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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Prayer Walking

Below is a note I wrote for our church's newsletter.  If you read this blog but do not attend or live near our church, I encourage you to become involved in prayer walking efforts where you live.  The wonderful thing about this practice is it works everywhere and Christians of every stripe can do it.

Adopt a Street – A 2014 Prayer Initiative
HillSong Church

            In 2013 our church sought to live out of the love of Christ in our own neighborhood by partnering with the Culbreth Park home owners in a neighborhood cleanup.  Since then, we have been back in the neighborhood to build a ramp for a home owner that needed it.  On May 31, we will help with another neighborhood cleanup.  Through these acts of service we try to embody the New Testament spirit of generosity.  We want the world to know of Christ’s love and we want to show that love by helping in practical ways.
            Before we began those efforts, we prayed for our neighborhood, for the homes in closest proximity to our church property.  We have continued our relationship with the neighborhood and will continue it into the future.  We pray as a way of seeking guidance for every work we do in Jesus’ name.
            In 2014, prayer itself will become another way we come alongside the communities closest to our church property.  As our church prays for the neighborhood, we will join a movement that is spreading throughout Chapel Hill.  It is an Adopt-a-Street Prayer movement.  There are 53 streets in Southern Village and in the neighborhoods off of Culbreth Road.  We need HillSong members to commit to sign up to pray for the people who live (and work and play) on specific streets.
            As a part of this effort, we will organize church prayer walks.  We will pray for peace and blessing for these communities.  We will pray that the future Kingdom of God that broke into the world in the coming, dying, and rising of Jesus will break into the lives of people who live around us.  Service projects, worship services at our church, small group, youth, and children’s ministries – these are all meaningful ways we testify to the Gospel and invite people to come to Jesus.  The most significant practice available to us is prayer.

            What is your role as someone is part of the HillSong church family?  We need you to commit to pray.  Sign up for one or two or three streets and pray for the people who live, work, and play on those streets.  Pray weekly, pray daily.  Participate in prayer walks.  Pray so often and so intensely that this matters in your life.  We are one of the churches God has set here.  We have a spiritual responsibility to enter the throne room of Heaven (Hebrews 4:16) on behalf of those who need God.  Please commit by signing up to pray for specific streets and then live out that commitment in your prayer life.  And make prayer in this and in all matters essential throughout your life.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Review of Addie Zierman's "When We were on Fire"

Addie Zierman’s memoir about growing up in evangelical culture, When We were on Fire, is extremely difficult for me to review because it hits so close to home.  My own experience, growing up in an evangelical church and then serving as a youth pastor and senior pastor bears striking similarities to the stories she tells.  I am a little more than a decade ahead of her.  Much of what she experienced as a student in church youth groups I went through as a wet-behind-the-ears youth pastor.  I remember “Acquire the Fire,” “True Love Waits,” and “See you at the Pole.”  I did not get involved in all these things, but in some of them, I was taking youth groups through the programs the year they came out.  I get where Addie is coming from.
            I feel a deep sadness for her.  Being an evangelical Christian can be so wonderful.  It should be.  I grew up as the virgin waiting for marriage.  I was, the kid who may have laughed at the dirty jokes, but secretly blushed knowing God saw me laughing.  I was the one in youth group who took “true love waits” seriously only to discover my friends in youth group were sleeping with each other.
            Yet, I look back on it and my memories are extremely fond.  Unlike the author, I became more evangelical as I grew up.  I may have gone through seasons of sadness, but most of the time, I reacted by running to God, not from God.  So I find the sections of the book disillusion and rebellion exceedingly sad.  Her final section, redemption, left me feeling empty and disappointed. 
            The book also gave rise to a fear in me.  I worry that some of the kids in youth groups I led from 1993-1999 may have fallen away as Addie Zierman did.  She was always a believer, a Christian.  But, she went through a painful, lost season.  She came out of it thinking differently about Christianity.  I fear that in my inexperience as a young pastor in the early ‘90’s, I may have led teens in a way that hurt them as much as she was hurt.  I fear that I may have driven them away from God when I was trying to help them find Him.
            Other readers will not the experiences I did that led me to be affected by When We were on Fire as I was.  It is extremely well written.  Her ability as a write empowers to make compelling experiences that are not particularly remarkable.  Even though she is writing about stuff that is pretty normal for evangelicals, her ability to tell it makes it really good reading.
            I don’t know how to recommend it.  I don’t know how many stars to give it.  She did some things that made me really mad.  However, her writing about it is good, and for that reason, I’d recommend the book.  But I recommend it warning you that if you are like me, you might not feel favorable toward the author.  The pastor in me wants to care for and protect the author.  The evangelical Christian in me who went through high school as an evangelical Christian is mad at the author because I was disillusioned by my Christian peers in high school, and it did not lead me where it led her.  I conclude by saying I would read more of her stuff because she is a skilled communicator. 

Disclaimer - I received this book for free from WaterBrookMultnomah Publishing Group for this review.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Easter Sunday, 2014

Live into Life (1 Corinthians 15:1-20)
Rob Tennant, HillSong Church, Chapel Hill, NC
Sunday, April 20, 2014 (Easter Sunday)

        At the beginning of this year, I posed a question to our pastors, deacons, and elders.       What does it mean when a believer says, my identity is in Christ?  If you were explaining Christianity, how would you help someone understand what it means to be in Christ?  Do you understand that phrase and that idea? 
I have been taught from a very young age that Jesus lives in my heart.  Now, I am a parent of young children and they think of things very literally.  My four-year-old daughter ponders what her daddy tells her.  She does not question the validity of the statement.  But she does ask if Jesus gets really small so he can be in there.
Do we even know what it means to have Jesus in our hearts?  Do we understand that when we claim Christianity, it literally means we are ‘little Christs?’  We are followers of Jesus, doing things the way Jesus did them and commands us to do them?  We see people the way Jesus wants us to see people.  We actually think his way is better for our lives than our own ways, so we turn to him, appeal to his Holy Spirit, and try to live out his plans and purposes.  When his way and our preference are opposed, we go his way.  Well, we try. 
That is a clumsily effort at summarizing what it means to be in Christ.  My effort is not clumsy because I did not try to make it smooth.  It is just that the way of Christ is thoroughly different than how we are conditioned to think, choose, speak, act.  Jesus’ way is the way of the holy God.  The world around us, prompted by Satan and vulnerable to our own tendencies toward sin, leads away from God.  How do we walk the Jesus way and what does it look and feel like?
On Easter Sunday, I wrestle with this question because the resurrection defines who we are in Christ. Yet we can’t see it and unable to see, we end up living toward death even though we have trusted Jesus.  That’s what Mary Magdalene did when she went to the tomb on that Sunday morning.  We read her story at the sunrise service.  I’ll read a bit of it now.
11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look[a] into the tomb;12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew,[b]“Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher).

Sir if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him.  Mary was still looking for a corpse.  Just before this encounter with the risen Christ, she brought Peter and the Beloved Disciples, presumably John, to the tomb.  They saw the empty tomb and it says John believed (v.8)?  Believed what, exactly?  The very next verse tells us they did not understand the scripture, “that he must rise from the dead.”  And in what I just read, Mary sees two angels.
The tomb was empty.  John believed … something.  The scriptures indicated that the Messiah would be the first resurrected.  Angels appear.  Jesus stands before Mary.  Yet, her worldview conditioned her to accept that when someone dies, they are dead.  Even all this evidence could not awaken her to a new way of seeing and living.  She was incapable of living into life.
This fundamental idea, that God is God of the living and in God there is only life, no death, this idea was impossible for his followers to grasp the day Jesus was resurrected.  We struggle to understand it and embody as much now as they did then.  In writing about it in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul describes resurrection as a matter of first importance. 
He recites all those to whom Jesus appeared: the 11 disciples, 500 other followers, his half-brother James, and Paul himself.  Then, Paul makes the case that the bodily resurrection of Jesus is essential.  Everything else that he says about God rests upon the fact that Jesus was buried and rose from death, resurrected back to being fully alive.  “If Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain” (1 Cor. 15:14).  He concludes that portion of his argument by saying, “in fact Christ has been raised from the dead” (1 Cor. 15:20).  All else that Paul says proceeds from that truth.  Resurrection defines him and all followers of Jesus.
Of course our circumstances are different that Mary’s and Paul’s.  In very different ways, each looked the resurrected Jesus in the eye.  These events happened so long ago from our perspective, we call it antiquity.  Something that is history happened a long time ago; antiquity is a really long time ago.  We think someday we’ll sort of gain understanding when we enter the resurrection, or when Jesus comes back.  But that is in an unknown future, so it might as well be a million years from now and between now and then each of has to go through that unpleasant thing we call the death of the body.  The only way we can accept any of this is on faith. 
Faith can be shaky.  It is easier to fall in line with the worldview of the world around us.  So, we live like people who are dying instead of people who will live forever.  Can we do otherwise?  When the diagnosis comes – the cancer is terminal, no cure – can we in all honesty sing the song of Paul at the end of 1 Corinthians 15?  Where O Death is your victory?  Where O Death is your sting?
I came across a story this week that gave me perspective on what it means to live into life instead of living toward death.  In the Central African Republic thousands and thousands of Christians and Muslims live peaceably, side-by-side.  However, political groups vying for power under the names, Christian and Muslim give more energy to killing each other than practicing their faiths.  They also kill everyone caught in between.  We call it genocide. 
In the Central African Republic the Muslim groups had control and killed Christians in waves.  Then, the tide swung and now the Christian militants have the guns and the Muslims are the targets.  Both the BBC and Christianity Today magazine have a story of Catholic Priest Father Xavier Fagba.  His church is in the middle of Boali, an embattled town.  His church is full of people who are convinced they will be killed on the spot if they step foot outside of the church building.  They are all Muslims.  He, a Catholic priest, is protecting them from murderous men who bear the name Christian.  His life has been threatened for doing so.
This man of God is putting his own life on the line for the sake of protecting the lives of people of another faith.  Here is a quote from the article
Now is the time for men of good will to stand up and prove the strength and quality of their faith," said Father Fagba, standing in his floor-length black cassock beside a concrete wall peppered with bullet holes.  “When I did this, nobody in the community understood me. They attacked and threatened me.  The Muslims discovered in our church that the God we worship is the same as their God.  And that's the vision the whole of this country needs to have.  We should consider them as our brothers. What happens here gives me a certain conviction."[i]

          He is living into life even though he may die.  He understands that the resurrection is a statement of the life God wants us to have.  We may quarrel about whether or not Muslims and Christians worship the same God.  I think a lot of people – Muslims, Mormons, Christians – have imperfect ideas about God.  My theology is far from complete.  But discussions and even arguments should happen as the dinner table where we sit together in peace, and extend love to each other even when we disagree.  Father Fagba is not endorsing Islam.  He is endorsing the lives of these humans who are Muslims and are threatened with death by people bearing the name Christian.
          Jesus himself said it in John 10:10.  He came to give abundant life.  When we live into life, we follow him to the cross trusting by faith alone because faith is what makes us certain that resurrection comes after the cross.  When we live into life, we protect people who are threatened with death even if doing so puts us in the path of those bent on bringing about death.  We know the death of the body comes, but it is not the end. 
          In other words, if this is possible, we think about death differently than other people.  It is not possible, of course.  The only sure things are death and taxes; but with God, all things are possible.  When we are with Jesus, we are with God.  We can see everything from the Resurrection point of view. 
          I am reading a memoir of someone who grew up speaking evangelical Christian lingo but not understanding freedom and life in Christ.  She spent her high school days fantasizing about going ‘on mission’ and living ‘on mission.’  One of the many things that shattered her faith was what happened in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.  She writes,
The pilots of the planes were on a mission.  Their mission was death that would take others to their death, death big enough to speak a message to the American people and to the world.  I wasn’t comparing the missionary boys I knew to terrorists; it was clear to me that something had broken in these men that had caused them to see humans as disposable.  But I couldn’t stop thinking about the word mission.[ii]

          God creates each person.  No matter how anonymous we may seem in a world of 7 billion people, we are known to the almighty God.  God sees us.  He has invested himself in us, first in making us, and second, in dying for us on the cross, and third in resurrection, inviting us to Jesus, to eternal life in God’s embrace.  This eternal life begins now – the moment we give ourselves to Jesus.  For God, humans are not disposable. 
          Mary at the tomb seeks a corpse.  She loves Jesus, but she has not escaped death’s grip. Some fanatics board planes and fly them into buildings, killing themselves and thousands; living into death.  A group with murderous intentions lurks around a Central African Republic church, sometimes spraying the building with gunfire.  They bear the name ‘Christian,’ but they are living toward death. 
          Inside that church, a Catholic priest risks his life to protect the Muslims the mob wants to kill; he may die, but he is living into life.  The Apostle Paul, who only met Jesus after the resurrection, said “I will not boast, except of my weakness.  … [Jesus] was crucified in weakness but lives by the power of God” (2 Cor. 12:5; 13:4a).  Mary and the disciples could not know it until they fully understood resurrection, but once they did, nothing could stop them from sharing the gospel with the world.  The African priest, the Apostle Paul, and millions of Christians know that to live into life does not delay the body’s death or even make it less painful.  It is just that knowing resurrection is real, we know the body’s death is not the end. 
And sometimes, the body’s death can happen in such a way that our deaths testify to someone else the truth of Jesus.  In those cases, by dying, we live into life.  It is the life of Christ and life in Christ that gives us hope.  Additionally, life defines us. 
Do we understand? 
Easter is good news because of the promise of salvation that is eternal.  Easter is hope.  Easter is the best news when because we know He lives, the knowledge defines how we live.
This weekend, a few of our church members worked on a ramp at the home of some women who cannot do the work themselves and cannot hire someone to do it for them.  Our members were living into life in that work.  The women graced our folks by receiving what they offered.  We live into life when we give and honor others who give to us by graciously receiving their gift.
This afternoon Grace Church, which used to meet here in our building, and St. Joseph’s CME Church will meet at the town commons in Carrboro, right by the fire department.  Everyone in town including anyone here who’s interested is invited to gather for a meal of smoked pork barbeque and sides and desserts.  They’re calling it the Easter Feaster.  They want Carrboro to see how Christians celebrate Resurrection Day.  These two churches are living into life.
Next Saturday, more folks from our church are working on ramps to help people; living into life.  Next Sunday, we will take communion, have a potluck meal, and spend the afternoon together as a church,; we’re living into life. 
Work projects, shared meals, shared laughter, going out of our way to care for each other – these are examples of the people of God living by the love God showed in sending Christ.  Easter is the best news there is when Easter defines how we live. 
Celebrate Easter with joy, with bright colors and happy music, with friends and family; and, live Easter out by discovering you can meet God as you live into life.

[i] Christianity Today (April, 2014), p.17.
[ii] Addie Zierman (2013).  When we were on Fire.  Convergent Books, Santa Rosa, CA, p.107.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Easter Sunrise Sermon - 2014

Unspectacular Beginnings (John 20:1-18)
Sunday, April 20, 2014 (Easter Sunrise Sermon)

John 20 (NRSV)
20 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to their homes.

11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look[a] into the tomb;12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew,[b]“Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

            I was visiting a cemetery.  I walked among the headstones reading of lives summed up in a date of birth and a date of death.  A breeze blew across the garden of stone, slightly cool, just a bit uncomfortable.  The quiet also was uncomfortable … eerie.  I did not feel like I was alone.  I could not see anyone, but I was possessed by an uneasy sense. 
            Then, the most amazing thing happened …
            Actually, no, it didn’t.  I had a quiet moment of prayer and I left.

            I recall a few years ago talking to a neighbor.  I could sense she was not very interested in things of faith.  She would discuss attending church, but I think she did so because she knew I was a pastor and she wanted to relate.  She did not give any evidence that a relationship with Jesus was a driving force in her life. 
            I tried to steer the conversation in a spiritual direction.  Maybe I could get us past the small talk and down to things that truly matter, issues of the heart, yearnings of the soul.   She and I would talk at a deeper level and meeting there, together, we would meet Jesus.  I used verbal prompts to indicate my intentions, and she used facial prompts to clearly communicate her disinterest.  She was not going there, no thank you.  I longed for a conversation of great spiritual significance. She turned back my invitation.  We made it through the awkwardness and talk turned to little league baseball.  One of the kids, hers or mine, I don’t remember, came bounding round the corner of the house, hers or mine, I don’t recall.  I wanted to talk Jesus.  Nothing happened.

            A quiet walk in the cemetery ending with prayer.  A front porch conversation that resisted any spiritual content.  Unspectacular.
            It is a fitting word for the way John’s gospel gives us the resurrection, and the beginnings of Christian faith. 
            Mary made her way early in the morning.  Depression dripped all around as she sought to express the failure of deep love for one who had died and was truly and fully dead.  She remembered that he brought Lazarus back after being four days dead.  But, there was no one to bring him back.  Jesus was gone, a corpse, and she was coming to see and love a corpse.  When she came to grave site and found the tomb open, resurrection never entered her mind. 
            She ran to the disciples and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb” (v.2a).  Locked in death, she did not imagine the resurrection could have taken place.  Peter and the beloved disciple inspected the interior and found the grave clothes neatly folded.  This was exceedingly odd as grave robbers would certainly not take time to unwrap a corpse.  The text says the beloved disciple “believed” (v.8), but what he believed is unclear.  Later (v.19) he was right along with the rest hiding for fear of the authorities.  When he and Peter saw the tomb empty, we are not told what they said.  They just returned to where they were staying.
            Mary, still shrouded in death, made her way to the tomb a second time.  She looked in this time and saw two angels.  Where did they come from?  There is nothing said about Peter or the other seeing angels.  All they saw was burial cloths.  They observed and went home. 
            Now Mary sees angels who seem to have come from nowhere.  This ought to perk her up.  But death’s shadow is too heavy, too dark.  Throughout the Bible people become petrified the minute they see a heavenly being, but Mary is too sad to even be impressed.  She’s so stuck on death that the appearance of a divine creature just gives her someone else to whom she can appeal. 
            “Woman, why are you weeping?”
            “They have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have [buried] him.”  She’s set on finding a corpse.  Nothing else will do.
            She then turns and … it is Jesus!!  We know because we’ve read the story through, but she couldn’t.  She was living the story, locked in on death.  There he is.  It’s the risen Jesus Christ.  She is the first person to talk to the resurrected one and she cannot see through her tears.  All she sees is a gardener.
            “Woman, why are you weeping?”
            “Sir, if you have taken him, tell me where you have laid him and I will come and take him away.”
            It is absurd at many levels, but remember, she loved Jesus.  When everyone else was in bed, Mary got up and went to the tomb.  She was sure he was dead, but he still held her heart.  Even as she was locked in death, she went to again love him by respecting his dead body.  She is to be honored for her place in the story.
            For a resurrection account, it is an unspectacular story.  From Mary’s confusion, the scene moves to disciples hiding behind closed doors where Jesus appears to them.  They are amazed, but one is absent.  Thomas misses that meeting and when his friends tell him, he refuses to believe.  It’s like everyone in this story is determined to not grasp that God has, in Jesus, defeated death. 
            Eventually Christianity takes hold in the hearts of few.  It is a misunderstood, minority religion that at times is ignored, at times is heavily persecuted, and at other times is cruelly mocked.  In the earliest centuries, the most devout Christians finds themselves nailed to crosses or burned at the stake or thrown to lions in the coliseum while bloodthirsty crowds roar with delight.  These sound like inspiring stories but they do not include last minute angelic rescues.  There are no miracles.  In martyr stories, the heroes end up dead.
            Christianity only becomes a dominant religion when it is endorsed by Roman Emperor Constantine.  Then it does not take long for the faith to be utterly corrupted.  Any time in history the church has had the backing of those in power – governmental, financial or military power – it loses its dependence on the Spirit of God and becomes something other than Christian.  In those early years, though, the most amazing aspect of Christianity is that it survived in the face of persecution and through the fragility of the Christians themselves.
            How is it that we stand on the unspectacular?  We do because we are unspectacular. We are humdrum, average.  Yet, God meets us and moves in us.  Through every day people, God accomplishes his purposes.  We know, just as Mary and the disciples came to know, that what happened on that morning truly was God’s new way.  Death had been defeated.  Jesus rose from the grave and he invites all who believe in him to come and have life as sons and daughters of God. 
            For Mary, the moment became real when her beloved Jesus spoke her name.  Hearing him says “Mary,” the light came on.  She did not understand it all just yet, but she knew enough.  He had been dead, but here he stood.  How does one go from grief to joy instantaneously?  It cannot happen.  But it did!
            It is the same for us.  This Easter morning, we have read the resurrection story in John’s gospel and it truly is amazing.  The word of God is transformative, but only when the Spirit of God awakens our hearts and moves in us.  Only when our hearing of the word is joined by God’s touch do we realize that this all true, death has been defeated, and in Jesus, we have life. 
            John’s Gospel tells us that everyone who lives and believes in Jesus will not die and those whose bodies do die will be resurrected and live eternally.  It all begins with Jesus’ resurrection which was so unexpected those closest to him could hardly bring themselves to believe it.  But he helped along the way with his appearances, his words, and his promises.  He helps us in our unbelief as his Holy Spirit does come and guide us through our hearing and living of the story.
            I don’t know always know when the Spirit is directing me.  Sometimes, I only realize it when I look back on seasons in my life.  Only in looking back do I understand that even in struggles, I was living into resurrection because I follow Jesus, the one who is alive. 
            This morning, our Easter Sunday beginning is quiet and at the same time joyful.  I am not troubled by Mary’s inability to accept resurrection, Thomas’ doubt, or the difficulties of the early church.  I am encouraged.  Through very real people, God ignited a movement that would bring love and life to the world.  The church then and now is comprised of flawed individuals.  In many ways we are extraordinary.  We are also less than perfect.  But just as Jesus appeared and appeared again and again until the first believers got it, so does the Holy Spirit moving through the word repeatedly appeal to our hearts – until we understand.
            We are God’s.  The resurrection of Jesus is promised to us.  Unspectacular as we may be sometimes, when we gather, God is with us, calling our names, doing what needs to be done to help up see and believe.  We are united in Christ and have life in His name.  This is the good news of Easter.  Thank you, God, for calling us together and not stopping until we are in your embrace.


Friday, April 18, 2014

Good Friday Message - 2014

God on the Cross (John 19:28-30; Psalm 69)
Friday, April 18, 2014 (Good Friday)

        As Jesus was dying on the cross he said “I am thirsty.” The author of the 4th gospel adds the editorial comment that he said this in order to fulfill the scripture.  That notion, that Jesus did things to fulfill scripture, is sprinkled throughout the gospels.  What scripture was fulfilled when he said, from the cross, “I am thirsty?”
          Psalm 69:21.  It is from a prayer of David who says in this verse, “they gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.” 
          The Psalm begins “Save me, O God, from the waters that come up to my neck” (v.1).  Early in David’s life, he stared down lions as he protected his flock.  He battled the Philistine giant Goliath.  Then, as he rose to prominence, the jealousy of King Saul led him to repeatedly attempt to kill David. 
          After Saul’s death and David’s rise to the throne, problems continued.  He fell into deadly conflict with his son Absalom.  At times, Saul had armies hunting for David.  Later, it was Absalom with armies on the hunt.  More than once, surrounded by enemies David felt himself to be as good as dead unless God saved him.  And God did.
          The Messiah was to be a descendant of David.  Raised by Joseph who was in the line of David, Jesus met the requirement.  As a ‘son’ of David, Jesus had the qualification needed to be the Messiah. 
Jesus was also David’s Lord.   He lived differently than the great king.  David, in desperation, prayed that God would save him.  God did as David made it through many treacherous scrapes.  In the end, David died of natural causes.  In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus likewise asked God to take the cup of suffering from him (Luke 22:42).  This time, God did not. 
Another difference was the attitude toward tormentors.  Both had enemies intent on killing them.  Who was it that hated David (Psalm 69:4)?  The Psalm does not say but in his life, we see many candidates.  Any number of people might be opponents who David, in the Psalm, asked God to punish severely. 
Let their table be a trap for them, a snare for their allies.
23 Let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see, and make their loins tremble continually.
24 Pour out your indignation upon them, and let your burning anger overtake them.
25 May their camp be a desolation; let no one live in their tents.
26 For they persecute those whom you have struck down, and those whom you have wounded, they attack still more.[b]
27 Add guilt to their guilt; may they have no acquittal from you.
28 Let them be blotted out of the book of the living; let them not be enrolled among the righteous.

        When the mob came to arrest Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, Peter using a sword, cut off the ear of one of the men.  Jesus healed the man as he rebuked Peter (Luke 22:51; John 18:10-11).  When the soldiers whipped Jesus, crowned him with thorns, and nailed him to a cross, he said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).  Unlike David, he did not pray “May their camp be a desolation … let them be blotted out of the book of the living.”  Jesus did not ask for God’s wrath to fall on those who were so cruel.  He asked God not to hold their sins against them.
          Yes, David lamented that his tormentors gave him vinegar.  Obviously he spoke poetically using metaphor to pour his heart out to God.  Yes, Jesus fulfilled that line from David’s poem, not in metaphor but literally.  As he hung dying on the cross he said “I am thirsty.”  A soldier jammed a vinegar soaked rag in his face.  The Fourth Gospel rightly sees the threads of Israel’s scriptures in Jesus’ story. 
          David was a man of his times, an era of visceral, up close violence.  He could not launch missiles that would kill his enemies who were 100’s of miles away.  He could not stay safely out of sight as warriors do today.  He had to look them in the eye as he stabbed them in the heart.  David’s prayer that God blot out his enemies may not sound holy, but it was honest.  The Bible calls him the one after God’s own heart; but not the Savior.
          That’s Jesus.  Yes, as John says, his actions fulfilled scripture.  What he demonstrated in word and deed and heart also re-imagined the Bible.  Jesus cast a new light on everything humanity thought about God.  In Jesus, we see God working in new ways.  People knew of God’s mercy and love prior to Jesus but he brought God closer than ever before.  Because of him, the path to God was opened to all people.
          “It is finished,” he said.  Then he died.  The old day was done. 
          In our somber remembrance we are painfully aware that like David we would like to call down curses on our enemies.  Like the religious authorities who killed Jesus as a matter of convenience, we would remove anyone who obstructed our path and foiled our personally made planes.  Like the Pilate, we are blind to truth.  Like the rage-filled Roman soldiers, violence pumps in our veins.  Jesus hangs crucified because of sin – because of my sins.
          Remembering, we grieve how our sins crucified him.  We also do well to set our hearts’ attention on the one who died for us.  Think about whom he was, who he is.  He did not die so much as he, as the gospel says, bowed his head.  Even in this moment, nailed to the cross, seemingly immobile, shamed, and beaten, it is Jesus who is in control. 
          Jesus provided for his mother’s care as he hung cross (John 19:25-27).  Nothing more happened until he determined it would.  He said, “I thirst,” and then scripture was fulfilled.  Jesus declared, “It is finished.”  Only after making that statement did he give up his spirit (v.30). 
Yes, God is the one who flooded the earth but protected Noah, split the Sea so Moses could pass through, stopped the sun in the sky for Joshua, and closed the lions’ mouths for Daniel.  God is the mighty God of the whirlwind in the book of Job, the God praised by the most powerful forces of nature in the most thrilling of Psalms, Psalm 148.
          God is also the humble savior who washed his disciples’ feet, who healed the ear of one of the guards sent to arrest him, who shared truth with the governor who tried to intimidate him, and forgave the soldiers who mocked and crucified him.  We can see God in the scriptures leading up to the Gospels but we are invited closer in the Jesus we meet in the Gospels. 
          Good Friday is a day to be as honest as David was.  We come fully clothed in sin and hang our sins on him as he hangs.  Naked we stand before him.  He drapes a robe of light onto us, his divine light.  We shine because his name is affixed to us.  It is a day of sadness on one level.  We enter that sadness and do not minimize it.
But, it is a remembered sadness, not a felt one.  We know where story goes.  More importantly, entering it at this point, at the cross, we know that is a day that we see God.  This is a day we understand how it is that God loves us. 
          The gospels tell us nothing of the Saturday after the crucifixion.  I do not know the proper spiritual practices for that day.  I do not believe there is any one way to observe ‘holy Saturday.’  I offer this.  Why not spend that Saturday quietly, fixing our minds on the crucified God.  Do it early, so that the sense of Jesus being for you sets in.  Do it intensely enough so that truth that you are forgiven and free becomes so real, you live it.  Saturday is a day for washing; Jesus cleanses our hearts, polishes our souls, renews our minds.  He brightens our smiles.  We are bathed in the redeeming, creating love of the crucified God.  We come out new because Jesus makes all things new including you and me. 


Maundy Thursday Message - 2014

Jesus the Giver (John 6:35-51; 13:1-11)
Thursday, April 17, 2014 – Maundy Thursday

            Nelson Mandela spent years and years in prison in South Africa, yet he survived that ordeal, made it out, became president, and forgave those who unjustly imprisoned him.  He gained a reputation for courage, grace, focus, and great inner strength.  Martin Luther King Jr. is known for non-violence.  He dreamed of an integrated America before it happened.  He spoke with charisma and people wanted to follow him; or kill him.  They did both.
            Here in our own town, there are stories of men and women of great character and integrity.  One example of many is former basketball coach Dean Smith.  He is known as much for his faith and social conscience as his brilliance as a coach.  He is respected for his character.
            I could go on with examples.  The one thing others cannot take away is integrity, yet people compromise their own values far too often.  Though it cannot be taken, we give our integrity, we forfeit our reputation, and as a result we struggle to trust one another.  Jesus’ character was never in question.
            This may sound like an example of stating what is ridiculously obvious – Jesus was a good man.  Well, no kidding!  Was that even in question?  And yet, to look closely at why we accept this without question helps us know how to stand before Jesus.  We take up a vulnerable posture in which all we can do is present ourselves fully exposed, our souls completely bare, and then receive whatever he dishes out.
            Why?  It begins with what Jesus did in gathering his disciples for a meal the night he would be arrested.  The gospels indicate strongly he knew what was coming.  Whether he knew it would be that evening or sometime very soon, he knew.  His actions were intentional, done so that after the crucifixion/resurrection dust had settled; his disciples could look back, remember, and learn from what he did.  
            They would have reclined around a table kind of at the height of a coffee table.  And Jesus washed their feet.  I thought why is it such a big deal that he washed their feet?  Along with that question, I wonder, why do I feel compelled to wash feet just because Jesus did it?
            In his culture it was an act of service done by a servant or in many cases by a slave.  It was a lowly chore.  That was a world where people traveled by foot; they walked dirt roads; and they wore sandals.  I would guess those feet were a kind of dirty we rarely see, we of shoes, sock, carpets, pavement, and bathtubs.  It was lowly and here the master lowered himself in a shocking way.
            In our culture the issue is intimacy and self-reliance.  I’ll wash my own feet, thank you.  I’ll do it at my house and then I’ll hide them.  If you must look down there, notice my shoes.  I love you, but I don’t know if I want us to move to that level of intimacy in our friendship.  I’m not sure I want my foot in your hands.
            In Jesus’ day, they did not want to wash the feet of others.  In our day, we don’t want others to wash our feet.  In both cases, the act is a significant step out of normal.  And there’s the genius of it.  Jesus said to his contemporaries in this act, you are no better than the servant who washed feet.  In our day he says to us, you need to open your hearts and let me in and let your brothers and sisters in Christ in
            Sure, we are capable of washing our own feet.  But are we vulnerable enough to let people into our hearts to the point that we truly are a family in Christ.  Will we allow him to smash down the barriers we erect to keep everyone, sometimes even our spouses, at a safe distance?  Can we invite Jesus so deeply that we have the intimate love here in our family of believers that Jesus insisted be what defines us?
            In the account of the foot washing in John 13 and in our acting it out, we see Jesus character.  He, the Lord, is a servant.  He models servant-love and demands that we give servant love to one another, to those society would call the ‘least of these,’ and to our enemies.  The foot washing is one way Jesus breaks us down so he break into our lives, our hearts.
            Because of his willingness to show servant-love as he calls us to servant love is one reason we admire Jesus’ character.  Another is his sacrifice.  When we gather around the communion table, we take the bread.  We hold it up and say, ‘this represents the body of Christ.’  We eat it because he said, ‘do this in remembrance of me.’  The broken bread is his body, broken by our sins.  The wine or grape juice represents his blood – the blood of the New Covenant.  Because he died for us and because we confess our sins and receive forgiveness, we have life in the New Covenant. 
            The Gospel of John is abundantly clear that Jesus the man knew exactly what he was doing.  Yes, he was fully God.  At the same time, he was fully human.  When nails drove through his hands, it hurt as much as it would hurt you or me.  Yet, he knew it was coming and went to it for the world, for you and me.  In chapter 10, he says, “I lay down my life.  … No one takes it from me but I lay it down of my own accord” (10:18). 
            In John 19, having been arrested, the beaten, poor Galilean rabbi stands before the splendor and might of Rome, an inquiry from Governor Pontius Pilate.  Yet, Jesus seems to control the entire dialogue.  Frustrated, Pilate asks, “Do you refuse to speak to me?  Do you not know that I have the power to release you and the power to crucify you?”  Already bloodied from the thorns and the whip, Jesus says back, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above” (19:10-11). 
            Jesus chose the cross.  It was God’s plan from the start.  I don’t think God forced Judas to betray him or forced the chief priests to hand him over to Pilate.  I think each player in the drama made his own choices.  But God knows the human heart and the human weakness when it comes to sin and temptation.  Jesus took the sin on himself. 
            When we talk about his great character, we can say many things.  I have chosen to focus on how he expressed servant love, and how Jesus gave of himself as an act of sacrificial love.  Service and sacrifice:  these attributes are what Jesus is all about and they indicate how we are to stand before him. 
            When Jesus knelt, Peter protested.  “You will never wash my feet,” he told his master (13:8).  “Unless I wash you,” Jesus responded, “you have no share with me.”  There is nothing we do.  We present ourselves as we are in all our dirtiness, shame, and failure before God.  There’s no initiative from us; no skill or exceptional achievement.  There is no gain or hard work that gets us there.  Broken, we come and Jesus is the actor, the doer.  He washes.  If we do not come in this way, receiving what the giver gives, we never can be one with him.
            Similarly he says, “Unless you eat the flesh of the son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”  Nothing in any of the four gospels means literal cannibalism.  Joined with the bread and cup accounts in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we know that here in John 6, Jesus meant we eat the bread and cup as a symbol of us taking him into ourselves.  But when I say, “taking in,” I mean receive.  We accept that we are sinners, but that his body scarred and blood spilled make a way for us.  If we do not, then we do have the eternal Jesus gives. 
            At the foot washers’ basin and at the communion table, we are receivers and Jesus the giver.  Our hands are open as are our hearts.  Nothing is held back or hidden.  We come acknowledging that we belong to him.  We are his and the best that is in us is what he gives. 
            This is not necessarily easy.  People who work hard and achieve a lot want take pride in standing on their own accomplishments.  Taking on the posture of receiving may be one of the biggest obstacles blocking the path to life-changing faith.  We are forced to trust.  Many will not.  Pride is a root cause of sin, yet many of the proudest people in the country sit in churches every week.  We are proud of our children, proud of our families, proud of churches, and proud of ourselves.  Nothing any pastor says will dent that pride in the least.  That entrenched pride produces unmovable wills which is sad because it means people bearing the identity of a Christian are in fact keeping themselves from God.
            I pray tonight, Maundy Thursday, you and I would not be among the proud.  I know we have been.  I wrestle with pride and tonight, I am asking God to help me let it go.  Would you do that?  Would you ask God to free you from having to stand on your own?  Would you look to Heaven and in your spirit confess your sins and your helplessness?  Having confessed would you then open yourself to Jesus and receive what he gives?  In washing feet and being washed, we honor our servant God and we are cleansed by him.  In eating bread and drinking juice, we take him into us as we admit that we are nothing without him.
            He is the great giver, giving life to all who will die to self and receive from him.  Can we do that tonight?

            We will have silent prayer and then be invited forward for the Lord’s Supper.