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Monday, March 28, 2016

Easter Sermon

Easter Sunday, March 27, 2016

            He said to them, ‘have you anything here to eat.’  They took a piece of broiled fish and gave it to him and he ate it in their presence.
            It makes me wonder.  Do three days in the grave make one hungry?  Upon being raised, I think I might like to visit the people who killed me.  I’d look in their eyes and say, “I am baaaaack!”  Jesus didn’t do that.  He went to his closest friends, and said, “Do you have anything to eat?”  Yeah, it is a good thing he’s the Savior and not me. 
            I imagine myself as a disciple, not one of the 12, but maybe one of the 70 Luke mentions in chapter 10.  Jesus has died.  We’re in a haze of grief and confusion.  What do we do now?  And then, he’s just here.  The door didn’t even open.  It’s locked. Slipping to the back of the group, I nudge Nathaniel.  “Is this really happening,” I ask.
            Think back through the story.  Early on the morning after the Passover, Sunday morning, some of the women disciples made their way to the tomb to anoint a dead body.  It was Jesus, but Jesus was no more – no more than a corpse.  But that’s not what they found.
            In the tomb, there was no body.  They rushed back to the 11 apostles, remember Judas is gone, and the women told the 11 that angels told them that Jesus is alive.  The 11 and the larger group of disciples with them  were stuck in grief and uncertainty (24:9).  The crucifixion happened and the entire Jesus movement was bogged down in sorrow.
            Into that disorienting silent stillness, the women sound a trumpet blast.  He is alive.  What?  The disciples all said the women were crazy.  They shook their heads.  They didn’t believe, did they?  No, but … Peter went to the tomb.  Luke says, Peter ran to the tomb.  It was empty, and Peter began to suspect someone stole the body.  No, Luke doesn’t say that.  Luke says Peter was amazed.  He felt his way in the mist at the edges of belief, wanting it to be true, but unsure he could hope for such a thing. 
Can we really hope that resurrection could be true and that Jesus’ resurrection means we who trust will also rise after death?  Can such things be so?
            Luke jumps to another scene.  Think back through the story.  That same day, two disciples, knowing Jesus is dead, begin the 7-mile walk back to their village, Emmaus.  Seven miles is long way, and perhaps it would have been sufficiently long enough to walk in silence with their thoughts, but a stranger sidled up beside them.  We could forgive them if they said to this stranger, “Hey, you know, today is not the day we want to make new friends.”  But, there was something familiar and inviting.  This stranger had an aura.
            These disciples walked with Him to Emmaus.  They told him all about Jesus and the crucifixion.  They told about the outbreak of insanity as some of Jesus’ followers, some of the women, claimed an angel said he was alive.  They said, we know it sounds crazy, but we found the tomb empty.  These two disciples said all of this to the stranger who walked with them from Jerusalem to Emmaus.
            “O how foolish you are,” he said to them.  I imagine being one of those two and saying sadly, “Yeah, we know how this sounds.”  But that’s not what he meant.  He jumped into their story about Jesus, about resurrection, and he told them they were silly to be sad.  He talked about Israel’s Messiah – the one sent by God.  Reaching back through the pages of their own scriptures, passages like Isaiah 53, he demonstrated to these two Jesus-followers that the Messiah had to suffer and die before entering glory.  When he said “how foolish you are,” he did not mean they were foolish to believe such a story.  He meant they were foolish to not believe it all the way to the best part – the victorious ending.
            Do we see what Luke is showing us?  Some of the women disciples say that an angel told them Jesus is alive, and they didn’t believe it.  They thought it was silly.  But they also ran to check it out.  Two disciples start telling a stranger all about Jesus, but halfway through their story, the stranger takes over and he tells them where the story goes.  Then, when they bring him to be a guest in their home, he takes over.  It’s their house, but somehow, he’s the host.  He takes the bread and breaks the bread and gives it to them and their eyes are opened.  And he vanishes.
            That’s where we live.  We have those resurrection moments, eternal moments when the curtain is pulled back and we see reality as it really is.  We see beyond the limits of our five sense, we glimpse past the edges of our universe into God’s greater, more real existence and presence.  But for now, all we get is glimpses and then poof!  We are back here, living in faith, holding to the hope, to the story, to the love of God that is scene in how we love each other.  Do we dare believe that it might be true?  Can the resurrection of Jesus actually create us as a people who live in a hope so great it transcends the darkness of our present age?
            Those two disciples who walked seven miles to Emmaus with a stranger who turned out to be Jesus who they recognized when he broke bread – those two looked at each other.  They turned and headed right back, 7 miles, to where the rest of the disciples gathered.  They said their hearts were burning as he talked to them and all they wanted was for the disciples to feel that, to have sadness burned out and replaced by the fire of the living God warming their hearts.
            Blisters?  7 more miles?  This could not wait.  They went all the way back, burst in on their companions who were still sitting around shaking their heads.  “The Lord has risen indeed!”  They shouted, and then told about him breaking bread. 
            These events set up the scene.  A group of Jesus followers, bewildered, talked and cried.  Some laughed.  Others were offended by the laughers’ laughter because they had not yet seen the risen Lord and so could not share in the joy.   Those who had seen or at least had met angels kept trying to convince them – it’s true!   But those who had not seen were flush with grief and loss and they could not believe.  Listen for the noise of all in that room, maybe a rising irritation.
            And then notice.  In one corner, they all stop talking and they stare.  The silence spreads slowly, like dark ink on a white table cloth, as it spills across the room it becomes more and more obvious until in the opposite corner, there is Thomas, the apostle Thomas.  His back to the group.  “I don’t care what those women say they saw,” he shouts at the apostle Matthew.  Then he realizes his voice is the only one speaking in the room.  Why is it all of a sudden so quiet?  He sees a look of shock and pleasure and awe in Matthew’s eyes and he realizes it is not because Matthew is amazed by his salient argument.  He turns around and there is Jesus, smiling, upright, alive.  Alive!
            It’s still too much for them and I suppose it would be for me if I was there.  It’s hard to let God take our pain and shame.  We’re used to our failures.  We form our identities around our shortcomings.  We rely on our own self-sufficiency.  Everything we think we know has to be released when we say that Jesus Lord. 
            “Peace be with you,” Jesus tells the group.  They are as terrified as you or I would be.  In a voice that calms storms he says, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts rise in your hearts?  Look at my hands and feet.  See that it is I, myself.  Touch me and see, for a ghost does not have flesh and bones.”
            Resurrection is not resuscitation.  It is different, new.  It is something the world has not seen before.  Resurrection is not disembodied.  Can you pinch your own arm?  In resurrection, you will be able to pinch your own arm.  This is a new dimension of reality which cannot be explained by any science we have, nor can it be understood by our minds, not now, not yet.  Even after Jesus invited them to touch him, many in the room with him were in Joy and disbelieving at the same time.  Luke makes a point of this.  Even in the presence of the resurrected on, doubt persisted.  Do we dare believe Jesus rose?  Do we dare hope that we will?
            As they gawked, Jesus asked, “Do you have anything to eat?”  Again, we remember, just as they remembered.  It was Thursday.  Jesus took the Passover bread and broke as he said, “I will not eat it again until it is fulfilled in the kingdom.”  Then he said, “I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the Kingdom of God comes” (22:16, 18).  Jesus clearly stated in that moment that we memorialize every time we eat the bread and drink the cup in worship that he would not eat or drink the kingdom had come.  On his resurrection, he ate and drank before the disciples.
            No, I don’t think three days in the graves made him hungry. 
            In the resurrection of Jesus, the Kingdom of God has come.  Physicist Deborah Haarsma writes, “The resurrection of Jesus foreshadows a glorious reality free of death, tears, and suffering, which has not yet come.”  I love Dr. Haarma’s statement and I would just reword it this way.  “The resurrection of Jesus embodies our glorious future which will be free of death, tears, and suffering, and is coming even now.” 
Do we believe it?  Do we dare hope in it?
I hear the phrase “lean in,” sometimes.  In Jesus’ resurrection, The Kingdom of God has come.  As we long for His return the Kingdom’s fulfillment, we do so in full confidence with unfailing hope.  Thus, all Christians can lean-in to the Kingdom and can do so with the full joy that erupts from us when on Easter Sunday we declare “He is alive.”
Yes, he ate fish among them and we will too – we sit together at His table in the Kingdom. 
Yes, he invited them to touch and embrace and we will too – in the new heaven and new earth we will gather, touch, and embrace in a community of unending, holy love.
Yes, he replaced tears with laughter, grief with joy and he does this for us too – right now.  We are the body of Christ, animated by the Holy Spirit, bonded by grace and love, arms open to a hurting world, ready to proclaim life to all who are drying.
Yes, he is alive and in Him, we are too and will be forevermore. 

Jesus is alive.  Hallelujah.  Amen!

Easter Sunrise - 2016

We Need God Alive (Luke 24:1-12)

Easter Sunday, Sunrise Service, March 27, 2016

            “At early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking spices that they had prepared.” 

            On Friday, Jesus died.  Luke tells us, “When all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts. 49 But all his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.”
            Then a righteous man, a priest and council member who disagreed with the decision made by others in the establishment to have Jesus executed, Joseph of Arimathea, honored Jesus with a proper burial.  Luke says, “The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid. 56 Then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments.  On the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment.”
            These women were the ones to make their way to the tomb in the pre-dawn Sunday darkness.  Who were these women?  They have lived in the center of Luke’s story throughout.  They were healed by Jesus (ch. 8).  He cured their diseases and drove demons of them.  They followed him and support him and the disciples with their resources.
            One was married to someone in Herod’s court.  
Another was Magdalene, a woman of questionable repute. 
The sisters, Mary and Martha inhabited Jesus’ circle. 
His mother and another Mary were in his orbit. 
Poor, rich, diseased, healthy, socially connected, social rejects – each one of these women needed Jesus and each recognized that they needed Jesus.
            Who gets up before sunrise on a Sunday morning?  Here we are.  We are people with broken hearts and failing bodies, we are people who struggle to pay the bills and have plenty to pay the bills.  We have shared many Good Fridays.  We’ve been to the cross together.  We have traveled all the way from Galilee together.  We are here and have only just met for the first time this morning. 
            Luke shows us these women by telling us what they did.  I’ve mentioned that they received – they received healing from Jesus.  And they gave – their money, their allegiance.  They also opened their homes.  Jesus and his disciples ate with Martha and Mary.  They followed from Galilee and when Jesus was flogged and then humiliatingly paraded through Jerusalem as a bloody spectacle, the women trailed along, stepping in pools of his blood, weeping for him.  When the crowds headed for home after being sickened by another Roman crucifixion, the women lingered and watched and planned.  Jesus was taken from them, but they would not stop loving him. 
            Nor would they stop needing him.  Jesus filled holes in their lives.  Only Jesus could complete them.  These women loved their own parents.  They loved their husbands.  They loved their children.  But they carried brokenness and their families could not patch what was torn or fill what was empty.  Only Jesus enabled these wounded souls to be the women God created them to be.  He died on the cross, but their need for him lingered and so they lingered.
            Disciples follow Jesus.  The women followers continued following even after he was dead.  Laid in the tomb to rest forever, yet they came because they needed to and they recognized their need.  They came to the tomb, they entered the tomb, and there they discovered more than they expected. 
            Decades, centuries, millennia do not change the story.  Week after week, year after year, – continue to need Jesus.  Easter morning after Easter morning we continue to return here because we know we need Him.  Everyone needs Jesus.  It’s a universal human condition. 
Not everyone recognizes the need.  People try to fill the holes. Maybe success will do it for me.  Will a marriage will make me happy?   A baby? Years ago, I talked with a man who had just gone through a divorce.  He discovered 20 years of marriage was not the answer.  Adjusting to his new life as a divorced man, he said some nights he was so directionless, he just went and walked the aisles at Walmart.  Our conversation waned.  He concluded, “At least now I’m happy.” 
Las Vegas, the Bahamas – escape doesn’t work.  The bottle or pills – numbing the pain doesn’t work. 
Only Jesus can offer hope.  Only He can fix what’s broken, fill the emptiness, and helps us be the men and women God made us to be.
He was dead, but they still needed Him. So they went to the tomb.  This story is 2000 years old, but we still need Him.  So we come. 
When we come, what happened with the women happens with us.  They entered the empty tomb where angels greeted them with the news that He is alive.  Jesus – the one they so desperately need – is alive. 
Immediately the women told the disciples who just as quickly dismissed the silly, dreaming woman-talk.  Has any dismissal ever rung so hollow?  Though they would not admit it, the disciples needed Jesus as much as they women did.  There’s Peter inching toward the door, “Yeah, guys, I agree.  These women are batty.”  And he’s off, running fast enough to kick up a dust storm.  Why run after the words of crazy women?  He needs Jesus.  He knows Jesus has died, but he needs Jesus alive. 
He only finds an empty tomb, but he is amazed. 
Are we?  Caught between an old story and our hope that the story will continue when Jesus returns and our hope that he will return, and driven by our need for Him, are we amazed on Easter Sunday?  I am.
Like the faithful women who followed Jesus and like Peter with his doubts, his failings, and his desperation, I know I need Jesus and I think you do too.  We believe He rose.  We believe the resurrection as a fact of history.  We believe He sits at the right hand of the father, and we believe His Holy Spirit is in all places and is with us in this place, helping us, speaking to us, and encouraging us right now. 
The women told their story and we continue to tell it.  We need Jesus alive and He is alive.  And so, Easter is complete joy and it is also real hope that the brokenness will be fixed and is being fixed.  The emptiness will be filled and is being filled.  Just as we are connected to these women through human need, we are connected through the satisfaction we have in Jesus.  He is alive, our needs are met, and we have a story to tell.  As we tell it, those who hear and also recognize their need will, like Peter, be amazed.  And we will live in that amazement with them.


Friday, March 25, 2016

Rituals of Holiness - Maundy Thursday (based on John 13)

March 24, 2016

            Has Jesus become a brand or a cultural-political mascot?  Theologian Michael Horton suggests as much in his Christianity Today article analyzing why people who call themselves ‘evangelical Christians’ give their votes and support to candidates who curse, advocate torture, don’t attend church, don’t confess sin, and remain unrepentant in spite of numerous divorces and affairs.  How is it that such candidates can use Jesus’ name for their own purposes and supposed Christians line up behind them and declare them to be Godly leaders?  Horton, professor of theology at Westminster Seminary in California, thinks pragmatism is the reason believers tolerate and even promote for president individuals who are antithetical to ways of Jesus.  They think certain people “get things done.”
            Jesus got things done, but he also paid attention to how he did things.  He did not surrender compassionate methods to achieve Kingdom results.  Every act portrayed the new reality God was in the process of creating. 
When Jesus knelt and washed his disciples’ feet, he demonstrated life in the Kingdom of God.  We are humble before one another. We serve one another for the sake of love of the other.  Michael Horton writes, “Jesus enacts a performance parable about power.  … Taking off his out garment, he wraps a towel around his waist and begins to wash his disciples’ feet.”[i]  Horton refers back to John 10 where Jesus asserted that there is no power that takes life from him.  Rather, he lays his life down (10:17-18). 
Horton then points out that the kingdom of God is founded in blood, but not the blood of the people, the subjects.  This kingdom is founded in the shed blood of the kingdom who led through compassion and sacrifice.  This contrasts the stance of many in American politics who claim the name Jesus, but then grasp desperately for earthly power that is divisive, destructive, and temporary.  “When Christian leaders are drawn to breath-taking expression of ungodly power, it raises questions about which kingdom and which sort of king they find most appealing.”[ii]
Our practices this evening are rituals that show what sort of King has our allegiance and what kind of life will be lived when the Kingdom comes in full.  We sing in worship.  In this way, our voices are joined to one another’s so that the worship we offer comes not from me but from us.  It is a communal act that says our hearts are joined out of love for Christ and for those around us and we are one in Christ.  We are invited into mediation – quiet prayer in which we invite God to fill us.  We don’t empty ourselves for the sake of being empty.  We empty our minds of the noise of the world in order to be filled with the peace of God. 
Also we have opportunities to see the story of our faith through windows, also called icons.  There is art – creative use of photography and other mediums that invite us to see Jesus washing the disciples’ feet.  There is creative writing, a practice that helps us awaken our own imaginations as we pray.  Our cultural currency sways back and forth from the gut to the intellect back to the gut – head and heart.  Both matter very much, but so too does the emotion, and our imagination awakens our emotion.  The creative writing station gives voice to another part of our selves as we pray.  And then there is enactment – as Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, we wash one another’s.  The story comes alive.
Finally, the offering and the receiving.  We have stones, the burdens we carry, and we drop them at the cross, offering our sins, our hesitations, our doubts to God.  We give God our mess and God takes it.  We receive from him bread – the broken body of Jesus, the removal of our sins.  We receive from him juice – the shed blood in which we have eternal life.
What do all these rituals reveal about the kingdom of God?  When we sing, when we pray, when worship through art and writing, when we wash feet and release burdens as we drop stones in a bucket at the cross, when we eat bread and drink juice, when we do all these things, what of the kingdom is seen in these experiences? 
The Kingdom is a place of space – space to be and grow in Jesus.  The Kingdom is a place of beauty.  We serve each other.  We honor and care for each other.  God is present.  There are no presumptions, no prerequisites, and no regrets because we are free and made new in Christ.  All are welcome, all are forgiven, and all have life because Jesus has made a way.  Our participation in the worship practices is one way God prepares us to live in His kingdom.  I think we’ll find that this Kingdom is richer and more joy-filled than any kingdom we might build.  How could it be otherwise?  This is the kingdom of a loving God who desires to welcome us into His embrace.

[i] M. Horton (2016) -
[ii] Ibid.

Monday, March 21, 2016

The Political Palm Sunday (Luke 19:28-40)

March 20, 2016

            “Make America great again!”
            “Feel the Burn!”

            A political rally was canceled due to threats of violence and physical altercations between protesters and supporters.
            At a political rally, a supporter punched a protester in the face.  The candidate at least for a time considered paying the legal fees his supporter would face for committing assault.

            In words and in the ways people respond to words and to events and to movements, we have a window through which we can gain perspective on our country’s political scene. 
In words and in the ways people respond, we have a window through which we see Jesus’ actions on that fateful Sunday prior to his crucifixion.  I will not talk directly about the political movements of our day.  I certainly won’t endorse a party or a candidate.  We will look at the Jesus movement and how Jesus forms us.  Who we are in Christ absolutely plays into our approach to politics today and it shapes our response to what happens in politics. 
We are called to praise God, even in trying circumstances.  That’s the end game of Luke’s depiction of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on the day we now commemorate as Palm Sunday.  The actions of Jesus, as told by Luke, are invitation.  We are beckoned into love and hope, called to worship and praise God. 
How do we get there? 
            As Luke sets the scene, there are many disciples following Jesus and the group has been growing ever since chapter 9, verse 51, when Jesus set his face to get to this point.  Through parables and teaching and actions, Jesus has over and over emphasized how challenging it is to be a disciple, yet people find him so compelling, they follow anyway.  They give up their money, they realign their relationships, they adjust their priorities, and they fix their lives upon following Him.
            A group, with Jesus in the lead, is nearing the city of God, Jerusalem.  He sends disciples ahead to the village on the outskirts of the city, Bethany.  They are to get a colt for Jesus to ride.  When they go to untie the owners ask what they are doing, just as Jesus anticipated.  They answer as he told them to.  “The Lord needs it.”  Nothing more is said or needs to be said. 
            This doesn’t appear particularly interesting, but in the Greek language the word translated “owners,” as in owners of this colt, is kurioi.  The word translated “Lord” as in the “the Lord needs it” is kurios.  It’s the same word. 
            The people who own the colt are the colt’s lords.  We might call them the animal’s masters or owners, but we wouldn’t say they are the beast’s ‘lords.’  We don’t use the word ‘lord’ that way.  However, when we see the contrast and also when we see how submissively the animal’s owners give it up when they realize who needs it, a deeper understanding comes into view.
            In our world, people are owners and masters, presidents and kings, CEOs and lords, lower case ‘l.’ Jesus is Lord with a capital ‘L.’ Everything in the world is under him.  He owns all including everything in my house, every penny in the church’s bank account, this building, everything in your pocket, and everything we can see or imagine and all that is beyond what we can see or imagine.  There are lords.  He is the Lord
            Words.  When we say “Jesus is Lord,” we are saying something significant.  We pray to God as Father and God as Savior and God as Lord.  What if we prayed to God as owner?  It feels weird to me, cold, impersonal.  But for us capitalists, it might make a lot of sense.  We recognize that however hard we might work to acquire capital so as to have an advantage in our capitalistic society, because we are Christians, we know Jesus is the Owner.
            Words.  Consider the words of the crowd as they herald the coming of Jesus to Jerusalem.  The crowd quotes Psalm 118:26, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”  That is how it reads in the Psalm and that is how it is quoted in Matthew and Mark and John.  Luke renders the quote differently.  In Luke it says, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord.”
            Did Luke just make that up?  For his own purposes did he change the story, making it say “king?”  I don’t think so.  The wording is different in John, but John also makes the point that the crowd proclaimed Jesus to be king.  And I don’t think we’re dealing a contradiction.
            The gospel writers quote both Psalm 118:26 and Zechariah 9:9, which heralds the coming of the blessed king.  If crowds really line the roads shouting this prophecies like political slogans, they would have shouted over and over.  They would have conflated the quotations.  Luke selects a quote from many that were shouted as Jesus road into the city.  The question is not who was right, Luke or the other gospels.  The question what is Luke trying to convey in his decision to include the shout of the disciple who merged the Psalm and the prophet Zechariah as he praised Jesus?  What is about that word, “king?”
            There can only be one.  If Jesus is king, then Archaelus, the son of Herod is not king.  More significantly, if Jesus is king, then the Roman Emperor is not.  To declare the royalty of Lord Jesus is to declare one’s allegiance to the death.  And, after the resurrection, which is when Luke’s gospel was written and read, disciples were sent to the death because they insisted Jesus, not Caesar, is king. 
            Words.  Lord.  King. 
            Enter the Pharisees.  They won’t use these words for him.  “Teacher,” they say, “order your disciples to stop.”  ‘Teacher’ is an honorable title and they show respect in using it.  However, with this word, they view Jesus as their peer.  As his peers, as they see themselves, they assume the right of communal authority over him.  For the good the community, he needs to quiet this furor down immediately and they see it as their place to impose this.
            Word.  Lord – Jesus is to be worshipped and all belongs to Him.  King – Jesus is to be obeyed and given complete allegiance, even to death.  Teacher – Jesus is my peer and if he gets out of line it is my job to rein him in. 
            One more word demands our attention and it is tied to a response, so I will come back to it. 
            The disciples are the first to respond.  Jesus tells them to go ahead to the village, enter a yard of a home they have never visited and take a colt that is not theirs.  They respond in obedience.  I suspect the owners of the house and the yard and the cold were also his disciples, just unknown to those in his traveling party.  They also obeyed without question, giving up the colt. 
            Obedience is a response. 
            Praise is too – the response of the crowd.  They make noise as Jesus rides into Jerusalem because Jesus is worth the noise.  Their praise is not just a predetermined act of worship and political protest.  Luke says they raise their voices joyfully.  It is a response of the heart.
            The Pharisees offer a response of fear.  They hear how much noise the disciples are making.  They know that if they hear it, others will too: temple police; Roman soldiers in the area.  They fully understand the words they have heard, so they know any priests who hear this will fully understand it too.  They fear the powers that be – the temple, the puppet King Archelaeus, Roma – more than they fear God.  God is the one worshiped in the temple and the one who allows Rome to exist, but the Pharisees cannot see that God is in this man before them, Jesus.  So they try to shut the whole thing down. 
            Jesus’ response to the Pharisees raises the last word, the most important word.  We have seen that he is Lord and our response is worship.  We have seen that he is King and our response is obedience and loyalty.  We have seen an attempt to reduce him back to human size by calling him teacher.   He is teacher, but not now, not in this moment.
            Jesus tells the Pharisees if all were silent, the stones would praise him.  The only way the created order – animals, waters, trees, earth – the only way the natural world offers praise is if the praise is going to God.  That’s the only way stones shout out.  Jesus is God.
            He continues through the praises, through the Pharisees and their fears, and into the city.  And God weeps.  Jesus weeps and says to Jerusalem “You did not recognize the time of your visitation.”  God is here and you cannot see it. 
            Words:  Lord. King. God.
            Responses: Obedience.  Praise.  Worship.      
            We have confidence today in the truth in these words and responses to Jesus.  I don’t know if this past Tuesday’s primary results made you happy or fearful.  Maybe you believe Donald Trump can make America great again.  It doesn’t matter.  Maybe you are horrified at the prospect of a Trump presidency.  Doesn’t matter.  Maybe you feel burned because voters didn’t feel the burn for Bernie Sanders.  Doesn’t matter.  Maybe you are super excited at the thought of Hillary as president.  It does not matter.
            From the standpoint of America’s democracy, our presidential election is of course very important.  It always is.  But we are in church.  We have an eternal perspective.  We vote and play our part as law abiding citizens who contribute to society, but what happens in society, who is president, whatever crisis comes up, whatever war is going on – it does not change the fact the Jesus is Lord, King, and God.
            As despair mounts,  society crumbles, and people are at each other’s throats, we speak a word of hope amid the chaos.  The Lord and God and King who rides into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday died for our sins and then defeated death in the resurrection.  Our Palm Sunday politics transcend the temporary troubles that worry the world. 
Because of Jesus, we have a politics of life.  We know his visitation was a visitation of God and he brought salvation with Him – our salvation and the salvation of all who put their trust in him.  More than that, he came to save world including the rocks and stones.  No wonder they are ready with words of praise.  But praise is our job. 


Monday, March 14, 2016

How Will You Be Remembered?

Fifth Sunday of Lent, March 13, 2016

            I imagine the beloved disciple, pen in hand, eyesight failing, joints aching, and bones tired.  He’s hunched, wizened, wrinkled.  How has he lived this long?  Easterly winds send a breeze.  His wild hair flows as he gazes at the ships that sail from the Aegean Sea into the Ephesus port.
The writer of the Gospel of John never says, “This was written by John.”  Others have come to that conclusion.  He does the Gospel was written by “the disciple Jesus loved.”  He also clearly says he was an eyewitness.  The Gospel of John comes from his memory.
            He arranges the story, not chronologically, but in order to help the reader come to faith in Jesus.  Everything in this account is meant to guide you and me to believe and have life in Jesus’ name.  This includes what he tells us about Mary the sister of Lazarus and the disciple Judas Iscariot. 
            The Beloved Disciple remembers the high priest, Caiaphas, was persuasive when he convinced other priests and Pharisees that Jesus’ claims were so revolutionary, he had to be killed for the good of the nation. 
            The beloved disciple sets the scene.  Caiaphas plots the undoing of Jesus at a council meeting, while in Bethany, just outside Jerusalem, Jesus is another kind of meeting, a dinner meeting in the home of Lazarus.  This is the same man who had been dead, 4 days in the tomb dead.  Jesus brought him back to life.
            Lazarus has a dinner party for Jesus and the 12 disciples.  There are others around them including his sisters Martha and Mary.  The beloved disciple remembers all of this. 
            Martha was serving.  Those who reclined at the table eating were the men, Jesus, Lazarus the host, and the 12 disciples.  Mary enters and dumps a pound of expensive perfume on the feet of Jesus.  Social conventions dictated that she help Martha in the kitchen. 
But we’ve read the gospels.  We remember Luke 10 where Martha dutifully served, but Mary sat among the men because to her Jesus’ teaching was worth whatever scorn she would receive for sitting among the men.  Jesus commended her decision.  She has chosen “the better part,” he said, and it will not be taken from her.
In the previous section of the Gospel, John 11, Lazarus dies, and both Martha and Mary are upset with Jesus.  When he finally comes, Martha confronts him with a theological argument.  Jesus responds in kind.  Mary says the same words as Martha, but where Martha spoke out of her head knowledge, Mary spoke the same words through tears.  Jesus wept with her.
Now, the beloved disciple tells this story and once again Martha with apron on serves a meal fit for a king.  Mary is off somewhere and when she comes in it is to dump a year’s worth of income spilled out onto the feet of Jesus.  The Beloved disciples remembers this. 
I don’t remember smells.  However, when a powerful smell associated with an event from my past hits my nose, it takes me back there.  I cannot imagine the smell from my grandmother’s house.  But if I smelled it right now, I would feel great joy and sadness.  The joy would come from the memory evoked by the smell, all the laughter and love in that house.  The sadness would be because I can smell the smell, but cannot go there.  I cannot see her, not now, not yet.
The beloved disciple remembers that the house was filled with the fragrance of that perfume Mary poured on Jesus.  His memory associates her with absolute adoration of Jesus and with beautiful smells that fill the house.
He remembered Judas too, but it was a very different memory.  When he writes Judas’ name, he includes a parenthetical note.  Judas was about to betray Jesus.  The beloved disciple didn’t know it at the time.  Peter didn’t know it then.  Neither did Mary or Martha.  But looking back, they remember Judas as the betrayer.  The beloved disciple tells us Judas was the group’s treasurer and used to steal from the common fund.  We see in Luke 8 that a group of affluent women provided for Jesus and the disciples’ material needs.  Judas pocketed some of the money those women gave and he was able to do so because he was given the responsibility of managing their funds. 
On that breezy Ephesian shore as he writes his gospel, the beloved disciple remembers Judas and Mary.  One, in his memory, is a betraying thief.  The other worships so extravagantly the entire house is blessed by the aroma. 
How are we remembered?  Sixty years from now, someone from here will write the story of HillSong Church as a community that gave witness to the Kingdom of God in Chapel Hill in the opening decades of the 21st century.  When that person remembers your part in the community, what will she remember?  What words will she associate with your life as a disciple of Jesus?
Judas and Mary are complex people.  All people are. Judas was far more than a thief and a betrayer.  The other gospels record Jesus filling all 12 with the Holy Spirit so that they had the power to work miracles and defeat demons.  He gave the power to Judas. 
And Mary made her mistakes.  The same qualities that allowed her to weep empathetically, to present her heart before the Lord, and to worship extravagantly also had a dark side.  She left a lot of the hard, banal work to Martha.  Yes, Jesus commended her for listening to his teaching and we should too.  But Martha’s efforts in the kitchen were needed by the community.  Sometimes dreamers like Mary need to take their turn washing the dishes. 
Judas had his good qualities.  Mary had her faults.  When the beloved disciple remembered her, he remembered joy in Jesus and wonderful smells.  When he remembered Judas, he remembered treachery.
He also remembered the way each of them elicited a response from Jesus.  Judas saw Mary dump the perfume and he snapped at her.  Something in him was missing.  He couldn’t appreciate her beautiful generosity.  And even though he was under the covering of Jesus’ grace, somehow, he couldn’t be in the sphere of grace.  Somehow, even when he was in grace, he wasn’t in it.
While she worshipped big and bold, he did math.  Was he truly concerned about money that could go to the poor or money that would go in his pocket?  Maybe both.  What the beloved disciple remembers is Jesus was quiet, until Judas snapped at Mary.  Then, Jesus sharply chided him.  “Leave her alone,” Jesus said.  How embarrassed was Judas at that point?  He tried to be logical but missed the outpouring of love and grace, and Jesus slapped him down.
The beloved disciple tells us what Jesus said next.  “She is honoring me before my burial.”  He remembers that Judas elicited a rebuke from Jesus.  Jesus responded to Mary by commending her for what she did. 
How will we be remembered, you and me?  And how does the Lord receive what we give?  There is a place for strategic thinking, like that of Judas.  Economists, finance people, logical thinkers, and strategists all have something to offer to the church and to the Lord in the work of helping the poor. 
But that offering does not take the place of fully committed worship.  When she broke that jug of perfume and it began pouring, that was full commitment, but she did not hesitate a moment because she was driven by love for Jesus. 
The phrase that has been most repeated out of this remembrance the beloved disciple shares is Jesus’ statement in verse 8.  “You will always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”  Christians have used this as an excuse to not give money to help the poor.  The ones using that excuse are not like Mary, using ridiculous amounts of money to worship God extravagantly.  They use Jesus words, but then do what Judas.  They keep their money in their own pockets.  They do not practice the generosity Jesus commended.
Or, others quote John 12:8 to explain why they give a little to compassion ministries, but not a lot.  Or others quote John 12:8 to explain why, even though they’ve given money and worked to eradicate debilitating poverty, the efforts have failed.  No matter how hard we work, they’ll say, we’ll never end poverty because Jesus said …  .
The beloved disciples wasn’t making a statement about what policies Christian should adopt in social justice ministries.  He was remembering.  He remembered beautiful smells and unrestrained worship from Mary, and he remembered that Jesus was grateful.  He remembered dishonesty and betrayal and hypocrisy from Judas, and Jesus was angry. 
We know followers of Jesus are called to help people and helping people includes fighting against injustice, disease, hunger, inadequate housing, unfair practices in business and the justice system, and poverty.  We know that we are to fight these things because we follow Jesus.  We’ve read Luke’s gospel.  We know this.  We’ve read James.  And the prophet Amos.  And Isaiah.  And the book of Deuteronomy.  And the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew.  Well, all of Matthew’s Gospel.  And Galatians 6.  And … well, you get the picture.  Followers of Jesus help people and give generously.  That’s not in question.
In the memories of the beloved disciple, it is clear to me that what we do and how we do it is completely related to how we stand in relationship to Jesus.  Do we worship with abandon or restraint?  Are we driven by our love for him and what we can give to him, or by more self-serving desires? 
How we answer these questions is irrelevant.  People don’t remember what we say.   They remember what we do.  When we do give to the poor and help people are we acting out of our love for Jesus and in response to his call?  What memories will people have of our actions, taken today?  What do those actions say about how we feel about Jesus and about who we are in relation to Him?
Mary was a follower.  She followed Jesus.  She worshiped him.  She loved him.  She obeyed him.  She didn’t do it all perfectly, no one does.  But her heart was driven by passion for God and she knew Jesus was the one to bring her to God. 
Do we?    
Are we free enough to pour ourselves out before God?  Or is something preventing us from coming to the Lord in unrestrained, free, fully committed, ridiculously God-indulgent worship? 
My guess is, most of us have something that blocks us from truly free expression of our love for God.  Contemplate that.  Are you able to pour yourself out before him? 


Monday, March 7, 2016

All In (Luke 14)

Fourth Sunday of Lent, March 1, 2016

            A life spent following Jesus is a blessed life.  A person cannot have more joy, deeper meaning, richer love, or greater hope in any other life.  The life lived as Jesus’ disciple is the best life a person can have. 
Note the emphasis on following Jesus.  People can come every Sunday and not spend their lives striving to live in full submission and obedience to the Lord.  People can be baptized, but then turn away and not live under Jesus’ rule. 
The best life is the life of a disciple.  However, it is not the easiest life. 
A Middle Eastern man, “Musa” grew up in a Muslim home, but heard the gospel and put his faith in Jesus as Lord.  When Musa’s father found out, he threatened to kill him.  He kicked him out of the family’s home.  Musa has since tried to share the gospel with his sister, but when his father found out, he said to Musa, “I will slaughter you.”
            One of my best Christian friends was raised by parents who are committed Buddhists.  They tolerated his participation in church, but he always feared that if he were baptized, his parents would forbid him from bringing his younger siblings and cousins to church with him.
            Following Jesus costs. Maybe this is not the case in your family.  Maybe mom and dad and grandma and grandpa are all in the same church – three generations.  The day I was baptized 1981, at 11 years old, my relatives all came to celebrate.  An entire row in the congregation was filled with Tennants.  From an early age my parents taught me to follow and worship the Lord and they modeled this life.
            But some families are actively opposed to following Jesus.  If a son or daughter turns to Jesus, the family may kick that one out, or worse.  In Musa’s case, his father threatened to kill him.  A young person, even a young adult, should be able to turn to his father for support and protection.  Musa’s father wanted him dead. 
            In our country, we say “Christianity is under attack” because in December, store clerks say “Happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”  We say it because our same sex marriages are a reality, and our society includes people from other religious background. 
Really?  Are we seriously pointing to things like this to make our case that Christianity is under attack? 
I have never heard anything so lame in all my life.  To use such examples as evidence of a threat is utterly spineless.  No one is telling me not to say “Merry Christmas.”  I don’t care if someone else says it or not.  Who someone else marries does not affect who I marry.  I have never had a gay person try to convert me away from heterosexuality.  And the presence of Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jews, Hindus, and Atheists does not weaken my faith.  If anything religious plurality strengthens my commitment to Christ because I have to know why I believe He is Lord and is the path to salvation. 
Musa knows what it is to be threatened for being a Christian.  Most American Christians do not.  Parents and bosses and friends do not threaten to slaughter us for our faith.  They might fire us or disown, although that is extraordinarily rare. 
When American Christians say they feel threatened, what they really mean is that as Christians they no longer feel like they are in the majority and they don’t like that feeling.  When American Christians cry out that they are threatened it is because they feel they have lost the power and privilege of being the controlling group in society.  They have lost hegemony, they feel.  It doesn’t feel good. 
But, why would minority status surprise us when Jesus told us the cost of discipleship?
26 “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. 27 Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”
Following Jesus is the best life a person can have – no question about it.  But, wait!  I don’t want to hate my mom or dad.  They are two of the biggest supporters of my life as a Christian. 
Yet, Jesus says, “whoever does not hate father and mother … cannot be my disciple.”  We know he wasn’t looking for admirers.  Jesus had no interest in people acting as his fan club.  He wanted followers.  He lived and then said, “Look at how I live.  And you live that way.”
“I am bound to die on the cross.  You take up your cross and follow me.”  Luke 14 is a challenging collection of ideas and we must face this challenge if we are to truly become people who walk the way of Jesus.
Listen to the thoughts of a well-known Biblical preacher, Barbara Brown Taylor.    
She looks at Jesus words in Luke 14 and she says, “I have to conclude that [Jesus] would not have made a good [local church pastor.]  So much of the job depends on making it easy for people to come to church and rewarding for them to stay.  Talk to any of the church growth experts and they will tell you how important it is to create a safe, caring environment where people will believe their concerns will be heard and their needs be met.  The basic idea is to find out what people are looking for and to give it to them, so that they decide to stay put instead of continuing to shop for a church down the street” (Bread of Angels, p.46).
We embrace part of that statement at HillSong.  We promote a safe environment in which people can come to Jesus as they are, broken, confused, lost, uncertain, anxious.  Come to Jesus and receive love from his people. 
Where we resonate with Barbara Brown Taylor’s playful irony is the part about giving people what they want. Most the time, people, me included, don’t know what they want.  We offer to introduce people to Jesus.   Come just as you are and receive Jesus.  Give yourself to him in fully and He will make you a new creation. 
Come to Jesus, not to get saved, or to get found, or to be made whole.  That will happen, but come and reorient your life so that He is Lord in all things. 
But, “hate your father and mother?” Really?  In Jesus’ day, a rhetorical technique was to indicate a preference by holding two things side-by-side and then stating hatred for one and love for the other.  It was not hatred such as Hitler hated Jews.  It was not an evil, emotion-driven attitude.  It was a clear, unwavering choice. 
As cited in the examples above, Musa had to choose Jesus against his parents’ will.  In fact, his father became a mortal enemy.  My friend had to choose loyalty to Jesus over the approval of his Buddhist mother.  We know Jesus honored family relations.  The mother of his disciples, the brothers James and John, was also one his followers.  His own mother was one of his followers.  He did not despise family relations.  He simply and directly put them in their place.  Our families, our spouses, our closest ties fall in line after our devotion to Jesus. 
It helped me to go through Luke 14 and note the people who became his followers.  As the chapter opens, Jesus is a Sabbath Day house guest of a leading Pharisee.  All at the meal guests jockey for the best seat.  Jesus says when they are guests, they should humble themselves and sit in the lowest position.
When they host parties, they should invite people at the bottom of society’s standings.  They should invite “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (14:13).  he would tell us to invite into our homes, the refugee, the mentally ill, the illegal immigrant, and homeless person.
Jesus then tells a parable about a wedding banquet in the Kingdom of God.  All the important people invited send regrets.  One has to check a new piece of land; another has to see the oxen he’s just bought; and a is couple on their honeymoon.  So the Lords call others in to fill the empty chairs: the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.  Jesus also mentions drifters in the dark corners of society, people far from the mainstream. 
On the first Sunday of Lent, we talked about Jesus’ attraction to the least desirable of people.  He came for the poor, not the rich.  We saw this in Mark chapter 2, when Jesus called a tax collector to be a disciple and dined with prostitutes and sinners of all types.
In the disciple life, we welcome an endless stream of people who don’t look like what we might say a Sunday morning crowd looks like.  But that’s the way of Jesus, so we have to change our idea of what a Sunday morning crowd is.  Well, if we want Sundays at our church to be welcoming to Him, then we have to welcome and love who he welcomed and loved.
His priorities set ours.  If that happens, then we become a church that would be quite comfortable with him as pastor.  If our families or friends are shocked at the decisions we make that are out of step with materialist American culture but aligned with Jesus we aren’t surprised.  He said, we’d have to hate mom and dad.
We understand this doesn’t mean hate as an emotion.  It means we’re in the Gospel and so we walk the way of Jesus regardless of what mom or dad or husband or wife or friend think.  We invite those we love most to come to the cross with us.  But we go whether they come or not. 
That’s what it means to be all-in with Jesus.  There is no other way to be a Christian.  The only kind of Christ-follower is the extreme Christ-follower.  Any other way is just playing at Christianity. 
I end with a thought on when we do go all-in.  The Kingdom is a massive party – bigger than any wedding reception or inaugural ball.  The poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, the lost, the found, the brown, the yellow, the black, the white, you, me – we’re all there. 
But something has changed.  We’re in resurrected bodies, which cannot be blind.  Resurrected bodies cannot be lame or crippled.  We’ll call them “the healthy and the strong.”  Resurrected bodies cannot be addicts or junkies.  We’ll call them “the whole and the clean.” 
We’re with Jesus at God’s table.  We’re all beloved and all together.  Your mom.  My dad.  You.   Me.  We’re all there, in the Kingdom, with Jesus, at the Father’s Table. 
We live in blessed relationship with God now, tasked to be witnesses for the Gospel in the world today.  And we anticipate the table of God.  That is our destination when we are all-in.