Friday, December 20, 2013

Tender Mercies


Well, the holidays are upon us. As proof, I recently saw a commercial with children acting ridiculously happy over toothbrushes. It reminded me of stories from mission coworkers about children receiving washcloths and toothbrushes in hygiene kits that were prized like gold because they had not seen one in a while. It occurred to me that even a toothbrush can hold the tender mercies of God.

The tender mercies of God are mediated by relief workers sorting clothes, by a hospice chaplain visiting the still living, and by you and me in our everyday interactions. In the case of Zechariah, the tender mercies of God can even be found in our limitations and the opportunities they hold within.

Think of it this way. If your mouth had been sealed and your tongue shut for nine months, what would be the first thing that you might say? Maybe it would be related to a need that you had not been able to communicate. Maybe it would just be gratitude for the release from silence. Whatever you chose, it would seem to me that the words would be well thought. You certainly had enough time to think about it.

We don’t actually know Zechariah’s first words. Scripture says that he denied his friends and neighbors’ complaints about the name of John – as it was not a family name – and his mouth was opened, and his tongue set free, and he began to praise God. Well, who can blame him! Then he burst into a prophetic song about the proclamation of a Savior and the role of his son as the prophet to prepare the people with the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of sin.

That was the most important thing he could think to say. It was probably the thing that he had been thinking about all along! Can you imagine having something as important to say as a message from God about salvation – and not being able to say it? I can.

I think the church still stumbles over the issue of proclamation today. We have practices and rituals that make sense to us. We have a way of proclaiming the gospel together, but when it comes to those who are outside our walls, we struggle with the best way to say and demonstrate what we believe. We struggle with creating a worship experience that makes sense to people who aren’t used to worshiping with us. It’s not just us, though.

The other day my wife was given a religious tract while at work from someone who, “believed that she needed it.” Really? There was no conversation about personal needs, other than my wife’s attempts to help this person find the book she needed in the store (since that was her primary objective for being there in the first place). There was simply a need to hand out instructions for what to believe and how to pray in order to be saved.

As fun as it is to throw stones at her glass church, I have to admit my own sin. How many of my good deeds are done to witness the grace of Christ? How many are done to make me feel better? How many are done because of my relationship with another person and the way it expresses my relationship with God?

These are questions we all must ask in order to find our voices and sing about salvation, and righteousness, and mercy.

Jeremiah spoke about salvation and righteousness and mercy during a time of reform – reform that was needed, but that was too little and too late to save them from destruction. True to his nature, he begins with the “woes” (prophetic version of the blues). And he says, “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture.”

There is a sacred trust that he is talking about here. The ones entrusted to care for the vulnerable and their resources have done the opposite of what they should do. Their actions have scattered the ones they are supposed to care for. Their neglect has destroyed resources they were entrusted to manage.

He was, of course, speaking about the leaders of Israel – the Kings and the Priests – but could he not be speaking to the church? Could he be speaking to the church that laments over the lack of acceptance for their ways by younger souls seeking meaning and understanding in different places?

Suddenly I am reminded of a cartoon of two older men proudly displaying a banner in front of their church that says, “Whipersnappers Welcome!” and one of the men is saying proudly, “That will show the young folk that we want them!”

Of course the issue is not an age issue. This issue is not how welcoming we are. The issue is not about what we are doing or are not doing. The issue is our ability to see what God is doing. Through Jeremiah God says, “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock.” Some say that God’s grace is missing from the Old Testament, but here we have God announcing the coming of a new King who will execute justice and righteousness. In the church, we understand that King to be Jesus, even though we understand the idea of Kingship in a very different way.

For someone to be King at that time meant a demonstration of power that went unchallenged. A King’s power was unlimited. Today we understand a King’s power to be limited by the will of the people. And so, we must ask ourselves what limitations we attempt to put on the power of God. Somewhere in the uncomfortable space of that answer is a call to repentance and an offer of forgiveness. Somewhere, in the uncomfortable space of the question about what limits we try to place on God (as though God were a Genie in a bottle), we find what Paul calls our inheritance.

The inheritance we have received is not simply an insurance policy. It is not something to hold onto until we need it. By the same token, it is not something we can use for our own pleasure. In fact, the inheritance Paul talks about is not really something we do something about or with, because it is not ours to do. It is something God has done. God has “rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”

So we live in two worlds. We live as citizens of the kingdom of God – even while we wait for it to get here – and the hope we find in our expectation of God’s activity becomes the driving force for all that we do. God’s activity is always about transformation. God is not concerned with keeping the status quo of our earthly kingdoms. God is concerned about the transformation of our earthly kingdoms through long suffering mercy that moves our hearts toward righteousness.

But what does that really mean, in practical terms? It means that there is nothing that you have done, and nothing that has been done to you that has the power to define you in the same way as God’s love. And in response to God’s love, our lives become the proclamation that we fear to speak. It means that our default position is to comfort those who we can and to hurt with those who we cannot. It means that through participating in the will of God, we can become less like a thermometer that only takes the temperature, and more like a thermostat that actually changes the temperature in the room.

And then, “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” That all happens because of Jesus, but it will take place here and now through you and me. And when it doesn’t, there is yet the table of grace and mercy set before us. And thanks be to God for that. Amen!

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Do You Have The Time


“Do you have the time
To listen to me whine
About nothing and everything
All at once”

So begins the song, Basket Case, released by the band Green Day in 1994. They were one of many voices in pre-September 11 America that lamented the loss of value and meaning in our culture. One might even call them somewhat prophetic if you consider the function of a prophet as speaking the uncomfortable truth that we do not want to see or hear.

I must admit that sometimes I feel like the task of preaching to a disinterested world and the discussions of becoming a church that is sensitive to every need, leave me feeling like we might be whining about everything and nothing, all at once. Either that or maybe we are like Bugs Bunny in that old cartoon when he comes up in a forest full of creatures, fleeing from the Tasmanian Devil trying to get someone to stop and tell him what is going on!

We surface from our holes and talk about health care reform, school systems, gun control, and entitlements, and we rarely take a stand on anything as a church (Denominational or congregational) for fear of alienating someone. We are affirmed in our “hands off” beliefs when we hear about Christians going to extremes in order to exclude divergent views – especially when this exclusion results in the hurtful and public exclusion of an individual or group.

And all the while we (the mainline church) express feeling marginalized and lamenting our lack of influence on society, as though we are the ones entitled to drive the bus because we are God’s favorites. In some way it reminds me of a Pastor who is a friend that once attempted to make the point that we can be intolerably self-absorbed by wearing a shirt that read, “Jesus Loves You! But I’m his favorite.”

At the bottom of the cultural wars within the church and without, are the claims that we receive in scripture today – God is sovereign, active, and present; the time to follow God is now; and following God will probably mess up your life. Isaiah speaks of the sovereignty of God. He speaks of a time that we are moving toward – even still today – when power expressed through violence is no longer the force that regulates the world. Power expressed through wisdom, a knowledge of God’s active presence, is the creative force that holds everything, and it will be the force that orders all of life in the end.

Paul, a devout Jew – well aware of the power of God - wrote to the church in Rome about the urgency of the moment. He expected Christ to return immediately, and although he was wrong about that he was right about the fact that life with and without a knowledge of God’s active presence is like the difference between night and day. 

His urgent appeal is not based on a desire to rack up saved disciples like frequent flier miles. His urgent appeal is not based on the idea that following Jesus is simply a get out of hell free card.  His urgent appeal is the offering of a life that is truly living through the experience of God’s active presence. Why in the world would anyone wait for that? And if you already have a knowledge of God’s active presence, how is it possible to live like you don’t – or even like you are the only one it applies toward? Well, according to Paul, some were living that way, and he simply says, in somewhat of a parental tone, “Stop it! Cut it out. Knock it off.” 

Paul makes an exclusive claim that forces a choice in the same way as Joshua, who told the people generations before him to “choose this day whom you will serve.” Paul tells them, and us, to realize that life does not have a snooze alarm, and that there is nothing as gratifying as experiencing God’s active presence by following the way of Jesus.
This Jesus, by the way, has also left us some interesting bread crumbs and riddles to follow. Somehow a passage that begins with, “No one will know the hour of the coming of the son of man” has been used over the years to indicate signs of Christ’s return. The point of this passage is not to give us a treasure map to follow or a threat to hold over those that do not speak certain buzzwords of faith. And although it is certainly possible that God may hand pick the redeemed at some given moment, I think it is much more reasonable to believe that the gospel writers were describing something they could not see.

For the truth is that God has revealed Godself through the person, work, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Not only was God present in a special way through Jesus, but because of Jesus, the door has been left open for all of us to experience God as active and present. There is no telling when God’s self-revelation will hit you. It might not hit you at the same time as the one you are laboring with in the field. It might hit you right here and right now. It might be when you are washing dishes, but when God’s self-revelation becomes real to you it may very well mess up your life.

God has a tendency to reorder our priorities. God removes the lies we tell ourselves in order to construct a world that we can survive in. God opens our hearts to realize what our true needs are – even beyond the needs of our physical selves. God opens our eyes to see the needs of others. That does not necessarily mean that we turn into walking charitable organizations –  although I guess it could. It means that we hear and see things from God’s perspective. It means that just as we might guard our homes from a thief, we have also erected barriers to keep God in God’s place, and God will not be stopped. So, be ready. 

Do we know what time it is? Do we have the time? That’s what the scriptures are asking us. Can we make time for this gospel? Can we stand for something that truly matters? I believe that we can. I believe that beyond the politics and controversies of this day is a world that is longing to hear something truly inspiring from you about the way that faith in Jesus and life in a community of believers has made a difference in your life. I believe there are people who society neglects, and people who have made choices that have alienated them from others, that this fellowship of believers is in the habit of touching, and seeing, and hearing in a way that no one else does. 

Throughout the year, we provide resources for ecumenical partners like Communities Uniting in Prayer and Service (CUPS), Meals on Wheels, Family Promise, the Wesley United Campus Ministries, and the United Christian Outreach. Today we will commission over 1,000 gift baskets made from new and gently used items to needy families. Next Saturday we will turn our Fellowship hall into a venue of hospitality to distribute baskets in a way that demonstrates care and community. We will bristle against each other in order to do these things. We will constantly demonstrate our need for grace and mercy and forgiveness, even while we extend grace and mercy and forgiveness. But I tell you this – we know what time it is!


At this time, on this day – the first Sunday of Advent – we stand ready to walk in the light of the Lord! I pray that we may not only be ready, but that we also be willing. And that includes me, Chief among sinners, forgiven and beloved by God, just like you. And to God be the glory, even as we cry, “Come, Lord Jesus. Come!” Amen.

Tender Mercies


Well, the holidays are upon us. As proof, I recently saw a commercial with children acting ridiculously happy over toothbrushes. It reminded me of stories from mission coworkers about children receiving washcloths and toothbrushes in hygiene kits that were prized like gold because they had not seen one in a while. It occurred to me that even a toothbrush can hold the tender mercies of God.

The tender mercies of God are mediated by relief workers sorting clothes, by a hospice chaplain visiting the still living, and by you and me in our everyday interactions. In the case of Zechariah, the tender mercies of God can even be found in our limitations and the opportunities they hold within.

Think of it this way. If your mouth had been sealed and your tongue shut for nine months, what would be the first thing that you might say? Maybe it would be related to a need that you had not been able to communicate. Maybe it would just be gratitude for the release from silence. Whatever you chose, it would seem to me that the words would be well thought. You certainly had enough time to think about it.

We don’t actually know Zechariah’s first words. Scripture says that he denied his friends and neighbors’ complaints about the name of John – as it was not a family name – and his mouth was opened, and his tongue set free, and he began to praise God. Well, who can blame him! Then he burst into a prophetic song about the proclamation of a Savior and the role of his son as the prophet to prepare the people with the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of sin.

That was the most important thing he could think to say. It was probably the thing that he had been thinking about all along! Can you imagine having something as important to say as a message from God about salvation – and not being able to say it? I can.

I think the church still stumbles over the issue of proclamation today. We have practices and rituals that make sense to us. We have a way of proclaiming the gospel together, but when it comes to those who are outside our walls, we struggle with the best way to say and demonstrate what we believe. We struggle with creating a worship experience that makes sense to people who aren’t used to worshiping with us. It’s not just us, though.

The other day my wife was given a religious tract while at work from someone who, “believed that she needed it.” Really? There was no conversation about personal needs, other than my wife’s attempts to help this person find the book she needed in the store (since that was her primary objective for being there in the first place). There was simply a need to hand out instructions for what to believe and how to pray in order to be saved.

As fun as it is to throw stones at her glass church, I have to admit my own sin. How many of my good deeds are done to witness the grace of Christ? How many are done to make me feel better? How many are done because of my relationship with another person and the way it expresses my relationship with God?

These are questions we all must ask in order to find our voices and sing about salvation, and righteousness, and mercy.

Jeremiah spoke about salvation and righteousness and mercy during a time of reform – reform that was needed, but that was too little and too late to save them from destruction. True to his nature, he begins with the “woes” (prophetic version of the blues). And he says, “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture.”

There is a sacred trust that he is talking about here. The ones entrusted to care for the vulnerable and their resources have done the opposite of what they should do. Their actions have scattered the ones they are supposed to care for. Their neglect has destroyed resources they were entrusted to manage.

He was, of course, speaking about the leaders of Israel – the Kings and the Priests – but could he not be speaking to the church? Could he be speaking to the church that laments over the lack of acceptance for their ways by younger souls seeking meaning and understanding in different places?

Suddenly I am reminded of this cartoon: 


Of course the issue is not an age issue. This issue is not how welcoming we are. The issue is not about what we are doing or are not doing. The issue is our ability to see what God is doing. Through Jeremiah God says, “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock.” Some say that God’s grace is missing from the Old Testament, but here we have God announcing the coming of a new King who will execute justice and righteousness. In the church, we understand that King to be Jesus, even though we understand the idea of Kingship in a very different way.

For someone to be King at that time meant a demonstration of power that went unchallenged. A King’s power was unlimited. Today we understand a King’s power to be limited by the will of the people. And so, we must ask ourselves what limitations we attempt to put on the power of God. Somewhere in the uncomfortable space of that answer is a call to repentance and an offer of forgiveness. Somewhere, in the uncomfortable space of the question about what limits we try to place on God (as though God were a Genie in a bottle), we find what Paul calls our inheritance.

The inheritance we have received is not simply an insurance policy. It is not something to hold onto until we need it. By the same token, it is not something we can use for our own pleasure. In fact, the inheritance Paul talks about is not really something we do something about or with, because it is not ours to do. It is something God has done. God has “rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”

So we live in two worlds. We live as citizens of the kingdom of God – even while we wait for it to get here – and the hope we find in our expectation of God’s activity becomes the driving force for all that we do. God’s activity is always about transformation. God is not concerned with keeping the status quo of our earthly kingdoms. God is concerned about the transformation of our earthly kingdoms through long suffering mercy that moves our hearts toward righteousness.

But what does that really mean, in practical terms? It means that there is nothing that you have done, and nothing that has been done to you that has the power to define you in the same way as God’s love. And in response to God’s love, our lives become the proclamation that we fear to speak. It means that our default position is to comfort those who we can and to hurt with those who we cannot. It means that through participating in the will of God, we can become less like a thermometer that only takes the temperature, and more like a thermostat that actually changes the temperature in the room.

And then, “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” That all happens because of Jesus, but it will take place here and now through you and me. And when it doesn’t, there is yet the table of grace and mercy set before us. And thanks be to God for that. Amen!