Saturday, April 28, 2018

“Counting from 1 to Z” - April 29, 2018

I John 4:7-21

            I want to start out by asking everybody to try something that will need a pencil or pen and a piece of paper.  You can use the pencils in the pews, and the blank space at the margin of your bulletin.  This is an exercise that I’m stealing from the District Superintendent, who got it from someone else, and maybe you’ve done it before.  If you have, just play along.  Everybody ready?

            What we’re going to do is very simple.  We’re going to count aloud from one to twenty-six, and as we do that, we’re going to write the letters of the alphabet – in order.  On your mark, get set, and…

            How did it go?  This is an exercise that’s supposed to demonstrate the difficulties with multitasking.  We all know someone who claims to be able to talk on the phone, type, and balance their checkbook all at the same time.  Maybe that’s you.  The point is that even if you think you can do more than one thing at a time, you do not do anything as well as when you focus on one activity.

            I John says that one thing should be the focus of our lives.

“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.  Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”  [I John 4:7-8]
That was the focus of Jesus’ life.  He was not here to give new laws, but to help us understand the ways and the reasons that God had laid out from the beginning.  He was not here to establish some sort of kingdom for himself, or to enjoy special honors, or to set up an institution like the Church.  (That part came later, as a means to God’s ends.) 

“God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.  In this is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” [I John 4:9-10]
            Religious people toss the word “sin” around pretty freely.  We speak of sins of commission: doing what we are told not to do.  We speak of sins of omission: not doing what you know you should.  It’s a sin of commission to covet your neighbor’s wealth and a sin of omission to refuse to share your own with somebody in need.  Sin involves choosing something – anything – over the love of God.

            There are those aspects of just being human that hold us back from that kind of single-hearted expression of God’s love.  They may not totally prevent us from loving one another, but get in the way of doing it as well as we could.  Going back to the alphanumerical exercise we did, it is not impossible to write the alphabet and count at the same time.  It is just harder.  It takes more effort.  Jesus himself knew that, as he put it,

“The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” [Matthew 26:41]
For himself, he knew what a struggle it can be – make that what a struggle it is – to foresee the consequences of living by God’s love in an unloving world, and still to go forward on God’s path.  When his arrest and crucifixion were imminent, he needed to take some time to strengthen himself to face them.  He went to the garden of Gethsemane to prepare.  Matthew says,

“He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee and began to be grieved and agitated.  Then he said to them, ‘I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.’ And going on a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want, but what you want.’” [Matthew 26:37-39]
Fear (and sometimes it’s justifiable fear) gets in the way for us.  Jesus had to overcome that, as he had to overcome all sorts of temptations, on his way to the cross.  But he loved us enough to keep on going.

            Back to I John: fear is a major obstacle to living in God’s love, but Jesus has a habit of overcoming obstacles.   “A wedding reception and no wine?  Go get some water.  Five thousand people and nothing for supper but five rolls and two cans of tuna?  Sit down while I say grace.  Sin?  Oh, yes, that’s the really big one… that does get in the way.”

“Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world.  There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear …” [I John 4:17-18]
We no longer need to fear God’s judgment, because Jesus has taken care of that for us.  In turn, the fears that we have about acting according to God’s love instead of according to our self-interest, as real as they may be, can be faced and overcome.

            In fact, those fears can even become an advantage.  I read a story this week about a woman from Pittsburgh named Sloane Berrent who dropped a high-octane business career and went to work with an organization called Kiva that makes microloans to really, really poor people around the world.  She found herself hanging out with folks outside Manila who survive by scavenging in trash dumps, seeing how ten dollars here or twenty dollars there could, in the right hands, make a major difference.  She said,

“I’m scared every day.  I’m scared people won’t think I’m doing this for the right reasons.  I’m scared since I’m everywhere at once and nowhere all the time I won’t have the opportunity to settle down and  have a family.  I’m frightened something will happen to a loved one while I’m too far off to reach them and I won’t be there for someone who loves me.
But here’s the thing.  I’ve also realized that fear is normal.  If I didn’t get a little tug in my stomach before something big, it wouldn’t be the right thing.  Fear is energy mangled and a powerful motivator, so I just turn it into something positive.  When you’re scared your senses are heightened.  I use my fear to hone my intuition.  I’m alone in a lot of countries and situations people at home wouldn’t be comfortable in, but nothing bad happens to me.  Why?  Because I make smart decisions, but also because I use my senses and I trust my fear to have its place when there is something to truly be scared of.”[1]
            She’s right that there are things and people and situations where fear is like a warning light on the dashboard.  Fear is worth paying attention to.  But if the fear comes from yourself, not from outside, then it is something to be handed over to God so that you can get on with the one real focus of the Christian life without distraction, so you can count from one to infinity instead of one to Z.

“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.  Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.  The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”  [I John 4:18-21]

[1] quoted in Chris Guillebeau, The Art of Non-Conformity (New York: Penguin, 2010) pp. 46-47.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

“How’m I Doin’?” - April 22, 2018

I John 3:16-24

            When Ed Koch was mayor of New York City, he was known for riding around town, and at random times rolling down his car window to shout at whoever was on the sidewalk, “How’m I Doin’?”  It was an odd way of getting feedback on how to run a city, and it didn’t allow anybody to think things through or to give any kind of in-depth answer, but at least it went straight to the people with no pollsters or spin involved.

            The answer a mayor would get to a question like that is going to vary with the person she or he asks, though.  A lot of people are going to respond based on whether the potholes are being fixed and the trash is being collected.  There are going to be some, though, who are going to have their property values in mind.  Koch was mayor of New York during the AIDS crisis, and a lot of what I read about him this past week when I looked up this one, little, three-word quotation went into his part in the response to that emergency.

            If you really want to know how you’re doing, you should be more specific.  How are you doing what?  Babe Ruth is best known for his home-run record.  He was also a great pitcher, and that gets overshadowed.  In the 1918 World Series, he pitched 29 1/3 scoreless innings, a record that stood until Whitey Ford broke it in 1961.  Off the field, he was known for womanizing and for drinking way too much. 

            How are things going with you?  How are you doing?

            Maybe in one area things are going well, but at the expense of another.  Maybe you have that parenting or grandparenting thing figured out, at least for now.  (After all, it’s different to be the parent of a two-year-old, a twelve-year-old, and a sixteen-year-old.  The job description for “parent” is updated every few months.)  On the other hand, the skills that you gained as a blues saxophonist have totally evaporated from the first moment you realized that the baby needed to sleep.  Maybe your law studies are going well, but you haven’t had time to go to the gym in four months.  You prioritize. 

            How are you doing on those priorities?  If you have to pick between soccer practice and church, which do you go to?  If cheerleading is more important than Sunday School, as it is for a lot of families, how will that play out down the road?  You work hard to provide for your family, but that means that they never see you.  What good is that?

            So much of the Bible is about keeping priorities straight, about not letting the words and the appearances be the end of things, but asking where the real substance is.  It’s about letting our hearts and our deeds tell us how we are really doing, not as the world identifies success, but as God does.  It presupposes that what matters most in life is love, and shows us how to ask how we are doing with that.
“We know love by this that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?

Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.  And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.

And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.” [I John 3:16-23] 

            I keep a clipping under the glass that covers my desk.  When I have too many papers and what-not all over the place, and push them aside, I see it right there and, because it’s under the glass, it doesn’t move and I cannot brush it away (or ruin it if I spill a cup of tea or coffee).  I don’t remember where I found it, but it’s written by somebody named Jim Palmer, about whom I know absolutely nothing except that at some point he wrote a list that has been good for me to see.  The heading is “22 Mistakes I Made as a Senior Pastor”.  They are:

“Putting church over community.
Putting orthodoxy over love.
Putting certainty over wonder.
Putting teaching over conversation.
Putting polished over real.
Putting answers over questions.
Putting membership over friendship.
Putting Christianity over Christ.
Putting knowledge over action.
Putting style over substance.
Putting appearance over authenticity.
Putting functionality over beauty.
Putting religion over spirituality.
Putting numbers over faces.
Putting holiness over humanity.
Putting accountability over acceptance.
Putting heaven over earth.
Putting meetings over relationships.
Putting reputation over risk.
Putting charisma over compassion.
Putting the Afterlife over the Herelife.
Putting thinking over feeling.”

Maybe you’ve got a list of your own like that someplace.  You don’t have to tell anyone else about it, unless it helps, but it really would be a good idea to run over something like that in a prayerful and reflective way and then to ask the Lord, “How’m I doing?”

            If you don’t already have that kind of list, let me suggest one that not only lays out areas worth working on, but what you can expect to come out of them.  I cannot take credit for drawing this one up, either.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”  [Matthew 5:3-12]

About those “Blessed are” things: How’s it going?  Well, I hope.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

“Repentance and Forgiveness” - April 15, 2018

Luke 24:44-49

            Someone who was once trying to weasel out of a situation where he had been caught cheating on his wife found himself being questioned intensely and publicly.  Somebody pointed out that he had denied activities that were pretty clearly substantiated, saying, “There’s nothing going on between us.”  He insisted he had been truthful because when he was asked the affair had already been cut off.  It would have been different if he had said that nothing ever had gone on.  In his own words, “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”

I’m also about to make – for better reasons – the point that the word “is” is important.  In this case, I’m looking at one verse at the end of Luke where Jesus tells his disciples

“that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations.” [Luke 24:47]

Shouldn’t that be: “repentance and forgiveness of sins are to be proclaimed”?  The verb is “to be”.  Conjugate that as the rare grammatical form called a circumstantial participle: “I am to be/ You are to be/ He, she, or it is to be/ We are to be/ You are to be/ They are to be”.  Here that is used as the auxiliary to the main verb, which is “to proclaim”.  

            “To proclaim” is what I won’t get around to doing if I get tangled up in this stuff any longer, so back to the real point:

“that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations.” [Luke 24:47]

That “is” tells me that what looks to me like two items, “repentance” and “forgiveness”, are one item, not two.  They are a package deal.  I can look at the car and the tires separately, but I am not going to buy one without the other.  When I talk about the car, the tires are understood.

            Repentance and forgiveness are two sides of what we call people to experience, and of what we experience in our own lives.  To turn away from evil opens us up for God’s forgiveness, and God’s forgiveness leads us to turn away from evil.  It works both ways.  The old life has come and gone.  Something new has begun.  If you would experience the new, you have to leave the old behind, and if you are feeling the tug to start over, you should know that the hold of the former ways is broken, and its power is gone.  Sometimes the two parts of that are working simultaneously.  The Holy Spirit can do things however it chooses, and always knows best.

            One of the best preachers – and by “best” I mean most effective in calling people to new life in Jesus – in the United Methodist Church today is a man down in Houston whose name is Rudy Rasmus.  He shares the story of his life pretty freely, and does it best in his own voice, so here is the version that is on YouTube 

            Did you hear in that how the repentance and the forgiveness go together?  Be sure that they always do.  It took him years to extricate himself from the life that he had actually grown up in, but once the process began it rolled on and on.  It took five years of his wife praying simply for God’s love to show itself in him.  When that began to show itself, it happened in fits and starts.  Repentance and forgiveness were both there.  Together they came to lift him out of what he called “some dark places”.

            Jesus told his disciples to let people know about that freedom, that it can be theirs.  If God can (and he did) raise Jesus out of the dark grave, you can be sure that God can (and he will) raise us out of the dark places our sins lead us, and take away the sin that leads us there in the first place.

            That is the power of the cross and the power of the resurrection.  My prayer today is for each of us to know both.  Consider this, if you will, an altar call.  Consider this an opportunity to let the Spirit of Christ find just the right place within your heart to begin the process of renewal that begins and never ends, that lets you say with the apostle Paul,

“by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace towards me has not been in vain” [I Corinthians 15:10]

and to assure others that, wherever they may be on the path,

“the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ” [Philippians 1:6]

and to share what you have seen Jesus do in this world that he loves so deeply, because

“You are witnesses of these things.” [Luke 24:48]

Saturday, April 7, 2018

“Scars” - April 8, 2018

John 20:19-31

Every year, on the Sunday after Easter, the same reading comes around about Thomas saying that the only way he’ll believe that the other disciples have really seen Jesus is if he not only sees him, too, but sees the scars of the crucifixion on his body.  Maybe Thomas wanted physical confirmation that this was not some kind of impostor putting himself forward.  Maybe he wanted to know that the other disciples hadn’t had some kind of mass delusion brought about by wishful thinking or mental exhaustion.  Maybe he wanted to know they hadn’t seen a ghost.  However, I’d like to think that maybe there was more to it than any of those impulses.

I once came across a quotation from Allan Boesak, who was a prominent anti-apartheid activist in South Africa in the 1970’s and 1980’s that has stuck with me.  He said, “When we go before Him, God will ask, ‘Where are your wounds?’  And we will say, ‘I have no wounds.’  And God will ask, ‘Was nothing worth fighting for?’”

The book of Isaiah [53:46] tells us about what could be expected of the Messiah.  He would have wounds to show.  He would have found something worth fighting for.  It says,

“Surely he has borne our infirmities
   and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
   struck down by God, and afflicted. 
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
   crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
   and by his bruises we are healed. 
All we like sheep have gone astray;
   we have all turned to our own way,
and the Lord has laid on him
   the iniquity of us all.”

Thomas’s comment, “Let me see his wounds, and I’ll believe it’s him,” carries a kind of plea for assurance.  If those wounds are there, it means he has seen us as worth fighting for, and there is hope even for those that everybody else gives up on.

            A man named Marshall Shelley tells a story about sticking with people because Jesus has stuck with us.  He writes,

“The worship team was making its way off the stage, and Pastor Mike was making his way up, when he noticed movement off to the side of the auditorium.  A woman he had never seen before, with flaming red hair, suddenly stood to her feet, eyes shut, face to the sky, hands in the air.  At the top of her lungs, she started uttering unintelligible syllables …

The whole church was shocked into complete silence.  Pastor Mike was as stunned as everyone else.

‘This was a 135-year-old Baptist church where this sort of thing had never been done,’ Mike said later.  ‘Other than the woman belting it out, you could have heard a pin drop.  The look on most of the faces of the congregation was pure terror.  A few were looking at me as if they thought this was something staged for effect, a creative sermon intro.  But it wasn’t.’ …

When he got to her, Mike gently laid his hand on her shoulder to let her know he was there.

With that, she switched and began to speak in English, but still with a voice that carried to every corner of the room: ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, the Ancient of Days, the Lion of Judah.  I have created the world, the firmament above and the earth below.  Mighty are the works of my hands, and marvelous is that which is made, great in glory and in majesty.’

…As he watched her speak, he noticed that sitting next to her was a man who seemed very uncomfortable, who was touching her arm trying to coax her down.

At that point the woman said, ‘I love my daughter with a great love, and though she has been in mental hospitals, even now my favor rests upon her. …’

Mike bent down to quietly ask the man, ‘Is she speaking about herself right now?’  The man nodded.  So Mike asked, ‘What is her name?’  He responded, ‘Darlene.’ …

With that, Pastor Mike turned to the rapt faces in the congregation and with the benefit of the microphone said gently, ‘Church, this is Darlene, and she is our guest today.  I think that we should pause right now and pray for her.’”[1]

So that’s what they did, and when he said, “Amen,” she jumped back onto the same track as everyone else, and the service proceeded as previously planned.

            Now, in the book I took this from, there’s a dramatic twist, which is that a couple of weeks later, Mike got a call from Darlene, who was in a hospital getting some help and some rest.  A few months after that, Mike was greeting people after church and a visitor very shyly asked if he recognized her, which he hadn’t until that point.  He gave her a hug, and she eventually became one of the leaders in that church, with only the two of them knowing she was the same person.

            That’s the happy ending, but I wonder about her father, who was sitting there with her the Sunday of her meltdown.  I would be reasonably certain that he had done a lot of praying for her himself, and that she would not have found the help she needed if it hadn’t been for him.  I would be surprised if his faithfulness toward her didn’t both help her to keep faith and also leave him with considerable wounds and scars of his own. 

The people who are not always quite as front-and-center, the people who are the Thomases or the Matthews rather than the Peters and the Pauls, or Salome, who doesn’t get much mention at all, but who was right there when it was time to do the sad, hard, necessary work of cleaning and embalming Jesus’ corpse.  They often end up with scars and wounds of their own, and none of the attention.  They may be parents or friends who have answered the phone in the middle of the night, who have stayed beside someone at an emergency room, who have listened helplessly to painful stories, who have been the shoulder that is cried on.  They’ve paid the bail and they’ve arranged the therapy sessions.  They’ve had to say, “No,” when their hearts wanted to say, “Yes.”  They’ve had to say, “Yes,” when they wanted to say, “No.”  Those are people who will not need to show God their wounds.  He can see them on their hearts.

They also need the reassurance written out in Jesus’ scars and wounds, the ones that Thomas saw, those that come from the deepest cruelties and deepest suffering of all.  They need to see not only that there is something worth fighting for, but that the fight can be won, if not by them (which they usually learn the hard way), but by Jesus, who has been there and back again.

“Although the doors were shut, Jesus came among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands.  Reach out your hand and put it in my side.  Do not doubt, but believe.’”  [John 20:26b-27]

The good news is not Jesus’ death, but his death and resurrection taken together.  He doesn’t come through it unscathed, anymore than anybody else.  But when we see that he has come through it, then we know that by his grace we will, too.

            Jesus said to Thomas,

“Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” [John 20:29]

[1] Marshall Shelley, Ministering to Problem People in Your Church: What to Do with Well-Intentioned Dragons (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 2013), 91-93.