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Sunday, April 23, 2017

Book Review of Peter Bergen's 'The United States of Jihad'

I am extremely grateful for the detailed treatment Peter Bergen gives to America’s so-called ‘war on terror’ in his book ‘The United States of Jihad.’  He paints a picture of a problem that on one hand is too elusive for the massive forces of law enforcement in the United States, but on the other hand is unlikely to directly affect the daily lives of most Americans.  He points out that people are 12,000 times more likely to die in a car accident than in a terrorist attack (p. 272).  However, we don’t live in fear of driving our cars around.  We get in our cars and go without thinking about it.

The stories of the different terrorist attacks in the United States are compelling.  The deaths are tragic.  So too is the fact that it will likely happen again and the media will jump on the next event and over-cover it just it has the previous ones.  The ‘terror’ produced by these incidents is disproportionate to the damage they cause.  The tragedy is innocent people do die.  Furthermore, the families of those who become terrorists also suffer deeply.  And law enforcement suffers embarrassment.  Bergen points out of that many of the attacks were carried out by people the FBI had looked at and dismissed as unlikely to commit terrorist acts. 

My conclusion, having read Bergen’s book is that evil has always been a part of the human story and will continue to be.  In the past evil went by names like slavery, institutionalized racism, genocide, and Jim Crow.  Today, evil is named radicalization, Islamophobia, Jihad (that leads to murderous acts), and terrorism.  Of course evil has many other names today, but these are a few of the more high profile ones. This age of terror will pass.  And evil will find new names.  But evil does not win unless we let it.

The Early Church

            Followers of Jesus experienced life altering changes immediately after the resurrection.  We say we believe in God, believe in resurrection, and eternal life, and we mean it.  As much as we can, considering we’re talking about things that are really outside our experience and beyond our comprehension, we mean when we declare our faith in Jesus as God incarnate, our Lord and our Savior.
How would our belief be affected if a resurrected person walked into the room?  If someone we know is dead, saw in the coffin at the funeral home, and saw buried at the cemetery walked in right now, some of us would be pretty freaked out. 
            That’s what happened.  The appearance of Jesus after the crucifixion was mind-blowing.  Not only did meeting the risen Christ change the perceptions of reality held by the earliest believers, meeting the resurrected one altered their ideas about themselves, and about the world around them.  It also changed the way they understood the things they had previously heard Jesus say. 
            Just about all of the original followers of Jesus were Jews and in following Jesus, they imagined themselves continuing to live the story of God and God’s chosen people that had begun with Adam and creation and then continued with Abraham and the calling out of a chosen people.  After Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, that story continued with Exodus, and Moses, and the law, the Torah.  From Moses, this story moved to the greatest of leaders, King David, and then from David and his son, King Solomon, to the lowest of shames, exile. 
Peter and John and the rest of the disciples believed Israel was still in exile, and Jesus had come to begin a new age, one in which Israel would be free of foreign influence and able to worship God and live life in freedom and peace in the Promised Land.  They believed Jesus was the fulfillment of Israel’s hopes and dreams.  Jesus was the climax of the story.
            They were right, but they didn’t understand what all that meant.  They didn’t realize that he was God, that he would defeat death and appear to them, and that after they saw him a new movement would begin.  Each new discovery gave birth to another.  Before they had a chance to fully comprehend the resurrection, they saw Jesus ascend to Heaven to sit at God’s right hand.  Before they could adjust to him being gone, the Holy Spirit came and filled each of Jesus’ followers.  They didn’t know what church was.  God dramatically invaded, the Holy Spirit burned in them, and they who had not understood now became the community that formed the first church. 
            The coming of the Spirit and the gathering of Jesus’ followers into this new thing – church – helped make sense of something Jesus said.  After he was raised but before he ascended to heaven, he told them, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has coming upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).  That last phrase was confusing.   Jerusalem, Judea, and even Samaria made sense.  These were Jewish lands.  But what was this about testifying to Jesus to the “ends of the earth?”  They thought the story of God and Israel reached its climax in the land of Israel with God as king.  Jesus turned that idea on its head.  The story did not reach its fulfillment with a gathering, but with a sending.  Salvation would go beyond Israel. 
Furthermore, Torah was no longer the sign of salvation because Torah had been achieved in the coming, the life, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus.  Baptism, not circumcision, was now the sign of the community of believers.  The church was the gathering of the Jesus-followers, and the church was the base of operations for the mission to announce rescue to the entire world.  What they thought would happen actually happened.  God acted to save Israel and the world.  How it came about caught them all by surprise. 
As we arrive at the end of Acts chapter 4, we find ourselves with a group of people stepping into an uncertain, unexpected future, and they couldn’t be happier about it.  Our reading for today, verses 32-37 talks of the people being full of awe and wonder as they saw the things God was doing through normal individuals, fishermen and tax collectors, the first church leaders.  They were praising God continuously.  They were full of goodwill for everyone.  And daily, people were coming to awareness that in Jesus, we are saved: saved from sin and death, and saved for a life of relationships, a life of meaning, and a life of full, real joy.
            Change can throw people for a loop, but this group of the original Christians thrived in this time of rapid change.  We can look to them as our church has changes ahead. 
            Of course some things are established.  Jesus has been raised.  We know that.  That truth is the ground on which we stand.  He has risen, ascended to the Father, and his Holy Spirit has come and is here.  These basic truths hold us together just as they do for churches all over; churches we’ve visted in Ethiopia; churches we know of in Quebec and Dominican Republic; our CBF neighbors up the road, Mount Carmel Baptist Church; megachurches like Saddleback in California and the church of celebrities, Hillsong-Manhatten.  All Christians are upheld by the saving love of Jesus and his resurrection.
            For us, what’s new?  In a sense, that cannot be easily answered because what is ahead is a search.  We’re examining our church’s identity.  Every church has its own personality and we’re taking a long, hard look at ours.  We’re going to spend the rest of this year praying for renewal. 
            One of my own specific prayers is that God will show us the changes we need to make to become a more diverse community.  I dream of a day when I walk here on a Sunday morning and I see so many from so many different backgrounds that it is impossible to know which group has the most.  Asian, black, white, Hispanic, Arabic, Native American; all believers together in the name of Jesus, praising Him and loving each other; that’s my dream for HillSong. 
We’re leaning toward that dream.  We have some diversity even now.  We have a Karen church that shares space and many in the Karen community often worship in this, our 11AM English service.  A Spanish congregation worships here on Sunday afternoons and their pastor and many of their members are in our English service every week.  We have as a part of this English church people from many different backgrounds.  Next week we will vote on partnering with a Chinese church-start. 
All of this points to the direction of our church.  Acts 4:30 says many signs were being done by the apostles.  Here, the elders, deacons and membership’s willingness to lovingly welcome different people into HillSong and to entertain the new ideas the pastoral staff has presented is, to me, a sign that we are trying to hear God’s voice.  We are prayerfully attempting to answer God’s call on us. 
Another aspect of the renewal process is that I, the senior pastor, will begin a 4-month Sabbatical on May 7.  For 4 months, I’ll be away from the church.  The church will be in great hands.  Of course Heather will be the lead pastor and Enam will continue her great work with the youth ministry.  Pending next week’s vote, we will introduce Holly Holder as our ministry intern, doing a lot of the things Heather normally does.  And we’ll introduce Hong Zhou as the leader of the Chinese church plant.  She will also be part of the church staff.  So the church staff will be Heather, Enam, Holly, and Hong.
Additionally, Dina Sit will oversee day-to-day operations just as she always has, and there will be tremendous experience and institutional knowledge in the deacon and elder chairpersons, Todd Baker and Susan Dunn.  So leadership in our church will carry on without much of a stumble.
However, I have been the pastor for almost 11 years.  For better or for worse, you’re used to seeing me in this spot on Sundays.  I am used to constructing my life around Sundays and not just any Sunday, but Sunday at HillSong Church in Chapel Hill.  It’s going to be weird for a while.  But, we have to keep this in mind.  All of this is coming about because the pastors and the elders went through a lengthy prayer process, and I’m going on Sabbatical and we’re going through renewal because this is where God led us.  When this process began, Enam was not yet on the church staff, Holly had only been to HillSong a few times, and Hong was still and an MDiv student at Duke Divinity School.  God has been preparing us for this all along the way.  God has brought us to this point.
We move forward in joy trusting that God will provide all that we need.  Stepping forward in faith, we take to the journey relying on God.  By this time next year, we will see ourselves in many ways as a new church, a church God has planted.  This is what those early believers we meet in Act 4 did.  They stepped forward.  The stepped into uncertainty, but they stepped in faith and they were full of joy. 
Four ideas defined this early church.  First, they were unified.  Verse 32 says those who believed were of one heart and soul.  I believe this is true of our church.  We know people in our church family have many ideas exist and sometimes we have ideological differences, but for us this is a very positive thing.  Our diversity of ideas gives our church intellectual depth.  And we know that we have in common our identity in Christ and the life that the resurrection gives us.  We believe in that together and, like the early church, are completely united in faith.
Second, that first church moved the meter.  It says in verse 33, “with great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection.”  There is power in our witness.  Talk to people who were part of our church and had to move to other cities.  They still hold onto the way God shaped them while they were in this church family.  Talk to people who moved away from here and then came back.  When they returned to the area, they returned to HillSong because they believed they would grow in Christ and be able to serve here.  The Lord is present in the Holy Spirit and when the Spirit is present, there is power.
Third, also in verse 33, it says, “great grace was upon them all.”  If we are going to be a safe community where people of all backgrounds can come, be welcomed, and meet God, then grace has to be one of our defining characteristics.  You have certainly shown me tremendous grace.  I pray you will pass that on to the other pastors and staff members.  Heather, Enam, Hong, Holly, and Dina will all need to know the congregation has their back and will walk with them through the challenging moments. 
Fourth, Acts says the congregation of the first church was characterized by generosity.  This goes along with grace.  They shared with one another.  Yes, some of that was material and monetary support, but this also means generosity of spirit.  They shared their hearts with each other.  I urge HillSong to be devoted this summer to being generous with love.  Give compliments and encouraging words.  Give lots of hugs.  It’s something that is an enormous blessing, and you don’t run out of them.  You can 100 and have 100’s more to give. 
Before the church even knew what it was or what church is, the church was rich in unity, power, grace, and generosity.  This is all because of Jesus’ coming, death, and resurrection, and because of the coming of the Holy Spirit.  As we said before, the Holy Spirit that was with the early church is here too.  We are drawn together as a family, as brothers and sisters in Christ.
Today we will finish our time of worship with worship singing and then with communion.  As we take the bread – the body of Christ, and the cup – the blood of the new Covenant, have confidence.  God’s promises can be trusted.  This summer there will inevitably be moments where no one is quite sure what to do because the next things is something I have come to do by habit and I won’t be there.  It might be in a worship service, it might around the office, or in some ministry situation in the community.  When that moment comes, don’t worry about it and don’t try to do what I would do.  Follow the Holy Spirit’s lead.   Whatever the situation is will turn out wonderfully because we are people joined together in Christ, following the Spirit together. 
That’s what church is.  Renewal and new visions are just part of it.  We are a people united in Christ, following the lead of the Spirit together. 


Monday, April 17, 2017

The Easter Sermon

Do We Understand the Good News? (Mark 16:6-7; Matthew 28:8-10)
Easter Sunday, April 16, 2017

            The end of 2016, and maybe the entirety of 2016, was hard for a lot of people; maybe for you.  Some felt roughed up, and at a loss because of the political climate in America.  The election results were a tough blow for a lot of people.  Others were happy with the election, but distressed about things going on in the world.  And then a lot of people have their own problems, personal demons or trials that are so intense, they couldn’t even focus on the national or international scenes.  Getting from one day to the next was tough enough. 
            As I took in the state of the world right around us here, I sensed a creeping, uncomfortable malaise.  Pastors and preachers have a variety of responsibilities including the duty to share good news.  I felt that need quite strongly as we turned the page from December to January.  I felt that on Sunday mornings, we had to turn our attention from distressing current events to deeper truths and greater realities – things that could not be affected by what happens in Washington or in the voting booth. 
            So, we began this year imagining just how big God is.  We turned all our attention onto God.  This was not a retreat from the realities around us.  We prayed over the immigration issue.  We prayed for refugees and many in our church have volunteered to help refugees.  We pray over race relations in our country.  And our church is going to spend the rest of this year examining how we can be a more diverse community.  Our decision to earnestly seek to see as much of God as we can was not a denial of the pain and frustration all around us.  The decision to look to God was a declaration that God’s goodness is bigger than the evils of the present day.  God’s light shines brighter than any darkness.
            We want to be witnesses to that light and to draw others into God’s light.  We can only testify to what we have seen.  So, we tried, as a church family, see God.
            As winter gave way to spring and Lent began, we took up an unusual Lenten discipline.  Rather than fasting, going without red meat or desserts or things like that, we instead engaged in story-telling.  This is our attempt to answer God’s call on us to be witnesses.  We set up a witness wall where anyone could write down a testimony of seeing God at work, working for good in the world.  Each week we invited the church to come to wall and share their stories of things they see God doing in their own lives. 
            I wrote down some of the responses.  These are all stories from people who worshiped in this room in the last 6 weeks.  One testified to provision – God met financial needs in a desperate time.  Another wrote of tangible experiences of God’s love, including gratitude for a loving church family.  One person wrote thanks for the opportunity to play school soccer; another for the chance to be in a school play; for opportunities for friendship; the opportunity to become grandparents; and, the opportunity to share the Gospel.  The wall is full of accounts of God helping people. 
            That last one I mentioned is quite important for today – Easter Sunday.  Someone was thankful for the opportunity to share the Gospel.  That word ‘gospel’ comes from the Greek and it means, literally, ‘good news.’  The Greek word is eungelion, the root for the English ‘evangel’ or ‘evangelism.’  Technically, evangelism means ‘the telling of good news.’ 
Of course, if I just asked everyone to define ‘evangelical,’ I’d get a wide variety of responses.  Some would not have anything to do with sharing good news.
Similarly, if I asked everyone to write down and turn in a definition of ‘gospel,’ there would be a plethora of definitions.  Some might define it by terms of genre – ‘gospel music.’  Others might define it by terms of purity – ‘that’s the gospel truth.’
In any Easter Sunday crowd, we gather together as a mixture of people.  Some are experienced in church and in churches like ours, and are very knowledgeable about the Bible.  Others are not in church as often and it all feels unfamiliar.  The question I have is for everyone because I think we might all, in different ways, struggle with this.  Do we understand the good news?  We sing about Jesus’ resurrection with great energy, but why is this good news for us?    
            N.T. Wright gives a helpful definition of the ancient way the word ‘gospel’ was used.[i]
            The term actually was in use by the Romans before the New Testament was written.  It was used when there was a handover of power.  The Emperor had died and thus the empire was full of uncertainty.  Will the empire hold together?  Are we going to sink into chaos?  Will pirates or invading barbarians take over?  Is war inevitable?
When the new Emperor was crowned, heralds were dispatched to travel throughout the empire to announce this message.  “We have a new Emperor.  His name is Augustus.  A new age of peace and justice begins.”  That was the gospel, the announced “good news.” Of course people in the empire knew that for them – the majority who were poor peasants – it would be more of the same.  It didn’t matter who was in power.  For the majority in the roman empire, life was poverty and struggle.  The peace-and-justice gospel was empty political rhetoric.
In that world, a world of Jewish frustration – frustrated at being under Roman heel; a world of Greek cultural dominance; and a world of Roman military and political power; in that world, New Testament writers seized this term from the empire and used it to tell what God had done in Jesus.  The first verse of the Gospel of Mark – “Arxh tou euaggeliou Ihsou Xristou uiou qeou.”  “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
From the start, the New Testament did what we have been trying to do.  The New Testament told a different story, a competing narrative.  The New Testament challenged the dominant narrative of empire with news of God at work in the world changing everything.  The New Testament writers from Mark to Matthew to Luke to Paul responded to Rome.  “You say the good news is that Augustus or Nero or Domitian is now king?  That’s good news?” 
“No,” New Testament authors defiantly reply.  “We, a small group among the Jews, have the real good news.  God has come in the flesh, in a man in Israel, a peasant carpenter from backwater Nazareth, Jesus.  He is God and he is man; he is Savior, and he is Lord.  He died on the cross for the sins of the world.  And on the third, on this day, he rose from death in resurrection.”
The story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus includes salvation for the individual.  When you put your trust in Christ, receive forgiveness of sins, turn your life over to Him, and acknowledge Him as Lord, you are saved.  Jesus provides the story of your salvation, and mine.  But the Easter proclamation of Good News – Gospel – is much, much more than simply saying, ‘here’s how we get to Heaven.’  The resurrection is the dawning of a new age, one in which God is King.  Easter is God’s response to every oppressive power that would seek to rule the world. 
History is full of declarations of exceptionalism.  The superiority of the Aryan race; the sun never setting on the British Empire; America first; on and on it goes.  At Easter, Christians around the world join together to declare “No,” there is no government, king, general, or any other who has real power.  It is God’s.  The world is God’s.  All that is in it belongs to God.  And God is good.  God is love.  God is forgiveness.  God is light.  God is life.  We know God by way of the salvation we’ve been given in Jesus Christ. 
Of course whether or not news is considered “good” depends one where you’re standing.  A couple of weeks ago, we got the news on a Monday night.  “National Champions!”  What could be better?  Well, if you cheer Gonzaga or for Duke a lot of things could be better. 
But more importantly, how do we respond to the news that in Jesus God has come and inaugurated a new age in which God is king?  The resurrection set this in motion and when it happened, no one was ready for it, not even Jesus’ closest followers.
All four New Testaments Gospels convey the same detail the morning of the resurrection.  The male followers of Jesus were in hiding.  The women stole to the tomb in the early morning hours to anoint the dead body of Jesus as it had not been appropriately prepared for burial.  Those women went to the tomb as an act of love for Jesus, but they were fully convinced he was dead.
Mark reports that they found the stone sealing the tomb already rolled to the side and so they entered and found a young man that Luke and Matthew both describe as an angel.  Mark’s young man then gives the 2-part good news that is the beginning of Christian proclamation that we continue to this day.  Something has happened!
First, he says, “Fear not.  You are looking for Jesus, but he has been raised.  He is going ahead of you to Galilee.”  This is unmistakable.  He’s not describing a new awareness.  He’s not talking about something that is spiritual but not physical.  Mark describes women entering a tomb where they saw Jesus buried.  Now the body is gone, and the young man they meet there tells them that after Jesus died on Friday and sat in the grave on Saturday, he is alive on Sunday.  His body is somewhere else, fully alive and on the move.
Second, he says to them, “Go and tell.  Tell the disciples they will see him just as he said.”  For the women to do it, to heed the word of the messenger, they have to believe it.  You don’t say something as preposterous as ‘the dead man lives’ unless you believe it. 
Matthew picks up the story here in chapter 28, verse 8.  “So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy and ran to tell the disciples.”  He is alive.
Do we understand?
The Gospels were written between 30 and 50 years after these events.  The accounts on which the Gospels were based circulated orally throughout Christian communities in Jerusalem and Antioch and then in Corinth and Galatia and the rest of cities where churches cropped up.  In the later 30’s and 40’s and 50’s, these stories were told.  In the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wrote them down.
They did this to get the story straight and help the church remember its foundation.  The Gospels introduce us to our Savior.  They also declare the church’s resounding “no” to the powers of the day.  The Gospels live on to reject the powers of every era including our own. 
Do we understand?
The only way we can understand is if we believe.  I have read numerous exhaustive historical studies.  The best conclusion to be drawn from the hard historical data is Jesus in fact rose from the grave and appeared to his followers.  But evidence doesn’t convince anyone – not in this case.  To fully grasp the news and to comprehend why it this news is good, we have to believe.
We have to believe that we are sinners, that God loves us and in Christ met us in our sin, died in our place taking our sins on himself, and then rose from death on Easter morning.  Once we believe that, then we’re right where those women were in the tomb first hearing the news. 
God has done something.  We’re right to be afraid just as those women were.  The reality of God is terrifying; wonderful, but terrifying too.  But then, as it did for them, that fear gives way to something else.  Because the tomb is empty it means Death is defeated.  We have life.   We have God with us and when we die, we will be raised just as Jesus was raised.  As he was resurrected, we have resurrection ahead of us!   
Finally, it hits us.  News is only news when it is shared.  So, to fully understand the Good news, we need the stories.  Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John help us there.  We need the honesty – we sin and we need help.  We need the realization that God has done something to help.  We need to believe.  Once we do that, then like those women on Easter morning, we must go and tell. 
There’s a lot of bad news out there.  The world is full of anxiety and uncertainty – a deadly combination.  But, we have another story to offer, one that is truer and one that lasts.  Jesus is alive and all can have life, eternal life, in his name.  Got it?  Good!  Now, we are witnesses called to share our testimony.  Go and tell.


Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Easter Sunrise Sermon 2017

“Approaching the Resurrected Jesus” (Matthew 28:1-10)
April 16, 2017 Easter Sunrise Service
(I reworked the sunrise sermon from 2011.)

What does the Easter story do?  What happens when we read it or gather with Christians in church and hear it read?  Or we sing it?  How do we come to Easter Sunday?
Dispassionately, bored, yawning? [Mocking tone] O wow! Women came to a tomb before sunrise on a Sunday. And surprise of all surprises. It’s empty. Jesus is alive. Woo hoo! Like I haven’t heard this every single year for the last 40 years. Nothing new; been there, done that.
No, not bored.  Maybe we come knowingly, ready to shout “AMEN!” in all the right places because we know the story so well.  God’s victory over death is our victory. We feel that we own this story. We know it; it is ours.  Easter morning is planned celebration void of genuine wonder. We help others be amazed, but we’ve already had that sensation. It’s not new.
Maybe Easter Sunday is like every Sunday, and the resurrection story like every Bible account.  We come hoping to meet God.  But we aren’t sure we will. We come with an unconvinced optimism. Our faith is colored by spiritual dryness; disappointment; pain, even on Easter Sunday. 
Some spiritual seekers come infrequently and are relatively unfamiliar with the Bible.  But it is Easter. Here we are. We approach curiously. Is there something for me? Is there anything in the Bible or church that’s worth my time; that could make my life better?
What does the story of Jesus’ resurrection do?  What happens in our lives precisely because it is Easter?  How we approach has a lot to do with how we answer this question.  In the Gospel of Matthew we see two approaches on the morning the tomb was discovered empty. We are invited to enter this story. Which of the two approaches here will be our entry point?
First, we meet the women.  Who were Jesus’ women disciples? Luke tells us some of them were women of financial means, the ones who funded the ministry while Jesus and the 12 traveled around preaching and working miracles.  They had power, but in the first century, even wealthy women were generally only thought of in terms of their husbands.  And most women around Jesus were not wealthy, but instead were poor peasants.
These women loved Jesus.  Again, it is Luke who reports that they followed as Jesus walked through the streets of Jerusalem carrying his cross out to the place of crucifixion.  The women walked behind him weeping openly (23:27-28). 
These recognized that Jesus was special. Martha, declared him to be the Messiah (John 11).  At the home of Simon the leper, an unnamed woman violated social conventions and came to the table where the men reclined in order to anoint Jesus’ head with oil. Hers was an act of appreciation and worship.
The women Matthew introduces, who came to the tomb early on that Sunday morning, were a part of a group of female disciples who supported Jesus, followed Jesus, and worshiped him. We can enter the story and approach Jesus as they do.  But there are other characters.
As they approached the tomb, the earth shook violently and an angel from heaven descended rolled back the stone that had sealed it, and sat on the stone. Guards were stationed at the tomb, and when the earth shook, they fell to the ground trembling.  The chief priests of the temple and along with them some Pharisees united and approached the Roman governor Pilate to request that the tomb be guarded so that Jesus’ followers would not steal the body and then claim resurrection.  Pilate granted this request.  The women stealing to the tomb in the early Sunday morning shadows is the very moment the temple leaders anticipated. A couple of days after the crucifixion, Jesus’ followers show up at the tomb. The battle-hardened soldiers, assigned by Pilate, stand between these Christ-followers, these women, and grave.
What were Roman guards like?  Might they have been among those who flogged and mocked Jesus? Or were they part of the unit assigned to the crucifixion? They stand in stark contrast to the women. If women, especially Jewish peasant women, were a picture of powerlessness, mighty soldiers stood for violence, power, and war.  They were indifferent to Jesus’ identity and completely opposed to his ideals.
Jesus taught his followers to turn the other cheek.  These soldiers would smash your face. Love your enemies?  They were the enemy, and they weren’t going to love you. They were going to stomp on you. The soldiers didn’t ask permission. They took what was theirs and often they would take what was yours, and go ahead, try complaining. To what authority could one complain about abuse from soldiers, which was very common? They were the authorities!
So how do we come on Easter? Do we perceive ourselves to be powerless in our world, dependent on others? Or least, have our lives demonstrated that we align ourselves with the poor and the powerless?  We approach as the women did.  We know we need the resurrected Christ at the very center of our lives. 
Do we possess strength and resources that make us among the people in society with advantages?  If we’re honest with ourselves, do we perceive ourselves to be among the powerful in the world? Then we come to Easter Sunday as the soldiers did. 
            What does the resurrection do; how does our life change today, right now because this happened?
The earth quakes, the angel descends, and the stone is rolled back. Four times, Matthew uses the Greek word Fobos, the root of the English Phobia; fear.   Who is afraid?  Everyone.  The powerless women and those mighty soldiers – both find themselves filled with fear.  Matthew writes, “For fear, the guards shook and became like dead men” (v.4).
The mighty soldiers “shook” – it’s the same word used to describe the earth quake. First, the earth rumbled, and then the mighty guards trembled. And they became like dead men. They who were entrusted to guard the tomb of the dead themselves became like the dead. And from that point on, they were ignored.
When theses soldiers walked down the street, you moved out of their way. When turned down the lane in your village, you locked up the cottage and prayed for them to pass by. Now, here they are on the ground, trembling, and Matthew promptly loses interest in them. 
First century women, even the wealthy ones, lived at the pleasure of men. Greek, Roman, and Jewish societies were dominated by men. But in Matthew, these powerless Jewish women move to the center of the story. The angel, indifferent to the petrified guards, says to the women, “Fear not! Jesus has been raised. Go quickly and tell his disciples. He is going ahead of you to Galilee. There you will see Him.”
You don’t go to a cemetery thinking you’ll see an angel.  How do we handle that? How do we come to worship, by way of habit, or in hopes that we will meet the living God? 
Before Jesus was born, an angel told Mary she was going to be the mother of the son of God. She responded with a song of praise. Specifically, she said, “[God] has scattered the proud. … He 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” (Luke 1:52-53). There are the proud, mighty soldiers, cowering, brought low.
The women, followers, of Jesus came on a mission of grief, but now, the angel has given them a mission from God.  The divine messenger has chosen of all people these women to proclaim the resurrection of Jesus. And they did it!  “With fear and great joy, [they] ran to tell the disciples” (28:7).
Both the women and the guard were filled with fear. The illusion of power the guards lived under was shattered when the angel descended and rolled back the stone. The reality of their smallness and their powerlessness before God crushed them. They weren’t ready to tremble before God. 
The women knew they needed God, so when God showed up, they didn’t collapse. They trembled. They were afraid. But, they were also ready to listen. It was to them that the message and the mission were given. They were the first preachers of resurrection and I believe this is so because of how they came.
The angel told the women, “Fear not.” They ran from there in great joy. Suddenly on the path, Jesus greeted them. The angel said they would see him, but still it was a surprise.  And they were terribly afraid. Fear of God is the right reaction. God is holy. We are sinful. God is divine. We are of earth, profane. God is eternal.  Our lives are here today, gone tomorrow.   It is right to fear the Lord. 
What do we do with that fear?  Hide?  Run away?  The women didn’t do that. They did the only thing one does when one comes before God.  They bowed in humble worship.
“[The women] took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me” (28:10).
If we come to Easter Sunday as people who have heard the story before and as people who own it and as people who can no longer be amazed by the power of God expressed in the resurrection of Jesus, then we cannot ever have the moment these women had. 
If we come in our power, we will experience what the guards experienced. We will be knocked down and scared senseless. It might not happen at the Easter sunrise worship service. It might not hit and sink in until Judgment Day. But rest assured, if we come to God from a standpoint of power – like God needs us – we will be made aware of just how powerless and how small we are.
If we come to Easter in humility, and if we come to God in repentant, humble confession, acknowledging our absolute need for Jesus, we will be raised up as they were. We will hear the words, “Fear not.” We will worship in wondrous, awe-struck joy. We will be sent out to tell lost and hurting world that Jesus is alive and salvation is available to all who put their trust in Him.
Hiking through a thick forest up the side of a tall mountain, we come to the clearing at the top. When you come out of the shadow of the trees, with a view of the entire valley below and other mountain ranges in the distance, it takes your breath away. You could walk along complaining about the mosquitoes and the sweat trickling down your back, and the ache in your legs from walking four miles up hill. All that complaining would poison you so much, you would not appreciate the spectacular view once you get there. Or, you can enjoy the walk, the beauty of the green forest, the feeling of strength one gets from accomplishing such hike, and the appreciation of nature. The bugs and sweat and fatigue are just part of the journey and the view makes it all worthwhile. The quality of the experience really does hinge on the approach.
On resurrection morning, we meet God when we start out in fear and we start out knowing God doesn’t need us but we desperately need God. No matter how we come - in awe, seeking, bored, or in arrogance, Jesus is raised. Nothing we do affects the story. Furthermore, at the final judgment, nothing we do affects what God’s judgment will be. How we approach it determines how we experience the story. When we come in humility, seeking God, the resurrection begins shaping our lives and we live every day in awe-struck, fearful joy. Every day, the risen Lord says to us, “Fear not. Go and tell.”
That’s the final word this morning. Jesus conquered death. Jesus is alive. He was crucified for the sins of the world and the grave could not hold Him. People need to know. So, come in humility. Rejoice in faith. Then in love, go and tell.


Friday, April 14, 2017

Maundy Thursday Monologues - Simon the Zealot

Holy Thursday Monologue – Simon the Zealot

If you read your Bible in the Gospel of Matthew chapter 10, or Mark chapter 3, you will find there a list of the disciples who followed Jesus.  In that list, you find the name Simon the Cananean.   That’s me.  Luke lists me differently.  He calls me, Simon the Zealot. 

You think you know all the disciples.  James and John were fishing brothers.  So were Peter and Andrew.  Nathaniel, he was the straight shooter.  Whatever was on his mind, he said.  Philip, well, he was a kid.  He and John and Andrew, they were pretty wet behind the ears. I am not much older them, but I had seen things they had not. 

Thomas what a brain on that guy.  He was always thinking, always questioning.  I know he came to be called a “doubter.”  He was much more than that.  He was a thinker.

I think Matthew had the most fun of all the disciples.  That guy could party, almost as much Jesus. 

Of course history shows that Judas Iscariot was a schemer.  We didn’t know it at the time.  We thought he was a brilliant in practical thinking as Thomas was in theoretical thinking.  We deferred to Judas because he was so confidant. 

In some ways he and I were kindred spirits.  Both Judas Iscariot and I were committed to the overthrow of the Romans and the overthrow the corrupt leadership in the temple.  He talked and made strategies and argued with Jesus.  He always thought he knew better than Jesus what we ought to do.  And then Jesus would work a miracle and Judas would shut up and fall in line.

For my part, I was not interested in Peter’s outbursts or Judas’ scheming or Thomas’ philosophy or Nathaniel’s mouth.  I like Matthew’s parties, but even that, I thought, was the wrong priority.  Before I followed Jesus, I was party of a group of revolutionaries.  We weren’t Sicarii.  We did not commit assassinations.  But, we watched closely because we thought the Messiah was coming to call us to arms.  We were ready.

I was at the wedding in Cana when Jesus turned water into wine.  I knew what happened.  So, I left some of my Zealot pals behind and started following Jesus.  I didn’t even realize he noticed me, and then he asked me to be one of his 12 disciples – like the 12 tribes.  Yes, I was sure, he was going to restore Israel to the people of God.

But boy did I have trouble with some of his teaching.  Turn the other cheek?  Love your enemy?  I didn’t understand and he could see that.  He knew how frustrated I was.  He didn’t kick me out.  Neither did he make it any easier on me.  I did not confront him like Peter.  I did not question like Thomas.  I didn’t argue with him the way Judas did.  But sometimes I wanted to.

Things were really heating up when we came to Jerusalem for the Passover.  His confrontations with legalists and priests were edgier.  We were all tense.  Then, when we gathered for the meal in that upper room, well, I can’t describe it.  When he took the wine and said, “This is the new covenant that is my blood,” everything changed.  That night, I could not have told you how, but something happened when he said that and we were never the same.

Later on, when the soldiers came to arrest him in the garden, I just ran.  I don’t even know why.  I, who had been so eager to fight the Roman and fight injustice; when the fight came I ran.  Thinking back now to the wine, the new covenant, it is like I was empty and full all at the same time. 

I haven’t picked up a sword since.  Oh, I’ve used knives and axes, as tools.  But since I followed Jesus, I who had built my life on being a revolutionary, never again thought about fighting or killing anyone.  You follow him, it will change you.  It did me.

I think it about it every time I drink that wine.

Maundy Thursday Monologues - Simon Peter

My name is Simon Peter.
You know me from the stories about me in the Bible.  You know I was the one to walk on water to Jesus.  Well, I walked until I sank and Jesus pulled me out.

I’m the one Jesus trusted with the keys to the Kingdom.  It was also to me that Jesus said, “Get behind, Satan.”  He said that when I tried to talk him out of going to the cross.

When they came arrest him, I whipped out a sword and start swinging.  I was there, when Jesus said ‘turn the other cheek.’  But in that moment in the garden, I just forgot.  I started swinging the sword and Jesus healed the man I hit.  Then he was arrested and I ran.  To my shame, I denied knowing him just as he predicted I would.

After he rose, he forgave me.  He restored me as one of his followers.

Now, it’s been many years.  I don’t how I’ve survived this long.  James was beheaded by Herod.  John was exiled to Patmos.  Stephen was stoned to death.  I carry on.  Now, I lead the church at Rome. 

We tell a lot of stories this time of year.  We tell these stories to remember the death and new life of our King and to remember who we are. 

This night is Passover.  When we celebrate, we remember that we were created by God’s saving act. Our Master Jesus became the Passover lamb, sacrificed for us, and by his resurrection saved us from the darkness of sin. Many of you who were not of Israel became his because of this. We have been created by his saving act.

Tonight, I remember clearly that Passover before everything happened.  It was the night he was betrayed – by all of us. We gathered in an upper room to share the meal. Our feet had gotten dusty, and needed to be washed before we gathered at table. We were talking, cutting up and just enjoying being together. It had been a dark week, and we needed to celebrate.

But then we suddenly quieted; we could have heard a feather hit the ground. Not many things can silence a room of rambunctious fishermen. I looked about to see what had happened. Jesus had taken off his robe and put on a towel. He filled a basin and began to wash our feet. We were completely speechless, and I was incensed. We had gathered to celebrate our identity as the free people of God, and he was doing what would have been disgraceful even for a slave!

I asked him just what he thought he was doing. “You don’t understand now,” he said, “but later, you will.” I refused him: “You’re never going to wash my feet!” He was patient and adamant as always. “If I don’t do this, you can’t be my disciple.”

I was shattered. I had spent three years of my life with this man, given up everything to follow him. But... if refusing this meant refusing him, I had missed something. I loved him, so I obeyed, even though I didn’t understand.

As the rough hands of the carpenter cradled the rougher feet of this fisherman, I was struck by the tenderness of the act. Feet are very basic things, right? They’re just there. But as his fingers moved between my toes to wash, I was devastated by the intimacy. I began to understand. On that night in a little room in Jerusalem, just before all hell would break loose, this is what it meant to love us to the end. He was dedicated to me and to each of us. There were no lengths to which he would not go to love us, heal us, and set us free. This lowly service showed me the very heart of God.

He told us that this would be the pattern for our lives. This is a symbol of how he bears us up in all of our sins, failings and idiosyncrasies.

We remember this tonight. We confess our needs and submit to his washing—submit to his tenderness. We will leave and remember that our brothers and sisters have dusty feet also. We will wash them.

So in this story, learn who you are.  Let the Lord be with you in the weak places, in the dirt. Then go, take up your basin and towel, and be who you are.

In the name of Christ. Amen.

Maundy Thursday Monologues - Thomas

Doubting Thomas: Monologue

‘Doubting Thomas’? Yes, that’s me! Do I mind being called that? I suppose it could be galling to have gone down in history as a doubter, but in a way I’m glad, you know. How can I explain?

You see, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with doubts. Oh, I’m not talking here about the excuses we palm off as doubts: it’s not the same as uninformed prejudice, a sense of guilt or the fear of change. No, I’m thinking about good, honest questions. There’s a lot to be said for them, in my opinion.

Some of the other disciples never really understood that. Maybe they were just upset with me for not believing them - but then they’d already seen Jesus alive, you see. I hadn’t.

Anyway, as I told them at the time, all this stuff about Jesus rising from the dead was just too important to accept uncritically.  What if it was all just a cruel joke, or they’d imagined it all, had group delusions or whatever you call it? We loved him so much, you see…We’d followed him; listened to him; eaten with him; shared our lives. Seeing him die was worse than anything I’d ever experienced – worse than anything I WILL ever go through, I dare say. And we were desperate: grief-stricken; lonely; terrified. Of course I WANTED it to be true! But how could I be certain without seeing him for myself?

Being a Christian is no bed of roses, I can tell you, and I could never have coped with the past few years if all I had to go on was a faded dream or a vague hope. But Jesus, he put up with me and my doubts.  He gave what I needed and took me beyond what I thought I could become.  I ended traveling all the way to the nation you know as India and establishing the Christian faith there.

That all came after the resurrection.  On the night of the Passover meal, before Jesus was arrested, none of knew what was coming.  He held the bread of Passover up before us and said, “This is my body, broken for you.”  What did that mean?  We didn’t know. 

He got on his knees to wash our feet. What was he doing?  Peter, as always, speaking without thinking, argued with Jesus and then did what he said.  Judas, slipped out after the foot washing.  I was never sure about what he was up to.  He always seemed to his own agenda on the side.  I had no idea he was set to betray Jesus that night.  No idea at all.

I didn’t have any side agenda.  I had side conversation.  That night Matthew had the misfortune of sitting beside me.

“What’s he doing?”  I asked Matthew.  He told me to ‘let it go.’ 

“What’s he talking about?” I asked when Jesus said the bit about not drinking the fruit of the vine again until he drank it in the Kingdom.  I was pestering Matthew with questions.   

That Matthew!  So good with numbers and money, but he never questioned anything.  If Jesus said he was the bread of life, Matthew just accepted it. I knew he didn’t understand it.  None of us did.  But not understanding didn’t bother Matthew. 

If I understood, I would go to the ends of the earth for Jesus.  And in the end I did.  At least India seems likes the opposite end of the earth from Jerusalem.  But that night, the night of the Passover, I lost all my boldness. 

We all acted so tough.  “No, no Jesus, we won’t betray you.  We’re with you to the end.”  We all said that.  James the rugged fisherman; Simon, the wanna-be rebel; the all-too-honest Nathaniel.  We were all so courageous in our own minds.  At least Peter picked up a sword before he fled into the night. But in the end, that’s what we all did.  We ran just like Jesus knew we would. 

But, after it was all over, he welcomed us back.  That’s what Jesus does.  He takes you at your worst and helps you become your best.  Now, whenever I lead a church in worship and I break the bread before the congregation and together, we drink the wine, I remember that night.  I also remember seeing Jesus a few days later.  And I remember him loving me in my doubts.  And I remember him changing the direction of my life. 

That’s Jesus.  He turns us around.  

Maundy Thursday Monologues: Martha

Monologue for Maundy Thursday
HillSong Church, 4-13-17

My name is Martha.

You may have heard of me.  But you probably haven’t heard from me.  When the Master, that is, Jesus, came to Jerusalem, he often stayed with our family.  That’s my sister Mary, my brother Lazarus, and me.  When he came, crowds came with him.  We were happy to be hosts, but it was a lot of work.  I felt like I was constantly cooking and then cleaning and then doing the wash, and then cooking again. 

Often, I felt like it was just me.  Lazarus of course reclined with the men to hear Jesus teach.  And so did Mary!  A woman is to manage the home and make sure everyone is cared for.  What did Mary do?  She sat with the men, taking in the Master’s teaching.

I complained to Jesus about – once.  He said Mary chose the better part, leaving me all the work.  She often has that faraway look in her eyes, like she knows something the rest of us don’t know.  It’s like there’s music playing only Mary can hear.  It might be true, but that doesn’t get the dishes washed or the meal cooked.  Jesus said Mary made the right choice.

See if I speak up again!  Actually, Jesus has always encouraged me to speak.  He treats us with a respect no other man have ever given woman.  I do love him deeply.  And like everyone else, I am amazed by him.  I was there when he brought my brother Lazarus back to life.  We all believed the resurrection would come for everyone on the last day.  He raised Lazarus and after he did that, I wasn’t sure what to think.

I know Jesus has tremendous power and I know he is very close to God.  But he says things I don’t understand.  He said to me “I am the Resurrection and the Life and who believes in me will never die.”  What does that even mean? 

Tonight, I am especially worried.  There’s something in the air.  Normally, this is the kind of thing Mary would fret about.  In fact she has been, not exactly fretting, but … She’s been staring into the distance, toward Jerusalem.  Her gaze pierces the wind as she goes away in her head.  Normally, I would say that’s just Mary being Mary, but here’s the thing.  I feel it too.

Tonight is the Passover meal.  We were going to have Jesus and disciple to our house, but he’s meeting somewhere else, in the home of a disciple I don’t know.  I thought I knew all who followed the Master. 

The disciples have been acting funny.  Yesterday, I asked Nathanial about it, but he just joked and complimented me on my soup.  This morning, I said something to John.  He admitted something is up, but he said he didn’t know what.

The Romans have increased their guard in the city.  And the high priest in temple is on edge.  Everyone can feel it.  Something is going to happen, tonight, and I know it has something to do with Jesus.  I just don’t know what.  I do wish he were having the Passover here.

I have to make bread and get the wine ready.  Our old uncle and some cousins are coming.  We have to get ready.

(Exits stage with a look of worry)