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Monday, April 25, 2016

Called to God's Table

          In angst-ridden poetry, thinkers, whose ponderings pour out beautiful verse or angry verse, express their questions, their frustration, and their confusion.  In those questions see this: see a person desperately seeking God.  Even if his language is raw and strewn with bitter, atheistic sentiment, deep down he – the critic, the skeptic - needs what only God can give, and he or she, the poet knows she needs it.
God smiles and invites that person.  “Come, drink.  Come everyone who thirsts, come to the waters.” Thirsty for truth?  Come.  Thirsty for hope.  Come.  Are you literally thirsty because you live where clean water is hard to come by?  Come.  Come to the living waters of God.  Everyone who thirsts, come.
          I saw a man crawling along the sidewalk.  He has some kind of degenerative condition either in his legs or in his back.  His body is contorted in a shape that doesn’t appear human as he uses his hands to drag himself, useless legs and all, up the street.  He’s extremely poor in a country that is, for 95% of the people, extremely poor – Ethiopia.  So for him there is no treatment, no surgery, no physical therapy, no wheelchair.  His condition begins as a pain in the back or legs and then gets worse and worse until his legs no longer work and he has to continue on by dragging himself through the dirt, using his hands as his feet.  He’s poor.
          To him, God says, Come!  Come buy wine and milk.  Come, and without money, eat your fill.  Delight yourself in God’s rich food. 
          Through his prophet Isaiah, God reminds the world that He is a God who calls and invites.  Noah was called to be part of the story when God started over.  Abraham was called to a place he did not know.  Moses was called to face the enemy and lead God’s people to salvation.  Jonah was called to lead the enemy to salvation.  And in Isaiah 55, God calls the thirsty to drink God’s living water and the hungry and starving to feast at God’s table. 
          God calls us – each one of us.

          When I was a college student, I remember receiving invitations from theological seminaries.  We were invited to attend weekend programs with titles like, "Come Explore your Call."
Or, "A Weekend of Discernment."
Or, "What Plans does God have for your Life?"
Nearly every seminary had a program where they recruited college juniors and seniors who studied in religion departments or participated in campus ministries.  The recruitment was based around the question Are you being called into vocational ministry?
          Now, some 25 years later, I have to ask, is it only "vocational ministers" who are called by God?  Is it that someone decides to be a lawyer or a teacher or an accountant, but is called to be a pastor?
          I think all who turn to Jesus are called by God.  I believe God even calls people who have not put their faith in Him.  In Luke 15, it says he seeks the lost.  God goes out of His way to draw those far from Him into His embrace.  Maybe in terms of one’s profession, people wait tables or hammer nails to pay the bills not because God called them into food service or construction.  I am under no illusion that everyone is working in a job to which God called him or her. Sometimes we do jobs because we need to work.  That was my story when I was high school substitute teacher many years ago.
However, all Christians whether pastors, waiters, truck drivers, nurses, or college professors are called by God.  Furthermore, table-waiting or trash collecting can indeed be a call for a season of life even if not for a life time.  Every person who is part of the body of Christ is called by God.  In most jobs, we have the opportunity to live as called persons who give witness to the love of God and the life we have in Jesus’ name.
          At HillSong, we are going to spend five weeks in a church-wide emphasis exploring God’s call on us.  Specifically, we will consider what it means to live our lives as part of a bigger story.  We will look at the story of God and how God calls us to be part of it.  What do our lives look like when we live daily with a sense that God is summoning us?  Who are we as a people and as individuals when we live in God’s calling? 
Each of our small groups will be given thought-provoking questions to include in their prayers times as they engage with what we do on Sundays. 
I described the man I saw in Ethiopia, the one crawling along with a back and legs bent in ways I have never seen.  Can any two people be less alike than me, a healthy, educated, middle class American, and this Ethiopian man who lives in a completely broken body – mangled because no medical care is available to him? We literally and figuratively are worlds apart.  And yet, he and I share this.  The water we both need for life and the food that makes us both rich beyond the dreams of the wealthiest people on earth cannot be earned or acquired but only received from God as a gracious gift.  In Isaiah 55, God declares that He wants to give that gift.  He wants to give both me and that man and also you the living water and the sumptuous food set on Heaven’s table; moreover, he calls us to that table!
God does not silently sit at the crossroads and hand out blessings to whomever happens to stop.  God proactively reaches out and invites.  We are summoned to God’s table.  In fact, in Jesus Christ, the eternal God, steps out of Heaven and into our time-bound world as he takes on himself all the pain of the fall and of sin and death. Jesus coming in the flesh is how God hand delivers the invitation to each of us. 
Two ways we live in our calling and enact the gift of God are the Lord’s Supper and communal meals.  Of the Lord’s Supper, also called the Eucharist, James K.A. Smith says, “it is a normative picture of the justice of the kingdom of God.”[i]  The broken Ethiopian man and you and I and Donald Trump[ii] and any other person we can envision all have an invitation and we each have equal standing.  We each come to God’s table unworthy.  We are not invited because we deserve to be there.  We’re invited because we don’t deserve it.  Jesus died for us while were yet sinners.  The broken bread evokes the reality of his broken body.  The dark juice is his spilt blood – shed for us.  The justice of the kingdom; here, all come because of God’s grace.
Smith also says the Supper constitutes us as an eschatological people.  With that fancy theological verbiage he means we are directional – living toward the end and then toward resurrection.  In the resurrection, the broken man will not be broken.  I will not be a rich American in the present sense, where I am wealthier than most people in the world.  In Christ we are all called to inherit the riches of God.  Participating in the Supper reminds me of where we are going and it reminds me to work for justice while we are on the way there.  In the case of the man I saw on the street, I did not work specifically to empower him other than through my prayer.  But I was in Ethiopia as a part of a HillSong trip to join in an effort to help other people who are materially poor, but relationally filled with abundance. 
At the table the justice of the kingdom sets us all – the crippled man, Trump, the people we visited, you, me – as equals and we all, in Christ, look forward to eternity at God’s table where Isaiah 55 is no longer a prophetic anticipation, but an eternal, literal reality.  We go from working for justice to living in perfect justice in God’s physical presence.  We go from praying for that time when we can eat and drink without cost or limitation to eating and drinking without cost, enough for everyone.  We are called to God’s table and we enact that call by taking communion in worship with other believers.
Another way we enact and anticipate the call of God is by sharing table fellowship; eating together.  After worship today, we’ll have lunch together.  We’ll eat food prepared by us and provided by us.  We each bring something to share.  Is it clear that this is much more than a biological act?  All animals take in food and their bodies convert that food into energy needed for life.  When we sit together, we eat food that has been carefully, lovingly prepared. We sit with old friends and new friends.  We laugh, reminisce, retell old stories and hear other stories for the first time. 
In all this we enact, or “live toward,” the community in which we will spend eternity.  We could reduce the significance of it all by saying, “Well, it was a nice potluck at church this past Sunday.”  That would be a true statement, but also an incomplete one.  The “nice potluck” is a gathering of the people of God in joy.  We don’t come just because it’s the best choice among many options for how to spend a Sunday afternoon.  We come and eat together and join our hearts to each other because we are called to this.
The enactment is also anticipation.  We are called people – called to have lunch together but also called to spend eternity together.  When our bodies and our souls feel things we would describe as “contentment” or “happiness” or “satisfaction,” those words are the best we can do in communicating what is happening.  But those descriptors fall short in portraying the feelings we’ll have when we sit at God’s table in the resurrection.  What we do today in taking communion and then in sharing a meal together whets our appetite for the table God has set for us. 
Smith calls the Lord’s Supper a meal “to go” because it is but a “foretaste of the feast in the Kingdom.”[iii] As persons called to God’s table we spend our lives moving toward God and bringing others with along the way.  Three spiritual practices of answering the call to God’s table are (1) participation in communion with the church, (2) participation in community meals like today’s potluck in a community of brothers and sisters in Christ, and (3) the offer of hospitality to one another and to strangers outside of the worshipping context. 
Two of these spirituals practices can be done within the next hour – the Lord’s Supper and a meal enjoyed together.  The third, hospitality, is one I pray each of us will explore in the week to come.  Hospitality can take countless forms.  Experiment with it.  Discover how you will extend hospitality to another person.  I think you’re called to this. We all are.
And the words of the call come from God through the prophet Isaiah. 
“Everyone who thirsts, come.  You that have no money, come, buy, and eat.”
“Listen carefully and eat what is good and delight yourselves in rich food.”

[i] J.K.A. Smith (2009), Desiring the Kingdom, Baker Academic (Grand Rapids), p. 201.
[ii]This reference specifically to Donald Trump comes as he is most likely to be the Republican nominee for president in the 2016 race.  His polarizing campaign has been viewed by progressives as dangerous as with great bombast he continuously says xenophobic, racist things.  The Republican establishment has gone to great lengths to defeat him, yet he continues to win primaries.  At this point, just mentioning his name in a sermon, especially suggesting that he would sit at a communion table, is enough to raise hackles in the crowd.
[iii] Smith, p.200.

Monday, April 4, 2016

What The Resurrection Means for our Pain (1 Peter 1:3-9)

Sunday, April 3, 2016

            What color of suffering do you know well?  Endless shades of pain visit human beings: disease and treatments that mock us with hope only to have hope dashed when a relapse comes; loss – loss of a loved one, loss of a relationship, loss of job and with it loss of identity; that which shall not be named – mental illness; anxiety of various types.  Pain comes from every angle.  Anxiety by itself takes on numerous forms – relational.  I struggled with that one for years.  There’s theological anxiety: what if what we do every Sunday is all for nothing, there is no God, and this life is all there is?  And social anxiety, which branches off in countless directions.
            What a horrible opening paragraph to the sermon one week after Easter.  Just last Sunday, we stood joyfully blinded by light emanating from the empty tomb.  We can still see it from here, still feel its warmth.  And I stand reciting verse after verse of depression. 
            First Peter 1:6 says Christians rejoice even as we suffer various trials.  This letter was read in churches that worshiped about 60 years after the resurrection.  These were second generation Christians, most of whom had not met Jesus in person or even any of his original followers.  They came to faith as we do, by the witness of those who came before them.  However, unlike us, in the late first century, to be part of a Christian church was to be part of an extremely small and often persecuted minority.  Where the passage describes the “various trials,” that word ‘various’ literally means in Greek ‘multi-colored.’
            That’s the crossroad where today’s church meets the Christians of the first century.  That’s the intersection of struggle and faith.  While our trials differ from theirs, like them our struggles are multi-colored.  Some of the trials we go through come from our own mistakes.  We find ourselves knee-deep in messes of our own making.  Some can be explained.  A person is in a wheel-chair because another person drank too much beer and then drove a car.  Some suffering cannot be explained.  God, why does one 55-year-old run several marathons a year while another 55-year-old comes down with cancer?  And God doesn’t answer the “why” question.  Some suffering is unfairly stigmatized.  We show great compassion for the one with cancer while we judge the one with depression.   Neither did anything to be afflicted.  It is not the depressed person’s fault he is depressed but from Christians he hears, “Get over it.” 
And by the way, even if someone suffers and it is his own fault, as followers of Jesus, the giver of unlimited grace, aren’t we to be givers of grace and compassion?  It is why Christians visit prisons and love prisoners.  We are called, in Christ, to even love people who in some way are responsible for the difficulties in their lives.  We are not supposed to rub people’s noses in the messes they make.  We are called to love all and especially to heap love upon those in pain. 
Eventually, pain visits each one of us.  What do we do with this word from 1st Peter that says followers of Jesus rejoice in our trials?
How do we rejoice in times of trial?
Easter is not that far in the rear view mirror.  It is just last Sunday.  See the tomb?  It is empty because Jesus who was dead is alive, resurrected.  Feel the life pouring forth from Easter?  First Peter says God has “given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1:6).  The resurrection doesn’t stay fixed as something we sing about at the beginning of spring only to stay there, forgotten by midsummer, and then re-visited next year again at the first of spring.  The resurrection is a means by which God gives us new birth.
In new birth, we have undergone a change and there’s no going back to who we were before we put our trust in Him.  In new birth, we have a new outlook.  Yes, we still face challenges and trials.  Some among us go through significant suffering.  All have times of difficulty.  Yet we know that on the other side of our deaths, eternal life awaits.  The darkness of our rainy days is pierced by the vibrant rays of eternal joy that is ours in Christ. 
Also in new birth, our sins are forgiven and paid for.  So we can relate to one another as individuals free from death’s grip.  In the resurrection of Jesus God adopts us as His own sons and daughters and reserves for us the inheritance promised to children of the king.  We are, in Christ, a family.  This doesn’t instantly make our present struggles go away.  But it does mean that when we face numerous shades of pain, we do not face these trials alone. The resurrection doesn’t stay put in the week of late March and early April.  The resurrection is God’s way of creating.  God creates hope.  God creates a family.
The resurrection also opens the door to personal knowledge of God.  We are invited into real relationship with the creator of the universe.  First Peter says that we of the New Birth are “being protected by the power of God” (1:5).  This might sound odd when we openly acknowledge that Christians have hard days and seasons in dark valleys like everyone else.  What does this scripture mean when it says we are being protected?
We’ve named a few things.  In Christ, we have eternal hope.   Even though we live through some painful some days, life after death comes next.  In Christ, we have a community. Even in bad times, we have people around us to make the bad more bearable.  And when 1st Peter as well other passages says, we are “being protected,” it means God is with us now. 
The Holy Spirit is mentioned in 1st Peter 1 in verse 2, again in verse 11, and in verse 12.  The Spirit makes the church holy (v.2) – both the church corporate and individuals within the church.  We are set apart to God.  The Spirit lives within us, helping us know how to pray, giving us courage and strength to stand up in spite of the onslaught of various attacks (v.11).  And, the Spirit brings into our hearts news from Heaven (v.12). 
Of course this is not news like that reported by The New York Times or CNN or WRAL.  What we get by the Spirit from Heaven is revealed news – deeper understanding of God.  It puts our difficulties in proper perspective, helps us see the blessings in our lives, and expands our capacity to love others.  Hold onto these promises:  we have eternal hope, we are in a family, and God is with us.
What makes it possible for us to keep our eyes on the resurrection so that we are comforted and emboldened in dealing the world around us?  I find hope in a basic practice that when done consistently creates in us a mindset that we will see God no matter how tough today or any day is.  In this practice we stay fixated on God and who we are as people of the resurrection in Christ.
I am talking about daily and weekly rituals of worship.  Verse 6 says we rejoice even when we suffer.  I am certain that the rejoicing talked about here, which was done in the early church, was not an emotional response.
Yes! I just lost my job because my pagan neighbor found out I refuse to offer sacrifices to this city’s local deity.  Fist pump!  Oh year, my wife and I were kicked out of the synagogue because they don’t believe Jesus is the Messiah and we do.  We just lost the community of friends we’ve had our entire lives.  Sweet!  My son just got his head knocked in by a centurion who found out he follows Jesus and will not bow to images of Caesar.  Hallelujah.
I don’t think that’s what was meant by rejoicing.  The early Christians wept and mourned; they had grief, fear, and doubt.  “Rejoice” is a spiritual discipline.  We are Easter people.  Even when we know our Christian brothers in Syria are being targeted by terrorists, we rejoice because of who Jesus is, because our sins are forgiven, and because of what Easter means. 
He is risen!  Syrian Christians hurt, but terrorists cannot wipe them out.  We worship weekly to remember our victory and rejoicing is part of our worship because we are Easter people.
He is risen.  My depression cannot get the best of me because I sing the songs of resurrection even when I am down; and, when I am so down I cannot sing, my brothers and sisters in Christ around me sing for me and I am reminded of the family of which I am a part.
He is risen.  Alcoholism, death, angst – none of it can claim us.  We are already claimed by the one who defeated death.  We are his.  Our weekly and monthly rhythms of worship remind us, keep us in step, open us to new revelations from God, and help us regularly reset our lives. 
I have just experienced a loss that leaves me feeling like a failure, utterly crushed and adrift.  Rejoice!  Hallelujah!  Amen! 
The rejoicing done in corporate and individual worship is not a show of false happiness.  My loss leaves me feeling broken.  But I trust more in the God of Easter than I trust in my feelings.  It feels like I am broken, but the tomb is empty; there is more to the story and more to my story.
So, we come back every week.  We look one another in the eye.  We embrace.  We weep at the cross on Good Friday, soar in the light on Easter Sunday, and the rest of the time immerse ourselves in the word and in the worship.  We trust it.  We rejoice because of who God is and God is who He is no matter what is going on. 
In doing this, we discover as we look back at the Hells we’ve endured that blessing was there all along.  Sometimes we don’t realize salvation is happening while we are being saved but only upon looking back at it. Oh, that’s where Jesus was!
“Although you have not seen him,” First Peter says, “you love him; and even though you do not see him now,  you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (1:8-9).  In daily, weekly practices of worship, we don’t see Him, yet, actually, we do see the Lord.  In the church, in the songs, in the Spirit, we do see Jesus.  We live in the potential where any moment may be the moment when God breaks through.  And we know He is with us in every moment.  So every experience of life is lived in the light of the empty tomb.
He is with us, always.  Our God is with us.
Every day, we are people of the resurrection filled with a hope that never fails.