Monday, April 30, 2018

For the Bible Tells Me So

            If you grew up in the Baptist tradition or a more Evangelical (with a capital E) tradition, then you were probably instructed to memorize a number of Bible verses as a child.  But I am willing to bet your Sunday school teacher never asked you to memorize Deuteronomy 23:1. Because the language of this verse is PG – 13 and this is a PG pulpit, I’ll censor the verse a bit and quote it saying, “A eunuch shall not enter into the assembly of the Lord.”
            In today’s lesson from Acts, we find an Ethiopian eunuch reading from the Jewish scriptures, and I am certain he had memorized this passage from Deuteronomy. He knew well that, according to the scriptures, he wasn’t worthy to enter into the household of God – not because of his status as an Ethiopian but because he was considered sexually impure.
But Philips finds the eunuch reading from a different part of the scriptures, from the prophet Isaiah who sheds a different light on the status of a eunuch in the eyes of God. In this passage from Acts, the eunuch is reading the heart-wrenching verses of Isaiah 53 which describe our Savior as a Suffering Servant – “like a sheep he was led to the slaughter.”
            If the eunuch were to continue reading from Isaiah, he would eventually run across the verses in chapter 56 that read, “To the eunuchs…I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters…an everlasting name.” Now picture this eunuch reading these words from the prophet.
            I can just see him weeping with tears of joy. For his entire life, he has been told that he is not allowed to enter into the Jewish synagogues to worship the God he loves. For his entire life, he has heard that he is sexually impure and therefore unworthy to enter into household of God. For his entire life, this eunuch has heard it from the religious authorities, “You can’t be one of us because the Bible tells me so.” But the prophet Isaiah paints a different picture, a picture where even a eunuch can reside in the household of God.
            Our lesson from Acts tells us that when Philip stops to talk to the eunuch, he asks, “Do you understand what you are reading?” The eunuch replies, “How can I understand unless someone helps me?” And then Philip tells the eunuch that the hope to come described in Isaiah is fulfilled now in Christ Jesus.
Philip tells the eunuch that in Christ Jesus everyone is invited into the household of God, in Christ Jesus everyone is given an everlasting name. Essentially, Philip tells the eunuch, “Jesus loves you, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
The truth of God’s limitless love is made known in the eunuch’s life when he is baptized. Like all of you who have been baptized, the eunuch learns in his own baptism, he is a beloved child of God, he is a member of Christ’s family.
And in baptism, we learn that Christ’s family is formed not because all of its members measure up to the holiness code but because its members believe that only the perfect love of Jesus can make us holy. In baptism, we proclaim a faith that says without God’s love we are nothing.
 So, if we believe that only the love of Jesus can make us holy, then what is to stop anyone from being baptized? What is to stop anyone from entering the household of God built by the radical love expressed in Christ crucified?
Well, as you all well know, Christians have given all kinds of excuses for not letting people enter the household of God. They aren’t the right color. They aren’t from the right neighborhood. They aren’t wearing the right kind of clothes. They are attracted to the wrong kind of people. They aren’t good enough. The list goes on. And somehow scripture gets wrapped up in these excuses and the Bible becomes a weapon.
Somewhere along the line we forget that scripture is not meant to support our limited worldviews. Scripture is not meant to support the status quo. Rather, scripture is meant to challenge and change the way we see and act in the world. In particular, scripture is meant to call us into relationship with the One who changes the world with a love more powerful than sin and death.
If scripture never becomes more than a book that tells us how we are supposed to live, then we are destined to use the book to serve our own agendas. If scripture never becomes more than a rule book, then we are destined to use the book as a weapon to push the proverbial eunuchs of this world out. Someone said, if God wanted the Bible to be an instruction manual, surely, he could have done a better job.
Like the example I just gave between Deuteronomy and Isaiah, there are plenty of passages that contradict each other in scripture. St. Paul said to the Romans, we are saved by faith alone. St James wrote a letter that said, faith without works is dead. 1 Peter tells us to submit to the ordinance of man while Acts tells us to obey God above all else.
Even Jesus seems to contradict himself in the same sermon! In the Sermon on the Mount, he says, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven. And a few lines later, he says, when you give alms, do not blast a trumpet in the street in order to be seen by others…your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
So, you can see that if scripture is simply a rule book, then we are in real trouble. If scripture is nothing more than a book of best Christian practices, then we will spend the rest of our lives trying to win an argument that cannot be won.  We will resort to the easy out and pick the scripture that conforms to our lifestyle the best while conveniently ignoring the ones that don’t support our lifestyle. If you insist on taking this route, then I advise that you at least be consistent in your hypocrisy!
Thankfully, scripture is more than a rulebook, more than a book of virtues. The writer of John’s gospel makes it clear that scripture is written to point to the Messiah – the One who reconciles humanity to God and each other through a love that lays down its life for even the enemy.
Scripture is all about how God’s inexhaustible love is saving a people who are destined to destroy each other. So, if you ever get confused or run into a contradiction that you can’t get past, remember the words of our Presiding Bishop, “If it’s not about love, it’s not about God.”
If you ever get to the point where this whole being a Christian makes you hateful or fearful, remember this passage from I John, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us.”
The Christian witnesses is not inspired by fear but by love. And we love because he first loved us. God’s unconditional love is the remedy for our sin and the sin of the world. God’s perfect love for you and every other person on this planet is the remedy for a people who think they need to put others down in order to prop themselves up. God’s merciful love for all humanity given in Christ Jesus is how God wins the argument about who is in and who is out.
God wins the argument first by showing us that none of us, by our own merit, deserve to be in – all of us, at some point, will fail to love as Christ loves us. And then God does something that goes beyond human understanding and forgives us even after we kill God’s Son – the only One who measures up. God forgives us even after our petty arguments over who is in and who is out kill the One who dies for all of us. God wins not by seeking to destroy those who seek to destroy him but by reaching out his arms of love to die for them – to die for us.
One famous theologian was asked to summarize this life’s work. He replied, “In the words of the song I learned on my mother’s knee, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” So, if there is ever any doubt as to what the scriptures are about, if there is ever any doubt as to whose God’s love is meant for, remember the lyrics of this simple hymn, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Amen.

Monday, April 16, 2018

The Real Presence

            One of the most unexpected joys of ordained ministry is giving communion to someone suffering from dementia. Under normal circumstances, I find myself tripping over myself trying to figure out what to say or not to say. I wonder if my visits are necessary given they might not even know who I am. And if they do, they will probably forget I was there ten minutes later.
            Nonetheless, I make the visit. I go because I believe in the power of God’s love to break through any barrier or boundary in this world – for Christ is risen from the dead. I go because I need to remind myself that God’s love has no limits.
When I extend my hand with the wafer and say, “The Body of Christ, The Bread of Heaven” I notice a fundamental change in the encounter. A transformation happens when I hold their hand and recite the Lord’s Prayer – a prayer most remember.
            In that moment, I am freed from anxiety and feel at peace. And it is my hope that they, too, experience an overwhelming peace. It is my hope that somewhere deep down in their being they know the real presence of Jesus speaking a word of peace in an existence that must be terribly dark and confusing.
            In today’s gospel lesson, we find the disciples hiding out in fear of the Jews – in a place of darkness and confusion. They are afraid the authorities will hand them over to death just like they handed Jesus over to death.
But Jesus finds them in their place of fear and says, “Peace be with you.” And like an Episcopalian in the years following the 1979 prayer book revision, the disciples were startled and terrified by Jesus’ greeting of peace! Thankfully, we didn’t take this passage too literally when The Peace was inserted into our liturgy or we would be touching each other’s hand and feet!
After the disciples touch Jesus’ hands and feet, scripture says they were joyful yet in disbelief but still wondering. A part of me wishes this was a part of a creedal statement somewhere. I am joyful yet in disbelief but still wondering.  How beautiful!
            And then Jesus asks the disciples for some broiled fish. At our Tuesday Bible study, someone said they were disappointed Jesus asks for broiled fish. They were certain that in the kingdom of heaven only fried fish would be served! Nonetheless, the eating of fish further solidified that Jesus was not a ghost or a spirit but a living and breathing person.
Jesus’ entire body is resurrected from the dead. This is not a fairytale. This is not some kind of metaphysical or metaphorical resurrection. Jesus is alive. Jesus’ physical presence in this world endured death and the grave. And the Church, by Jesus’ instruction, continues to acknowledge of Jesus’ real presence in the world through the Sacrament of his Body and Blood, through what we sometimes call the Holy Mysteries.
Like the disciples, we, too, live in a dark and confusing world. We live in a place where we hide behind all kinds of locked doors – whether they are physical or emotional or spiritual. We live in a world where so much of our experience is shaped by fear, shaped by the absence of peace.
And unfortunately, too often does the church perpetuate this posture of fear in the preaching and spreading of the gospel. Too often does the church speak from a place of anxiety instead of a place of humility and authenticity.  On my way back to Selma from a meeting in Birmingham, I saw a church sign that read, “Forecast in Hell: The weather never changes.”
 Since when are we trying to scare people into heaven? Couldn’t the sign have easily of said, “Forecast in Heaven: The weather is always perfect”? But even more, since when has Christianity been so focused on what happens to us in the afterlife? Doesn’t Jesus’ bodily resurrection suggest that he wants our time on this earth to reflect life in heaven?
I read this week, “I worry about a church that fears the power of culture more than it fears the power of God.” The problem of fearing culture more than fearing God is that when we fear culture our response comes from a place of darkness and confusion instead of from a place of light and hope, instead of from the things of God.
In the Article for the Week entitled, “Christian Courage before Culture Strategy”, the author notes the different ways in which Christians spread the gospel from a place of fear and anxiety. He says a fear base response leads Christians to convert culture, condemn culture, or consume culture. While the author notes that all three strategies have merit, he further notes that these responses are hallow without a renewed sense of courage.
I would argue that this renewed posture of courage begins when we revisit the empty tomb, when we encounter the Risen Lord in our midst. In the Risen Lord, courage is renewed when we witness a love that breaks all boundaries, courage is renewed when we experience a peace that releases us from shame and fear, courage is renewed when we proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins.
Just as visiting a dementia patient might seem pointiness, I imagine proclaiming hope to a world with too many problems to count might seem pointless. You might feel like it is too late. The diagnosis is in. The world is doomed to death – there is too much darkness and confusion to overcome. And I hope you hear me when I say that this kind of thinking is driven by fear.
But as Christians our words and actions are encouraged by a hope that defies all odds because we follow and proclaim a Lord and Savior whose words and actions defied all odds. As Christians, we believe that it is Jesus has already changed culture, Jesus has already changed the world for he is risen from the dead.  
This culture change that we all desperately long for and hope for and work for is already present among us now in the Risen Lord. Jesus has unlocked the door. You are free to enter. In fact, you are invited to enter again at the Lord’s Table when you take the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood.
And know, as you eat the flesh and blood of Jesus at this altar, you are giving witness to a faith that believes we, as a church community, are the flesh and blood of Jesus. We are the living, breathing body of Jesus. We are the hands and feet of Jesus. We are the resurrected body of Jesus speaking the liberating words of peace to a world that is hiding out in fear. We are witnesses to the truth that God’s love is alive at all times and all places for Christ is alive. Amen.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Cost of Discipleship

A Sermon for Monday, April 9th - Daughters of the King

         On Monday, April 9th, the Episcopal Church recognized the life and ministry of Dietrich Bonhoeffer – a theologian and martyr. Bonhoeffer was a founder of the Confessing Church in Germany during the rise of the Nazi regime. This Confessing Church played a central role in the Protestant resistance to the Nazis. In addition, Bonhoeffer was well educated and a prolific writer. His best-known works are The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together. Both have endured the test of time and are widely read in most Protestant seminaries today.
            Bonhoeffer is best known for the events that led to his execution on April 9, 1945 at Flossenburg Prison. After 1939, Bonhoeffer became involved in talks that sought to overthrow Hitler from power. After repeated efforts to reach a peace agreement failed, Bonhoeffer become a part of a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler. While a pacifist, Bonhoeffer believed it would be a greater evil to let Hitler continue in power.
            Eventually, Bonhoeffer was linked to the plot to kill Hitler and arrested in 1943. Following church services at the prison on Sunday, April 8, 1945, two soldiers summoned Bonhoeffer saying, “Prisoner Bonhoeffer…come with us.” He said to another prisoner, “This is the end. For me, the beginning of life.” He was hanged the next day at Flossenburg.
            In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer quotes Proverbs 3:17, “Do not be wise in your own eyes.” In a time and place where truth and wisdom was corrupted by lies and false propaganda, these are powerful words to let sink in. As the Nazi regime rose to power, most did not recognize the evil that it would soon commit against millions of Jews and countless others.
Through the course of history, it is amazing to note just how destructive human wisdom has been. In particular, it is both astounding and heartbreaking to recount the number of times intelligent human beings have failed to prevent terrible evils from happening in this world. How could they be so blind?
            In response to this history, I hope we find the grace to pray, “God, help us not to be so blind to the evils we let happen. Help us discern what is truth and what is a lie. Help us to rely on your wisdom and not our own.” In a real way, God has answered this prayer in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
            On Good Friday, I preached to this saying, “Jesus died to expose the lies and half-truths that we have convinced ourselves to live by, lies that are masked by the pursuit of power and control. Jesus died to reveal the truth that we as humans are so often blind to because of our self-important agendas. Jesus died so that we might die to the lies of the world and live for the truth of God, a truth discovered in a love poured out for the life of the world.”
            In the end, Bonhoeffer’s life and witness gives testimony to the power of God’s love proclaimed in Christ crucified. Through Christ crucified, God gives us the strength to resist the lies of this world. In Christ’s resurrection, God gives us the strength to trust in God’s wisdom rather than our own for God’s way endures death and the grave. May the foolishness of the cross and the hope of resurrection give you the wisdom to pursue the truth that begins and continues in Christ Jesus.