like the thief who breaks in to steal and kill and destroy, I let these voices of fear and anxiety break into my heart and soul and steal my joy.  Instead of trusting that God, my Good Shepherd is leading me beside still waters, I let fear of the unknown dictate how I live my life, I let the fear of not having enough control my actions.  And in case you haven’t noticed, fear makes us do terrible things to each other, fear destroys communities, fear is the anti-thesis to kingdom living.
Bishop Sloan told the clergy last week that fear is easier to sell than love.  Fear creates an impulse to do things that we would not otherwise do.  Like the thieves and bandits, fear distracts us from the way of God, from the voice of God.  Fear convinces us to take short-cuts, to look for easy answers, to look for easy ways out, to put our own interests first.  But in the end, fear only leads to a slow, painful death in the wilderness. 
As a diagnostic for your own spiritual health this week, I encourage you to pay attention how you make decisions.  Are your words and actions influenced by fear or by love?  Do you respond to adversity out of a place of fear or out of a place of love? 
If you respond more often out of love, then you are in touch with the voice of the Good Shepherd and you don’t have to listen to the rest of the sermon.  If you are like me, then you need to keep going.  If you are like me, you pay too much attention to the voices of the thieves and bandits who are baiting us with fear.
An NPR story ran recently about the rise of Islamophobia or the fear of Muslims.  The story chronicled how Islamophobia is the number one recruiting tool for ISIS.  ISIS is growing exactly because they are feared.  In other words, fear fuels hatred and hatred fuels fear.  Fear is one of the most destructive forces in this world.  If we let it, fear will destroy everything we touch including ourselves and the people God made us to be.
But the good news tells us that there is another way.  And this way is the way of love.  Fear pulls us apart but love draws us together.  Fear creates suspicion and mistrust while love creates space where we can embrace and trust each other.  Fear breaks down but love builds up.
Someone commented recently that they know about 20 pastors who they keep up with on a regular basis.  He noted that half of them motivate their congregation out of a place of fear and anxiety while the other half inspire from a posture of peace and love.  I’m not sure which side of the gate I fell on but hope it was love. My friend ultimately asked, can we not hope or perhaps even expect our clergy to lead us into green pastures and help us find still waters to enable us, by God's grace, to both cope and hope?
My response is absolutely.  You should expect your clergy to be this kind of pastor.  And as your pastor, I vow to help lead you to green pastures and beside still waters and by God’s grace enable you to cope and hope in a world that is being driven by fear and anxiety.  If I’m not doing this, please tell me.  I want to know.  The health of this flock depends on it.
With that being said, here is my attempt to pastor you from a place of love.  If you find yourself struggling to hear the voice of the God, listen for the voice of love.  If you are facing a big decision in your life today, listen for the voice of love.  If you are in a dark place, listen for the voice of love.  If you are doubting yourself and your value, listen for the voice of love.  If you are going down a dark path, stop, and listen for the voice of love. 
And my prayer for you is that this voice of love grab your heart in such a way that you turn around and follow that voice.  My prayer for you is that this voice of love grab your heart like the voice of a loving parent would.  Listen to this voice of love because that is the voice of the Good Shepherd calling you by name, that is the voice of the Good Shepherd calling you beyond fear, the voice of the One pointing to abundant life. 
If you need help learning to trust this voice of love, share that with me or Henry or someone you trust won’t judge or condemn you, someone who will walk that lonesome valley with you, someone who will pray with you, someone who will share their own experience of learning to trust love.
As you learn to trust love, don’t be surprised if the voices of fear creep back into your hearing especially when things get tough.  But keep following the voice of the shepherd, the One who calls you by name, the One whose rod and staff lead with the rule of love, not fear.  Pray with the psalmist, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death; I will fear no evil, thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.”    

            Beloved, follow the voice of love – it is the only way through valley of the shadow of death – it is the way of the Good Shepherd who leads us beside green pastures and still waters – the way of the One who says, “Do not be afraid. I call you by name.  You are mine, always.  Hold on to the sound of my voice because I will hold onto you forever with a love that lives beyond death.”  Amen.