Thursday, March 26, 2015

Sir, we would see Jesus


Some Greeks came to Philip and said, “Sir, we would see Jesus.”  Philip goes to Jesus, and Jesus responds by launching into a lesson about seeds and fruit. I must say, this is one of those times when I feel that I can truly relate to Jesus.  I’d love to say this is the “highly distractible” Jesus, but it’s not. 

Jesus is not too distracted to respond.  Instead he receives the request like a call to action.  The fact that these God-fearing Greeks have come to call means that his time has come.  I still find it odd that he never seems to answer them, but that probably has more to do with the storyteller than the people in the story.

And in this teachable moment the author of John’s gospel proclaims the truth of the message of Jesus – it’s not about you.  It’s certainly not about me, either.  By “it” I mean the essential purpose of life and all of its complexity.  Life and all of its beauty and terror is not essentially about what we cherish but truly it is about what we are willing to let go of.

Life in these United States seems so often to be about what we can acquire.  Yet Jesus is calling for another form of security.  It reminds me in some way of a bumper sticker I once saw that simply said, “Your Stuff Owns You.”  Jesus is not simply as saying, “Where your treasure is your heart will also be.”  Instead, he is describing the way our actions have consequences that are both immediate and eternal.

This was written during a time in which there was wide scale debate amongst people of faith about the afterlife, God’s blessing in this life, and whether or not God was active and present.  Jesus is telling those who will listen that they must follow him if they want to get out alive.  Somehow, that message still seems to ring true.  Somehow, there is still wide scale debate amongst people of faith over the event of Jesus and what it means to us.

Somehow we are still thinking about and trying to figure out what the Jesus event revealed to us about God and what it requires of us.  You might think that we would have all of this figured out by now.  You might think that it is all as obvious as Easter Egg hunts and going to get Easter outfits so the family can look just so for the special day.  Not that these are bad things to do – we’ll be doing it here – but it does raise a question, “What aspects of our faith have become cultural, and what do we need to let go of in order to live?”

There are some obvious places of debate and tension in the larger denomination that we are a part of – particularly with the issue of same gender marriage.  I think it is worth saying that there is a variety of perspectives even in this congregation, and my hope is that we can take the opportunity to have conversations rather than simply taking positions.  I will admit that this is an issue that it is hard to allow equal footing for both sides, but I trust that we can work toward a more faithful response than simply beating one another up over it.  Diversity of opinion is actually one of our greatest strengths when it is coupled with faith and confession, and a desire to be ever more faithful to God.

That said, I have to confess that I missed out on a conversation the other day while on the way to a soccer game.  There was a group on the opposite corner from our building with signs that said, “Honk for traditional marriage!”  First, I found it interesting that there was only one tremulous honk while several cars waited for the light to change.  I thought about honking, because I do (obviously) support traditional marriage.  I am, however, thankful that there are faithful Christians who happen to be gay and who have desired the blessing of God through the church and are now able to do so.  I believe that the church is strong enough and God’s love is big enough for us to be in disagreement about social issues and still demonstrate the Kingdom of God that is both present and yet to come.

In fact, although many in the church believe that same gender marriage is an issue of social justice, there are also those who believe that the last 30 years of debate over homosexuality have kept us from wrestling with deeper issues of inequality in our nation. Of course, some will say that this is too political, and maybe it is.

Maybe we need to think about it all in simpler terms – as was suggested by David Lewis, Pastor of Sixth Ave Baptist Church in Troy New York.  He recently posted this thought online.  “I truly believe developing and maintaining a mission from the [mindset of the] gospels will make a big impact on our present culture.  How did Jesus do it and how did he instruct his disciples?  Centuries of church history have buried that simple missional pattern under piles of dogma and tradition...it is radical to cling to the cross and follow Jesus, but that is what we're called to [do]!”

And how did Jesus do it?  Paul said that he was a priest in the order of Melchizedek.  Melchi-who?  Melchizedek was a King.  He was also a Priest.  What’s odd is that he lived in a time when Kings claimed authority because they claimed divinity – or at least acted like they had authority over life and death.  Before there ever was a covenant with Abraham there was a belief in God.  It wasn’t limited to one people or description.  Melchizedek was a “righteous king” that’s what his name meant – and he brokered a deal between Abram and the King of Sodom after Abram led a raiding party to rescue his cousin Lot.

And they sat at a table and broke bread and drank wine, and Abram gave up treasures but kept the people he loved.  So it is with Jesus, who has the authority to make things right where we have gone wrong.  And the authority of Jesus does not come from his desire to be a God, but from his willingness to demonstrate the love of God.  And the love of God is what forms new words on our lips that we did not even think we could say.

The love of God through Christ Jesus is what writes the law of God on our hearts so that we no longer even have to say, “Know the Lord!” but instead we can demonstrate justice and righteousness and mercy.

That feels really good to say, and mostly it feels good because I believe it to be true.  But there is something more to it than that.  We say these words, and we forget that they require something of us.  We say justice, and we think about penalty.  We say righteousness, and we think about correctness.  We say mercy, and we think about getting away without getting the penalty for being incorrect.

But it’s not that simple.  Biblical justice certainly includes retribution, but it is truly more concerned with creating equality and ending the abuse of power.  Biblical righteousness is certainly about making things right, but it is more concerned with creating the conditions for right behavior to continue.  And mercy is what happens when the powerful and the powerless can find a way forward without blame and remorse.

At the end of the day, we are still left with the fact that there are Greeks and God-fearers still waiting at the door and asking to see Jesus.  Sometimes I think we can spend our energy keeping them away without even realizing that we have.

Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C. found themselves in a tricky place like I am describing, because they are an urban church and their grounds were becoming overwhelmed by the local homeless population.  They discussed several solutions.  They knew that the current pattern could not continue.  With heavy hearts they picked a day by which all belongings had to be removed (there were piles) and hired a security guard to maintain the vigil.  But that’s not all they did.  They also established a group that met with those who had been camped out and began to find resources for them.  Their Pastor, Linda Kaufman, tells the story this way:

“Every Tuesday at 7 a.m., a small group of us met with our homeless neighbors for breakfast and discussion.  We talked about what it would take to find permanent housing and kept track of commitments.  Six weeks in, when it was time for everyone to be moved to someplace else, we decided that we would continue the community we had formed beyond the March 1 deadline.  At our meeting the first week of March, some miracles occurred:

Dominique came for the first time and told us he had a job if he could get a bike helmet.  (Bob, a parishioner, left the meeting, went to his nearby home and arrived back moments later with a bike helmet.)
Ivy told us she had had an interview for a job at Starbucks.
Stephen said he was going to interview later that morning for a restaurant job.
Several folks needed help with transportation, so after the meeting Kris, a very committed and active parishioner, put more money on their church-provided transit cards.

After six weeks of support, no one is living on the porches anymore.  It wasn’t easy, and we did have challenges.  I am convinced that those individuals who were sleeping on the church porches are better off now than they were in January, before we started.

There is a way to keep safe, clean grounds while helping our homeless neighbors — and it’s both easier and harder than installing sprinkler systems or putting up fences.  It requires the investment of time and resources to build relationships, listen and help.  The community we formed still gathers at 7 a.m. each Tuesday.

I recently saw Dominique, with his bike helmet.  He told me he got the job.  Later that day I heard that Ivy got a full-time gig.  Herbert and Sonia have a place to live.  The miracles keep rolling in.”

I don’t know exactly what God has in mind for us.  We may encourage a community of cyclists to form around prayer and scripture.  We might start a dinner worship group.  We might even start an intentional dialogue between people who hate each other.  What I know is that the question is unanswered.  Although I guess it’s not a question.  There are those who are waiting with hope, with loss, with a need for justice, righteousness, and mercy.  And they are saying, “We would really like to see Jesus!”


My hope and expectation is that – while we let go of the life we love in order to demonstrate the love that gives us life – we will see Jesus, too.  And when we do we will see that we have received eternity, here and now even as we will have it there and then.  And to God be the glory for that.  Amen!

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark


As a child – I must confess – I grew up in relative paradise.  We lived on a five acre plot in Northeast Georgia surrounded by twenty undeveloped acres that were owned by someone who lived in New Hampshire – which might as well have been another planet as far as I knew.  I spent many a night outdoors camping and playing.  I was never afraid of the dark.  I can remember sneaking out at night and having no fear other than the possibility of getting caught. 

Many years later I found myself in a cave with a church youth group.  Our guide had us turn off all lights to experience total darkness.  I remember being astonished that my hand touched my face without expectation from any visual cue.  We were told to consider this to be like the formless void of creation, the abyss of nothingness, the womb of the earth, or perhaps the presence of God even in the absence of being (and then we waited on the next group so we could spook ‘em).

A year later, I was walking alone on a path between two cabin groups in the pitch-black countryside of Northern Virginia after turning off my flashlight.  I anticipated recapturing the feeling of childhood bliss only to find myself suddenly and terribly aware that most of the things that walk out in the open at night are predators.  There is nothing quite like realizing that you have placed yourself lower on the food chain than you ought to be to inspire an appreciation for a flash light and another soul to walk beside!

I tell you these things because I believe there is a lot of darkness and fear in the world today. Certainly, there is much to be afraid of, but the currency of terror seems to be more productive than the currency of hope.  By that I mean that individuals and organizations are making more money, developing more support, and creating institutional change by capitalizing on fear.  And somehow, it seems that those who follow Jesus are painted in the same light.  We are presented as either part of the problem – or part of the solution, depending on who you talk to – because we are simply unyielding in our views, and there is no middle ground between moral positions and social distress.

Sometimes, when I see the distress in our world, the prescriptive and overly simplistic application of faith, and the disconnect between the church and the culture we live in, it makes me wonder what happened to the significance of the Reformed tradition of faith?  “Sola fide, sola gratia, et sola scriptura” are the watchwords of our tradition.  Faith alone, grace alone, and scripture alone – is that not what the letter to the Ephesians is all about?

“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God — not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”

For those of us who have grown up (and grown old) in the church, these are very comforting words.  No matter what we have done, or what has been done to us, God has given us the ability to believe that salvation has come through Jesus.  Our faith is not about what we might do for God, but about what God has done for us.  All that we do is in response to God’s love and mercy and grace and forgiveness!

And yet, when we walk out into the darkness of this present world, it seems that grace and mercy do not garner the same kind of response as they once might have.  Where our response might once have been selflessness, it seems to have become more about feeling justified.  It seems that we have replaced the common good with the expectation that a rising tide lifts all vessels.  All the while we hear the drum beat of the disappearing middle class and the increasing gap between the incomes of CEOs and the average employee while our thirst for luxury items continues to increase.  We hear of cultural hold-outs for racism and the blame game between individuals and institutions, and I, for one, begin to feel a bit numb. 

Then I hear the words of Paul speaking to the experience of the Ephesians, and I want it – I need it – to be my experience.  You were dead.  Let these words hit the church like a crash cart to a heart in cardiac arrest.  You were dead through your trespasses and sins!  You were slaves to your own passions, to things that seemed to benefit you, through living as though you were self-determined instead of God-formed.

And that is where life enters in – the understanding that we are God-formed.  We are not God-formed because we are Presbyterian.  We are God-formed because God formed us, and by the grace of God the church is in the business of helping us see this.  We come, in the words of Fred Craddock, “from God and we go to God.”  But what does that mean for us in the middle?

It means that we find ourselves needing a flashlight for the path and another soul to travel with. It means that even when the culture shifts and all seems to be in darkness, God is yet bringing light through a belief in the forgiveness of our sins through Jesus.  And it means that when we move into the light, we bring not only our hopes, but also our fears.

I believe that is why God asked Moses to make the bronze snake for the people to look upon.  They had already confessed.  They admitted that they had rejected God’s providence, and so it seems to me that the bronze snake was as much an acknowledgement of their sin as it was a recognition of God’s mercy.  It wasn’t a magic trick. It was a statement about what they were being saved from, and just as they were being saved from the snakes, they were also being saved from themselves.

And so Jesus uses this same story to recognize how he will become a symbol of our salvation – not just from the sin and evil of others, but from the sin and evil we carry in our hearts.  As we move forward as a congregation, we’re going to have to move with transparency, with penitence, and with confession. That may sound a little confronting to you.  I mean, it’s not as though we have snakes in our midst. We are actually a pretty diverse group.  Sure, we’re not as racially diverse as we could be, but for our size we have a good mix of incomes and political and social orientations.  This is true.

So, I don’t think our confessions need to be about what we are doing wrong or about how inclusive or particularly exclusive we are.  I think our confessions will need to be about the things we are doing, or not doing, that are more based in our desire to determine who we are versus our desire to be a people who are “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”

I do not have an accusation to hand out or a prescriptive plan to tease out a specific response to God’s calling for us.  But I do have faith that, just as we must all constantly ask ourselves, we must constantly ask one another what the good works are that God has prepared for us to do.  When I do that, I generally find that God has given me more than enough options.

That may sound like hard work – and it probably will be – but it might be just a matter of looking around.  Jared Ebert and Kevin Shultz discovered that one day.  They are both public maintenance employees in Fon DuLac Wisconsin.  One day they noticed an older gentleman trudging through the snow to get to a park bench in an area that was never cleared.  The bench was dedicated to his wife of 55 years, who had passed away.  Bud came every day to give her a “Daisy a Day.”  The next day he came and found the path had been cleared.  Jarred and Kevin continue to clear the path on their own time, without pay, because it is just the right thing to do.  In the news report on this story the commentator ends by saying, “Sometimes, to make a difference in this world, you need a good idea.  Sometimes all you need is to recognize the good around you and clear the way for it.”

The thing is, God is in the business of clearing the way for us, and the most profound way that we can receive the gift of God’s grace is directly through our deepest fears.  God has done this time and time again, and through the person and work of Jesus we see that God is in the business of bending toward us, even as we turn away in fear and doubt and selfish ambition.

You know, that actually takes me back to that time that I was in the woods walking in the dark between cabins.  My deepest fear was that I would be found out for being alone in the world.  I wasn’t afraid of being found alone in the woods, but alone even when I was with people.  That’s part of the reason I turned off my light – to experience the loneliness I was feeling.  Then my flashlight wouldn’t come back on, and I was scared.  And God met me there.  God met me there in the person and work of two counselors who just happened to find me and bring me into the light of community.  I can’t remember their names. 


But there and then, they showed me that it is better to be formed and re-formed by God and to bring my hopes and fears into the light of God’s love.  So, don’t be afraid of the dark.  Don’t be afraid of anything, but let us the love of God continue to form and re-form us into a people who demonstrate the grace, mercy, and forgiveness that we have received.  We can do that.  We can be that.  And to God be the glory.  Now and always.  Amen.

Salvation


A little over two years ago our congregation began a process called “New Beginnings” to determine where God might be leading us in the years to come.  There was an initial assessment from a denominational representative that was very affirming and hopeful.  We were told that we have an excellent location and that we are financially stable.  Our facilities, however, were noted as aging and not meeting the expressed needs of the congregation’s ministry, because we have a lot of unused space.  In general, we were described as a congregation that was in decline due to our average age and our emphasis on maintenance and administration over and above development and community engagement.

So not a bad grade overall, but we definitely felt like steps needed to be taken to move us from decline and into growth.  The next thing we did was to meet in small groups in various members’ homes for six weeks of prayer and study.  We had over 60% of the congregation engaged, and I would wager that some were concerned that we might be talking about shutting down.  What we were presented with, however, is five choices that each represented a fundamental change to our identity as a congregation.

In the end we chose “Mission Redefinition”, even though many of us didn’t really understand what that means.  What it means is that we believe God is calling us to adopt a new priority or focus that (1) impacts everything thing we do, (2) deepens relationships as a faith community, and (3) deepens our connection with our surrounding community.

So, what actually happened?  The congregation voted for us to redefine our mission, with the understanding that a plan needed to be developed for us to do it.  Unfortunately, the trained New Beginnings leaders had a combination of fatigue and personal issues, and the responsibility fell to the Session.  Since then we have had several gains and losses in our membership.  In some ways this is not even the same congregation that went through the “New Beginnings” study.  New things have happened, but our overall priorities have not changed.

In many ways, the questions of the Israelites remain our questions.  Are we going to die out here in the wilderness?  Where is God in all of this?  Who are we?  You may recall that they sent Moses to talk to God up on the mountain covered in fire and smoke.  “You go up there, so that we don’t die!” they said.  And when he did not come back as quickly as expected, they said, “Let’s make a God that we can talk to.”

Meanwhile God gave them the 10 Commandments.  Why?  Why couldn’t they just make sacrifices to Yahweh like any other God?  Why did God give them commandments when everyone knew how to beg favor from whatever deity seemed be most available.  Well, God gave them the law to demonstrate that this God was active and present unlike any other God.  God gave them the law to invite them into deeper relationships with God and with each other.  God gave them the law to establish them as a people of the Holy God of Israel.  God gave them the law to demonstrate that this God even made the people holy.  But most importantly, God gave them the law to redefine their mission from survival to proclamation.

And so it is with you and me.  As God’s people we are constantly redefining our mission from survival to proclamation!  I want you to know that our Session has been prayerfully considering what this means for us for several months now.  Last October at our Presbytery meeting, Richard Hebert and I encountered something new that has informed our conversations.  At the meeting we met a representative from the PC(USA)’s “1001 New Worshiping Communities” initiative.  You may remember that this was celebrated at the last General Assembly meeting with a drop of 1001 red beach balls.

The name is very intentional.  We are not trying to form new congregations.  We are looking to form places of spiritual community.  Some may grow into congregations, but the goal is about community formation.  So, the Session began to talk about making space for deeper spiritual community within our congregation.  In our annual retreat this January, we realized how much this matches up with our history and our personality.  We are a start up church!

Whether you consider the preschool from years gone by, or our work to establish local non-profits, or our historical connection with Wesley United Campus Ministries, or even the part we played in the formation of the Grace and Trinity congregations, we have always been about birthing ministries and blessing them to become what they will.  Some may be for a season.  Some may endure, but we have always been in the business of starting things up!  Being 1st Presbyterian is not about being the best.  It is not a status to attain.  It means recognizing that we are a starting point!  It means that it is in our nature to put development as a priority over maintenance.

Now I know that had to set off some warning bells for some of you.  How can you develop new things if you can’t take care of what you’ve got?  That’s crazy, idealistic, and short sighted.  Show me the money, and then we’ll talk.  That’s almost as crazy as expecting people to trust a convicted felon on death row.  Maybe if we had some assurance of return on our investment we might consider it – just to be nice.  Interestingly, these are the same fears as the Corinthians had.  Jesus was crucified as a convicted felon.  Rome was still in power – even if there was a resurrection.  Yet Paul assured them that things were not as they seemed.  What God was doing through Jesus was greater than a thousand garrisons and offered a deeper wisdom than logic could provide.  The proof they wanted was not in the argument, but in the Holiness of being God’s people.

And that is what “1001 New Worshiping Communities” is focusing on – the Holiness of being God’s people.  I’ll give you one example.  Dianne Anderson is a social worker and a ruling Elder at United Presbyterian Church in Paterson, NJ.  When she heard about the 1001 Worshiping Communities initiative, she couldn’t sleep.  She immediately began to invite people to church from a section of town where crime is high.  No one came.  She started canvassing the neighborhood and connected with a woman who seemed to know everyone – even the prostitutes and addicts and their drugs of choice.  Dianne set up a stand one night, offering a “wing and a prayer” literally it was chicken wings and a person to love on you and pray for you.  Presently they have a group of over 100 that meets on that street corner on Thursdays to find spiritual communion in the midst of suffering.  There are hundreds of other examples, and most involve getting out of our own building and entering into relationships with people that we have previously kept out.

So, what are we going to do?  For starters, the Session will meet on April 18 for prayer and study.  They’ll hear from coaches and trained facilitators.  They’ll look at resources available to train leaders, and they’ll begin to make a plan that will eventually be presented to the congregation.  The biggest resource that we’ll need is the Holy Spirit and you!  Your prayers, questions, and ideas are essential.  We put the elders’ names on the bulletin for a reason.  If you have comments or concerns, let them know!  Eventually your time, talents, and financial support will also be required, but we’ll bring our ideas to the congregation before we get to that point.  That is, unless one of you become moved by the Spirit like Dianne was!

In all of this talk about spiritual community, you may be wondering, “What’s this got to do with my life today, and why are we talking about it now?”  Well, as I understand the scriptures today, this is all essentially about salvation.  It is our nature to seek proof, validation, and assurance that there is a God and that God is on our side.  When we search together we are (re)formed into a deeper and more spiritual community.

That does not mean that our experience of God is dependent on each other.  It means that we are formed by God into a community so that we can be a life giving force!  That’s what the church is for – to demonstrate salvation here and now!  Why else would Jesus have gotten so angry?  The house of God was being used to take advantage of the poor.  It was life consuming.  Have you ever feel that way about the church?  I know that I have.

That’s why Jesus told them about the new temple that he would become.  That’s why Jesus invites us to be built into that same temple.  And this is the beginning of our salvation – that we become a people who demonstrate God’s life giving force of love and grace and mercy!

That is not a logical proposition.  Salvation is not logical.  It’s not supposed to be, because it is not under our control.  Salvation does not come with signs and wonders, but it is demonstrated when we are rebuilt into worshiping communities that are life giving.  Fred Craddock, a beloved pastor and teacher who joined the church triumphant this week is quoted as saying, “The question is not whether the church is dying, but whether it is giving its life for the world.”


That’s an excellent question!  I look forward to answering it with you as we move toward the cross and the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus.  May God be glorified in our spiritual communion as continue this journey together and as we invite others to join us.  Amen.

Hack The Universe


I imagine that if I were to ask you what you think of when I say the word, “hack,” you might come up with a variety of things.  You might say an imposter, a cheat, or – if your vocabulary is really fancy – a charlatan.  Of course, these days the word hack is most likely used when talking about computers.  Hearing that might make you think of one of the great the boogey men of our day – identity theft.

Although you may think of computer hacking as some nefarious person sneaking in through the internet and robbing you blind, there is a lot more to it than that.  Hacking has become a more general term for any kind of rule bending and out of the box thinking that you can come up with.  It is not good, nor is it bad.  It just is.

Take video gaming as an example.  For those of you who do not know, in the world of video games – which is a multibillion dollar industry that crosses virtually every facet of our human society from raw materials, to production, to community formation and interpersonal relationships – it is OK to cheat. I have to say that I don’t like this, but virtually every game has embedded “cheat codes”.  These are a series of commands you can give to bend the rules, get special characters, or bypass levels instead of getting through on merit or skill.  The thing is – even though the cheat codes let you do things that you otherwise could not – it is still considered fair play, because the options exist inside the code. 

You could probably make the argument that “just because the option exists it doesn’t make it right.” Indeed, I believe the greatest ethical issue of this age is that we tend to think that access equals permission – and we have way too much access to too many things.  But we’ll have to tackle that issue another day.  For now, I want you to think about the positive side of the argument.  That is, that hacking is not about cheating.  It is about divergent thinking.  It is about collaborative problem solving, community building, and mutual inspiration!

Hacking, for some, is not about computers at all.  It is about a way of living.  In fact, there are tons of resources on line these days to “hack your life.”  These sites offer procedures and tasks to simplify your life and reduce stress.  One site offers advice on everything from the latest software to how to make the perfect cup of tea, or get organized, or even how to stop internalizing fear and anger. 

What does all of this tell us?  It tells us that life is full of disappointments and limitations, and that we believe that we can and should do something about it!  That’s what hacking means these days, and with it comes a great tension between maintaining the status quo and moving into the unknown territory of what might be.  That can be kind of scary.  Most people are risk avoidant, and they don’t want to step into unknown waters without knowing how deep they are (or who lives down there). 

Not only that, but the idea of hacking carries with it the very real weight of the fact that hacking is equally as destructive as it is creative.  When hacking your life you have to consider the relationships, the resources, and the personal costs involved.  When hacking computer code, bits of command strings are torn apart and put back together.  There are basic parameters that offer some natural boundaries, but the goal is to tear it apart to make something new.

That’s why the annual global competition, BattleHack (a contest of teams that compete for 48 hours to come up with something that benefits others the most), actually gives its winners a battle-axe as one of their prizes.  The axe is a tool designed for destruction that instead becomes a symbol of hope and meaning.

In my way of thinking, this contest also represents what it means to be, in the words of Paul, “reckoned as righteous” before God.  You see, God is the ultimate hacker.  Think about it.  God had already made a covenant with Abram.  An heir was promised.  Sarai knew that she couldn’t do anything about it, so it only seemed reasonable to give Hagar to Abram.  And God hacked in, re-wrote the code, and explained the covenant.  God even changed their names to make it clear to everyone.  Their names meant “exalted mother and father” and now they mean “mother and father of the nations.”

And so the hack continues in Paul’s letter to the church in Rome when he tells them that their relation to Abraham has nothing to do with their heritage or their ability to follow the law.  Wait.  What?  God’s law is what makes them God’s people.  Yet Paul tells the hodge-podge community of believers in Rome that before there was a law there was a belief in the God who claimed the descendants of Abraham, and who was over all nations.  And then the little hacker tells them that their relationship with Abraham is only valid through that same belief. 

And Abraham’s belief is firmly rooted in his ability to disregard his own limitations through his expectation in God’s faithfulness.  And that’s us, folks.  When we can recognize that all of our systems and values and expectations are limited, then we can see the activity of the One who is ever faithful and always moving things – hacking the very universe – toward some unknown greater good.  Not only that, but Paul is pretty specific in saying that we are recognized as participants in this hack because of our belief in the One who raised Jesus.

And this Jesus died so that we might know of our own limited nature.  And this Jesus was raised to confirm God’s ability to redeem anything this world might throw our way – if we are willing to be a part of the hack.  That’s what the conflict with Peter was all about.  Jesus called him Satan – the Adversary of God – because he could not see past his own experience.  He was not open to the possibilities of the hack.

So Jesus turned to face the crowd and invited them into the opportunity to hack the universe wide open.  The thing to bear in mind here is that he may as well have asked them to join him in an open revolt that would surely result in their death.  Picking up a cross was not a metaphorical proposition.  It was an acknowledgement that following Jesus naturally puts us in conflict with the status quo, and not only that but staying out of that conflict means that we have become the adversary that Peter is accused of becoming.

As if that weren’t challenging enough, he has to throw down the gauntlet of shame.  I have to admit that this does not square with my understanding of a God of grace and mercy.  The best I can do is to hold this in tension with God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah, and Abraham’s expectation that God will be faithful even when we are not.  And then the cross that was a tool used to inflict suffering becomes a symbol of life and hope in this hacking competition for the universe!

That’s what we are involved in.  As the church, we are involved in the greatest hack ever – the redemption of God’s creation!  It actually breaks out here and there all around us.  Just the other day I read about a young man with autism named Cody whose mother advocated for him to be an assistant to the football team during his senior year.  This school, Thomas Dale, is somewhat of a powerhouse in its conference and has been for years.

Cody loved football.  He idolized the players, and was more than a little scared that they would tease him.  But they didn’t.  He always worked hard, and they took him in like a brother.  They made it to the playoffs, and they were getting crushed.  About halftime everyone was completely dispirited – everyone except Cody. 

Through Cody’s belief in the team and his encouragement, a fire was lit, and the team went on to win in triple overtime!  Several of the boys who were interviewed said, “We just never quit.  We did it for Cody!  I don’t know how we did it.  We just did it!”  As for Cody, he said, “It just really helped me to be a part of the team and know who I really am.  So, I won’t be left alone with no friends and stuff.  It gives me self-respect.”

You see, God is going to break in and keep hacking away at this world until it fully reveals God’s kingdom.  The question is, will we be a part of it?  Yes!  In fact we already are!  We participate in God’s saving mercy through Jesus Christ every time we gather around God’s table in remembrance of Jesus.  We participate in the mighty acts of God to redeem and restore the world every time we help people reclaim their stolen identity as children of God!  And we are called to greater and more sacrificial love when we remember the sacrifice of Jesus and the promises of God that it revealed!


As for me, I hope to be a little more like Cody.  I hope that as we move forward into some greater good that is yet unknown that we can be like Abraham, and play more to our weaknesses than to our strengths.  Because I believe in a God who is both the cause and the consequence, and who is bending the universe toward the greater good – even here and even now.  Amen!

An Appeal For A Good Conscience


“Repent and believe in the Good News!”  Haven’t we heard this before?  Yes.  Over and over again throughout our lives together as Christians we hear Jesus telling us to repent and believe in the good news.  We hear it so much that the words become like wallpaper and background noise to a faith that seems increasingly divorced from the real world.  Even those outside the church seem so familiar with these words that “repent and believe the good news” has become like a sound loop repeating empty phrases as though the church were a bar that some people enjoyed at least once a week (or twice a year). 

Added to this general disconnect are special seasons with funny names and practices like Advent and Lent that don’t even make sense to many of us who practice the faith together.  A friend of mine from seminary, the Rev. Jim Moss, recently raised the question of what Jesus might have thought about our decent and orderly liturgical practices.

He said, “I don't think Jesus would have cared much for our Christian seasons - especially for Lent.  I think he would have challenged us to the same level of devotion to faith and justice every day of the year.  I think we are attracted to these seasons because we fail in that call to everyday devotion, and these special times help in some small way to point us in the right direction for at least a few weeks…I say this not to condemn the practice of Lent, but to remind us that we need Lent so deeply because we fail to be Christ-like throughout the year.  It is a time that draws us into deep confession and humility, not into practices whereby we can "prove" our faithfulness - either to ourselves or to others.”

I think that Jim speaks not only to the hope of Christian practices but also to our anxiety.  Christianity is more heavily criticized today than it may have ever been in our culture.  Atheists have become almost evangelical.  Post Modernism has brought about a deep feeling of relativism and individualized ethic that is based on a person’s perspective.  And doctrinal religion is increasingly seen as limiting and anxiety causing. Some studies have even indicated that families raised with no religion at all are less anxious and more hopeful about the future.  Do you know why?  Some say that it’s because they don’t worry about heaven or hell.  They focus on the opportunity to experience as much goodness as they can in the days that they have.

And when we hear that some people are happy without us, many of us in the church pews start to get anxious about numbers.  How many people were in worship?  How many bulletins are we printing?  How many families, children, youth, LGBQ, and racial/ethnic groups come to our church?  How many of each group came to which programs, and how much money is coming in?  Can you tell that we just did our annual statistical report?  We did.  And those numbers matter, but they do not define us.

Here are some numbers that do.  Are you ready?  The numbers I want you to think about today are: 8, 2,000, 21, and 1. Eight – that’s how many were saved from the flood.  Two thousand – that’s about the number of years since Jesus announced the nearness of God’s Kingdom and salvation for everyone (the righteous and the unrighteous).  Twenty-one, that is the number of Coptic Christians that the Coptic Orthodox Church has received as martyrs after their brutal and public execution this week.  One – this could be anyone, but it especially stands for the mother of one of the martyred Christians who spoke the name of Jesus even as he died.

These numbers matter.  There were only eight people and an ark of animals that survived the cruel and drastic destruction of the flood.  Whether we assume this event to be historical or understand it metaphorically – God is a harsh and terrible actor in the drama of that story.  And the outcome is so drastic that it even changes God.  The Rain Bow – a weapon of mass destruction – is placed in the clouds to show that it will not be used again.  Suddenly a symbol of destruction became a symbol of hope, and the flood that might have destroyed the world became instead its baptism.

Likewise, the waters of baptism have become a way to share in the dying and rising of Jesus.  1 Peter says that baptism “now saves you…as an appeal to God for a good conscience.”  As Reformed Christians, we understand that it is not the act of baptizing that saves a person, but it is through baptism that we acknowledge what God has done for us.  It is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.

And we believe that baptism seals us in the covenant of grace because two thousand years ago a man named Jesus was baptized to show his obedience to the call for repentance.  His life was immediately redirected by the Spirit of God, and this opened the door for temptation.  Yet his communion was with creation.  He was with the wild beasts and the angels, and he returned to tell everyone that the Kingdom of God has come near!

And through his death and resurrection everyone has access to the love of God – the righteous and the unrighteous – even those spirits who were formerly in prison.  But what about those who are presently in prison?  Did you know that some statistics show that the highest concentration of Christians in any social institution outside of the church is the prison system?  And what of those imprisoned economically or socially – are we willing to let those numbers define us?  I do not mean to say that we need to take on the burden and anxiety of every social ill.  I mean that if our concept of the Kingdom of God is limited to getting into heaven, then we will miss out on the experience of God’s presence here and now!

And we need to know that God is with us, because life is hard.  We need to know that redemption is for us and that it will result in the future restoration of all of God’s creation, because it is no longer God that creates the floods – it is us.  In the midst of our creativity and our infirmity we need to know that something or someone beyond our limitations can create in us a good conscience. 

We need a good conscience when we see twenty-one Christian men spread the word of Jesus with their last breathe.  We need a good conscience in order to be in constant prayer for victims of senseless violence.  We also need to be in constant prayer for those who speak out against violence in the name of God, and we even need to be in prayer for those who commit violence in the name of any faith, or God, or religion.  We need to be one.  In some cases we need to be the one.

We need to be the one who acts in the name of God and demonstrates the heart of God – especially when things are at their worst.  Personally, I can think of little that could be worse than being the parent or the brother of one of those twenty-one martyrs.  And yet, when interviewed, Beshir Kamel even thanked his brother’s killers for strengthening his faith by showing them speaking the name of Jesus.  He said that he was proud of Bishoy and Samuel for their martyrdom.  But then, when asked what he thought his mother might say to an Islamic State militant, he said, “My mother, an uneducated woman in her sixties, said she would ask [him] to enter her house and ask God to open his eyes because he was the reason her son entered the kingdom of heaven.”

These are the words of a woman with a good conscience.  These are the words of a woman who is assured that the mercy of God is for everyone.  It is here, in this uncomfortable place where grace and mercy become a jagged pill that we cannot seem to swallow, that the idea that salvation is for everyone can only be understood from a larger perspective.  Like a magic eye picture that moves from flat, blurry static to sharp images of depth and detail, our understanding of suffering and salvation and a God who is yet active and present can only become clear when we include everyone in the picture.  

If we can let go of the worry over heaven and hell and focus on the opportunity to participate in the good that we can do today, the world might just be a different place.  I’m not talking about some naive, flower peddling, love fest.  I’m talking about a world where we begin to see ourselves as one. Each of us can be the one who speaks truth and offers redemption to someone else.  Each of us can recognize that we are all united as one human race.  Each of us can let go of the doubts, fears, and burdens that separate us from God and from others.  Each of us can appeal to God for a good conscience that reflects the love of God in all that we do.  And each of us will probably see someone who we do not expect to see in the Kingdom that is both present and yet to come! 

Regardless of what we expect, let us appeal to God for a good conscience during this season of Lent, and may our actions demonstrate the redemption and restoration that God has in mind for all of creation.  And to God be the glory, now and always.  Amen!

Transformation


I was recently looking through some old photos and thinking about the changes that come with life’s events.  Most particularly I was looking through photos of my wife’s early life in ballet.  Of course that was just one part her life, but it was a fairly substantial part.  From the outside looking in, it is amazing to see the changes that have resulted in the astonishing woman that I now call my wife. 

As she and I look back over our own children’s lives it gives us great joy to see how they have grown and changed.  Of course it is easiest to see the changes we all go through in our younger years.  You might even argue that entire economic systems revolve around masking physical changes as life goes on. 

No matter what we do, change is a constant, metabolic reality that we experience every day. We may not like it, but for the most part we live with it.  We take our pictures.  We share our stories, and we get on with it.  The kind of change that we don’t like is the kind that is forced upon us – the kind of change that is out of our control.

Even in a political system that gives us voice and vote, we can still feel like things are being forced upon us when we do not agree with the way things go.  That can make us want to cling to the past more firmly and hold it up like a shining example of what life should be about.  Truly, there is a certain wisdom in bringing the best of the past into the future.  As the African Proverb tells us, “The future depends upon the past.”  Yet we must also remember Isaiah’s cry, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.  I am about to do a new thing.” 

Isaiah wasn’t calling for some weird spiritual amnesia or a denial of the past.  He was warning us against worshiping it.  That’s important, because today we have received two strangely mystic stories along with an exclusive claim about believers and non-believers.  These stories are important to our heritage and to our beliefs, but when you examine them critically they seem a bit – well, odd.

Let’s look at the transfiguration of Jesus.  He goes up the mountain with Peter, James, and John.  Mountains and high places were holy spaces to the ancient Israelites and to many others in Mesopotamia.  It was closer to the dome of heaven – which many thought was an actual, solid barrier between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdoms of the Earth.  Suddenly Jesus becomes dazzling white – his clothes, his face, and his skin seem to emanate light! 

And if that wasn’t weird enough, he is joined by Moses and Elijah.  I’ve always wondered how they knew who these guys were.  It doesn’t really matter.  Moses and Elijah represent the law and the prophets, and Jesus was speaking with them as an equal because he was seen as the fulfillment of the law and of all prophecy. Jesus was God’s self-revelation for all people, for all time, forever!

Maybe that’s why I find the glowing, radio-active Jesus easier to swallow than the appearance of Moses and Elijah.  Even more than that, I find it fascinating that this story is so important to the Christian faith that it gets lifted up in one form or another every year.  And every year I struggle with the difference between transformation and transfiguration.  Jesus is not transformed, he is transfigured.  What does that even mean?

Well, essentially it’s a difference between an internal or an external change.  Braces, for example, transform your mouth, but a smile can “transfigure” your face.  A smile tells us what you are feeling, just as laughter reveals your joy.  The interesting thing to me about all of this is that the Greek word in the original text, “metamorpho,” can be translated either way.  In fact the  word transfigure didn’t even exist before around the 14th century! 

Here’s why this matters.  Language changes over time, and that’s a good thing.  It changes to more accurately reflect our experiences.  This word, “transfigure,” became important to this story because there was so much change happening in the world.  Culture and art, science and math, and the very concept of the earth and the stars were changing, and there was a deep need to know that God – the God revealed through Jesus – was still reliable. 

I think we can identify with that.  I was recently reading a series called “The Long Earth” that describes a new reality that becomes opened up when humanity discovers a way to step into alternate versions of the earth in new dimensions.  A new balance between chaos and order has to be found, and in the midst of it, there are children that communicate on a higher plain that seems to involve new speech patterns and the ability to process information at a higher rate.  That all sounds like science fiction until you have to ask an 11 year old how to do something on your smart phone!

Suddenly it occurred to me that we are living in a time of great change that involves a shift in our cosmology.  We are constantly exploring new realities that are virtual and real, and cultures are clashing on every shore.  We are faced with new debates over religion and faith and ethics that are reshaping our very society and our global community.  In the midst of all of that we probably want to know that Jesus is unchanged and unchangeable, too!

Before we go too far down that path, there might be something that could help us if we consider the possibility of the transformation of Jesus.  For a little over a thousand years the church used the Greek or Latin form of the word for transform to describe what Jesus did on the mountain.  It wasn’t that he changed in substance and became “Super Jesus.”  It was that he became something else in the eyes of the disciples.

From this point on, Jesus was no longer the Rabi who taught about God.  Jesus now began to demonstrate that he was the one like Elijah who spoke for God, and he was the one like Moses whose actions were the actions of God!  And this is Jesus – he was the embodiment of the words that spoke creation into being, and he was the one whose actions demonstrated the power of God’s love over sin and death.

That is why Paul told the Corinthians to remember that it wasn’t about them.  We don’t proclaim ourselves.  We don’t assume that we are God’s favorites or expect ourselves to be the ones who save others.  We point out the fact that Jesus offers transformation. Jesus offers us the experience of God’s active presence.  Think about that.  Because of Jesus we can become aware of the God that made all of this stuff, who is with us in every way, the one who loves us and holds us when we don’t even know we are being held!

Just thinking about that, just recognizing that there is a God, that this God is not you, and that your existence is more bound in God’s love for you than your belief in God might even cause you to be transfigured – even if only by your smile.  It might even cause you to be transformed.

At least, I pray that it will be so with me, and with you, and to God be the glory – now and always. Amen.


Proclaiming the Message


“And Jesus went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.”

Have you ever wondered what that message might be?  We have portions of what we believe were some of his sermons, but can you imagine hearing him preach for yourself?  Talk about a message that transforms your life!  Think about the most inspiring message you have ever received, and then imagine that the person who delivered it was able to remove all of your doubts and fears and make you feel more complete and purpose filled than you ever thought that you could.

I don’t mean to dumb Jesus down to the level of a motivational guru, but isn’t the message of Jesus that repentance draws you into God’s presence in a way that connects you with all of creation?  Isn’t salvation as much about our lives today as it is the promise of eternity?  Isn’t that the Gospel – the Good News?

I imagine that if we asked each person here to say what he or she believes is the Gospel, the Good News, or the message of Jesus, we might get a few different answers.  We might also get some answers that repeat what we’ve been taught to say or answers that give us comfort to hear. 

According to our texts today, I believe the Good News we have received is that redemption comes through community, that salvation is experienced between us mutually, and that Jesus came to demonstrate the active presence of God and to invite us to participate in it.  In order to get at the heart of these passages, I’d like for you to think of them from three perspectives: an exiled Jew, a member of the Church in Corinth, and from a Citizen of Capernaum.  By that, I mean that I am going to attempt to narrate a retelling of certain portions from those perspectives.  First is the exiled Jew.

“That Prophet is at it again.  Isaiah, they call him – I think.  He always speaks at difficult times.  His words were shared in our palaces and public squares before the Babylonians took us, conquered us, and divided us like things to be traded.  He told us of our sin as a nation while mothers cried because the old and young suffered a miserable fate.  I’m not even sure if it is the same man who speaks now.  Perhaps he is as much an idea as he is a man.  Somehow, he speaks the very words of God.

It’s not so much about predictions coming true.  It is more about representing truth.  His words point out the truth we can hardly bare to see.  This time his words offer a certain assurance.  We have paid for our sins, and even more!  We are even hearing rumors that Jerusalem is being restored. 

Not that I want to go back.  That place is in shambles.  Slavery – if you can call it that – was not as bad for me.  I’m a scribe.  I am useful to our captors, and I have been given opportunities to earn money and support my family.  It wasn’t so easy for those with no skill and strong backs.  Let’s not even start talking about what the women have endured. 

Now they are calling for us to return and restore Jerusalem, and this Prophet has to remind us how vast the creative force of God is and how limited our efforts to control the world must be.  Not only that, he reminds us that God is always restoring us – not just me, but us.  And our connection as God’s people gives us hope.  Not only that, but it allows us to be defined by what God is doing – no matter what we have done.  That’s good news – we are a people that God restores and redeems over and over and over again!”

Several centuries later, a letter from Paul is read to a gathering of people who follow in the way of Jesus. 

“What an amazing letter!  It was all about the way that Jesus offers us salvation, and how we impact one another’s experience of salvation!  I have to say, though, Paul can sound a little conflicted at times.  I mean, he talks about how important it is for the Gospel to be free, and that he is commissioned by God to do these things for God.  Then he says, “so that I may save,” and then he speaks about the Gospel like it depends on us to survive.  And then he says he’s doing it for a share in the reward!  There is also all that stuff about becoming everything to everyone.  As if that could happen.  Sounds like a good way to end up not believing anything.

Well, the more we talked about it – and the more we opened ourselves up to the Spirit of God – the more we realized that Paul was talking about connecting with others through shared experiences.  We can do that.  We can appreciate what someone else loves and find the common ground that honors God.  It’s a lot harder than just telling people that they are wrong, but we can do it.

Not only that, but we recognize that God chooses to work through us in those relationships.  And then our choices – our experiences – are what open us up or closes us off to the active presence of God!  In the same way that he told us not to eat things that distract others from knowing about God’s love, Paul is telling us that what we do affects each other’s salvation.  And salvation begins in our everyday brokenness!”

And around the same time, stories about this Rabi, Jesus, were being written down to share with people like you and me. Perhaps there was a person in the synagogue in Capernaum one day who saw Jesus teach with authority and cast out a demon. Perhaps that man helped Jesus’ reputation spread throughout the Galilee! 

“You won’t believe it.  I followed him to that disciple, Simon’s, Mother-in-law.  I tell you, she went from flat on her back to serving lunch in no time!  Weird, I know.  You would think someone else would let her rest, but she seemed fairly unstoppable.  Perhaps her gratitude was so great that she felt like she had no other choice.  Well, of course everyone and their cousin showed up, and he healed as many as he could.  And he told some of them that seemed possessed to be silent, but it seemed like he wasn’t just talking to them.  He was talking to the things that controlled them.  You should have seen them afterwards!  It was like he reached in and pulled out their doubts and fears.  But then he snuck off in the middle of the night.

At first, we were devastated.  But then we came to see that we could actually take care of each other.  We could be God’s presence for each other.  We could receive God’s presence from each other!  The good news is that when we realized that salvation has already come, then we wanted to do something in response.  We wanted to share it, to seek others out, and to demonstrate it in new ways everyday!”

And that is the message of Jesus!  God offers redemption through a community of believers.  In community we find that our salvation is not exclusive.  It is dependent on our relationships.  It is lived and shared and happening right now.  And Jesus invites us, even here, even now to be a part of God’s salvation in and through our relationships with others.

There is another story to tell.  In fact there are hundreds more sitting throughout this sanctuary.  In those times in which you have acted on faith and demonstrated love for one another – simply because of the message that you have received from Jesus – you have offered the presence of God to one another.  In those times that you have shown compassion to the stranger, stood by someone in their grief, and felt compelled to share your faith you have participated in the active presence of God.


As we move toward the Season of Lent, let us hear the message of Jesus once more.  Let us consider what new direction God has in mind for us as a people and as followers of Jesus.  Let us think about the story someone else will tell about us and our faith in the One who redeems, restores, and saves us again, and again, and again.  And to that One – the Holy One of Israel – be all praise and glory, now and always.  Amen!