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Monday, June 29, 2015

The Generous Hearted Church

The Generous Church (2 Corinthians 8:7-15)
Rob Tennant, HillSong Church, Chapel Hill, NC
Sunday, June 28, 2015

            A Christian who lives in Carrboro, NC reads his paper and finds himself horrified by the actions of the ISIS militants in Syria and Iraq. 
A church-going family feels themselves filled with joy and warmth as all five of them, Mom, Dad, and the kids gather round to read the letter from the child they sponsor in Ethiopia. 
We as a family of believers last week wept for a church in another states, South Carolina where there was a shooting. 
In a one of our church small group’s prayer meetings, there is mention of a friend known to only one of the group’s members, yet everyone in the group prays with deep feeling and genuine passion for that request.
            Why?  That Carrboro disciple of Jesus does not know a soul in Syria or Iraq.  He has never been out of the United States.  Why is in any way affected by what is happening in that part of the world?
            That church family has never met the Ethiopian child they help go to school with their monthly sponsorship dollars.  Why do they care so much about her?  They don’t know her.  So why do they act, seriously, as if Hyatt is a member of their family?
            I don’t know anyone in Emmanuel Church in Charleston and before June 17, I did not of the church’s existence.  What made it so natural for me to ask our church to pray for them and grieve with them? What ties us to them?
            In the prayer group, someone says, “Could we pray for my friend’s boss.  His marriage is falling apart.  His name is Chris.”  No one in the group knows Chris.  Yet the group prays.  What is going on?

            Much of the New Testament is made up of letters written by early leaders to encourage congregations that existed throughout the Mediterranean world.  Most of these letters, called epistles, were written by Paul who made several long journeys, planting churches as went from Jerusalem, through Turkey and Greece and finally all the way to Rome.  One of the churches he struggled with the most was the church in Achaia, which was in Corinth. He wrote two letters to the Corinthians.
In 1st Corinthians 16, Paul writes, “Now concerning the collection for the saints: you should follow the directions I gave to the churches of Galatia. On the first day of every week, each of you is to put aside and save whatever extra you earn, so that collections need not be taken when I come. And when I arrive, I will send any whom you approve with letters to take your gift to Jerusalem.
Time passes, Paul’s relationship with the Corinthian church grows tense, and he eventually writes other letters including the material we find in 2nd Corinthians.  He wants the believers there to give money weekly.  He will pick it up and take it to provide for the needs of the poor Christians in Jerusalem.

I can imagine one or two Corinthians asking, why should we care about Jerusalem?  What is that to us?  Indeed, what is it that drives the people who find their identity in Christ to acts of kindness, prayer, and financial generosity?
In 2nd Corinthians 8:7-8, Paul names several of the themes he’s identified previously.  He tells the Corinthians, “Now as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you[d]—so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.”  He mentioned faith, hope and love in 1st Corinthians, and here again, love is of highest importance.  This time love is seen in generosity. 

On more than one occasion Jesus was asked, “What is the top commandment?”  He always gave the same answer.  , “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and love your neighbor, your fellow human beings as you love yourself.”  All the law and the prophets, in other words, every holy word every written in scripture hangs on how we love God and love people.
Paul builds on this foundation in Romans 12, 1st Corinthians 13, Galatians 5 where it is the first of the fruit of the Spirit, and here.  Paul wants the Corinthians to give money – a lot of money.  The Jewish Christ followers in Jerusalem desperately need this.  But for Paul it is not just a matter of accomplishing the goal.  It is also about the growth of the Corinthians as disciples.  He wants them to be filled with joy as they give the gift.  He says in 8:8, “I am testing the genuineness of your love.”
Does Paul have the right do that?  I think this feels presumptuous and needlessly blunt.  Who does he think is?  But then, we proceed to verse 9 where we find ourselves at the heart of the matter.

 “You know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ,” Paul reminds the church, “that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.”
Jesus was rich.  Before he was born in that Bethlehem stable, Jesus existed in the joy of the trinity as God the Son, the eternal one.  He basked in the glory of God and he left that glory and took on humanity.  In Philippians Paul writes Jesus emptied himself.  He was rich – as rich as words can describe.  And he left that behind to enter the feeble poverty of human life.  This is the incarnation – God with us when God did not have to do it and we did not earn it.  This is grace.  This is the gospel story – what God has done for us in Christ.
Paul emphasizes that his action, taking poverty of sinful humanity upon himself was effective.  By his poverty – specifically meaning his death on the cross – the Corinthians and all Jesus’ followers became rich.  That is, when we are in Christ, we anticipate the abundance of Heaven.  Whatever our lives are like on earth, we know we will live in God’s luxury.  We have the promise of eternity.
Moreover, today, as we live in service to God and in the joy of God, we have the richness of relationships.  We live in the love of God and the love of neighbor.  It all comes to us by Jesus’ sacrificial acts of leaving Heaven to walk as a human and then dying on the cross to take our place in death. 

To collect money and give it to believers they had never met was not something the Corinthians did as a kind of a great spiritual accomplishment.  Nor is it so for us.  We do not sponsor children from impoverished places so we can earn Heavenly street-cred.  We do not give our money or invest our time or shed our tears or pour out our prayers to God on behalf of strangers because we want accolades.  We do not strive for goodness and righteousness so that in the eyes of God and men we are highly.  At least we not live Godly lives for those reasons, not if they followed Paul’s reasoning.

Why do we care about people we don’t know?  Why do people we will never meet in person burden our hearts and inspire to give and pray and act?  It is because of Jesus.  Generosity is a response to the riches we have received.   
The generous church is the body of Christ-followers who know that they are who they are because of what Jesus did.  We are alive, joy-filled, and bound for eternity because God loves us, Jesus died for us, and the Spirit lives in us.  We know we are a created people – a people re-created as we realize what the cross and resurrection means.
It strips away any arrogance we might conjure up.  Some in the church have done a lot in the eyes of men in terms of income, education, and social status.  But we all stand on equal footing – no matter our jobs, our titles, or other measures of status.  We join hands as people who realize our dependence on God and our love for one another. 
In verses 13-14, Paul tells his readers, “it is a question of a fair balance between 14 your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance.”  In the Kingdom of God, no one goes hungry because everyone cares about everyone else.  Knowing we have been saved by grace, we strive for this mutual caring on this side of Heaven.  While waiting for the Lord’s return, in dependence on the Holy Spirit, we live into the Kingdom reality that will be ultimately fulfilled When Jesus comes.
By involving the Gentiles with the Jewish Christ-followers in Jerusalem, Paul may have imagined a fulfillment of the prophecy, Isaiah 55:5, which says, “Nations that do not know you shall run to you because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel.”
For Paul Corinth was the nation that did now know.  In giving their offering to relieve the poverty of the Jerusalem church, they were “running to” Israel to be joined to God’s people.  They did this because of the Holy One of Israel, Jesus.  In Isaiah 60:5, the prophet says the wealth of the nations shall come to Israel, the home of the people of God.  Paul envisioned the embodiment of this prophecy in the action of the Greek-speaking churches donating money to feed the hungry Jerusalem Christians.  He saw the grand narrative of God’s story playing itself out. 
Can we see at Paul saw?  Can we commit to generosity as a gratitude response to the grace we’ve been given by God in Christ?
We’re going to take communion this morning.  We’re going to take Communion by coming forward and taking the bread, Christ’s body, and the cup, his blood.  As you stand in the line, moving forward, consider Paul’s joy as he carried the collection to Jerusalem.  Ponder the hearts of the Corinthian believers as they put their contributions in for brothers in Christ they’d never meet.  Imagine this movement of money to the city as if it were the Nations streaming to Jerusalem, to God, to Christ.
Now think about that Ethiopian child who is sponsored; and the Syrian believers huddled in a refugee camp; and believers in African American churches across America, and white churches joining with them, reaching for unity in Christ.  Imagine all these in the line walking up to receive the bread and cup, the body and blood. 
See yourself, one forgiven, made new, called in Christ.  As you walk up and see your friends who have worshipped with you today, realize the hospitality of Christ who is the one that invites you to this table.  In eating and drinking, open your heart to His Spirit.  As you do this and we do this, He makes us the generous church, filled with gratitude, ready to give because we know doing so announces the grace of God.


AMEN

Monday, June 22, 2015

Sermon in response to Shootings in Charleston, June 17, 2015

“Living God’s Story” (2 Cor. 6:1-13; 7:2-4)
 June 21, 2015

        Paul pleads with the Corinthian Christians, “Make room in your hearts for us. … I have great pride in you; I am filled with comfort. In all our affliction, I am overflowing with joy” (7:2, 4).
        In this church, rich Christ followers looked down upon impoverished Christ followers and sometimes flaunted their wealth.  Within this church, there was serious misunderstanding about appropriate sexual ethics for followers of Jesus.  The Corinthians Christians struggled with how spiritual gifts should be exercised worship.  In some cases people with particular gifts were elevate above others even though the gifts were supposed to be from God.  The Corinthian Christians struggled in their understanding of resurrection.  And they did not know how to leave behind paganism and polytheism and give full devotion to Jesus.
        The reason much of the best practical teaching in the New Testament comes from Paul’s letters to Corinth is the believers in that church struggled in so many areas.  Paul was at his wits’ end trying to show these new believers how to live as a community –the body of Christ, the family of God.  Furthering complicating his task were other teachers who came claiming that the Corinthians should ignore Paul.  These others who, according to Paul claimed to be “super-apostles,” made his task of shepherding this complicated group even harder. 
        At times Paul came down quite hard on the Corinthians.  Numerous commentators I have read believe he saw himself as a spiritual father to the Corinthians and the father’s discipline is apparent in both letters.  Yet, he tenaciously holds onto joy. 
Make room in your hearts for us. 
I have great pride in you.
I am overflowing with joy.

Today, churches across America must cling to joy and love and fellowship.  We must cling to who we are in Christ tightly for I fear what is coming.  Recently a 14-year-old African American girl at a pool party was roughed up by a stressed out white police officer.[i]  This was the latest in an unfathomable string of racially-motivated incidents.  I know authorities say it wasn’t about race.  They always say it isn’t about race.  Yet, coincidentally, these stories have a consistent them; unarmed minority youths are bullied, abused or killed by armed white people, often white law enforcement officers.  The story Texas was the latest until this past Wednesday, June 17. 
On that day, Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC was doing what thousands of churches across America do on Wednesday night.  They were having Wednesday night prayer service.  I have probably been a part of close to 1000 of these services in my life.  It is an activity that is a normal part of church life in many traditions.  In this case, it was a small group, all African American.  And a white man came asking to see the pastor.  This church community did what the church does.  They brought the man in, welcomed him, took him to the pastor, and made him feel like he was a part. 
Clearly he looked different, but when we are in Christ, our differences are signs of God’s beauty.  We celebrate our uniqueness as we join our hearts to one another.  They were doing what churches do.  That’s what really gets me about this story.  The Emmanuel Church was creating safe space for Dylann Roof to seek God.  He sat in that safe space for nearly an hour, and then violated it as he killed 9 people who were welcoming him into their circle.
When we recite the names – Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and the rest, and the places – Staten Island, Cleveland, Baltimore, Missouri – and now we add this sad chapter, I fear America is on a collision course with a violent explosion in racial tension.  I believe the worst is coming.  But that does not have to be all that is coming.
We who bear the name ‘Christian’ can to take this time to show what it means to be ‘in Christ.’  We must do this.  We have to go out of our way to hold up a competing narrative to the one that’s ripping across our nation.  We have to stand in the power of the Gospel and say, “There is another story, one in which people, black and white, Asian and Hispanic, male and female celebrate one another and love each other.”  We have to tell that story as the story of racism rages loudly. 

A part of our proclamation of the Gospel is to weep for Clementa Pinckney, Daniel Simmons Sr., Cynthia Hurd, Sharonda Singleton, Myra Thompson, Tywanza Sanders, DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Susie Jackson, and Ethel Lance.  These people are brothers and sisters – our brothers and sisters in Christ.  When our family dies, it hurts.  When death comes as the church is being the church, we weep loudly and deeply.  That must be part of our statement of faith.

So too we must commit to being the safe space where all can come and find the love of Jesus.  Make room in your hearts for us, Paul said. I am overflowing with joy.  Even now, even through tears, anticipating days of darker violence, we have joy in Christ. 

I have had the experience the pastor at Emmanuel had.  Someone comes asking for the pastor.  The person appears to have some things very wrong in his life.  When the pastor responds to the unsettled individual, there is no telling what will happen.  That is the point where a voice in my head says, ‘this could get very interesting.’ 
I talked for over an hour to a suicidal man who thankfully finally allowed me to escort him into the hospital emergency room.  I have received bomb threat phone calls.  I testified in a court in trial involving gang-violence.  These personal experiences of mine by extension are the experiences of the church. I, no we, have been through these things.
I have read articles about churches being “soft targets.”  That is kind of the point when I say we need to be safe space.  “Safe” means it is emotionally and spiritually safe in the same way Jesus was a welcoming presence to the most sinful of people.  In his day, the religious institution, represented by temple and synagogue, had become corrupt.  Sinners did not find hope in these places but rather condemnation.  The religious powers that be were not safe for people whose lives were a mess.  They would come broken and ben made to feel worse. 
On the other hand, Jesus was safe for people who had major problems.  People who had really failed in their lives could come to Jesus and receive love and hope, not condemnation.  Thus, Jesus’ church must be safe for lost people including those who are hurting, unstable, unbalanced, and maybe even dangerous. 
Emmanuel Church was Jesus to Dylann Roof, a mass murderer.  They extended his grace.  Paul tells the Corinthians, “We appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain.”  The word “vain” can mean empty.  With all the struggles the Corinthians had, Paul feared they would receive the grace but never live graced lives.  They would continue to live as pagans, to listen to competing preachers who put Paul down, and show no signs that they were filled with the Spirit of God.  They would mouth words of belief in the Gospel but it would make no difference in their lives. 
America is about to explode in racial violence.  I pray the welcome Emmanuel Church gave to Dylann Roof was not in vain.  I pray their hospitality does not come up empty.  I pray the story of churches across America is a story of God’s people standing up to hatred and violence with love, compassion, hospitality, and grace. 
At some point, anger will reach a boiling point in some African Americans.  How could it not?  That anger will bubble over into violence.  Some in white America will respond defensively or judgmentally.  Others in white America will try to insulate themselves from the struggle.  This will especially be the case in more affluent communities.  If the violence, the blowback, and the indifference and isolation become the defining narratives and only stories told and heard, we will have failed as people charged with proclaiming the gospel.  The grace of God we have received and Emmanuel Church showed will be in vain.  Grace comes up empty.  The world is fallen. The stories of violence and hate will play out.  They cannot be the only ones. 
We have a better story to tell.  Paul tells the Corinthians, “now is the acceptable time.  Today is the day of salvation” (6:2).  He doesn’t mean today is the day one decided to entrust his life to Jesus, although that is a starting point.  When Paul says in 2 Corinthians 6 that “today is the day,” he means today is the day to live into the salvation we have been given.  How do we do that?
As I discussed these matters with church friends at VBS this past week, one said in response to the Charleston shootings, “I want to do something.”  I understand how she feels. I hope others feel this way.  I suggest reading stories.  Pray until your knees wear out.  Participate in marches and community discussions.  Travel to Charleston and sit in on memorial services.  Go out of your way to develop friendships with people from backgrounds different than your own.  Try to see the world from a perspective that is different that your culture vantage point.  Acknowledge your own prejudices and ask God to help you get those biases out of your life.  Do all these things. 
If you hear this and you don’t have any emotion and you don’t find in yourself any sorrow over what happened, check your heart.  Jesus is weeping at the death of his children.  If we call ourselves Christians, then we weep when He weeps.  We grieve as deeply as He grieves.

Live into salvation.  How?
I want to do something?  What?

We as a community of faith have to tell the alternate story – the grace story.  In the middle of the coming story, we have to be the story of hope.  We do this by opening our doors and ourselves to the lost and hurting people in the world.  Yes, churches are soft targets because broken people need a soft place to land.  Hurting people need to meet Jesus in an atmosphere of love. 
Paul knew the Corinthian Church was full of heartache.  In chapter 6 verses 4-10, he recites all the difficulties he has faced as a servant of Christ.  Yet he said to them, “Our heart is wide open to you” (6:11).  And he begged them, “Make room in your hearts for us” (7:2a).  He risked being wounded again because he hoped he could help the church become the community where people meet Jesus and come to life, a life lived eternally in love and grace.
By being a safe place, a soft target, we risk everything.  Dylann Roof could walk in here.  Or someone without a gun but with a dangerous agenda could attempt to infiltrate our community.  Our commitment to being a people who welcome all leaves us open to such risks.  But we embrace that because God has given us a particular mission.  God calls us to live a story in which people of different backgrounds are brothers and sisters who embrace each other in the love of Jesus.  God calls us to stand in the midst of the violence, throw open our doors, and say to the world, “Come in, you’ll be loved here.  You’ll be valued here.  You have a place here.  In the heart of God, in God’s Kingdom, you have a home.
In coming days, it will become harder for us to tell this story and live this mission.  But we will do it no matter the cost because God enables us as God calls us.  And we will do it with great joy because God’s story is a grace story and a joy story.  The hope for the world is in the telling and living of that story.  Now is the time.
AMEN



[i] http://www.cnn.com/2015/06/10/us/mckinney-texas-pool-party-video/

Monday, June 15, 2015

"Seeing New Creations" 2 Corinthians 5:6-17


June 14, 2015

          Two weeks ago, I labeled Christians – we are the “born-agains.”  I made the case that all Christians are born again Christians.  Anyone interested in why I say this can listen to the sermon on our website or read out my blog.  Better yet, read the Gospel of John, chapter 3.
          Last week, I declared that we “born agains” are “clay jars,” hard and easily broken.  We are all cracked pots.  Actually, the Apostle Paul is the one who said that.  did.  Again, you can listen or read my “Honest Talk with God” blog.  Better still, read 2nd Corinthians 4. 
          I offer no labels this morning.  Instead, we are invited to see as Christ sees.  How do born-again clay pots see and regard people?
          Before we dig into the answer, a word from 2nd Corinthians 5:15 is needed.  That verse says, “[Jesus Christ] died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.”  That Jesus died for us is good news, the best news, because sin leads to death and eternal separation from God, and we all sin, every one of us.
          If I lie and get caught, others see me as a liar.  The consequence is no one will trust me.  He steals something, gets caught, and he’s convicted of a misdemeanor or a felony.  There may be jail time or a fine or community service.  You kill someone and get convicted, and you may face life in prison or the death penalty.  All these things are sins in God’s eyes and when we die in sin then we die eternally.  Eternal death means eternal separation from God, a condition we describe as Hell. 
          When Paul tells us “Jesus died for all,” we realize Jesus took sin, death, and Hell off of us and carried it on his own shoulders.  Because of the cross, we are saved from eternal separation from God. 
          Verse 15 goes on to give one of the results. We have our faith in Christ and thus we have life.  This means we live for him.  Jesus shares our death and shares with us His resurrection.  We have eternal life and that means our lives are no longer ours.  Our lives – our individual lives and us united as the body of Christ – are for Him.  We belong to the Lord, we live for the Lord. 
          OK – so what?  What, exactly, does this mean?  We live for Jesus.  What does this mean in the daily living of our lives?  Verse 16 gives us focus.  The verse begins “From now on.”  If you are reading The Message you see that it says, “Because of this.”  The New King James Version says, “Therefore.”  The NIV renders it “So from now on.” 
          All these English versions show the same thing – there is a change.  That Jesus died and rose and that we came to entrust our lives to him by putting our faith in him means a radical change in the direction and orientation of our lives.  We were self-focused.  Now, in Christ, we are God-focused.  We were, in life, headed away from an eternity with Him.  Now, in Christ, our lives are God-oriented.  A change has occurred.
          This shift from a life apart from God to a life that is lived under Jesus as Lord is radical enough that Paul found himself challenged.  He was opposed by his fellow monotheists, Jews who did not believe Jesus was the son of God or the Messiah.  He was confronted by Romans who felt an offense that he would claim Jesus, and not Caesar, is Lord.  And he was mocked by Greeks who lived by a loose polytheism and the wisdom of sages like Plato.  And, Paul was challenged by other Christians, people within the church. 
To all these he says in verse 13, “If we are beside ourselves, it is for God.” Paul knew some thought he was just crazy.  He accepted that.  Living for God meant taking whatever abuses might come.  In our era, we are in some quarters expected to live for our country.  Marketers want us to live for ourselves.  If we do then they will sell us products they have convinced us we need, if we want to be happy.  You need this new phone.  You need this new … whatever.  Why?  It will make you happy.  Other voices today may reject that life has any meaning at all.  There is no God and we are all results of a biological process, the collection of atoms.  To the nationalists, capitalists, self-worshipers, and atheists, we say what Paul said to the temple, the government, and the academy:  “Go ahead, call us crazy.  We are living for God and that looks insane to you, so be it.”
We do not try to live for God in a way that allows us to also idolize country or idolize self.  We do not dare say becoming a Christian is no big thing.  It is the biggest change we’ll go through.  “From now on;” “Because of this;” “Therefore;” we are in Christ.  He is Lord of our lives. 
Following his lead then, we see from his perspective.  We born-again cracked pots regard people as Jesus regards people.  Verse 16 makes this clear.  Because we are in Christ, how we approach others will be the biggest change we make.  “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view.”
Jesus’ own teaching illuminates this.  If you ever watched Star Trek you know Vulcans live by a code.  “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one.”  In the Gospel of Luke, chapter 15, Jesus says God is like a shepherd who leaves his 99 sheep to go out and find one lost sheep.  When we see people, not from a human point of view but as God sees them, we then see them as ones for whom God goes out of his way to save.
You’re at the grocery store and you see a mom with her teenage son.  She is riding him hard.  You failed two classes last semester.  You father was a straight ‘A’ student.  You brother made the dean’s list in college.  You failed two classes.  And, three times I was called by the principle about your behavior.  If you don’t care school, at least care about your family.  You are embarrassment to us all.”  You are appalled at the way she demeans her son and you should be.  It is terrible to break a kid like that.  It is even in worse to do it for everyone in the Food Lion to hear.  And they do hear it.  You see heads turn to witness this major parenting fail.  You want to go over and tell that mom to shut it. 
From God’s point of view, she is a lost sheep who needs to be saved.  “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we no longer know him in that way.”  We know he was a human and he was God; we know he died on the cross.  And so the cross the lens we look through when we see the world and more importantly people in the world.
We see the overbearing verbally abusive mom and her actions may merit criticism.  If the child were young and she were beating the kid, authorities should be called in.  But we do not hold her in contempt.  The cross of Christ colors our visions.  We see her and we see her sins on him, nailed to a cross.  With love we see that she needs him. 
In our daily relationships, we no longer regard others as we did before we were in Christ.  We now see spiritually.  Love determines how we regard others – those in the church and those outside it.  Paul writes in 2nd Corinthians 2:15, “We are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing.”
What then does it look like to regard people when we see as Christ sees?  Paul names it in 2nd Corinthians 5:17-21.
17 So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself,[d] not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 20 So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

          We pray for the angry mom in the super market and the son she verbally flogs.  We look with the love the Spirit pours into our hearts and we pray for reconciliation.  Think about real people you know, those who anger you.  Think about those who hurt others, those you know who are difficult.  We look and see people who, if they turned to Christ, would become new creations in him.  We don’t see from human point of view but from his.
          We do this when we look in the mirror too.  Sometimes the one we hold in contempt most, the one we love least is ourself.  When you see yourself do you see the new creation Christ is creating – the new you Christ is forming in His image?  That’s how Paul saw himself.  He writes in 2 Corinthians 1:12-14,
12 Indeed, this is our boast, the testimony of our conscience: we have behaved in the world with frankness[c] and godly sincerity, not by earthly wisdom but by the grace of God—and all the more toward you. 13 For we write you nothing other than what you can read and also understand; I hope you will understand until the end— 14 as you have already understood us in part—that on the day of the Lord Jesus we are your boast even as you are our boast.

When we see ourselves and others from Jesus’ perspective, through cross-colored lenses, through eyes of love, we see the new creation that we become in Him.  And in those who don’t know Him, we see what they can be if the join themselves to Christ.  We always see people as to who they are in Christ or who they might be in Christ. 
I close with an assignment.  Determine that this week, you will see from Jesus’ perspective.  You will see people as God sees people.  Now this is an assignment, so write it down.  When you leave this place, imagine the very next person you will see.  When you see him or her, imagine how Christ sees that individual.  And you see him that way and relate to him in kind.  Act toward him as if he is a new creation in Christ or is someone in need of Christ. 
This requires discipline.  You will see people you don’t like, at least not in the flesh.  Jesus did not say, love them unless they annoy you and then you can treat them like dirt.  No, he said, love as you love yourself.  Paul unfolds this teaching by telling us we are in Christ so we see people as new creations. 
So go out and see in this way beginning with the first person you encounter after leaving here.  We see with eyes of love and act on what we see.

AMEN

2 Corinthians 4:7 - Treasure in Jars of Clay

“Good News About Death” (2 Corinthians 4:7-5:1)
Rob Tennant, HillSong Church, Chapel Hill, NC
Sunday, June 7, 2015
Recently I made a minor blunder.  It was a small mistake made in the course of carrying out my duties as pastor of the church.  So, I said to someone, “Your preacher is a clay pot.”  A bit of Biblical literacy is required in order for that allusion to make sense.  Paul writes in 2nd Corinthians 4, “we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” 
          Of course clay pots, once they cool are hardened, and if they are dropped on a rock or a concrete floor, they smash.  Was Paul saying that we who follow Jesus are hard headed and hard hearted?  Yes. 
          We can be short tempered with one another.  We hold on to forgiveness and mercy.  We refuse to give it.  We refuse to give one another grace.  We can be very hard hearted.
          We can be given the truths of scripture and yet we are so locked on what we think we already know, we are seemingly incapable of seeing what God wants to show us.  We become set in our thinking, fixed, static.  This intractable stance makes it difficult to learn new things or be open to new relationships. 
          Yes, Paul was most certainly saying that we who follow Christ are hard; we’re set when we should be malleable in our master’s hands.  And we are fragile, easily cracked.  It dropped on the floor one time too many, we may shatter.  We are broken. 
          Thus my statement about the preacher being a clay pot was and is a truth that I and each one of us is prone to falling and to failing spectacularly in our discipleship.  When Paul wrote this, he said, “We.”  He did not say, “You Corinthians are a bunch of cracked pots.”  He said, “We are.”
          I wonder if it is my fragility and my tendency to commit errors that led me to think it was a good idea to entitle this sermon “Good News about Death.”  It seems a bit insensitive.  We have several members of our church who have loved ones who have died in the past month.  A mother or a father living a fews hours drive from here or several states away has died.  And our brothers and sisters here, HillSong members, have to go through all the pain of grief and the burden of handling the affairs and estate of the death of the one we loved.  This wave of loss has hit many of our members in a very short span.
          Many others are in that awful spot of waiting for it.  I don’t have to spend more than a minute and I can come up with a list of half a dozen to a dozen people in our church family who have a mom or a dad or a beloved uncle who is elderly and in very bad health.  Then the cruel game of waiting plays out.  You know your loved one is suffering and is going to die and it is probably going to be soon.  But you aren’t sure.  Part of your knows death will bring relief.  Your mom or dad won’t suffer the daily pain any more.  You want that end.  But, when it does, then mom or dad is gone. 
          Many of our families here at HillSong are doing that difficult dance with end of life realities.  Many others within the past few weeks have seen the end of life come.  In a few HillSong families, they have and are experiencing both.  One spouse’s mother dies.  The other spouse’s father is failing fast but has not yet died.  Paul writes in verses 8 and 9, “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; 9 persecuted, but not abandoned;struck down, but not destroyed.”

I hope Paul is right.  I hope we are not crushed.  I pray that despair is not setting in on anyone.  Please, dear God, don’t let the struggles we or any believers face destroy us. 
          Many hear this and think, “That’s not me.  Everyone I love is doing OK.  He’s not addressing me this morning.”  That may be going through your mind right now.  Please understand, I have definitely been there.  I have sat as a speaker spent much time addressing a struggle I was not facing.  Maybe right now, you are not facing declining health, the reality of old age, and death.  You will.  I will.  As long as we are part of the fallen world, even though we are in Christ, we suffer the injuries of sin and death.  And this message is not all about grief.  The title is “Good News about Death.”  To get to the good, we have to walk through the bad and describe it as we go.  And you may have problems that quite serious even they aren’t related to the type of grief I have named.  Everyone of us has times in life when we are hard pressed on every side.
Of course, Paul was referring to persecutions suffered by first century Christians.  But, he also had in mind that Christians are as inflicted with the fall that sin produces as the rest of humanity.  Followers of Jesus make mistakes.  We are cracked pots.  Our bodies die.  And God, in the beginning, did not create us for blunders or for death.  But we do sin and we do die.  So even we who have turned to Christ remain under the influence of a reality that is far from God.  Indeed, what dumb thing, to name the sermon, “Good News About Death.”
          And yet in death, Paul sees purpose.  In verse 7 Paul said, we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.”  Our weakness points to God’s glory.  Then in verse 10 he writes, “We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.”  And in verse 11 he says, “For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body.” 
          That verse has an especially poignant phrase.  We are always being given over to death.  Paul’s immediate concern is the series of arrests and beating he has had to endure because he speaks about Jesus.  In the place we live, work, and play, we don’t usually face bodily harm because of our devotion to Christ.  That’s not an issue for us as it was for him.  But his inability to do much about it is something we can understand.  Paul could either stop speaking for Christ or he could he accept that doing so would get him flogged, stoned, jailed, and eventually killed.  But he could not give his message and avoid the pain.  He lacked the human power to control things.
          We do too.  Whether we face pain and loss because of our own sins or because of the sins of others or simply because the world is a fallen place, we cannot prevent suffering.  It eventually hits and it hits hard.  Paul’s phrase we are always being given over to death may taken on additional meanings in our lives, but it speaks.  His words can be ours.  Or we might say it as it is written in the version of the Bible known as The Message, translated by the late pastor and scholar Eugene Peterson.
We’ve been surrounded and battered by troubles, but we’re not demoralized; we’re not sure what to do, but we know that God knows what to do; we’ve been spiritually terrorized, but God hasn’t left our side; we’ve been thrown down, but we haven’t broken.

We feel broken.  Grief, disappointment -  these are heavy things, but we know God carries them because he has.  Jesus was God in the flesh.  Unlike Paul, Jesus could have called on legions of angels and his suffering on the cross would have been prevented.  There would be no crown of thorns.  There would be no nail-pierced hands.  There would be no tomb.  He was fully God even as he was fully man and could have avoided every trial and every wound.  He didn’t though.  Jesus chose to take the cross on himself and in doing so took sin on himself and the penalty of sin on himself.  He bore it for us. 
          Thus, he knows what we’re going through.  In the book of Hebrews we read the following about Jesus:
14 Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

He has been tempted and passed the test.  He has suffered and overcome it.  So, Paul says, our suffering and our weakness point to Him.  Second Corinthians 4:11, “we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh.”  The point, the purpose in our difficult times, is we lean on Jesus in spiritual dependence and for emotional healing.  People see us at our worst and they see Him.  Our weaknesses point to His glory and strength.
There is more than just a purpose in our pain.  There is also a promise that Jesus has something much better in store for us.  “Do not lose heart,” Paul writes.  “Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. 17 For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure,18 because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.”  The faithfulness in which we live in the challenging days of life is a mark discipleship.  It is also a staging area for “the eternal weight of glory.” 
Again Peterson’s rendering in The Message illuminates the promise we have from God that our sufferings and grief will give way to eternal life and eternal joy in the presence of God.
These hard times are small potatoes compared to the coming good times, the lavish celebration prepared for us. There’s far more here than meets the eye. The things we see now are here today, gone tomorrow. But the things we can’t see now will last forever.
5 1-5 For instance, we know that when these bodies of ours are taken down like tents and folded away, they will be replaced by resurrection bodies in heaven—God-made, not handmade—and we’ll never have to relocate our “tents” again.

The Good News about Death is in facing it we turn our faces to God and those around see us and their faces are turned to God.  The even better news is God promises that for us resurrection lies ahead.  We have hope for loved ones we watch die painful deaths, and we have hope for ourselves. 

I was listening to a radio show this week.  The conversation was about wrist watches.  The host talked about professional athletes he interviewed.  These are millionaires, and he said many of them spend tens of thousand of dollars on wristwatches.  He has several co-hosts on his show and they all weighed in how much they spend on watches.  One asked, “Do you think a really expensive watch is a sign of status for man, a way of showing all he’s accomplished.?”  They discussed this for a while and decided, yes, it is a status symbol to wear a really expensive watch.  They talked about watches that cost more than any car I have ever driven.  Why?  A wealthy person wears this for the purpose of telling everyone around him how rich he is.  And all the radio guys agreed this is a good thing.
I think such crass materialism is a step toward death without redemption.
We don’t watches to show we are.  We wear death.  We don ourselves in our fragility.  We clothe ourselves with weakness, the same weakness that blankets the millionaire quarterback and his $500K wristwatch.  We cracked clay pots wear death and all the while we look to Jesus.  Someone nearby sees us and they follow our gaze.  And then they too are looking to Jesus.  And there is hope because we know and looking with us they know what Paul wrote and what is true. 
          The one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us together into his presence.


AMEN

Monday, June 1, 2015

Joining the March

Joining the March

            A few weeks ago, women who have suffered the worst heartache imaginable – the death of their children got together in Washington DC (http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2015/05/09/million-moms-march-demands-end-to-police-brutality-and-racial-injustice/27038289/).  These are African-American women whose sons have been killed by the police.  The trend is terrible and obvious – unarmed young black males are killed by law enforcement when the situation could have been deescalated without injury or loss of life.  This is systemic racism. 



            These moms, wrapped in grief, gathered to lean on each other’s shoulder, to cry and pray together, and to march up Pennsylvania Avenue to the department of justice (http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/million-mom-march-in-dc-draws-hundreds-demanding-police-reforms/2015/05/09/4f5fa952-f501-11e4-bcc4-e8141e5eb0c9_story.html).
            Joining this effort was a first of a kind experience for me.  Part of white privilege is the reality that when you live in the middle class, you have education and a good job, and you have no need to fear how the police will treat you, you can just ignore the systemic racism in America.  You don’t feel it.  So, I have spent time turning a blind eye.  But the increase of violence and the climbing number of unarmed black kids killed by police is something I can no longer avoid.  I never should have in the first place.  I have an adopted son who is black and it horrifies me that I will have to teach him how to act around cops in a way my dad never had to teach me.
            I want my son to know I care.  I thank God that my boy has awakened me to something I should have cared about all along.  I went on May 9, and I marched.  I intend to do more.  And as a pastor, I intend to bring my church along.  But for me, May 9 was to time to add my own feet to the walk and it was a time to observe and learn.  I saw a lot.



            First, I saw what happens when an event is not well organized.  One of my friends who is black and who usually informs me about protest movements did not even know this was happening.  Nor did most of Washington DC know.  If you were not on Pennsylvania Avenue between 4th and 9th streets, you would have missed this entirely.  As we walked by the Newseum, I saw far more people on the streets as tourists doing what they might do any Saturday in DC.  That this event was happening and that Michael Brown and Tamir Rice and the rest have died appeared to mean nothing.  People of all races went about their normal lives, mildly inconvenienced by the commotion on Pennsylvania Ave. 



            Second, I looked around the crowd of marchers (a few thousand people, not a million), and I saw a group of people whose lives are in many ways unlike mine.  Obviously I am not a woman, I am not black, I am not the mother of young black men, and my children are all alive.  I lacked shared life experiences with those leading the march. I felt like the outlier in the crowd.  There were people from the Nation of Islam.  I don’t fit that group and they wouldn’t want me.  There was a group of Episcopalian clergy.  I most closely identified with them, but they are DC Episcopalians.  I am a Baptist from North Carolina.  One of the speakers was a woman from the Green Party.



            I have no affiliation with any of these groups.  There were groups holding up banners for the Unitarian Church.  I am neither Unitarian nor Universalist.  There were groups of Lesbians.  I am straight and male.  There were people filtering through the crowd selling Socialist newspapers.  I did not bump into any Southern Evangelicals.
            In a crowd where I was in the extreme minority, I had the opportunity to experience up close how others experience and think about the world.    I did not mind being unlike those around me.  What bothered me is that no one like me cared enough to come.  Where were my peers?  Where are the white, evangelical Christians?  Our cause is Christ and He identifies with the ‘least’ in society.  In the word ‘least’ think least advantaged or least recognized.  The ‘least’ are not lower in value than anyone else, but they have been devalued by those in society who hold power.  Jesus locates himself with those at the bottom of society’s ladder. 
If we evangelicals want to see where God is at work and join Him then we need to go where the hurt is greatest.  Is any hurt greater than losing a child and knowing it is the police who took the child’s life?  This ought to matter to people who do what I do, who live where I live, and whose lives look like mine.  Why did my peers, people like me, completely ignore this event?  That really bothered me and continues to bother me.  Evangelicals want to follow in Jesus’ footsteps, but we stop short if it feels different from what we think we know.  That is not good.
            After my observation about the lack of organization and my observation about how most people did not care about this event, a third observation is about myself.  As the crowd marched along, they shouted over and over “I believe that we will win.”  And they chanted other slogans.  I figured out that I am not a stand-in-the-crowd-and-chant type of guy.  I half-heatedly tried to join the chanting, but I found it weird.  I began analyzing the slogan.  Who is “we?”  And what does it mean to “win?”  I found it noisy and unproductive. 
I allow that I could be way off base.  But I just do not see what it accomplished by walking and chanting.  I don’t want to be a voice in the crowd mindlessly repeating a slogan.  My position on this may be critiqued and I invite that.  Here I am simply sharing an observation about my own make-up as a person.
            I learned and observed other things that Saturday, but here I describe a moment in the walk that I think epitomized this particular problem as it exists in America.  The marchers walked to the department of justice at the corner of Pennsylvania and 9th and began shouting demands for justice.  I supported this.  It is why I walked.
            Across Pennsylvania Avenue and back toward the Capital there was an outdoor ceremony going on.  There were probably as many people involved with it as there were involved with the march.  I think it was a navy retirement ceremony.  A lot of naval officers were there in their dress uniforms and the chairs in rows were filled.  I stepped out of the march and sat on a wall to take it all in. 



I thought, is this happening?  Over one shoulder, sailors were seated in uniform in orderly fashion to honor someone who had given a life of service.  Across the way, another group of people, a riotous crowd, shouted because young men have lost their lives, killed by people in uniform.  Pennsylvania Avenue is wide enough that the two events could happen simultaneously in view of each other without disrupting either. 



            However, after a while, the marchers decided it was time to head back down Pennsylvania to the starting point, John Marshal Place Park at Pennsylvania and 4th Street.  As wide as Pennsylvania Avenue is it is not wide enough for marchers to walk down the middle of the street yelling without attracting the attention of those on the sidewalks.  One the walk resumed, the retirement ceremony would be affected.  I rejoined the crowd and walked and saw something I could not believe.
            As we walked by the ceremony, a small, gray-haired white woman ran into the crowd of marchers.  She had on a lanyard.  I believe she was one of the organizers of the retirement ceremony.  She started running up to people in crowd who were shouting through bullhorns.  She was shushing them.  She pointed toward the dais where the ceremony was happening and pleaded with the protestors to be quiet.  I have never seen anything so absurd.  These people were protesting because men in uniform had killed their kids.  She was asking them to stop their protesting and quietly respect men in uniform (albeit different uniforms).  A group of angry marchers being chastised and shushed by a little old lady; you cannot make this up.
            As an aside, I want to at least offer a best guess as to the perspective of this woman.  From her point of view, I believe she (and so many I know who share her mindset) loves America.  How does she show this love?  She weeps when she hears the Star - Spangled Banner.  She respects the flag.   And she honors soldiers and sailors, men and women in the armed forces.  I am sure it was an offense to her that these marchers would interrupt something as solemn as a military ceremony.
            But this is the point of disconnect in our country.  That woman cannot connect at a head or heart level to the moms who sons have died in Baltimore, Ferguson, Milwaukee, Cleveland, and other places.  That navy-loving woman thinks she is America, but this crowd of marchers is an America she does not know.  She is completely out of touch with them and does not want to learn.  She does not think this crowd has anything to offer. 
            For their part, those in the crowd are as a distant from her as she is from them.  She cannot understand their pain.  They don’t understand her love of military (which she would call love of country).  Neither group – protestors or the military retirement ceremony – gets the other group.  And neither comes close to representing the majority.  Who are the majority?  It is the crowds of people walking the streets of DC trying to decide if they should visit the Capital or the Lincoln Memorial or if they have time, both. 
            The majority are the tourists and the DC residents who say, “Oh, a navy retirement ceremony.”  And they shrug their shoulders.  “Oh, a protest of some kind.”  And they shrug their shoulders.  The majority of Americans do not want to get their hands dirty or have their lives inconvenienced in the work of fighting for justice and brotherhood and peace. 



            I hope a prophet will arise.  My prayer is someone will stand up, someone who speaks with the power and authority of Moses, of Paul, of Luther, of King.  A lot of people admire Mother Theresa.  Few join her.  Many speak glowingly of Martin Luther King Jr.  Few recognize that he is gone and we need someone who will champion the cause of the marginalized people in society as effectively as he did. 
            The only person I can imagine who might call the world’s attention to the need for justice (and the need for change) is Pope Francis.  I don’t know if he is the prophet God is raising for our day.  I don’t know if God is raising anyone to speak with such authority that people will hear and listen and heed.  I pray that person will arise.  Humanity needs it. 

            For my part, I will preach to the 115 or so people who come to my church each week.  I will announce the gospel and include themes of justice.  I will name society’s evils and call upon the church to pray.  I will continue to march and invite my church to join me.  And I will pray.  I don’t want there to be any more Michael Browns or Freddie Grays.  I pray America will enter a new season, one of uplift, one in which poverty declines dramatically.  I pray this will come about.  I pray God will show me my part in bringing this about.