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Monday, February 29, 2016

Required Reading for White American Christians

            In Galatians, the Apostle Paul discusses his call to be an apostle the Gentiles (people who are not Jewish).  One of the points of the case he makes is that Gentiles do not need to undergo circumcision and they do not need to become Jewish.  They can put their faith in Jesus and be adopted as children of God (Galatians 4:5-7) and continue to be Galatians or Ephesians or Philippians. 
            This was revolutionary.  There was a hard line in Paul’s world.  Jews were the Chosen People of God and gentiles were unclean.  In social circles and in religious practice, this line was rarely crossed.  Yet Paul, himself a Torah-observant Jew, believed Jesus transcended racial, ethnic, and religious divisions.  One of his most famous statements is “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).  In a world marked by divisions, Paul declared unity in Christ.
            He does not, though, mean that all particularity is lost.  Galatians 3:28 does not mean Christ followers are colorless, nationless, androgynous humans.  No such person exists.  We all come from a particular culture.  We all have a specific worldview.  And Paul knew this.  In Galatians 3:28 he means to say that there is no preference.  A Jewish Christ-follower is not more valuable to Jesus than a Gentile Christ-follower.  A man does not matter more to Jesus than a woman.  All of us are equal in Christ. 
            Today, it is entirely appropriate to take the sentiment of Galatians 3:28 and extend it.  We might say “there is no longer citizen or immigrant, there is no longer Jew or Arab, there is no longer black or white; for we are all one in Christ.”  In America, the black-white distinction demands concentrated attention and this is especially true for white Americans. 
White people in America have enjoyed tremendous privilege.  Our society has been controlled by white people in positions of power and thus is built for white people.  As of today, there are more non-whites in America than whites, but white people still enjoy privileged status.  Therefore it bears heavily upon Christ-followers who are white to do their part to make Galatians 3:28 a reality.  Other races and ethnicities are also called to work for brotherhood in Christ, but here, I specifically address the responsibility the privileged class has.  The impetus for working for equality and brotherhood falls on white people.  We have to acknowledge our own privilege and actively work for a more just world, a world more welcoming to non-white persons.
There are more ways to do this than I can cite in one short blog, but I’ll share with you something I have done recently.  This is only one way to advocate for justice, but this practice will spur us to more involvement in justice movements.  And because we are disciples of Jesus, everything we do is done in His name, for His sake, and at His prompting.
Today is the last day of February, Black history month.  I have dedicated time this month to educating myself by reading stories from communities of African, African American, and African-European people.  I am going to list books I am reading.  I say “am reading” because I have only finished one of these.  The others I pick up and read a bit at a time, 3 pages here, 10 pages there, etc.  I will peck away at these books until they’ve all be read.
I am sometimes asked how I find time to read as much as I do.  One answer I give is that I read a bit of a book in short spurts and just keep at it until the book is finished.  It took me 3 years to read Dickens’ David Copperfield.  But I’ll tell when he falls in love with … (nope, I won’t spoil it.  You’ll read it yourself, but it comes around page 650); the moment I read that he fell in love with her, I felt so good.  It was worth the wait.  It took me a couple of years to slog through Atlas Shrugged.  But I am glad I did because now I know why I disagree with all of Ayn Rand’s conclusions. 
Lately though, my nibbling approach to reading has been in the areas I mentioned, in books related to race and the experience of being black.  I think it is my responsibility to do this.  Blacks have to receive American history (and the way it is taught, this is mostly “white history”).  If they want to graduate from high school, they must study curriculum developed, by and large, by white people.  How I can befriend my African American neighbor if I have never invested time in knowing his story?  How can I work for justice in the name of Jesus if I don’t understand the pain of those who’ve suffered injustice? 
This is no great thing.  I do not write this to say, “Hey look at what I’ve done!”  I write it to say to my Christians brothers and sisters who are white, “This is what we all must do.”  I am writing this and providing specific examples in hopes that you, my reader will join me in entering stories our privilege allows us to ignore.  Join me in rejecting the idea that the world revolves around us because we are white. 
All white Christians, out of love for our black brothers and sisters, need to understand the experiences black people have.  It is our responsibility in Christ to do this.  This is not a rejection of white cultural expressions.  It is an acknowledgement that white voices aren’t the only voices.  White stories are not the determinative stories.  For Christians the determinative story involves a cross and an empty tomb.  The Resurrected Lord is the one who drives me to try to understand my neighbor who is different than me. 
So, I share what I have begun reading and will continue to read.  I know not everyone likes to escape into the pages of a book the way I do.  You might pick up just one of these books.  And that’s a start!  Many are at the library.  If you live near me, I have some I can loan.  Some I bought for less than a dollar at yard sales and thrift stores.  It is possible to get into reading without spending a lot of money.  But it may will you to spend a bit of time.  I suggest reading like the type of reading I describe here is more valuable that nighttime TV in helping us become who Christ wants us to become.  Cut out one show and give that time to reading about stories of black Americans or Asian Americans or Native Americans.
Some of these stories are not Christian in nature but if we respect people enough to listen to their stories, our compassion is expanded.  Our evangelistic worldview grows.  The content in these books help us enter the stories of others as we try to be compassionate witnesses to the Kingdom of God in an ever diversifying world.  And if the books on my list aren’t for you, then find ones that will challenge you to think outside whatever box contains you.  As you pray about how God wants you to share his love in the world, enter the stories of people different than yourself.
Here’s my list:

From Europe
My Grandfather would have Shot Me by Jennifer Teague

From Africa
Goodbye Bafana: Nelson Mandela, My Prisoner, My Friend by James Gregory
Hope is cut: Youth, Unemployment, and Future in Urban Ethiopia by Daniel Mains

From America
Up Against the Wall: Violence in the Making and Unmaking of the Black Panther Party by Curtis Austin
Auto Biography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley
The Preacher King by Richard Lischer
The Black Power Mixtape: 1967-1975 by Goran Olsson

Black Cool: One Thousand Streams of Blackness by Rebecca Walker 

Monday, February 22, 2016

Rejected at the Church Door (Mark 2:13-21)

February 21, 2016 - 2nd Sunday of Lent

We passed out rocks on Ash Wednesday as a Lenten discipline. If you’d like to join us in this practice, come up and get a rock right now or at any time during the sermon.  You are invited. 
            My rock reminds me of the ways I neglect my faith.  I hold it and think of things that draw me away from Jesus. 
            I also hold my rock and remember that the Holy Spirit is with me.  I hope you’ll take a rock and carry it everywhere from now until Easter Sunday.  Be aware distractions and ask God to remove them.  Be aware also of the presence of God.
            This morning we will see another way this rock can serve a reminder in our lives as Jesus’ disciples. 

            Think of one or two people you do not want to see at church and write the names down.  Everyone turn those names in and we’ll make a master list and give it to our ushers.   They will man the door.  If anyone on your list shows up, they will put up a stop sign.  The “unwanted’s” will be rejected at the church door. But be careful.  You may be on someone else’s list.  The ushers may have to escort you out.  Or me; I may be able finish this morning.
            Anyone have Coach K on your list?  We live in Chapel Hill. We’ve got to keep the unacceptable people out. 
How about someone in a disreputable occupation?  We’ll ban bookies, telemarketers, and sensationalist fraudulent faith healers.  Who should we stop at the door?
 On a more serious note, has someone hurt you or taken advantage of you.  They betrayed you or gossiped behind your back.  Maybe the damage is lasting damage.  Could you stand and sing songs of praise alongside one who has caused so much pain and fear? 
What is someone is neck-deep in pornography?  It’s hard to imagine that person in church.  He doesn’t belong. 
When the Pharisees saw Jesus at Levi’s party, they asked his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners” (2:16)?  Jesus is a holy man, but he parties with the unclean, the unrighteous.  Why? 
In the early 1960’s Will Campbell made his way from his humble beginnings in poor, rural Mississippi to Yale Divinity School.  He became an aggressive civil rights activist and ended up back in the south where his Christian faith was tested when he saw white Christians reject black people at the doors of their churches. 
Newspaper editor P.D. East agreed with Campbell’s politics of racial equality but rejected his faith.  He dared Campbell to succinctly express the Christian message.  “We’re all rebellious losers,” Campbell said, “But God loves us anyway. 
P.D. East was unmoved.  Episcopalian priest Jonathan Daniels was a friend to both men and a fellow civil rights activist.  He murdered in broad daylight by Thomas Coleman, a Southern sheriff.  To East, this was evidence that there is no God.  Relentlessly he attacked Campbell’s definition of faith.
Was Jonathan Daniels a rebellious loser?  He asked.
Everyone is a sinner, including Jonathan Daniels.  So yes, he has rebelled.
Fine.  East continued his assault.  Is Thomas Coleman a rebellious loser?
The murderer?  O yes. Yes that murdering sheriff is a loser (Campbell thought of other words I won’t say).
Then, the unbeliever, editor P.D. East, nailed the Baptist minister Will Campbell to the wall.  Who does God love more, the murdered Jonathan Daniel who died fighting for equal rights, or his murderer, the sheriff, Thomas Coleman whose job is to uphold justice but is perpetuating injustice?  Who does God love more?
Will Campbell wanted to hate Thomas Coleman, but in the midst of that hot emotion a light went on inside his heart.  God’s grace isn’t grace at all until it extends to all sinners include the worst among us. 
Will Campbell, civil rights activist resigned from the national council of churches and moved to rural Tennessee where he bought a farm.  He became an apostle to rednecks.  He knew many who were fighting for civil rights.  He never let go of his believe in racial equality.  It is a Gospel imperative to work for justice in the name of love.  But he did not know anyone who was trying to penetrate the hearts of people in the Klu Klux Klan with the love of Jesus. 
He knew how evil the Klan was.  But he also knew the people in the Klan were sinners far from the love of God, as lost as people could be.[i]
Who do we want to reject at the church door?  Klansmen?  Members of ISIS?  Sex offenders?  The Pharisees asked, “Why does Jesus eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
The Pharisees were keepers of Israel’s law, the experts on the scriptures.  Their diligence was a gift to the community until that diligence led them to care more about upholding rules than helping people find their way to God.  When social mores mattered more than people, then the Pharisees went too far. 
A few years ago I met a Korean woman, an academic.  She was headed to North Korea officially as a visiting scholar there to train North Korean scientists.  But, she told me, her real purpose was to sneak Bibles into the country.  If she got caught it could mean years in prison, totally cut off from family and friends. 
She went for the same reason some people sign up to be prison chaplains.  She went because the North Koreans are from the love of God.  Some Pastors do not serve in churches or as hospital chaplains or in campus ministry.  They sign up to do their ministry inside of prisons.  Their congregations are full of felons.  Why serve there?  These individuals are far from the love of God.  They do this for the same reason Will Campbell was a missionary to the racists he spent so much of his life fighting.  Those racists are far from the love of God. 
Tax collectors were Jews who became rich working for the Romans collecting tolls.  The Romans had a fixed amount people were to pay.  The tax collector could force people to pay higher amounts and pocket the difference.  The people of Israel were broken under the oppression of Roman occupiers and their own fellow countrymen, added to their pain by working for the oppressors. 
Indeed, why would Jesus have table fellowship with them and with people who worked in unclean and unsavory professions?  Those tax collectors like Levi, and sinners like Mary Magdalene, needed God.  “Those who are well have no need of a physician,” Jesus said, “but those who are sick do.  I have come not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
The Pharisees are already upset about who Jesus is with.  Now, they don’t like what he’s doing.  The disciples of John the Baptist are going without meals as a spiritual discipline.  They’re fasting.  The disciples of the Pharisees are fasting.  Everyone fasting.  Jesus, why aren’t your disciples fasting?
Why are you eating with those people, Jesus?
Why are you eating at all, Jesus?
Jesus welcomes the peoples rejected at the door.  He is the Savior and His arrival is the onset of the new age.  His arrival means the Kingdom of God is here. 
There is time to fast, but not when we are in Jesus’ presence bodily.  We don’t fast in the Kingdom of God.  We don’t wear our funeral clothes on Easter Sunday.  The coming of Jesus is a signal that God offers life to – to the worst of sinners  including us.
To appreciate it, we have to love the tax collectors we’d rather keep away.  We each have our lists, those people we want to reject at the door.  When we hold on to those lists, we are old wineskins, stretched out, cracking, inflexible, not ready for the new, expanding truth of God.
New wine was still fermenting.  It expands.  That’s why the skins to hold is have to be flexible.  When we come to Christ, we are filled and stretched.  We don’t know what he’s going to do in our lives.  We don’t know the tax collectors and sinners he’s going to call us to love.  Never mind that we are as sinful and lost as those we think we can judge.  Stiff old wine skins cannot enjoy the Kingdom of God. 
To enjoy the kingdom and live it up at Jesus’ dinner party, we move from rejection, to welcome.  We open the closed doors of our hearts.  We throw away our gavels of judgment and open our arms for embrace.  We can only do this by the power of the love the Holy Spirit puts in us.  But when we are Spirit-filled, there is no limit to how much we can forgive, how greatly we can love, and how magnanimously we can welcome people we used to despise.  Hate in us is melted by the warmth of Jesus’ grace and it becomes love because of Him. 

Now you have your list – those people you’d prefer go somewhere else.  That is your prayer list for the next 6 weeks.  Pray for God to do wonderful things in the lives of the names on the list.  I know.  This is a list of people who are not nice.  Hold them up before God.
And start a new list.  This is one is of people you’re going to invite to church.  It is an invitation to drink the new wine Jesus gives. 
The rock that reminds us of obstacle to faith and reminds us that the Holy Spirit is with us also reminds us to pray for those people we just don’t like.  It is hard to do this, impossible without God’s help.  But the Holy Spirit gives that help.  Hold onto your rock, pray for clarity, appeal to the present Spirit, and Pray God will bless the people on your list and that they may find their way to the party Jesus is throwing.

[i] P. Yancey (1997).  What’s So Amazing about Grace? Zondervan Publishing House (Grand Rapids), p.141-145.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Filled and Hungry (Luke 4:1-13)

First Sunday of Lent, February 14, 2016

            Jesus fed 5000 people with just a few pieces of bread. Miraculously, he multiplies the food.  With one boy’s lunch, he feed the equivalent of a small town’s population.  How can he do this? 
Well, he can do it because he’s God in human flesh.
            With his disciples, he was out on a boat on the Sea of Galilee, water in all directions.  The winds beat against the men as the try to control their vessel in the face of angry waves.  As the boat is tossed to and fro, the men panic.  Jesus sleeps through it all until they wake him.  Then he commands the storm to be silent, and it obeys.  A raging storm at sea; how can he control it? 
He is God in human flesh.
            He had a good friend, Lazarus, and Lazarus died.  He was buried.  He was in the tomb for 4 days.  Jesus comes and calls him back to life.  It works!  Lazarus walks out of the grave. 
Jesus is God in human flesh.
            He gives blind people their site!  God in human flesh.

            So, we are not really expecting it when we see him tempted in Luke 4.  It’s not like you or me.  We are tempted by greed or anger or by hurt or by a thirst for revenge or by lust or by any of a 100 other things that lead us to destructive behavior.  Not Jesus. 
            In Luke, Jesus is born as all babies are.  In Luke, he is a teenager who worries his mother to death.  He is baptized and something happens to him when the Holy Spirit descends on him (3:22).  He experiences a change with the coming of the Spirit.  The Jesus we meet in Luke is very human. 
            Filled with the Holy Spirit, he is also led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness, without provision.  What fool would go on a 40-day camping trip without any supplies?  Jesus.  But he didn’t go of his own volition.  Forty days without eating is more than fasting.  That’s starvation.  Imagine how badly your body would feel.  Jesus’ body felt that weak.  He had hunger pains.  He experienced that as a human experiences things.
            All the while, the devil openly tempted him.  I don’t think the devil appeared as a hideous beast.  That would be scary, not tempting.  No, I think the devil was inviting – encouraging Jesus in ways that sounded sensible. 
The devil offers food; Jesus was starving.  The devil offers authority; Jesus’ mission was to announce the kingdom of God.  Maybe it would be easier to announce “mission accomplished,” from the position of ruler of the world.  The devil challenges Jesus’ faith.  If you are the son of God, his angels will protect.  Do you hear the echo of Eden?  You won’t die if eat the fruit of this tree.  I know God said you would, but you won’t.  You’ll become like God.
Eve ate the forbidden fruit.  And she did not die, not in that moment any way.  Just as the serpent promised, she had vision she did not previously possess.  However, the first thing she saw was that she had disobeyed the God who created her and loved her.  Naked means more than unclothed.  She sinned and then she could see what she had done.
Satan’s temptations are half-truths and appear attractive.  Why should Jesus starve out here?  It makes no sense.  Why not accept the devil’s offer to rule all the kingdoms of the world?  Think of the good you could do.  Why not show all of Jerusalem who you are as angels carry you safely from the pinnacle of the temple to the ground?  Then everyone will know who you are.  Why not?
Obviously, we the readers can say “why not.”  We sit in the comfort of our heated building on our cushioned chairs as we read this.  We worship in a nice place and as we do, we make plans for lunch in nice restaurants.  There is a certain ease and from this luxury we form our opinions and draw our conclusions.  I say without judgment on us.  This is merely an observation.  From where we are it is easy to gaze into a story and with hindsight declare how clear and simple the ethical and moral choices are. 
What if we read it in a place that’s not so nice? 
Starting right now, don’t eat again until Easter Sunday.  Not a bite.  Don’t go indoors.  From now until March 27, fast and pray.  Jesus was tempted.  The urge to turn those stones to bread was real and strong.  He had emptied himself of his divinity.  How did this human being resist?  It is surprising, when we think about it, to imagine that Jesus truly was as human as your or I are. 

Another surprising thing is the paradox displayed in Jesus in this story.  By paradox, I do not mean “fully God and fully human at the same time.”  But, I do mean two things were going on in Jesus.  Two very different dynamics were at work in him.  I think a similar paradox exists for us when we want to follow Jesus, but we do this in a world that is lost and is in the late stages of corruption because of sin.  Sin has built up over the generations and the world is on the verge collapse.  In this place, that is not so nice, we are witnesses and we are disciples.
The paradox.
Jesus ate nothing for 40 days and true to his habit of understatement, Luke grandiloquent method of portraying this is to write he was hungry.  No kidding. 
Jesus was starving.  At the same time, he was full.  Luke begins this passage about temptation in the desert by telling us Jesus was filled with the Holy Spirit.  He begins the next passage where Jesus is back in Jerusalem, again declaring Jesus to be filled with the Holy Spirit.  Jesus was filled and hungry at the same time.
Why could he calm storms at sea, restore the sight of the blind, and miraculously feed multitudes with a few loaves and fish?  You know what I said a moment ago.  He could do it because he was God in human flesh.  But what if that’s not the answer?  What if incarnation means he really did step out of his divinity?  What if the miracles happened because he was Spirit-filled? 
He didn’t just flip a switch and turn on his godself whenever that was needed.  Jesus is God, but he related to God from the standpoint of being human.  He depended on the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit.  He moved at the prompting of the Holy Spirit.  He submitted to the authority of the Holy Spirit. 
It’s a paradox, Jesus (God) relating to God as a human relates to God.  And it leads to another paradox.  Jesus is starving and filled at the same time.  We get caught off guard by Jesus’ humanity.  This idea of starving and fulfillment together in the same person – and the two conditions, starvation and satisfaction relating directly to the other – also surprises us. 
Maybe the most surprising thing is that we can be filled as Jesus was.
The writer of this Gospel, Luke, is also the author of the book of Acts.  There we read about baptism in the Holy Spirit.   In Acts 2, the Holy Spirit takes hold of a few 1000 of Jesus’ followers who are in Jerusalem at the time of Pentecost.  Spirit-filled, they preach the Gospel, and that day 1000’s turn to faith in Jesus Christ. 
In both the Gospel and in Acts, Luke tells the story of Jesus and the early church, but he did not simply write this to show what happened.  He tells us that he shares this so that we, the readers, will know the truth (Luke 1:3).  And he ends his writing at the end Acts with Paul under house arrest in Rome.  Luke’s verse says, Paul live in Rome for two years “proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance” (28:31).
It’s an odd ending; not really an ending at all.  He doesn’t tell of Paul’s death.  He simply tells of Paul preaching.  Why could Paul, while arrested, preach without hindrance?  It is not because he was God in the flesh.  He wasn’t.  He could do it because he was filled with the Spirit.
We, like Paul and like Jesus, can be filled with the Spirit.  Does it mean we will feed 5000 with one child’s bag lunch or bring raging ocean storm to a quiet calm or raise the dead?  When we are Spirit-filled like Jesus, do we do those things?  I don’t know.  I won’t say, No, we do not.  I will say we can stand as Jesus stood: dependent on the Spirit, prompted by the Spirit, and submitted to the Spirit. 
At times this means, like Jesus, we will be hungry, starving even, while we are filled.  Each year during Lent, Christians focus on spiritual disciplines and that can include fasting or giving something up in order to focus on the Lord.  But the hunger is more than the desire for food that comes with a fast, even one as extreme as Jesus endured.  The hunger is for God’s Kingdom; they Kingdom come, they will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven.  We want it so badly, we pray for it over and over. 
This is what Jesus meant in the Sermon in the Mount when he said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matthew 5:5).  The devil knew Jesus hungered for this and tried to persuade him with this.  The devil offered food – turn the stones to bread; and power – I will give you the glory of all the kingdoms of the earth; and spectacle – throw yourself down from the pinnacle of the temple so all Jerusalem will see the angels catch you.
Jesus wanted to multiply food to the hungry.  Power and would enable him to show the world the ways of God.  But, he knew to do these things on the devil’s timetable would amount exalting the devil as God.  He was able to resist because of the power of the Spirit in Him.
Let that settle on the mind.  The power in Christ during his ministry in his time on earth is available to us.  I won’t say it can be ours because they power is the presence of God and God is never ours to hold.  But, when we fully confess our sins and turn from them and when we open our hearts to God and when we hunger for his Kingdom and long for His presence, then we are ready to be filled the Spirit. 
No the Holy Spirit is not ours.  We belong to the Spirit.  We are prompted by the Spirit.  And in those seasons when we aren’t sure what to do the Spirit seems quiet and feels absent, then we go to prayer and other disciplines if needed.  We present ourselves fully before the Lord.
This is where we end on this first Sunday of Lent.  As we move into a time of singing, each of us invited to come without hesitation and holding nothing back.  Come before the Lord.  Come open, asking to be filled.  I end with prayer.
Holy Spirit of God, in this moment, we lay ourselves before you.  Remove all doubts, distractions, and obstacles.  Come to us, forgive us, fill us, and lead us.  This we pray in Jesus’ name.


Friday, February 12, 2016

Keep Hold of the Plow (Luke 9:51-62)

February 10, 2016 – Ash Wednesday

            Jesus “set his face” to go to Jerusalem.  Now, there would be no turning back and no diversions or distractions.  All that he does on this journey described in Luke chapters 9 – 19 is directed toward his final purpose; death and resurrection.  Along the way, Jesus’ teaching and actions show us how to be disciples.[i]
            Jesus would not be deterred.  But we are.  We say we want to follow Jesus, and I think we really do.  But we get distracted.  Social media; relationships – good and bad; work; past hurts and disappointments; the stuff of life; the dysfunction in life; the abuses we’ve suffered; so many things creep into our lives or burst into our lives and vie for our attention, our loyalty, and our hearts.
            Jesus and the disciples are on the road and a Samaritan village does “not receive him.”  The Samaritans refused hospitality.  With his intense focus on Jerusalem, Jesus did not notice the breach of manners.  His disciples James and John did.  “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”
            Do these guys see themselves alongside Abraham as he watched Sodom and Gomorra burn?  Jesus ignored the unhospitable Samaritans, rebuked James and John and moved on.  There’s no time to worry about the actions of Samaritans who don’t know God.  Jesus is on his way to hang from a cross for the sake of the people who don’t know God, like those Samaritans. 

Confession as a spiritual discipline helps us reckon with the things we allow to distract us.  Cancer; divorce; addiction.  We name the things that distract us.  We receive God’s grace.  Procrastination, unkindness, harsh words, withholding love; we confess.  Selfishness, greed, failure to help those in need; we admit our sins and receive grace. 
When we rebellion against God, it reduces us.  In rebellion we become something less than we were meant to be.  We were created in the image of God, made to be his stewards on this good earth he designed.  However, our sins have distorted and disfigured us so that the image of God in us is barely discernable.
Can we ever live into God’s purpose for us as his image bearers doing and making good things in His name?  Yes, if our sins are completely removed.  This is the accomplishment of Jesus on the cross.  I invite you to join me in journeying to the cross with Jesus in 2016.  This is a walk into God’s call for us corporately, as the body of Christ, and for each of us as individual disciples.  Together, we declare that will we turn to Christ, open our hearts to the Spirit, and renounce the things that distract us and draw our attention away from God.  This Lent our goal is to go deeper and reorient our worldviews, so that we hear the voice of God and see the world through the lenses he colors. 
The closing verses of Luke 9 give us our theme. 
There, Jesus sets his face for Jerusalem.  Samaritans fail to give hospitality, disciples want to hurl consuming fire as they ride their high horse, and Jesus has time for none of it.  Seemingly without stopping, he ignores the Samaritans’ social faux pas, chides James and John, and strides forward. 
Next, Jesus tells a would-be-disciple, “Foxes have holes, birds have their nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”  You want to follow Jesus?  Are you sure?  He’s on a journey that ends with everything changed.  Are we sure we want that? 
Once we decide we’re on the move with Jesus, he calls us out of our weakness and out of our brokenness.  He calls us out of our pain and in spite of our losses.  He calls us to the path that he walks.  In Luke 9, that path led to the cross.
Today it leads us to die to self.  That peculiar phrase comes up throughout the gospels.  What does it mean to die to self?  To put it simply, it means I no longer matter because Christ is all that matters.  I won’t be a doormat for a bully.  I won’t try to be a people pleaser.  In Christ I will actually exhibit a stronger character and a more determined sense of purpose because the confidence I have comes from Him. 
To die to self is to say, I am no longer my own.  I belong to Him.  Can we live our lives that way?   Or do we prefer to have control?  That’s the question to wrestle with this year throughout Lent.  Who gets control in my life?  Who is the authority to whom I yield?  Who sets the standard by which I measure myself? 
We know we cannot measure up to God.  But living in grace, walking by faith, we know we don’t half to.  Our lives can be spent walking in grace, giving grace, and sharing the good news of the kingdom of God by inviting people to turn to Christ.  To live this life that God intends to be ours we have to keep at the plow and not look back.
Jesus says, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62).  What is causing you to look back instead forward?  What commitment is keeping you from a deeper commitment to God?  What past pain has you ensnared and makes it impossible to fully give yourself to the Lord?

We’re going to pass out rocks.  Yes, rocks.  Take this rock and let it constantly remind you of the distraction that has taken your mind off the plow.  This distraction has your attention – attention that really belongs to Jesus.  From now until Ash Wednesday, carry this rock.  Let it be a reminder.
            This rock reminds us of the things that distract us and divert us from the course Jesus has set.
This rock reminds us to practice spiritual disciplines during Lent – fasting, prayer, journaling, silent meditation, lectio-divina, prayer-walking.  Choose disciplines that will help you see your dependence on God and help you receive the grace of God. 
This rock reminds us that the Holy Spirit is with us even when our attention is diverted and our focus is on things that are not of God.  Carry this rock at all times.  Maybe even sleep with it.  Let it be the reminder that the Holy Spirit of God is present and beckons us to receive and enter God’s grace and love.
We’ll bring our rocks to worship on Maundy Thursday.  In that service, we will lay them at the cross. We will look at the things that draw us away from a devoted life in Christ, and we will take our eyes off the distractions and put them on the Lord.  We leave the rocks at the cross as way of saying that we want to become who Jesus is calling us to be.  We want to see the world through lenses he gives us.  As we do, we pray that the fruit of our Lenten spiritual disciplines will be a deeper, more focused life with God. 
Pray for this – that many in our church will take up this challenge, will face the cares of the world that draw them away from a life of devoted faith.  Pray that many will commit to keep hold of the plow and to follow Jesus with abandon.  Pray that the discovery of deep relationship with the Lord, made by many in our church, will have a long-lasting effect on our fellowship and on our church’s witness in this community.

[i] Fred Craddock (1990).  Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching: Luke. John Knox Press (Louisville), p.141.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Is this News Good? (Luke 4:14-30)

It’s the Sabbath day, Saturday.  We’re among the faithful of Nazareth, so we’re in the synagogue.  Where else would we be on the Sabbath? 
            But today, the crowd is overflowing.  Where have all these people been?  I haven’t seen that guy in worship in years.  I see him at the market all the time, but not here.  What’s he doing here?  Why today?  What’s everyone doing here?
            The Carpenter’s son has returned.  There is talk that he can do miracles.  A prophet from Nazareth?  That’s what they say.  He was baptized in the Jordan by the crazy man, John, the Baptizer.  Now he’s back and you wouldn’t believe what they’re saying about him in Capernaum.  
            Why do all those wonderful things there when he’s from here, Nazareth?  If Jesus is our prophet, why didn’t he come here first?  It is just as well.  He’s here today and we get to see the wonders and hear the wisdom. 
            This is the scene Luke sets.  Your experience of Jesus depends on your circumstances.  The reality of your life dictates whether or not you think Jesus brings is good news.
            He was called rabbi, so the leaders of the Nazareth synagogue invited him to speak.  They wanted to see what the fuss was all about.  They wanted to know why people were making a big deal of the carpenter’s son. 
Or, they could sense that Jesus truly possessed insight from God and these synagogue leaders wanted to bless the congregation by having a sermon from a charismatic speaker.
            In worship that day, both were present.  Gawkers and spectacle-seekers sat right alongside true worshipers and God-seekers.  Church has always been an amalgamation of people of genuine faith, people who are confused, and people who are there because someone else forced them to come.  There are always people in church who don’t know why they themselves are there.  There are judgmental people who can’t see their own flaws.  And there are broken people who cannot see their own beauty. 
It is that way here, now.  Some want to be here.  Some are not sure why we’re here.  Or, we’re here because we know that we need this.  We know how much we need God and we hope to meet Him here.  We have all of it.  Every church does.  And the experience of hearing Jesus – uplifting or troubling – depended and still depends on the situation of the worshiper. 
Let’s start with the poorest people who were in the synagogue.  The people with no money; the people with disabilities; the people of minority cultures who had no rights and rarely received justice; the people on the receiving end of the bullies’ taunts and slaps; the powerless; we begin with how they might hear Jesus.  They were certainly there.
Beginning in verse 17, “[Jesus] stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 18 ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the 0ppressed go free,19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor’
20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’” 
            He quotes Isaiah where good news is promised to the poor.  Release offered to captives and freedom to the oppressed.  And, he mentions recovery of sight for the blind.  Everyone in that crowd would have been aware of Isaiah.  This was a popular scripture with immediate application. 
            Blindness was a common ailment.  We’re going to receive sight?  Remember, we are imagining who would find Jesus’ words to be good news.  The blind.  And the oppressed.  Most Nazareth Jews felt oppressed by Rome and by the poverty that was their life.  This was uplifting.  Furthermore, when is all this good news going to come about?  Today!  Today – with the arrival of Jesus – the scripture is fulfilled.
            Essentially, Jesus is announcing Jubilee.  This concept, Jubilee, comes from another scripture everyone would recognize, Leviticus 25.  “The fiftieth year you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants.  It shall be a jubilee for you; you shall return, every one of you to property and to your family” (v.10).  All debt is forgiven.  If someone previously had to sell family land to get out of a financial pinch, in the Jubilee year the holder of the land restores it to the family that originally owned.  If someone sold himself into slavery to cover his debts, in the Jubilee year, the person who owns him frees him.
            For some people Jubilee means losing a slave or losing the advantage of being the only landowner in a community of poor tenant farmers.  If Jesus’ words in fact come to pass those who are in a superior social position because of their wealth lose their edge.  The neighbor they looked down upon is now at their level, looking them in the eye. 
            Jesus says, with his arrival, Jubilee has come.  What did the slave owners think when they heard this?  What about the debtholders?  Were there any curious Roman soldiers or officials in the crowd, just there to check out the Jewish worship practices?  Did they enjoy Jesus’ reading of Isaiah’s line about freedom from oppressors?
            Luke tells us everyone was amazed by Jesus’ preaching.  That would have been the perfect time to do the mic drop.  Jesus exits stage left to sound of deafening applause.   But, he didn’t do that.  Jesus kept preaching.  The amazement quickly turned into something else.  He could see it in their eyes.  They heard he had worked miracles.  The synagogue was packed because they wanted to see one! 
            “No prophet is accepted in his hometown” he told them (4:24).  Then Jesus regaled the congregation with more stories they would know all too well, stories of the great prophets, Elijah and Elisha.  In both cases, the men of God rendered God’s miraculous provision to people other than Jews. 
All those amazed people in the Nazareth synagogue put it all together. 
He’s known as a miracle worker and he’s from here.  He’s ours, but we stand condemned because we don’t welcome the poor.  We don’t love and help the blind.  We may be oppressed, but we step on the backs of those who have it worse than us.  He holds himself up like Elijah and Elisha.  The great prophets.  And he judges us.  He’ll help others and he’ll criticize us. 

“When they heard this,” Luke writes in verse 28, “All in the synagogue were filled with rage.”  A mob action happens next as they drag Jesus to a cliff intent on throwing him to his death.
            I don’t think there were any slaves or blind people or debtors in the lynch mob.  All those at the bottom, those who live in the gutter, heard Jesus promise them that his arrival meant rescue from their pitiable condition.  No, this crowd that is seeing red and breathing murder are those who got upset when Jesus said he came to heal and liberate and release.  Not only did they not need what Jesus offered, but they did not like it that Jesus would welcome and care for the lowest in their community.
You see how our circumstance colors how we hear Jesus?  Is his coming good news for us?  Are we happy when he pronounces Jubilee for those who suffer under the crushing load of debt?  What would economic justice cost us?  That depends.
If you are among the poor, the blind, the oppressed whom Jesus is here to save, then economic justice costs you your pain.  If you are among the wealthy in the world, and this includes the American middle class, so most people here, then Jesus’ announcement of Jubilee costs you – us – our prestige.  We give up our advantage. 
We’ve been talking about the way Jesus’ arrival surprised people.  Maybe the surprise to us is that Jesus didn’t come for us.  At least, he didn’t come for those who see themselves as “the have’s.” 
We don’t discover Jesus – as one here to save us – until we understand that we are as weak and as pitiable as the homeless man who has not changed clothes in months because he can’t.  We are as powerless as the undocumented immigrant who came here as a child and feels adrift in danger all time.  We are as helpless as the Syrian who has not eaten in days and is unable to move from the building he is in because he’s complete boxed in by ISIS and Syrian government forces. 
The most accomplished professional, the department chair, the lead surgeon stand before God as naked, exposed, and impotent as these examples I’ve shared.  Common sense would say that’s completely ridiculous.  It is absurd to juxtapose the leaders among us with society’s dregs.  But Jesus came to bring good news to the poor, the blind, the captive, and the oppressed.  We cannot understand or receive the blessing of God’s salvation until we understand ourselves as poor, blind, captive, and oppressed. 
Presuming we want the blessing of God, how do we do this?  First, we see sin for what it is – that which utterly destroys our souls.  In our popular culture, sin is something that elicits giggles.  Sin sell.  Movies with the highest box office sales are the ones rated ‘R’ for violence, sex, strong language, and nudity.  In our culture, sin is celebrated and purity is mocked.  We have to see sin for what it is – a killer.  We acknowledge sin, admit we cannot escape, and turn to Jesus as our only hope for rescue.  In sin, we are at the bottom until Jesus lifts us out.
Second, we stand with those people society would say are on the ladder’s lowest rungs.  A moment ago, I used the word “dregs.”  From where God is standing, there are no dregs.  The refugee, the illegal alien, the mentally ill, the poorest of the poor – these are all lost sheep.  They are beautiful people made in the image of God.  Jesus leaves the 99 healthy ones sitting comfortably in the sanctuary of HillSong Church.  He leaves us to go out and announce his Isaiah-fulfilling, freedom-proclaiming, belly-filling, life-giving news to the homeless and the downtrodden.  He came for them. 
If we want to receive what Jesus gives and experience it as good news, we admit our sin, and we sit arm-in-arm with them.  No wonder people in Synagogue crowd wanted to throw him off a cliff.  They came for miracles and got slapped by God’s truth.
In Luke 4, God’s truth slaps us with his truth this morning.  And the truth is there is greater joy in love and in sharing love than there is in prestige and wealth.  Do we have the faith to believe that is true?
What do we do now?  That’s up to you.  You can clench your teeth in anger.  You can bow before the cross and open your heart to the Holy Spirit.  You can start thinking right now about who you will love this week.  What disadvantaged person will you stand with this week?
We have heard Jesus’ words.  Each of us can decide who we are and then decide if this is good news.

Monday, February 1, 2016

The Eschatology in the Wedding at Cana story

At the Edge of the Ages[i] (John 2:1-11)
Rob Tennant, HillSong Church, Chapel Hill, NC
Sunday, January 24, 2015

            “In the beginning …” – that’s how the Bible starts, the first book, Genesis, chapter 1, verse 1. 
             “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:1-2).  We find ourselves at a turning point.  At this point, the first verse of the Bible, whatever existed before has changed.  One age has given to another – the age of our universe.  Whatever came before is beyond what we can observe or describe in any words or images that make any sense to us. 
            Here’s the beginning of the Gospel of John.  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1).  By the Word, he refers to the second person of the trinity, the Son.  The Son was before that change from one age to another – from pre-creation, to the universe as we know it. 
            The Son preceded the transition.  The coming of the Son in human form in Jesus of Nazareth heralded the end of our current age and the dawning of the final age.  The story before us, the action of turning water into wine at the wedding in the village of Cana points to the end and the beginning.
            How so?  Can a seemingly small miracle be the harbinger of a move from this eon to the next?  This is a small village wedding for poor people who cannot afford enough wine.  He helps them save face.  There is no more here, is there?
            It begins “on the third day.”  Unfortunately, a few normally reliable Bible version, The Message, The Good News Bible, and The New Living Translation translate this poorly, neglecting this theological essential phrase.  I like each of these translations, but in this instance each disappoints because the Greek is pretty straight forward and not in need of any cleaning up.  It says, “On third day.”
            Remember John’s method in telling the story of Jesus.  Some guess this gospel was written in the 60’s.  More scholars think it was in the mid to late 90’s.  Either way, John came decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection.  At the end of chapter 20, John tells us this Gospel was written, so that we, the readers, “may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God, and that through believing have life in his name.”
            The carefully crafted story uses symbolism.  Every word is intentionally chosen.  Every word has purpose.  Opening chapter 2 “on the third day,” John is not giving Jesus’ schedule.  This Gospel is organized theologically not chronologically. 
The third day?  Resurrection.  The community that first heard John read in church, probably in Ephesus, was already a Christian community.  They already knew that Jesus rose on the third day.  “Third day,” signals that what comes next is about the era after the resurrection. 
             John is about to tell us about life in the age to come.  But, we know it has not come yet.  In this time and place we lean into the Kingdom by embodying what we learn about, the worth of people, the power of love, and the presence of God.  But this time and place is still a world fallen in sin. 
Jesus’ resurrection summons us into the Kingdom. 
We take a step when we open our hearts, confess our sins, receive forgiveness, and receive the Holy Spirit into our hearts. 
We take another step when we commit to live as Jesus’ disciples so that we no longer live by the values and expectation of 21st century America or any other contemporary culture.  We come from our culture but as his disciples, our worldview is transformed.  In Christ, we see everything differently.  We see as he sees. 
We take another step into the Kingdom when we begin living as Jesus lives.  His Spirit lives through us and the fruit that is produced blesses those around us: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.  This is the outpouring of God in us. 
John’s first readers heard “on the third day,” and immediately thought life in the Kingdom of God.  They knew that they stood at the threshold where this day and time, history as we know it gives way to God’s Kingdom.  We are in that threshold between “the then” (resurrection), and “the not yet” (the Second Coming of Christ).
In the Cana wedding, we glimpse life in the Kingdom.  It is like wedding where the bride and groom are poor.  How do we know that?  Cana was a small, unspectacular village.  Peasants lived there.  Families saved up for years for the lavish wedding celebrations. 
The joy was continuous and all-consuming … unless the family was so poor that they ran out of food and drink.  Then, the party would thud to halt.  The bride and groom and their families would lose face.  In a culture where shame was a heavy burden and saving face was valuable currency, an already poor family would be humiliated.
The Kingdom of Heaven is like a poor family wedding in a small village, and horror of horrors, the wine runs out.  What do we do?
The mother of Jesus approaches him.  Highlight that.  In the Kingdom, Jesus is present and approachable.  Right now, at the threshold, we go to God by way the third person of the trinity, the Holy Spirit.  I don’t know if it is better to approach God by Son, in person, than by the Spirit.  I am pretty sure “better” is the wrong word to use.  I am also pretty sure that when Jesus returns, whatever our relationship with Him will be, it will be different than it is now.  In the Kingdom we approach God in a way that is unlike our approach now. 
Jesus responds to his mother, “Woman, what concern is that to you and me?  My hour has not yet come.”  Why does he say that?  This events of this story happen first century Cana.  In deed Jesus did not come to rescue weddings.  He came to give glory to God and to show people that by following him they would become children of God. 
We straddle the generations so that God speaks at a couple of levels of experience.  God is present in our daily lives through the Holy Spirit.  Also, God has planned eternity and through Jesus invites us to be part of that eternity.  We are headed for a time when the supplies never run out and the party never ends.  In Christ both are extended to the disciple – relationship with God now, salvation now, and eternal promise.
Mary is not cowed by Jesus’ response.  She tells the servants to do what Jesus says to do.  It is the essence of discipleship.  We die to ourselves and live in Christ.  Our view of the world is shaped by the Holy Spirit.  We approach all people in the love that Jesus give us in abundance.  He models this love and fills us with it.  The end of verse 5 is the disciple life captured in a simple sentence.  Do whatever Jesus tells you to do.
Jesus tells the servants to fills the purification jars with water.  This is 180 gallons and we know what Jesus does next.  The water becomes wine – the equivalent of 1000 bottles of wine, the best wine.  It is better than any wine the steward, a wine expert, has tasted.  Jesus’ gift to the poor couple was to pick up the bill for the wine – over $100,000. 
This is what it is like in the Kingdom of Heaven.  All who are in Christ are invited.  The party does not end.  No one is embarrassed.  Jesus picks up the check.  And the longer we are there, the better it gets. 
God’s tendency to give special attention to poor and disadvantaged people is another key aspect of life in the Kingdom that comes up the wedding of Cana story.  For some background, think back to when Mary was first told she would be Jesus’ mother.  She sings a praise, now titled the Magnificat.  In this song, found in Luke 1, Mary sings, “The Lord has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Lk. 1:52-53).
Why does Mary include this in her praise of God?  The Cana wedding shows us.  The water Jesus changed became not only wine, but the best wine.  Who knew the source?  The servants.  The steward, the one with the highest social standing there, was confused.  He was not sent away empty in the sense that he didn’t get to imbibe the new wine.  He was the one who tasted it.  He was the one shocked by how much better this party was with this new wine. 
To go away empty is to receive a blessing apart from the relationship with the blessing-giver.  He went away empty because while he enjoyed some incredible wine, he did not have the connection with Jesus that goes with it.  The disciples did. The passages ends with the narrator telling us “his disciples believed in him.”
So we can say, the kingdom of heaven is like a wedding in a small village where they run out of wine, but then Jesus turns water into new wine that flows with abundance.  In turning the water into wine Jesus gives exaggerated grace, extravagant grace, excessive grace.[ii] 
God continues to give this grace today.  He gives it in the word – the Bible.  We receive God’s grace as he speaks through the church, through revelation of himself in his created world – nature, and through the Holy Spirit. 
It is not that God loves wealthy people less than poor people.  Poor find it easier to receive all that God gives because they know how desperately they need him.  The wealthy, and this would include middle class Americans, rely on themselves, their own resources, insurance, savings, the best health care money can buy, home security systems, and retirement plans.  None of those things are evil, but each of those things adds to our sense that we don’t have need.  We are self-sufficient.
This is why in Luke 18 when the rich man asked Jesus what he needs to do to enter eternal life, Jesus tells him he must give up his wealth.  Jesus doesn’t tell other rich people he meets this requirement, but he says it to this guy because he can see the riches are preventing the man from seeing his need for God.  The guys does not decide to follow Jesus.  He goes away “sad,” writes Luke.  He knows Jesus is more valuable than his riches but he will not allow himself to give the riches up.
We live in 2016 America, not 90AD Ephesus.  That’s why this first miracle of Jesus is so surprising.  In a simple act in an out of the way village in a pre-enlightenment society Jesus shows what the Kingdom of God is like.  Can we see it?  Can we describe it to others?
We stand at the edge of the ages.  Soon our universe will end, and the age of the Eternal Kingdom will begin.  In Christ, we will be with God in that Kingdom, drinking new wine. 
We can share that new wine with people who don’t know Jesus but only if we truly ignore the influences of the fallen world around us and walk in unobstructed faith.  That happens when we keep out attention on the ways God is revealed in Jesus – at his birth; at his baptism; at this wedding; and in ways we will discuss in upcoming weeks.  We keep our attention on Christ and the Holy Spirit opens our eyes. 
This week, seek examples of his grace that come into your life and put the taste of new wine on your tongue.

[i] G. Sloyan (1988).  Interpretation: A Commentary for Teaching and Preaching: John (John Knox Press, Atlanta) p.37
[ii] -