Sunday, April 14, 2019

Don’t Stop!

Scripture Luke 19:28-40
28 After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.
29 When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, 30 saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” 32 So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. 33 As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” 34 They said, “The Lord needs it.” 35 Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36 As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 37 As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, 38 saying,
“Blessed is the king
    who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
    and glory in the highest heaven!”
39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” 40 He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
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Lent is nearly over.  There is only this one last week.  If you have given up something for Jesus, you are in the home stretch - and don’t think I didn’t notice a few faces looking enviously at the people eating chocolate and other goodies last night.  Or maybe you’re thinking you can live perfectly well without whatever it was.  Or maybe you have decided you like the new spiritual discipline you have adopted and you will keep doing it.  Yay!   But this final week is also the hardest week because today is the starting point of an Emotional Rollercoaster that will take us from the highest joys and excitement through the depths of despair.    It begins here, with a grand entrance into Jerusalem, Jesus as conquering hero!  Hosannah!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.

Thursday the family of Disciples gathers for supper, and not just any supper, but the Passover meal. A  meal of looking back to the exodus, a journey of liberation from a life of slavery into the promised land, and looking ahead to another promised liberation from oppression and another promised land.  A bitter sweet meal, for Jesus at least, because he knows what is coming and the disciples (except maybe Judas) are totally clueless.

Then, the arrest, the trial by the Temple leadership, appearing in front of Pontius Pilate, the beating and humiliation by the soldiers and denial by the mob.   Another procession - this one leading out of Jerusalem and instead of riding in triumph, Jesus walks in pain and sorrow.  His death on the cross, and the grief - not to mention paralyzing fear - that his followers felt.  All of these emotions, in just 6 days.

Here at First Christian we commemorate all of those events  We will go through all of those emotions with Jesus and his disciples in our services today and Thursday and Friday.  But many Christian churches do not.  They go straight from the excitement of Palm Sunday to the glorious celebration of the resurrection that is Easter.    They go from Hosannah! to He is Risen!  almost as if overlooking all of the pain in between.

It is difficult to stand in this place where we are today.  We are celebrating, but we know what is coming.  We know it will all end well, but still, we know what is coming.  We are in that in between place where we aren’t quite sure whether we should celebrate quite so exuberantly or tone it down a bit in recognition of the terrible times ahead.  We might even wonder why it is so important to celebrate this day, when we know how short-lived this celebration is going to be.

And the Pharisees said to Jesus, Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

Carol was in the last days of a long battle with cancer.  She had a huge circle of friends and colleagues she treasured.  And so she told a few of the closest that what she really wanted to do was have a celebration of her life - before she died!   She wanted to gather one last time with all of the people she loved for a huge meal and music and sharing.  And that’s what we did.  We had a pot luck and the food tables ran from one end of a large banquet hall to the other, enough and more than enough for the couple of hundred folks who showed up.  A DJ was there, playing all the music she loved best.  There was a slide show, like the ones people put together for memorial services, with photos of her life and her loved ones.  There was sharing - so many stories.  Funny ones and sad ones and bittersweet ones.  And then she spoke, at the very end, from her wheelchair, to thank us all for being part of her life.  She told us to keep celebrating.  Two weeks later she died, but the celebration of her life continued.

It’s hard, to be in that in-between place.  And we have to be careful not to get stuck elevating one part of the journey over another.  That’s what Carol wanted to make sure of - that everyone who loved her remembered all the parts of her life, not just the pain and suffering at the end but the joys and even the daily slogging along.  It would have been so easy to only remember her as she was at the end, in pain, skinny, bald. . . It would have been easy to get stuck in that part of her life.  Or to only remember the good times. She wanted us to remember all of the times - addiction and recovery,  counselor and educator, mother, grandmother, friend, sponsor and a person who battled cancer, conceding her loss with grace.  She knew that no matter what, she was going to be ok.

The Pharisees said to Jesus, Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

We stand here, in this in between place, knowing we are supposed to celebrate, but also knowing what’s ahead, and that makes celebration harder.    We look at the palm branches before us and we remember the fickleness of the crowds - crying out Hosannah! today and Crucify Him! on Friday.    We know, too, that on the other side of the city the Romans are also entering, with Pilate at their head, showing the force of Rome to the crowds who have come from all over the world to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem.  We know that on Friday Jesus and Pilate’s lives will collide in what looks like a showdown between Rome and God, and even maybe looks like Rome will win.  But it’s not Friday yet.  And today the crowds are celebrating Jesus.  So today, we celebrate with them.

The Pharisees said to Jesus, Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

It is hard to stand in this in-between place.  All of the in-between places we inhabit during our lives are hard. We are really good at looking back and at looking ahead, but we often have a hard time looking at right now.  Living in today. Cherishing today for the blessings it contains.  We tend to temper our celebration with our memory of what was and our knowledge of what is to come.  We forget what it is to be like children, carrying palm branches and shouting Hosannah!  They may not even know what they are celebrating or why, but tell a child it’s time to celebrate and they will celebrate!  We will wander around worrying whether there’s enough food for everyone, or some other mundane concern while the children run around excited, waving their palm branches.  It’s a celebration!  What are we worrying about?

The crowd in Jerusalem that day had no idea what was coming and so they celebrated with all their energy.  They welcomed Jesus, the prophet, preacher, healer and worker of wonders with the 1st century equivalent of a red carpet.  The Pharisees, on the other hand, worried.  They knew the possible political ramifications of all this disturbance in Jerusalem with the Roman governor in residence.  Some of the disciples worried as well.  They had tried to talk Jesus out of coming to Jerusalem, but he insisted.  And so the stage is set for the week that is to come.  But, it’s not Friday yet.  Today is a day to celebrate!

The Pharisees said to Jesus, Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

It’s hard to stand in this in-between place.  And because it is so hard, some of us choose to live at one end of the emotional spectrum or the other.  Some of us are Easter people, always celebrating the Risen Christ, skipping straight from Palm Sunday to Easter, and perhaps forgetting about the suffering and death.  Some of us are Good Friday people, focusing the bulk of our attention on the suffering Jesus, speaking more of his death than of his resurrection.  But, we really cannot be - or should not be - either the one or the other, because Jesus was more than suffering and death, and more than resurrection. He is those things, but he is also son, brother, friend, teacher, healer, prophet.  Today he is the the King, the one who comes in the name of the Lord!   - the one who is celebrated with palms and Hosannahs. The one whose name echoed from the stones of the city.   

If we are silent, even the very stones will cry out!  So let us not be silent. Let us celebrate.  Let us wave our palms and cry Hosannah!  Let us sing the songs of praise - today.  Because today is a day of celebration, no matter what lies ahead.   And when we go from this place, let us continue our celebration, sharing the Good News that Jesus is King!  The one who comes in the name of the Lord!  Let us pass on the spark of our faith and ignite the desire to celebrate our Lord throughout the city, and throughout the land.  

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Extravagant Love


Scripture  John 12:1-8  NRSV   
12 Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

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One of my seminary classmates showed up for class one day just fuming.  She was a member of a large congregation in downtown Indianapolis, in a part of the city where there were a lot of homeless and desperately poor people, an area that was undergoing gentrification.  The congregation had a significant mission to the poor - feeding programs, clothing programs, after school programs to provide a safe place for children to wait for their parents to come home from work.  My classmate was heavily involved in this work and knew that they always needed more funds, more food, and more volunteers.  She had been at a board meeting the day before where it was announced with great joy and excitement that a member had left a substantial sum of money to the church to be spent on the choir.  “The choir?  But there are all those poor people out there!   Why use this money for the choir when we could help so many more people?”  

Why didn’t she sell this perfume so we could help the poor? 

Lazarus, Martha and Mary figure rather prominently in John’s gospel.  We have a lot of clues to suggest they were one of the wealthy families who helped support Jesus’ ministry.  Lazarus could afford to support his two unmarried sisters.  They were able to give a dinner for Jesus and his disciples.  They had a family tomb where Lazarus had been interred.  Mary had a pound of perfumed oil worth nearly a year’s wages for an ordinary laborer.  Jesus obviously felt close to them and they to him.  Jesus wept over Lazarus’ death.  Mary and Martha both felt comfortable speaking to him in a way that they wouldn’t speak to just any man who not a relative.   Luke’s gospel tells us how Martha gently scolded him for letting Mary sit at his feet listening to him teach rather than helping in the kitchen.  And John tells us that after Lazarus died Mary was bold enough to say to Jesus, “If you had been here my brother wouldn’t have died.”  Women simply did not speak to men who were not family members in these ways. 

Like my classmate, Judas wanted to know why this woman is wasting her wealth in this way when it could have been spent to help more people?   

The real answer, of course, is she did it because this is the thing that was important to her.  Serving her Lord in this way was important to Mary.  Helping the choir glorify God through music was important to the woman in Indianapolis.  As Jesus rightly said, “You will always have the poor with  you, but you do not always have me.  He wasn’t making a particular commentary about the inevitability of there being poor folks and rich folks.  After all, Deuteronomy 15:11 says clearly, “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.”  He was simply telling Judas and the other disciples that they would have plenty of time to care for the poor, but his time among them was limited.  He was looking ahead to his death. Mary was anticipating his burial by anointing him ahead of time.  She may not have known the prophetic nature of what she did, but Jesus did.  What she did know is that she felt it important to make this extravagant gesture - to pour out this oil on his tired feet, and then to wipe them . .  not with a cloth, but with her own hair, an incredibly intimate task signifying great love and devotion.  In a few days Jesus would perform a similar intimate task for his disciples, washing their feet at the beginning of a meal.   

My friend Danny Bradfield, Pastor of Bixby Knolls Christian Church in Long Beach, said in recent sermon, “We go to church expecting to encounter Christ - and we do - but more significantly, we go to church to learn how to recognize Christ when we encounter him in the world.”   

We each spend our love on the things that are important to us.  Kathleen and I spent Friday and Saturday at the Community of the Great Commission with a number of other folks who dedicate themselves to outdoor ministries and camp programs.  On Friday we were asked to trace our hands and draw what camp means to us on that hand.   Then everyone shared.  I don’t feel a particular connection to camp, although I believe it is a very valuable experience for young and not so young alike - and you should all go.  I’ve only been to camp once before and that was maybe not the very best camp experience ever.  But aside from me, the depth of the devotion each person there expressed was as awe inspiring as the setting in which we were meeting.   I could feel the extravagant love for nature, for helping young people along their spiritual journey, for sharing their love of God and church with the campers and with each other, that each person there described - that has kept them coming back to camp for 10, 15, 26 years.   For these people and the many others in our region and elsewhere, this ministry is where they pour out their love in gifts of time, talents, and money just as extravagantly as Mary poured out her perfumed oil.  It is where they see Christ.  

We see Christ in every act of generosity, because Jesus’ ministry was all about generosity and abundance.  The miracle at Cana, producing way more wine than could be consumed.  The feeding of five thousand men (plus women and children) with twelve baskets of food left over.  After fishing all night, Peter is sent back out and immediately so many fish fill the nets that the boats are in danger of sinking.  Wherever Jesus is present, there is abundance - enough and more than enough.  It’s the way pot lucks work.  Not nearly enough people sign up but on the day the tables are so crowded with food that there is barely room for it all.  No one is sent away hungry from Christian Cafe.  

Linda is a nurse who was on a mission trip some years ago.  She was handing out pre-natal vitamins one day and realized that there simply wasn’t going to be enough for all of the women in line.  So she started giving out only half as much as each woman needed.  When the person in charge of the mission saw, she said, “No, don’t do that. Give each one the full amount and have faith.”  And lo it came to pass that a truck came, unscheduled and unexpectedly, and on that truck was a goodly supply of prenatal vitamins.   And every woman received what she needed.  

Why didn’t she sell this perfume so we could help the poor?  And Jesus said, ”You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

Well, ok.  But that was then.  Now we do always have Jesus, for he is resurrected.  He is the living Christ.  He dos not require incense or fragrant oils and he does command us to go out and love one another.  So why give to the choir or the organ or the youth group or the camp program?  Or office supplies?  Why not give directly to the poor?  We should give directly to the poor, but also to all these other things, because those things help us serve the poor.  

When we pour out our love on those things that equip us - on music with which to praise God and on raising up our young people in Christ and on sending folks to camp who might otherwise not get to go - we are equipping ourselves to go out from this place to serve God in whatever way we are each best suited.    When we pour our love into those things that strengthen us in God’s service, we are enabled and emboldened to help the poor, the hungry, the desolated, the angry, the depressed, the lonely, the sick, the addicted . . .  When we pour out our love for Christ as extravagantly as Mary poured out the perfumed oil, We are enabled to give more than we can imagine, in ways we could not foresee, to further God’s mission in the world.  We are returning to God the gift of extravagant love that he pours out upon us.  

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Living in the Son-Light

Ephesians 5:8-14  NRSV


8 For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light— 9 for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. 10 Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. 11 Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. 12 For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; 13 but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, 14 for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says,
“Sleeper, awake!
    Rise from the dead,

and Christ will shine on you.” 

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Most of you know by now that I am a bit of a sci-fi nerd.  I love Star Trek - the original,  The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, all the movies . . . I still have to catch up on the newest series, which pre-Stardates the original series, but I imagine some day I will get around to that.  The thing about science fiction is that it often addresses social issues in a way that makes one think, but doesn’t feel “political.”  It’s fiction, after all. 

In the Star Trek episode “Bread and Circuses”  the Enterprise arrives at a planet where they intend to rescue the crew of a stranded merchant ship.  They a bit confused by the situation they found on the planet, which had a culture closely resembling the Roman Empire with mid-20th century Earth technology.  Beaming down Captain Kirk, Spock, and Dr. McCoy discover that most of the crew were  killed in the arena at the orders of their own captain, who had risen to a position of power by providing the Emperor with forbidden technology and a whole shipload of new slaves to entertain the masses with.   Just about everything that was evil in our ancient Rome is there. The powerful do what they want, and the vast majority of folks are bought off with food and entertainment,  thus the episode name - “Bread and Circuses.”  The arena slaves are mostly captured rebels, converts to a cult of sun worshippers who preach against the status quo and for the equality of all persons under the sun.  Naturally, Captain Kirk and all are saved by Chief Engineer Scotty and technology.   Back on the ship, Spock expresses surprise at a sun-worshiping cult preaching universal love and brotherhood, opining that most sun worship is primitive superstition with no such philosophy behind it.  Lt. Uhura, having monitored the planet's communications all this time, has the answer: "It's not the sun up in the sky they worship. It's the Son of God." 

The slaves on that planet preached universal love and brotherhood and were willing to go to their deaths for what they believed - just like Christians under Roman persecution in our own world.  They didn’t have time to waste, as we do,  fussing over denominational rules or differing worship styles or theological differences. For many early Christians and for the Son Worshippers of Star Trek, believing was a matter of life and death, literally.  It would have been much easier for them to just give in, to try to fit in with the rest of their society, to abide by the cultural norms of their day, but that would have been acting in a way exactly opposite the directions Paul gives in this passage from Romans.  Take no part “ he said, “in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.”  “Live as children of light— for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true.   

We know as a matter of historical fact that Christians did have to go underground during times of extreme persecution, in some cases literally.  By the 3rd century Christians who refused to participate in emperor worship were often given opportunities to avoid punishment by publicly offering sacrifices or by burning incense to Roman gods. Refusal was punished by arrest, imprisonment, torture, and executions.  In the 4th century, all Christians in the empire were commanded to sacrifice to the Roman gods or face immediate execution.  So going underground became a matter for survival.  It did not, as we know, mean an end to Christianity, but it did mean that being Christian was vitally important to those who believed.  There were no wishy washy Christians.  Being Christian wasn’t something they just did on the Lord’s Day and ignored the rest of the week.  It was the way they lived - counter-culturally.  They did things that were the very opposite of their society’s expectations - free persons sat down with slaves, women and men worshipped together, they refused to participate in activities that everyone else was doing, and they went out of their way to help others, even others that weren’t themselves Christian.  And as we know, doing these things even when their very lives were at stake if they were known to be Christians, were the very things that most often got them caught, and killed.   

It’s easier to be a Christian today.  At least, it’s easier to say we are Christian today.  Some may ridicule us for believing in something we cannot see. Some may revile us because they think that all Christians are like Westboro Baptist Church.  But no one is likely to kill us for our faith.  Well, maybe a crazed individual with a gun - but there is no socially sanctioned death sentence for being Christian today.  So I think it may actually be harder for us to live as children of light than it was in Paul’s time and thereafter.  Or perhaps I should say, it’s easier for us to go along with the way things are.  It’s easy for us to remain silent in the face of oppression and hate, because after all, no one is coming after us.  

This week I heard on the news that Alex Jones, founder of Infowars.com, has apologized for his promotion of the theory that the massacre at Sandy Hook was faked.  Well, he didn’t apologize exactly - he said he must have been suffering from a form of psychosis that caused him to believe things that were not true.  One result of his numerous repetitions of this theory is that people who believed him started going after the parents of children killed at Sandy Hook, threatening them with physical harm if they didn’t tell the “truth” that there were no such children, that the whole event was staged.  How do we stop things like that?  How do we stand up for people who are being persecuted like these parents?  No, really, how do we?  Cause I don’t know. I don’t know how to combat willful hatred and ugliness like this.  But I feel like we need to.  And somehow just turning off the radio, or signing off Facebook so we don’t have to see the darkness is not enough. 

In his new book, Outlandish: An Unlikely Messiah, a Messy Ministry, and a Call to Mobilize, Derek Penwell asks, Why live the sort of life that stands against the things the rest of society finds normal?  And my answer to that is “because Jesus said so”. (Actually, that’s Derek’s answer, too.)  And if our society finds anger and hatred toward the other “normal’ then we need to stand against that, because  Paul said, “ Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.  When we hear lies, when we hear racist, sexist, homophobic lies, we really do need to speak up and speak out.  We need to stand in the light of Christ, in the Son-light, and expose the works of darkness.  And we need to do it without ourselves descending into angry, hate-filled speech.  Author and blogger John Pavlovitz said,  I’m fully convinced that the greatest thing you can do for someone; the most Jesus-like, God-honoring thing, is to err on the side of loving them.”  

As Christians, we are called to love all of God’s children, we are called to treat all persons as we wish to be treated.  So somehow, whenever we hear or see hate, we need to act against the hate with love.  We need to expose these acts of darkness to the light of Christ.  How we do that will be different for each of us.  It might be something sort of public, like showing up for a PRIDE parade, or participating in a Poor People’s Campaign rally. It might be writing blogs and articles.  It might be something as simple as turning our back on the person who is hating, or speaking kindly to the person who has been subjected to bullying.   If we are truly kingdom people, if our goal is to bring God’s kingdom to existence on earth as it is in heaven, then we need to stand up, wake up, try to find what is pleasing to the Lord, expose that which is darkness to the light of Christ, and live as children of the light.  And when we do, the Son-light will shine upon us and through us, for once we were darkness, but now, in the Lord, we are light.  Amen.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Amazing Grace


  Scripture Romans 5:1-11  Common English Bible  

5 Therefore, since we have been made righteous through his faithfulness, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2 We have access by faith into this grace in which we stand through him, and we boast in the hope of God’s glory. 3 But not only that! We even take pride in our problems, because we know that trouble produces endurance, 4 endurance produces character, and character produces hope. 5 This hope doesn’t put us to shame, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

6 While we were still weak, at the right moment, Christ died for ungodly people. 7 It isn’t often that someone will die for a righteous person, though maybe someone might dare to die for a good person. 8 But God shows his love for us, because while we were still sinners Christ died for us. 9 So, now that we have been made righteous by his blood, we can be even more certain that we will be saved from God’s wrath through him. 10 If we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son while we were still enemies, now that we have been reconciled, how much more certain is it that we will be saved by his life? 11 And not only that: we even take pride in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, the one through whom we now have a restored relationship with God.

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Have you ever picked up a book and discovered on the very first page something that made you go “What?” and drew you forward into the book?   I got a book like that recently.   In the first paragraph the author, Brennan Manning, told of presenting the opening section of a three-day seminar, in which he spoke “on the gospel of grace and the reality of salvation.”  When he had finished, the pastor who was hosting the event turned to his associate and fumed “Humph, that airhead didn’t say one thing about what we have to do to earn our salvation.”  (Ragamuffin Gospel. pg 15)   When I read that I said to myself, (but probably out loud)  “What?  But, that’s the point.  We don’t earn salvation.  It is unearned and undeserved and given by God’s grace.”  Once I’d gotten that off my chest, I continued reading.   A little while after that I started working on this message, and the first thing that struck me was this:   Christ died for ungodly people.      In keeping with our theme for Lent, my question was “Why?”
   
I mean, even Paul says, “It isn’t often that someone will die for a righteous person, though maybe someone might dare to die for a good person.” We understand sacrificing oneself for others - mothers protecting their children, soldiers protecting their comrades in arms, teachers protecting their students.  We see this happening all the time, but there is always the thought that these are people who are worthy of protection.  When do we hear about people protecting bad people?  When do we hear anyone say “You are sinful and unrepentant, so I will lay down my life for you so that your sins may be forgiven, even though you absolutely don’t deserve it.”  Why would anyone do that?

And yet Jesus did just exactly that.  He died for those who weren’t already doing the right things.  Like - the thief on the cross.  Hear Luke’s story of how a sinful man was saved at the very last minute.  

Luke 23:39 One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

He did nothing, really, to deserve Jesus’ mercy.  All he did was admit he was a wrong-doer who deserved his punishment.  But Christ died for ungodly people, for people we might consider undeserving or unworthy.  Christ died for that thief, who knew he had done wrong but had no time left to change his life.   He didn’t have time to say the Sinner’s Prayer (which, indeed, hadn’t been written yet).  He didn’t have time to fully confess his wrongs or take Jesus as his personal savior.  He certainly didn’t have time to be baptized.   And yet, Christ died for him.  Why?

…. when we see someone who doesn’t have some of the blessings we have received, we are likely to say something like, There but for the grace of God, go I.  
It seems humble, doesn’t it?   Like, it could be me living in a tent on the church steps.  Except I made better choices than she did? Except I am faithful?  Except God likes me better? There are people on the streets who did everything right, but they lost their job when their company closed, and they lost their house when the savings ran out.  There are people on the streets who are every bit as faithful as me - maybe even more so.  And the idea that God loves me more? That’s just plain bad theology. 

Christ died for the ungodly, the undeserving, the unfaithful . . . for us.   Why?  God loves all of us, all of God’s children - the good and the bad, the faithful and unfaithful, the lucky and the unlucky, believers and non-believers . . .

We, knowing that we are recipients of God’s grace, are called to act toward others with grace - with love and compassion.  We are called to follow Jesus, to do the things that he commanded us to do, to go among all the peoples of the world to spread the good news of God’s love and forgiveness.  We are called to show the world what it means to accept God’s grace into our lives, and to preach through our actions rather than just with words.    

I have been watching the events in New Zealand this week, and what I have been seeing is grace in action.  Seeing all of the disparate and diverse parts of New Zealand’s population coming together in grief so that together they may heal, I am both amazed and comforted by the fact that, instead of pointing fingers and casting blame, instead of spending time focused on the hate, the nation has come together in solidarity to support the victims with love.  Seeing so many different groups performing the haka in response to the shootings has brought me to tears every time. The Maori Council commissioned a new haka in response to the mosque shootings in Christchurch, which was performed at the funeral of 26 of the victims on Friday. It is titled Haka for Life. 

Attention! Attention!
Why do we wait for something bad to happen
to eventually come together?
Wake up, be true!
Strip away bad things like
negativity and belittling others
because the underlining factor is racism.
Stomp on it.
Get rid of it
So all that remains is your true person.
I am you, you are me, this is us.
The greatest thing in the world,
Tis people!  Tis people! Tis people!
Hi!
(composed by Dr Ken Kennedy, Koro Tini and Jamus Webster)  


Strip away bad things, like negativity and belittling others . . . so all that remains is your true person.”  That is why we observe Lent. That is what we are supposed to be doing during this season of repentance.  If we are fasting, that is to say, if we have given up something we love for Lent, it is not just for the sake of having something to say when you are asked “What did you give up for Lent?”  According to Frederica Mathewes-Green, “[Fasting] is not self-punishment or payment for sin. It’s an exercise like weightlifting, designed to strengthen the willpower muscle. If you can resist a slice of pizza, you can resist the urge to yell at someone in traffic.”   It is not something we do to earn God’s love, but it is something we do to show God our love as we work to become better, more loving persons.

Anne Lamott said, “I do not at all understand the mystery of Grace - only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.”   I didn’t know what it was that caused me to wake up that Saturday morning in 1989 suddenly aware that I had only emptiness inside, an emptiness that sent me to drug and alcohol rehab that very afternoon, but I know today that it was God’s grace, nudging me toward a better way, a way that would bring me closer to him.  
Even though I had left the church decades before, 
even though I only read the Bible so I would have ammunition to use against Christians, 
even though I was still so angry with the Church I was raised in and with the God I had been taught about there that I railed against God whenever he was mentioned, 
even though it would still take me another three years to show my face in Christian worship, 
God’s unconditional love and grace sent me to 12 Step meetings, where I learned about God’s love, and compassion, and forgiveness.  For the first couple of years, while I was still trying to figure out my relationship with God, I would sing Amazing Grace when I was alone in my car.  It was my best, most sincere prayer.   It was the only way I really knew to say “Thank you” to God. 

While we were still weak, at the right moment, Christ died for ungodly people.”   Why?  Because God loves us.

Please stand and join me in singing of God’s Amazing Grace. 

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Opportunity Knocks


Scripture   Luke 4:1-13 Common English Bible  


4 Jesus returned from the Jordan River full of the Holy Spirit, and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. 2 There he was tempted for forty days by the devil. He ate nothing during those days and afterward Jesus was starving. 3 The devil said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”
4 Jesus replied, “It’s written, People won’t live only by bread.”

5 Next the devil led him to a high place and showed him in a single instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 The devil said, “I will give you this whole domain and the glory of all these kingdoms. It’s been entrusted to me and I can give it to anyone I want. 7 Therefore, if you will worship me, it will all be yours.”
8 Jesus answered, “It’s written, You will worship the Lord your God and serve only him.”

9 The devil brought him into Jerusalem and stood him at the highest point of the temple. He said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, throw yourself down from here; 10 for it’s written: He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you 11 and they will take you up in their hands so that you won’t hit your foot on a stone.”
12 Jesus answered, “It’s been said, Don’t test the Lord your God.” 

13 After finishing every temptation, the devil departed from him until the next opportunity.

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The Spiritual Growth Team here at First Christian Church is in charge not only of worship planning for special days and seasons, but also of enhancing the spiritual life of everyone here.  In the coming year we will work on a variety of themes for our services so that all of us can learn more about who we are, what we doing here, and why we do what we do.   Why is, after all, one of the first questions we learn to ask as tiny humans, and it remains one of the important questions for as long as we live.  During Lent we will be looking at “why?”   

Beginning with “Why Lent?”  In the early days of the church, the season we know as Lent was sort of informally observed during a 6-week period leading up to Easter during which sinners could repent and people wishing to be baptized could be prepared. This  was formalized at the First Council of Nicea in 325.  But that only allowed for 36 days of fasting, because Sundays are excluded.  So in the 7th century an additional four days were added at the beginning of the season so that the period of fasting would be 40 days, reflecting Jesus’  40 day fast in the wilderness after he was baptized.   And why do we decorate the sanctuary with purple?  To signify mourning as we anticipate the pain and suffering of the crucifixion,  and because purple is the color associated with royalty, so celebrates Christ's resurrection and sovereignty.   


Why did Jesus spend 40 days and 40 night in the wilderness?  Throughout Scripture there is a pattern of important things taking 40 days and 40 nights. The flood, which cleansed the world of sinful people, was the result of 40 days and 40 nights of rain.   Moses spent 40 days and 40 nights on Mount Sinai (twice), at the end of which he brought the tablets of the Law to the (sinful) people he had brought out of Egypt.  Elijah walked through the desert fasting for 40 days and 40 nights until he reached God’s mountain, Horeb, and spoke with God in a cave there about the sinfulness of the people.  And now Jesus, whose purpose in life was to bring salvation to a sinful world, is spending 40 days and 40 in prayer and fasting - and temptation - preparing his own soul for the redemptive work that was ahead of him.   And so, during the 40 days and 40 nights of Lent, we spend the time in prayer and (maybe) fasting to recognize our own sinfulness and come to repent before Jesus dies on the cross. 

You might be wondering why I chose this particular piece of art for today’s message.  It’s kind of disturbing.  When I read this passage in several different translations, I was struck especially by the last line -  After finishing every temptation, the devil departed from him until the next opportunity.  So the idea of the devil bringing temptation in the guise of opportunities struck me.

Testing our faith is what the devil does.  It’s his job.  It’s what he did with Job.  It’s what he does with us. So ok, even knowing that the devil’s job is to tempt us, why did Jesus have to be tempted?  I mean, what was the point?  Surely, the devil knew that Jesus was the Son of God - he even says he knows that.  And if anyone ever was going to resist temptation, it would be the Son of God, right?  Jesus was fully human, and was or could have been just as tempted as any other human.  And so, the devil did his job, and tested Jesus’ faith and determination to go forward with his mission no matter what.  We will remember that much later in his story, when Peter tells him not to talk about his coming death, he turns and says “Get behind me, Satan.  Because the temptation was real, and right there in front of him. 

I mean, look at the opportunities Jesus was given!  He was hungry, starving even, and the devil offered him bread.  Ok, he offered Jesus the opportunity to misuse God’s power to make bread out of stones, but y’know, it had to be tempting.   He tempted Jesus with power - and the opportunity to grab power can be really hard to resist.  He tempted Jesus with invulnerability, the idea that nothing bad could happen to him, that no matter what God would protect him from harm, even if he was about to die.  And on every count, Jesus turned his thoughts away from the opportunities presented, and toward God, toward the mission that he knew was ahead of him.  Jesus resisted the opportunity to get stuff to make him comfortable, the opportunity to wield political power with all the wealth and other very cool perks that comes with that power, and the opportunity to consider himself invulnerable, better than everyone else, untouchable by the ills of humanity.

You see, Jesus was human.  He was born into a poor family on purpose.  He was born into a subjugated people on purpose.  He was subject to hunger, to powerlessness, and to mortality, just like the rest of us.  He wasn’t part of the 1%, he wasn’t part of the ruling elite, he wasn’t immune to the pains and injuries of normal, human life.  He was human.  The devil was offering him opportunities that would make him something other than fully human, and that would negate the whole purpose of his existence.   Jesus had to be fully human, so that we could know that he knew what we go through, how fragile we can be emotionally and physically.  He had to be fully human so that following his ways would be realistic for us.  He had to be fully human so that we could know temptations, and opportunities that are too good to be true, can be resisted.  We have to be able to look at Jesus and know that he did it, and he was human, so we can do it.

 I keep coming back to that last line.  After finishing every temptation, the devil departed from him until the next opportunity.  Oftentimes, I think, the devil comes to us knocking on the door with opportunities, presenting temptations that might look like a really good idea for a minute, but that might well not be the right thing for us, might not be what God would want for us.  

Now, I know that we have many sayings about opportunity.  “Opportunity only knocks once.  Don’t let an opportunity slip through your fingers.  Great opportunities don’t come every day - recognize them and seize them.”  Those sayings are often used by salespeople to convince us to part with our hard earned money.  I really should have said “Get behind me, Satan” when that nice young woman selling Kirby vacuums showed up at the door, but nooo . . . I had to fall for the something-for-nothing offer of “I’ll shampoo your carpet for free! No obligation to buy.”  I know better.  But hey, I got something for nothing.   And then spent way too much money on a vacuum cleaner.  

We are bombarded with temptations all the time, opportunities to earn more, save more, and get more for ridiculously cheap that sound too good to be true.  We are daily faced with the temptation to give in to over-spending, road rage or other instances of inappropriate anger, or selfishness, jealousy, resentment, laziness, pride, unwillingness, over eating, over drinking, whatever fault we may be most prone to in that moment.  The devil will find and take advantage of times when we are tired, or stressed, or feeling complacent to place these opportunities - those temptations - before us, hoping that we will act without thought, without prayer, without asking God for guidance in the situation before us.

At the end of 40 days and 40 nights of fasting and prayer, and temptation, Jesus could still resist every opportunity placed before him by the devil.  Every time the devil made an offer to Jesus, Jesus referred back to God.  “It is written, people don’t live by bread alone.”  “It is written, worship your God and serve only God.”  “It’s been said, don’t tempt your God.”  Jesus was completely God-centered, even at his hungriest and weakest.  The devil could not break through Jesus’ dependence upon God to guide his decisions and responses.  And so he went away, until the next opportunity.  

The good news, my brothers and sisters, is that we can do what Jesus did, for he was human, like us.  And if he, in his humanity, could resist the devil’s offers, so can we.   When we go from here, and have all those daily temptations to face and decisions to make, let us remain God-centered, as Jesus did.   Let us rely always upon God to guide us, through the season of Lent and always.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

He Said What?


Scripture   Luke 9:37-43  NRSV

37 On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. 38 Just then a man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. 39 Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. 40 I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” 41 Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.” 42 While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. 43 And all were astounded at the greatness of God.

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We have heard the story of the transfiguration many times.  Jesus took Peter, James and John up on the mountain to pray.  And while he was praying he was changed, even his clothes were dazzling to the eye.  Moses and Elijah were there talking with him, so Peter wanted to build 3 booths for them to stay in, but by the time he finished saying that, a voice came from the cloud saying “This is my Son, my Chosen.  Listen to him!”  As suddenly as they appeared, the prophets were gone, Jesus was alone, and the disciples were terrified.  And they kept silence, telling no one what they had witnessed.
Upon coming back to earth, as it were, after that mountain top experience, as usual a great crowd was waiting for them.  And the first person to get Jesus’ attention is a man whose son is afflicted with an unclean spirit and who has come to complain that Jesus’ disciples weren’t able to cure the boy.  He begs for Jesus’ help.  And  Jesus answered him saying, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you?  Bring your son here.”
Wait, he said what?  Where’s our loving, compassionate Jesus?  I mean, he was just up on the mountain top.  He spoke with Moses and Elijah, he was transfigured, completely changed, in the sight of Peter and James and John, and God called Jesus his son and told the disciples to listen to him!  He should be feeling, well, on top of the world!   All full of love and sunshiney stuff.  You know, I have to wonder what it was that Moses and Elijah shared with him on that mountaintop.  After all, both of them had to deal with people who had to be continually shown God’s power with signs and wonders - just like the people Jesus faced all the time.  Maybe they were commiserating with him, you know, complaining about their congregations.   God’s power enabled Moses and Elijah to do great things, impossible things, just as Jesus did.  Even though the people they led were stubborn and stiff necked, like his people.  Even though they quickly forgot what God had done for them.   Even though trying to lead them in God’s way was harder than herding cats.   Maybe his conversation with Moses and Elijah did have something to do with his reaction.  We will never know.  We do know that the first thing he does is chastise this man, and complain about having to put up with this faithless and perverse generation.   
Now, more often than not this passage is read as a rebuke to the disciples who were unable to heal the boy.  And yes, we do love to make fun of the disciples.  They get so much stuff wrong that we, with our 2,000 years of hindsight, can see right away!  We products of 20th and 21st century educations, tend to think that the 1st Century disciples weren’t exactly the brightest bulbs on the tree, but you know, Jesus picked them for a reason.  They were willing to drop everything and follow him.  At the beginning of this chapter, “Jesus called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal.”   He sent them out to proclaim the kingdom and to heal.  And they did.  Luke 9:6 tells us they “went through the villages, bringing the good news and curing diseases everywhere.”  So they definitely could cast out this boy’s affliction.  Peter has already proclaimed that Jesus is the Messiah.  Frankly, they get a pretty bad rap from us and in the case of this passage, it’s really not deserved.  It seems pretty clear to me that Jesus is speaking to the boy’s father, because the last sentence in that condemnation is, “Bring your son here.  It’s not all that surprising that Jesus got upset with the father who didn’t believe his disciples could heal his son.  They could have healed the boy . . . because Jesus had given them the power and authority from God to do those things - but the father didn’t believe they could.  He had no faith in them.  And if you don’t believe that something can happen, it probably won’t.   If you don’t believe in the abilities of another person, nothing they do or say will convince you otherwise.
Think about this for a minute.  If I am convinced that I cannot succeed at something, the likelihood is that I will not.  If I keep telling myself I can’t, then I probably won’t.  I might not even try.  But if I think I can . . . well, the story of the Little Engine That Could comes to mind.  
Many of us have lived with lies that other people told us about ourselves so often that we came to believe the lie.  I’m not good enough.  I’m not smart enough.  I’ll never amount to anything.  I’m unloveable. I still struggle with some of these lies.   Leah and the Young Adult Group are studying a book called Enough - Silencing the Lies That Steal Your Confidence.  This book’s goal is to help people learn how to recognize the lie, reject it, and replace it with the truth.   The truth is, we can do anything we set our minds to doing.   All we need is faith that we can do those things with God’s help.   Now, this does not mean that I can go out and run  a 10 mile race without long and intensive training.   But it does mean that at age 44 I could go to college and then seminary and be successful as a student.  Even though I had been told over and over that I wasn’t smart enough.  When in doubt of my abilities I would remind myself that if God wanted me to be a minister, all I had to do was my part  - showing up for class, doing homework, studying, writing papers - and the rest would come.   Not everyone believed in me.  During every conversation with my mother-in-law she would tell me that we were welcome to move in with her when I flunked out. *sigh*  But I believed that I could succeed with God’s help, and with God’s help I did.
A few weeks ago Alan repaired my fence and I was giving him credit on Facebook for being able to do pretty much anything, because, you know, it’s Alan.  It seems like anything he turns his hand to is successful.  He can fix just about anything. He bakes.  He builds rockets.  He is an amazing woodworker.  His first quilt won a prize at the fair!  His response to my Facebook post was,  I give God the credit: first he makes me, then he teaches me, then he motivates me.   
All things are possible with God.   All we have to do is believe in the power of God.  All you have to do is give God the credit.  With God’s help, lies can be detected and rejected.  With God’s help, the demons that afflict us can be cast out.  With God’s help, people can be re-born.  With God’s help, churches can be transformed.  And all who witness these things will be astounded at the greatness of God.