Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Good News Everyone!

Ephesians 1:3-14
15th Sunday in Ordinary Time

I don’t know if I can describe how important this Scripture lesson has been for me this week.  I’m going to try, but this reading hit me in a very personal way.  

I’m not bashful about my issues: among them is an ongoing battle with depression.  I know I’m not alone in having issues, so I’m honest about things like that so we might all be honest about things like that, and thus bear those things together.  I try not to let my issues be the topic of every conversation, but sometimes it needs to be.  And to be honest, I’ve been going through a rather rough patch for a while there.  

I remember telling my wife a little while ago, “I am just so tired of being sad all the time.”  And as soon as those words came out of my mouth, I thought, “You know, there is something you haven’t tried for a while.”  Beyond eating right, getting better sleep, and going outside once in a while, I remembered I could pray about it; even better, have someone pray with me about it.  So I did.  I prayed for what I know has lifted me before: I prayed that God would remind me how deeply I am loved.  I know I’m loved, intellectually; but the depression won’t let me feel like I’m loved sometimes.  So I prayed, had a friend pray with me, and then I took to preparing this message.  

Talk about your God sightings.  I experienced a genuine healing this week; I don’t think I’m cured, but I know I’m healed.  I read this lesson and the clouds lifted and I was reminded of something only God’s Spirit can remind me: I am loved; lavishly, recklessly, and abundantly.  My prayer for all of us this morning is that the words and sentiment that Paul speaks to us today, by the grace of God’s Spirit, might make a home in your heart too.  May we receive this extravagant grace as the gift it is.  And better still, when we leave this place, may that boundless grace be a rewrapped gift we bring to bless all those around us.  

Today we begin a brief series on the first part of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians; because we are in particular need to hear what Paul has to say in the Book of Ephesians.  We need to hear it personally, but we also need to hear it as a church; the world around us so desperately needs us to hear and embrace these words as a church.  

Ephesians is somewhat unique among Paul’s letters, in that there doesn’t seem to be a problem to solve.  He’s writing to a church that is just simply trying to be the church.  It’s worth noting, by the way, that this was way before the Emperor Constantine.  Paul is writing to the church before it was institutionalized, back when it was just a movement.  And in a world that, increasingly, doesn’t seem to trust or even like the institutionalized church, remembering how to be the church as a movement, I think might be a helpful thing for us to remember.  

So that’s one reason we’re looking at Ephesians.  The other is this: the fact that Paul is not writing to a church in crisis, makes me feel like he’s writing directly to us.  I mean, as far as I know, no one is preaching some heresy; no one is preaching a “Jesus and” religion, where his work is not enough somehow; we are still grounded in Scripture and put our trust in Jesus alone.  Also, as far as I know, we are not fighting about anything.  In fact, we seem pretty united to me.  I mentioned our upcoming congregational meeting.  I am certain that, by the end of that longer conversation, someone will be disappointed by the decision we come to.  I am also certain that, in spite of that, we will remain united.  We are a people whose unity is not dependent on our ability to agree; that’s important.  We were just talking about that at our Friday morning group: that the unity we share is really a remarkable thing.  We don’t always think about it much, but we all know by our experiences in churches, that unity isn’t always the rule.  We should celebrate it; we should brag about it; it’s a very good thing.  

So Paul is writing to a church like us about being the church like the church that we are trying to be: beyond the building and the business, we want to be a community that seeks and serves Jesus.  So where does Paul begin this lesson?  Exactly where you should: with unbridled praise.  These opening words give praise to God because that is where all of our conversations should start.  Notice that this is all about what God has done.  It is God, who has blessed us in Jesus with every spiritual blessing.  It is God, who has had a plan for you specifically for adoption and redemption, from the beginning of creation.  You have a destiny; God’s plan for you for today and all of eternity!  And to top all that off, you have been given the Spirit of God to guide you and to provide proof that you are loved by God forever.  And it’s all God’s doing; you didn’t have to lift a finger.  

As we consider together what it means to be the church, this is where we have to start.  The word that comes to mind is “lavish.”  We have to start by remembering together the lavish good news that we have received.  We have to remind one another of the lavish love of God that we know and share.  We have to make room, here in this place, for the Spirit of God to let this lavish grace lift us from despair.  We have to, because if you think we sometimes know despair around here, just imagine what they feel out there.  Just imagine the despair they feel, who have never even heard.  We have to remember the lavish gospel that we have received, that we might lavish it on this world.  

As you might have noticed, I like this word “lavish.”  There is no negative way to use it.  One can only “lavish” good things.  “I was lavished with criticism,” it doesn’t work.  No, you can only be lavished with praise.  “I got a parking ticket and was lavished with court fees.”  No, it’s more like, “It was my birthday and I was lavished with gifts.”  The lavish love that God has shown us is a love beyond any other; it’s a love that will change the world.  

One of the high points of our vacation was a gift from my brother-in-law.  He took us for an overnight stay at a resort in Palos Verdes, right on the coast.  This place was swanky (“swanky” is a good word too).  We only stayed there overnight, but we made the most of it.  We got there in the early afternoon left in the early evening of the next day.  In between, we made proficient use of the resort’s many pools, walking trails along the beach, restaurants, and fancy rooms.  All of that was wonderful, but I think my favorite part was a man named Luis.  

When we first arrived, we walked into the lobby and Luis sauntered up to welcome us.  He engaged us in small talk: where we were from and how long we were staying (by the way, he seemed genuinely sad for us that we were only staying one night).  And then Luis said, “Hey, do you guys want some Champaign?  Let me get you some Champaign.”  And  the next thing I knew, I had a glass of Champaign in my hand.  I didn’t notice where it came from, I didn’t hear a cork pop, it seemed to just magically appear from the hand of Luis.  

I observed Luis over the next thirty hours or so, and as far as I could tell, that was his job.  He didn’t seem to serve in any managerial function; he didn’t work the registration; he didn’t help anyone with their bags; there were other people for those things.  It just seemed like his job was to hang out in the lobby, be welcoming, and hand out Champaign and any hour of the day.  

Now, I have two thoughts from that experience that I think relate to our Scripture lesson today.  First, the lavish luxury that we experienced at that resort is comparable to the Gospel we proclaim.  It is vast and extravagant, it meets our needs and more, and best of all: someone else has paid for it!  This is the lavish church we have been called to be… but we think of ourselves as a Motel 6.  Motel 6 is fine and all.  If you are traveling and all you need or expect is a place to sleep, it’s fine, I guess.  But that is not the church our Savior conquered death for us to be.  

Which leads me to my other thought: when I met Luis, I thought, “Luis’ job needs to be the church’s job.”  Maybe not the Champaign exactly, but things like that.  Things that convey the lavish, extravagant love that it is our job to share.  As we go out into this world, remembering the lavish grace that we have received, let us seek equally lavish ways to share it.  And when you do, wear your shirt.  

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

This Guy Again!

Mark 6:1-13
14th Sunday in Ordinary Time

For those of you wondering, “Hey, where did that nice Cathy lady go”: it turns out, she’s not actually the pastor here.  True story: she’s actually a semi-retired hospital chaplain and I am actually your pastor.  I don’t blame you.  I know it’s been a few weeks: but my name is Brian and I’ve been the pastor at Calvary for ten years now!  

I’ve never held a job into double-digits before; I’m very excited about it.  But here’s the weird thing: I can’t tell if it feels like it’s been ten years or not.  On the one hand, it seems like just yesterday that you were helping me and my family move to Bayfield; but on the other hand, we’ve been through so much together over the past decade that it also seems like a lifetime ago.  On the one hand, I feel like the years have earned me some trust—that time has proven that I care about you, that I want what’s best for this congregation, and that I’m not going anywhere; but on the other hand, I wonder if I’ve become too local; like maybe you know me too well; like maybe you’ll look at me and think, “Oh, that’s just Brian.”  

My hope is that it’s more about the trust than the familiarity.  I think it is.  I think that if we try new things, you know me well enough and I know you well enough, that we can take chances together.  I believe that we can receive the movement of the Spirit through one another better than Jesus’ townsfolk did.  They say that “familiarity breeds contempt,” but I am confident that as we see God at work in one another, our familiarity can grow something better.  

So, the mother and siblings of Jesus are mentioned specifically twice in the Gospel of Mark.  Oddly, the last sermon I preached, back on June tenth, was the other time they are mentioned.  If you don’t recall a Scripture lesson from about a month ago, it went like this: the family of Jesus came to him because they thought he’d gone crazy.  They were repeating a theme that we see a lot in the Gospel of Mark: very few could see Jesus for who he truly was.  Nearly everyone in Mark asks some version of the question: who is this guy?  

This is funny because the very first line of Mark says, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”  So from the very beginning of this story, we get it.  We know who Jesus is, but we are continually astounded by all of those in Mark who don’t.  Perhaps it’s a reflection of God’s sense of humor, but it’s always those who should most see the power of God in Jesus, who are the very people who can’t see it: the religious people like priests and Pharisees; his own disciples; his family; and even his own townsfolk—people he’d been going to church with all his life.  It’s enough to make you wonder: maybe there’s a point there we should be paying attention to.  Do we who should know him best, sometimes miss what he’s doing in our midst?  Could it be that we don’t know him as well as we thought?  

People have asked me how my vacation was.  The short answer is, “It was vacation, are you kidding?”  I entrusted VBS cleanup, Fourth of July preparation, and worship leadership into the capable hands of other people and left town.  It was great!  

The longer answer to how my vacation was is that I got to know my family again.  We decided to drive to California this time; we split it into a two-day trip, so that’s two seven or eight hour days… in a car… with the same people.  It turns out that, when you are stuck in a car for hours on end with the same people, you learn things about those people.  I learned (or probably re-learned) that my family is great!  We get along well.  They are funny, helpful, and more patient than remembered.  I learned that, although my wife’s road trip playlist is decidedly different than mine, our musical tastes do have some overlap.  I learned that my eldest son is a surprisingly good driver.  Surprising because I’ve seen him play video games.  It turns out that there is always something to learn about people; even family members.  If there is more to know about one another, even among our families, it shouldn’t surprise us that Jesus still surprises us.  

It seems a little overly-simplistic to say this, but it needs to be said: get to know Jesus.  The more I get to know Jesus, the more I like him.  That might sound weird to hear from me, given my profession and that I’ve been a lifelong Christian.  But it’s true, even in the past few years.  I was raised in certain types of churches: churches that made it seem like Jesus built walls; walls that insured that the right people got in… and the wrong people were kept out.  But the more I know about Jesus the less I think those walls are from him.  Jesus says, "Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house."  I wonder if he would add, “And in their own churches.”  

We like to think of a life in Christ as if it’s a game of Follow the Leader, but the truth is it’s more like Simon Says.  Do you remember Simon Says?  The leader tells you to do something, but if the leader doesn’t say “Simon says” first, you’re not supposed to do it.  “Simon says, ‘stand on one foot.’”  So you stand on one foot.  “Put your foot down [puts down foot],” and now I’m out.  It’s an easy mistake to make, especially as we try to follow Jesus.  

That’s why it is vital that we strive to know Jesus more and more.  It’s vital for our own spiritual health, but it’s also vital because of what happens in our story today.  Our Scripture lesson takes an unexpected twist, and I think it’s on purpose.  On the very heels of being rejected by his own people, Jesus sent his disciples out two by two.  They are sent, essentially, to do what Jesus has been doing: to have authority over unclean spirits, to travel light, and shake it off (so to speak) you get rejected.  Jesus sends us into this world to be mini-Jesus’ in it.  To do what he did, to say what he said, to love like he loved, and to expect to be rejected like he was rejected.  I don’t know if I like or hate that last part.  I like it because it’s honest: not everyone is going to receive the word we proclaim.  I hate it because, like most normal human beings, I don’t like rejection.  I think perhaps, it is our fear of being rejected that often keeps us from proclaiming our faith; at least through our words.  

Historically, many of the followers of Jesus have made sharp distinctions between "mission" and "evangelism"—between outreach in deeds and outreach in words.  And understandably, we have tended to gravitate more toward “mission,” perhaps because of our anxiety about “evangelism.”  But lately, I’ve come to see that Jesus didn’t make distinctions like that.  When Jesus sends his followers out into the surrounding villages, they were sent to do both healing (or mission) and proclamation (or evangelism).  

We recently wrapped up what they call “commencement season.”  A commencement story that I heard a little while ago, I think, sums up what’s going on in our Scripture reading today.  It happened a few years ago at the commencement exercises at Emory University.  Now, I imagine we’ve all been to a graduation before, so we all remember how unbearable they can be, right?  They are long and they are boring for the audience and they are even worse for the graduates.  For the graduates, who have just finished years of reading, studying, writing, and testing, all they want is their diploma so they can go.  But no, now they have to wait through this unending ceremony first.  You can’t really blame them for getting a little squirrely after a while.  

At this particular graduation ceremony at Emory, they were also awarding honorary degrees.  Can you imagine?  You’re graduating from college, after years of hard work, and now they’re handing out degrees who just neat stuff with their lives.  And to top that off: they let the people getting honorary degrees make speeches.  The graduates were not exactly respectful, as you might imagine.  

That is, until Hugh Thompson got up to receive his honorary degree. Thompson was probably the least educated man on the platform.  Rather than going to college, he enlisted in the army, where he became a helicopter pilot.

"On March 16, 1968, he was flying a routine patrol in Vietnam when he happened to fly over the village of Mai Lai just as American troops, under the command of Lieutenant William Calley, were shooting dozens of unarmed villagers—old men, women, and children. Thompson set his helicopter down between the troops and the remaining civilians. He ordered his tail-gunner to train the helicopter guns on the American soldiers, and he ordered the gunmen to stop killing the villagers.  Hugh Thompson's actions saved the lives of dozens of people, and he was almost court-martialed for it.  In fact, he’d have to wait thirty years before the army awarded him the Soldier's Medal for it.

As he stood at the microphone, the rowdy student body grew still.  And Thompson used that opportunity to talk about his faith. Simple words, speaking of what his parents taught him as a child.  He said, "They taught me, 'Do unto others as you would have them do onto you.'" The standing ovation Thompson received at the end of his speech was not simply for any well-crafted words, but because of the life of the man who spoke them.  Thompson's words about his faith had weight because he lived a life proved it true.  

May we know our Savior more and more.  May we know him well enough, that by his Spirit, we might be made more and more like him.  And as we are sent into this world, may we share him through both the things that we do and the things that we say.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Family Values

Mark 3:19b-35
Third Sunday after Pentecost

Is it me, or does Jesus not seem like a very good family member sometimes?  Some other examples: over in Luke, we read about how, back when he was twelve, he disappeared for a few days and then he’s dismissive of his frantic parents.  “Why were you searching for me?  I’m in the Temple.”  Then in John, when his mother urges him to take care of their wine problem, rather than happily helping her out, he seems irritated.  

In fact, later in Luke, Jesus says straight out: “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” [Luke 12:51-53]  It’s a good thing Father’s Day is next Sunday; this isn’t a good Father’s Day text.  “Yeah Dad, I didn’t get you a card this year, because, you know, Jesus.”  

It seems strange to us that Jesus looks, not only not pro-family, but a bit down on the institution, doesn’t it?  Of course, I don’t believe that Jesus doesn’t actually love and care for his mother and his brothers and sisters.  And I believe, of course, that Jesus expects us to be faithful, supportive sons and fathers; mothers and daughters; and even faithful and supportive mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law.  Jesus has strong family values (stronger than we expect).  But what confounds us is that I don’t think Jesus means the same thing by “family” that we do.  What surprises us, shocks us even, is that the family Jesus values most is not the brothers and sisters he is, I supposes, genetically related to him—not the mother who brought him into this world—but those who do the will of God.  It isn’t that Jesus is a bad family member; it’s just that, when he talks about “family,” he’s talking about you; and that, as it turns out, is good news. 

Our Scripture lesson starts off a little abruptly today.  That’s not uncommon in Mark; that’s kind of his style.  But it’s a little more so today because the folks who translated this passage seem to have changed verses in mid-sentence.  In fact, if we had just started our reading at verse 20, we wouldn’t have known that all of this happens in Jesus’ home town.  That is actually an important aspect of our reading.  

A fascinating thing is happening so far in the Gospel of Mark.  Where we left of last Sunday at the beginning of chapter three, Jesus was making religious people angry by doing so-called “work” on the Sabbath.  The “work” he was doing was bringing healing and wholeness as an expression of the love of God.  So where we left off, Jesus was intentionally aggravating and distancing himself from the religions people; the people who should have been the first to see the presence of God at work in him.  And by the way, these are some of the same people Jesus warns today about committing an “eternal sin.”  Now, that sounds pretty harsh; and it’s meant to.  But let’s be fair: people who can’t tell the difference between the work of the Holy Spirit and the work of a demon, really ought to reevaluate some things in their lives.  

Since that story last week, a couple of other, related things have also happened.  The important religious people failed to see what God was doing in Jesus, but the average, regular folk got it.  Since then, multitudes have been flocking to Jesus to be healed by him and to see him heal others.  And then Jesus, right before our reading today, takes from his growing number of disciples, and appoints twelve that he calls “apostles,” or “ones who are sent.”  He takes twelve regular, unimportant people, and appoints them to go and do the kingdom work he was doing.  And then he went home.  

Going home is always something of a “mixed bag,” isn’t it?  After VBS is over, my family and I will make our annual pilgrimage to California to visit our extended families.  This, by the way, is our first trip back since my parents sold the house I grew up in.  They’re living in their motor home, so we’ll have to go and visit them wherever it’s parked.  And also, by the way, if you lived in a house on wheels and you could park it anywhere you wanted, why would you park it in Southern California?  Anyway, the visit will be different this time around in that way; but I’m certain, in most other ways it won’t be different at all.  My parents are going to fawn over me and my family; my mom is certainly going to cook; and my parents, at some point, are going to talk to me like I’m still 13.  They don’t mean to.  I know they also have a lot of respect for me, how I parent, and what I do for a living; but I also know that I’m also always going to be their little boy.  They are going to give me advice on things I know more than them about.  They’re going to tell me to drive safely even though I haven’t had any driving issues in decades.  They may even have me take out the trash.  I don’t mind: it’s what the “going home” experience is all about.  

The fact that this story happens in Jesus’ hometown, illustrates the larger direction that Jesus is going.  After rejecting the religious people and taking salvation to the ordinary folk who receive it—after empowering regular people to join him in that ministry—Jesus heads over to his home town.  Perhaps unfortunately, the multitudes come too.  

Living in a small town as we do, it’s not hard to imagine how this might play out: some local kid that you’ve seen grow up, comes home one day and there’s a mob following him around everywhere he goes.  Somehow the kid got famous, but it’s not just that: he’s also saying and doing unusual things; so unusual that people are starting to talk.  Now, imagine that kid is your kid.  No one wants to hear that their kid is doing unusual things, especially in a small town.  So his family went and tried to call a little “family meeting.”  Can you blame them?  

What Jesus says to his family today, considering they are understandably worried about him, seems especially dismissive and even mean.  Saying to your family that they’re not really your family is not a nice thing to say.  But in the context of the rest of Mark chapter three, we at least get an idea of where his words are coming from.  He says they are not his family because they are not acting like family.  

I’m going to be taking a trip for a few days in August with my brothers.  We’re going to take a day and raft the Arkansas River, up near Buena Vista (I know, they pronounce it Beuna Vista).  If you don’t know, I am the middle of three brothers, all born about a year apart from each.  Being so close in age, one might expect us to be emotionally close, and in many ways we are; but the three of us have never taken a trip like this before.  In fact, until recently, we’ve never even thought of taking a trip like this before.  In fact, the three of us have not been in the same room at the same time for about fifteen years.  In that time, my older brother has had a wife with chronic health issues, causing them to have financial issues, which forced them to move to Florida.  In that time, I have had three children, three miscarriages, and an ongoing battle with depression.  During that time my younger brother has had a troubled marriage that finally ended in divorce.  I reveal all this to you to make the point: to say we have not been there for each other is a profound understatement.  Each of us has had to make family where we could find it because our real family has not been there for each other.  For me, it wasn’t hard: I have church; I have siblings in ministry, parents and grandparents; but I don’t know how they’ve done it.  I guess I’ll find out.  

But here’s the thing: I know our story is tragically common.  That is the fact of the culture we live in.  Family isn’t family anymore.  We are not there for those related to us anymore; we don’t share the same values; we don’t have a common purpose.  This is a crisis of our culture, but it’s a crisis we are equipped to help fix.  Frankly, this is a crisis the church exists to help fix.  Jesus looks at the crowd sitting around him—those who had come to him for some sort of salvation—and he says, “Here is my family.”  Here are the ones who have come to him; here are the ones who will do his Father’s will and carry on his saving work.  Here is the family that will be there for you even if your family isn’t.  

Now, I’m not saying that we should not hold our own families as important; Jesus isn’t saying that either.  Jesus merely draws our attention to the spiritual family, made up of his followers; a family that is called to join him in bringing his salvation to the world; a family that might just show the families of the world what being a family is all about.  

And of course, we can’t possibly ignore that we have a unique opportunity to do just that this week.  This week we gather together as the family of Jesus to seek welcome in more family members.  I pray that we see all those that the Spirit leads to this place this week as members of our family.  I pray that, even more than learning fun songs and Bible verses, those children know that they belong here; they belong not just this week and not just in this place, but that they belong to the family of Jesus.  

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Defeating the Purpose

Mark 2:23-3:6
Second Sunday after Pentecost

Let’s start with a “full-disclosure” moment.  There is an aspect of our message this morning that involves Sabbath-keeping; and there will come a point where I will encourage you to do what the Bible tells you and keep a Sabbath.  But in full-disclosure, you should know, I am the worst at that.  It’s like having a vegetarian tell you how to cook your steak.  This is one of those “do as I say, not as I do” moments.  I don’t know if it’s a hazard of my profession or a hazard of someone who doesn’t know how to manage his time wisely, but I am consistently doing some sort of professional work on what ought to be my day off—my Sabbath.  In all fairness, you should also know that I’m working on it.  In fact, in anticipation of this sermon, I got great Sabbath rest… this week.  

I don’t make light of my lack of Sabbath-keeping.  I know that when I don’t, I am being disobedient to God’s Command, so I am trying to do what God’s Word tells me to do; but at the same time, my disobedience makes me acutely aware of why God made Sabbath-keeping a commandment.  It is a difficult thing to do.  It’s a bit like our Savior’s Command to love one another: if it were an easy thing to do, it wouldn’t need to be a commandment.  

In fact, in a way, I see those two commands as connected.  As Jesus reminds us today, Sabbath was made for humankind.  The Sabbath is not just a command; the Sabbath is a gift.  God loves you so much that God demands you take some time to not work.  If God loves you that much, how much do you suppose God loves the person next to you?  It turns out, if we understand why we take a day off, it might also help us remember why we love.  

In Jesus’ day, the religious people were very specific about what they meant by “Sabbath.”  I mean, really, really specific about what they meant by “Sabbath.”  It seems that it was a sort of a pastime for the religious scholars of the day to debate and argue over things like the precise moment that the Sabbath began and ended and what constituted “work.”  They took the Fourth Commandment, “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy,” and spent more time defining what that specifically meant than perhaps any other commandment.  

Historically, even the followers of Jesus have had a difficult time getting too legalistic with the Fourth Commandment, with the establishment of “blue laws” and things like that.  However, it doesn’t seem that most Christians are nearly as rigorous about it anymore.  Although I will say: every once in a while, I will get a letter in the mail.  It’s never from the same place and it’s never from the same person, but it always makes the same point: that we are wrong for having worship on Sundays and God is mad at us for it.  It’s never just that either: I’ve gotten to the place where I can tell it’s “one of those letters” just by the weight of it.  They come loaded with Scripture citations, with all caps and underlines, but they conveniently leave out the parts where Jesus condemns the legalism of Sabbath-keeping.  

But most of the rest of the followers of Jesus these days get it, right?  We hear Jesus when he says that the Sabbath was made for humankind and not the other way around.  We call Sunday our holy-day instead of Saturday because that is the day our Savior rose from the dead; that’s the day we want to remember and celebrate.  And what we mean by Sabbath can be all sorts of things: a morning of prayer, study and worship; a lunch with friends; an afternoon in the garden; an evening walk with your family.  We get it; whatever is restful for you is fine for you.  We get it; only, we don’t.  

I was talking with a friend the other day; a friend who doesn’t go to church, but takes Sabbath rest vastly more seriously than I do.  I was unloading on him about the stress in my life and my chronic depression and he said, “You need to get out more.”  He was right, of course, but he didn’t just stop there; he started spouting off all sorts of things I already knew.  He told me about how increased physical activity produces endorphins that make you feel better.  He told me about how taking time to do nothing is good for mindfulness.  He even suggested that spending quality time with my wife might actually be good for our relationship.  At a point, I wanted to stop him and say, “I know!” but I figured I only had the right to say it if I actually did any of this.  

We know that when the religious people criticize Jesus for not keeping the Sabbath the way they think he should, they are wrong; but we forget that, to a point, they are also right.  They are wrong because they treated the Sabbath like it was just another rule to follow, but they are right because God commanded it for a purpose.  Ironically, that purpose is defeated by treating as a rule: by making rest a rule, it turns rest into work.  But also ironically, in taking Sabbath rest too lightly, we defeat the point that Jesus was making as well.  In taking Sabbath rest too lightly, we forget that, in remembering the Sabbath, we remember the priorities of God.  Since creation itself, God has ordained a rhythm to life that involves the work that gives our lives purpose, but also rest that gives deeper meaning to those lives.  Sabbath exists because God loves us and we are important to God.  Sabbath exists so that we might take care of a person God loves, namely ourselves.  But as Jesus shows us today, Sabbath also exists so that we might remember that we are not the only people God loves.  

Jesus asks his accusers, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent.  They were silent because the answer was obvious.  The answer is, of course, it is always lawful to do good and save lives.  Sabbath is good for us because it is meant to remind us of this.  Sabbath is meant to reorient us to the priorities of God: namely humankind.  As we are gathered around this Table, we are reminded in a different way, the lengths that God will go to, in order to show us how important we are.  

God loves us and calls us to take a day off.  Take a day to reflect on the love that would lay down his life, that we might live.  Take a day to see that love in the eyes of those around you in this world as well: that person you’re not talking to; the waitress who serves you at lunch; your neighbor with the un-mowed lawn; the homeless man you walk past.  Take a day, not as a rule, but as a gift.  Take a day to remember the love that God has shown you, that you might remember to show it too.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Step into the Light

Step into the Light
John 3:1-21
First Sunday after Pentecost 

If, during the reading of our Scripture lesson this morning, you had the feeling, “Didn’t we just hear John 3:16 recently?”  Well, you’re not wrong.  John 3:16 was a part of our worship readings only a couple of months ago; and I am going to just assume that there is not a one of us who is upset by hearing it again.  Were I a betting man, I would wager that every single one of us could hear John 3:16 every day of our lives and never grow tired of it.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” See, that didn’t bother you at all.  

We love John 3:16, and rightfully so.  It gets to the heart of what we proclaim as the Gospel.  I could preach that Good News from John 3:16 for maybe a month before I started repeating myself.  I could proclaim the God that moves in love for the sake of the world.  I could proclaim the depths of that love that would even give an only son.  I could proclaim what belief in him means.  I could even proclaim a sermon around the sin we were once perishing from.  But best of all, I could proclaim the joy of the assurance we have of eternal life.  We are right to love John 3:16 and it may not be possible to hear it too often.

But I noticed something else this time around.  Maybe you’ve noticed this before too, I don’t know.  Did you ever notice that, in John chapter three, there are other verses besides verse sixteen?  I know!  It turns out, John 3 tells an entire story!  

It’s a story about a conversation between Jesus and a man named Nicodemus.  I think I noted a couple of months that Nicodemus is not a major character in the Gospel story, but that being said, he is important to us.  He’s important because in some ways, we’re a lot like him.  He’s important because, in different ways, he is who we seek to become.  He’s important because, in still other ways, he is like people we likely have near us in this world every day of our lives; people that, just like us, God so loved, even before we knew it.  

So who is this Nicodemus?  John describes him as a Pharisee and a leader of the Jewish people; later in John we’ll find out that what he meant by that is that he’s a member of the Sanhedrin; Israel’s legal system, made up of well-respected teachers, or “rabbis.”  So, we know that Nicodemus was a teacher, so well-respected that he served on the Sanhedrin.  We also know that he was a Pharisee: that he belonged to a socio-political movement, which sought to bring righteous obedience back to the nation of Israel.  In short, he was exactly like us.  

Don’t look at me like that, you know it’s true.  We may not have as much clout as Nicodemus did, but we want all of the same things he did.  We want to live in a nation that conforms to the will of God.  We want to adhere to the God’s Law and we want that for the people around us as well.  We want righteousness and justice and we will do our part to maintain it.  We want to live in a nation that seeks the will of God and lives up to the sacrifice of those valiant souls that we remember this weekend.  If nothing else, we are like Nicodemus because we seem to want everything he seemed to have wanted.  

And that even includes a deeper relationship with Jesus.  That is something in Nicodemus that we also strive to be.  Nicodemus comes to Jesus because he saw that Jesus was someone worth knowing better.  He came and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”  Now, first of all, I’m not sure who the “we” is.  Jesus had just cleared the money-changers out of the Temple with a make-shift whip; an act a Pharisee might approve of.  It could well be that he’s talking about other Pharisees.  Remember, this is early in the Gospel of John; perhaps they haven’t yet realized that Jesus is threatening their authority too.  But that’s a bit beside the point.  The point is: he comes to Jesus to get to know him better, just like we’re trying to do right now.  

Often we think of the Pharisees as the enemies of Jesus, but I think we’re right to trust Nicodemus.  If their conversation seems a bit awkward, it seems it’s only because they are talking on different levels: Nicodemus is having a conversation about religion; whereas Jesus is having a conversation about Spirit.  Those are very different conversations.  We’ll dig a bit deeper into that thought next Sunday.  For today, their conversation is awkward, but Jesus isn’t being antagonistic.  Jesus sees potential in this Pharisee.  Now sure, he comes to Jesus under the cover of night, but at least he comes.  I am convinced that Jesus doesn’t so much care how we seek him, but that we seek him.  

We were talking at our men’s group on Friday about how everyone comes to a church for the first time with a story: maybe it’s “my life is a mess,” maybe it’s “I’m on vacation,” but everyone has a story.  Because of this, when you see a new face come through our doors, you have an automatic ice-breaker: “So, what brought you here this morning;” and that’s really the way to say it.  “Why are you here?” is not really the question.  Why they came is secondary to what brought them.  We know what brought them: the Spirit brought them; we’re just trying to find out if they know it yet.  Jesus knows what brought Nicodemus; their conversation is awkward because Nicodemus doesn’t know it yet.  

Last week, as we celebrated Pentecost, we remembered the Spirit being poured out upon the disciples with the sound like the rush of a violent wind.  I can’t help but think of that when I hear Jesus say, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”  I can’t say I blame Nicodemus for not completely understanding Jesus when he talks about Spirit things; I puzzle over his words too sometimes.  Is he really saying that those born of the Spirit are blown around by the Spirit, like a leaf in the wind?  Is he really saying that, like how we don’t see where the Spirit comes from, we don’t know where we’re being blown to either?  It seems like it; and if so, what is he saying about Nicodemus?  Perhaps Jesus is telling him, in his own Spirit way, “The Spirit is blowing in you.  Just wait until you find out where it’s blowing.”  

That thought excites me more than you know.  The implications are amazing.  It means that the Spirit of God is at work, blowing through the lives of those around us in this world, before they even know it.  As you may recall from the last time we looked at this text, Nicodemus has a part to play in the Gospel story; he never exactly “steps into the light,” as it were; but he will find his place as one who believes.  I think this story not only shows us how God’s Spirit works in us—drawing us to believe even before we knew how to believe—but it also shows us what to look for as God’s Spirit blows about our world.  

I had a remarkable experience last week; I’ve told some of you about it.  It came to a head last week, but it started, I suppose, back at our workshop in February.  We’ll talk in more depth of these things next Sunday, but I sensed several important points: as a church, our heart breaks for the hurt in our community, especially for the young; we know the answer to that hurt is a faithful, welcoming community just like ours; and we detailed some ideas to bring our Savior to our community and bring renewed life to our church.  With Lou Ray’s passing, some of those ideas got a little stalled-out, but the passion and the purpose remains.  

Speaking of Lou Ray, last week I then decided that it was time for someone to start checking the church’s email regularly again.  I installed an email program to my computer, set it up to get the emails, and began the long process of sorting through a ton of junk mail.  Toward the end, was an email titled, “Youth Development and Community Connection.”  I thought, “Well they’re probably selling something,” but I was intrigued by the title.  Turns out, it was from a group that is forming a county-wide coalition to combat the very things that break our hearts in this community; the very things that we talked about at our workshop.  The email was sent on a Friday, I read it on Monday morning, emailed them back a minute later, we met in my office later that day, and I was at their meeting the next day.  That in itself was so obviously the blowing of the Spirit, but it just got better.  

I’ve met some remarkable people through this coalition.  My job so far has been to help them make inroads, as most of them are not connected with Bayfield.  They don’t have all the answers, but they’re working toward the same things we are; they are doing, in my eyes, the Kingdom work we’ve been talking about.  But here’s the thing: they’re not all followers of Jesus.  They are Nicodemus: the Spirit is blowing in them and some don’t even know it.  I mean, I look forward to telling them; they know what I do for a living, I don’t have to be bashful about it.  When they’re ready; I’m not pushy.  

In our own way, we are all a bit like Nicodemus.  But in one important way, we are not: we know where that wind is coming from.  I am convinced that, at this important time in our history, our central task is to watch for those who are being blown around by the Spirit in the same directions we are.  People who look a lot like Nicodemus: People who are drawn to and are working within our Savior’s Kingdom, even before they realize it.  These are the ones we are called to work alongside and simply show God’s love; a love for this world that would give an only Son, that all who believe in him may not perish, but have eternal life.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Scoffers Welcome


I get the same disturbing thought every year.  Maybe it’s a crisis you can relate to, maybe not.  It gets to be close to Pentecost and I have this thought: how am I going to preach about Pentecost in a way that’s different from what I said last year… and the year before that, and the year before that.  It’s a similar existential crisis to the ones I get before Christmas and Easter, but worse.  At Christmas and Easter, there are at least other versions of those stories to choose from.  We have four gospels to choose from when we want to retell the Easter story; when it comes to Pentecost, Acts chapter two is all we’ve got. 

Within certain boundaries, sermon-writing is a creative process.  When you’re involved in creating something—especially if it’s for someone else—you want it to be new, you want it to be continually creative.  You might make a great potato salad, but you’ll want to change it up from time to time, know what I mean?  I want to create something from this story that’s new, but this is the Pentecost story.  We know this story.  What could I possibly tell you about this story that I haven’t already told you over the past nine years?  We know about the sound of wind.  We know about sight of flame.  We know about the voices raised in unknown languages, giving praise to the power of God.  And we know about the scoffers who thought they were just drunk.  What could I possibly find in this story that we don’t already know? 

And then I remember: this is a story about the Holy Spirit.  Surprises is what the Holy Spirit is all about!  This story is all about God’s Spirit breaking out into our world in surprising ways!  Do you think I’m going to find something surprising in this well-worn story?  Of course I am!  Buckle up, folks; we’re talking about the Holy Spirit today!  There is never a dull moment when it comes to the Spirit. 

The thing that surprises me most about this story (at least this time through, anyways), is the scoffers; those who sneered and said, “They’re drunk with new wine.”  First, I’m surprised by how they see all this and still don’t believe.  That in itself is surprising, but what surprises me more is that it’s never surprised me before.  Over the decades of reading and studying and preaching this story, how is it that I’ve never noticed how weird it is that they just assume that this is just drunken behavior? 

I will say, in all fairness, that this is Pentecost.  Before it was the celebration of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, Pentecost was a Jewish celebration.  And as Jewish celebrations go, it was a party.  It was scheduled to follow fifty days after (hence the name) the more-somber celebration of Passover.  Whereas Passover celebrated the mighty and violent deliverance of the people out of the land of Egypt, Pentecost celebrated the providence of God through the fruit of the land.  So although it was clearly frowned upon to be drunk at nine in the morning (or maybe it’s “still drunk at nine in the morning”), it may not have been terribly unusual. 

Still, how do you witness all of the things that Luke describes—with the wind and the flames—and not see God’s hand in it?  Well, what I surprisingly realized was that they probably didn’t.  What probably happened was that they came in late to this party.  They didn’t hear the sudden sound like the rush of a violent wind.  They didn’t see divided tongues, as of fire, come and rest on the gathered disciples.  All they witnessed was talk; and as we know, talk is cheap.
There are layers of irony that follow: they scoff because, to them, these are just strange words spoken by strange Galileans; but then Peter, one of those strange Galileans, gets up to convince them otherwise by speaking to them.  Even more ironic: his proof is that these babbling Galileans are actually the embodiment of something the prophet Joel… said.  So what they witnessed wasn’t just words, but they never would have known that unless someone spoke that Truth to them.  Speaking words, as it turns out, is sometimes the action that is necessary. 

I got into an argument with a guy the other day over a quote; and yes, it did get a little heated.  He was attributing the saying “Preach Jesus, and if necessary, use words” to Francis of Assisi.  I pointed out that the saying is not found in anything that Francis wrote and he did not appreciate being interrupted.  The truth is, Francis did say a couple of things like it and I probably should have just minded my own business; but the truth also is that I like what he did say better.  What Francis did say was: "Yes, the true servant unceasingly rebukes the wicked, but he does it most of all by his conduct."  Yes, the Spirit empowers us to speak the Word of God, but that Word has weight because the Spirit also empowers us to live out the Word of God.  We proclaim the Promises of God, while at the same time, by the power of the Spirit, we are the fulfillment of the Promises of God. 

I was visiting with a saint of God that I hadn’t seen for a while the other day.  She’s been a bit homebound recently, so we needed to catch up for a while.  I really enjoyed our time together and it was good to see that she’s doing better.  She remains the gracious and brilliant woman I know her to be. 

We talked a bit about getting older and about all of the things she has survived (her word) over the past few years.  She said, “Well I guess God is keeping me around for something.”  And the thing is, when you talk to her, it’s obvious.  She was telling me about the relationships she has with the people there and the care she shows them intentionally and in Jesus’ name.  I told her, “You find a ministry everywhere you go.”  She may not be as active as she used to be, but she is aware of God’s working through her—in word and in deed—in every circumstance she finds herself.  And although I find her to be inspirational, I also know that this is how God works in all of us. 

In the Pentecost story, as the Spirit of God is poured out into the followers of Jesus, notice what happens: they speak the one message of God’s power, but they say it in different voices.  Notice that, like light through a stained glass window, the same light comes through differently through different panes of glass.  Of course the Spirit is going to inspire different ministries in each of us, we’re different people; but we recognize that it is the same Spirit. 

I’m starting a new tradition today.  I’ve put new Time and Talent Surveys in the boxes.  Historically, we’ve put them out toward the fall, at the same time we ask for financial pledges; but we decided to ask those questions separately and I decided that the question about time and talent really ought to be asked on Pentecost.  My thinking is: we’re not asking you to take a job and fill a need, we’re asking you to hear a calling.  The surveys are simply our list of needs as they apply to the operation of the church.  Because that’s how life in the Spirit works: you see a need, you know your ability to meet that need, and then the Spirit calls you to meet that need.  Peter sees a need: he sees confusion in the crowd; he probably knows better than anyone that he has never been shy to speak right up, and he knows the answer to their confusion; and so he meets that need as he stands up, by the power of the Spirit to speak.  The Spirit works something different in each one of us, but that’s how the Spirit works; both in us individually and through all of us as a church.  We see the needs around us in this world, we assess our abilities to meet those needs, and then we find our calling to speak and to do. 

I saw a need just out in front of this church the other day that just broke my heart.  I was running the bouncy house at the block party on Thursday.  By the way, that is another talent I didn’t know I had.  I’m really good at it.  If you need someone to run the bouncy house at your birthday or whatever, give me a call.  What broke my heart came toward the end of the event when we were starting to clean up.  One of the kids, about nine or ten, that I had been talking to at the bouncy house was standing about ten feet away from me with his mother and another woman.  The other woman discreetly slipped something into the hand of my new friend’s mom and I heard him say, “Mom, that’s illegal!” 

I don’t know exactly what transpired there, but I know it shouldn’t have.  She should not have been given whatever she was given and it certainly shouldn’t have happened in front of a son who somehow knew better than his mother.  My heart broke for this boy and I’ve been praying for him and his family ever since.  I pray for whatever demons plague that poor woman and I pray for wholeness and healing for them all.  But I do have hope: you see, I know that kid got invited to vacation Bible school.  Carolyn on Thursday was proclaiming the love of Jesus in a language that children can understand: she was handing out free toys.  I know that kid got one of those toys and I know he got the flier that went with it. 

I pray I see that boy here every day of VBS and then on after.  I pray he hears words about the unfailing love of God through the stories we tell him and the songs we sing.  But more than that, I pray he sees it when we’re out back playing tag.  I pray he sees those words proven true through a church that doesn’t just talk.  The world around us is right to doubt the words we speak; but the love we show will prove those words true.  Let us speak the Truth, but then let us act.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Justus League

Seventh Sunday of Easter

I have a lot of mothers in my life; and that’s a positive thing.  I have many women in my life who function in a mothering way to me and I’m grateful for them.  Some of those moms go to church with me every week.  Now, I would never say that I had favorite moms, but there are only two who actually get a card from me on Mother’s Day.  One of them is the mom I met when I was born; she’s the mom I’ve known the longest.  The other is more the mother of my children, but funny story: she almost wasn’t. 

Here’s a scandal if you like scandals: Sherry had a boyfriend when I met her.  I would never be so bold as to say I was so charming, attractive, and funny that I stole another guy’s girl, but you know me so you can do the math yourself.  The truth is, as the story has been told to me, the guy she was dating was a perfectly good guy.  It isn’t like, after meeting me, she suddenly realized what a mistake she’d made.  But, when Sherry and I met, we had a genuine chemistry and we knew there was something there; so Sherry had a decision to make.  And because the other guy was a good guy, it wasn’t an easy decision to make. 

It was a little like the decision we see played out in our Scripture reading today: she had to choose between two good choices; only Sherry didn’t flip a coin over it like we read today.  She anguished over it.  She prayed over it.  She made lists of qualities and character traits.  She sought the council of her parents; well, her mother; her father was of no help.  The way the story was told to me goes: his only input to the conversation was, “What a great problem to have!”  Not exactly the clear answer she was looking for. 

As Sherry and I were talking about this story the other day, she said, “Well, it seems I made the right choice… so far.”  Because only time will tell if she made the right choice, right?  Even when it’s a choice between two good choices, only time will tell if you’ve made the right one.  And as we look at the choice the early church made here, I can honestly say, I have no idea if they made the right choice or not; but that’s okay. 

I have to admit that I’m not entirely sure what the point of this story is supposed to be.  Obviously, it isn’t supposed to be a model for how we make decisions in the church.  I would not be okay with picking elders this way.  I’d better not find out that the Nominating Committee just narrows it down and flips a coin; that is not a reasonable discernment process. 

We read how the early church at least prayed about it, so that’s good; but flipping a coin (or whatever) is too big a gamble.  I mean, it doesn’t even seem like they’ve fully discussed the credentials of these two men, only that they were present throughout Jesus’ ministry, like any of the twelve were (although I’m not sure why that’s the criteria).  But, someone should have at least asked, “Why does Justus have so many names.” Joseph, called Barsabbas, aka Justus.  Do we really want, as an Apostle, someone who had so many aliases?  That seems suspicious.  I would have voted for Matthias just over that. 

But the bigger point of confusion for me over this story is that I’m not sure Luke’s point is in telling it.  What are we supposed to take from this story?  Is this just a historical footnote?  Are we supposed to see this as a good thing?  Are we supposed to see it as a bad thing?  Uncharacteristically, Luke doesn’t really give us any indication as to what place this story even has in the emerging story of the church. 

I need my history lessons to have a clear point.  I need to know how those historic moments shape the future.  I look back on the choice Sherry made when we met and I can clearly see the implications of that moment in history.  It should interest you too: I don’t know where I’d be today if she’d chosen differently, but I doubt my journey would have brought me here.  I look at the children I help her raise and see the importance of that moment in our history and the importance of that one choice. 

The choice of Matthias to replace Judas doesn’t seem to make any difference to anything at all.  This is the first and last time we hear anything about him.  That in itself isn’t terribly significant; there are plenty of Apostles we don’t hear much about in Acts.  More importantly, we don’t hear anything about Justus either.  Can you imagine being Justus?  His only claim to fame is being Apostle runner-up. 

I have reason to suspect that what we read about this morning is actually a mistake.  Like I said, I’m not sure that’s the point Luke is making, but this may not have been the right decision for the church.  To be fair, this happened before Pentecost; the Spirit had not yet been poured out on the followers of Jesus.  Peter had not yet begun to realize the implications of the ascended Jesus.  He had not yet begun to realize the commission of Jesus to bear witness to him in Jerusalem, in Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. 

Peter seems to be looking at things through his old, pre-Spirit point of view.  Perhaps he was remembering Jesus saying things to them like, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel [Matthew 19:28].”  So he does what he thinks is the sensible thing: he fills the vacant throne with someone like one of those that Jesus might have chosen; like someone like the rest of the twelve.  He does what a responsible leader would: he fills a seat so the organizational structure can continue. 

The problem is, as they would soon find out, that’s not often how the Spirit works.  The Spirit of God does not care about organizational structures; the Spirit cares about calling.  I think we forget that far too often.  I appreciate that people have looked on the list of Lou Ray’s roles that I put together and I appreciate that some have heard God’s call to fill in where they feel called.  That was part of the point I was making in putting the list together; but remember, that wasn’t what I asked you to do.  I asked you to pray. 

I feel we need to reimagine how we work as a church.  For too long we have all had jobs: my job is to preach; someone else’s job is to sing in the choir; someone else’s job is to make visitors feel welcome; someone else’s job is to call members when we haven’t seen them for a while.  Those are fine things to do, but the work of the church is not a job.  When these things are jobs, we wind up feeling like we can just do a thing when the Spirit nudges us to do a thing because that is someone else’s thing.

The Department of Homeland Security has a program to combat terrorism called, “If You See Something, Say Something.”  The beauty of the program, I feel, is that the title of the program is the program.  I’m instituting a similar program around here.  It goes like this: If You Feel Something, Do Something.  We should never avoid doing a thing the Spirit directs us to do because it’s someone else’s job in our organizational structure.  Now, we may need to coordinate our efforts, but no one will get upset if you feel called to join them in their calling; healthy followers of Jesus will actually embrace it. 

One wonders how this story might have gone differently, had they waited to make this decision until after Pentecost.  For all I know, maybe that’s the point Luke is making with this story.  Maybe we’re meant to add our holy imaginations to this story and envision all of the other possibilities the Spirit might have led them to.  Maybe it would go exactly like it did.  Maybe the Spirit would tell them, “You don’t need to replace Judas; embrace eleven Apostles instead of twelve, perhaps as a scar to warn against that kind of thing happening again.”  Who knows, maybe the Spirit would have led them to calling a gentile replacement and really blow their minds.  But no, they took matters into their own hands, they took care of the organizational structure of the church, but they may not have paid enough attention to the mission of the church.  So we’ll never know might have been. 

Or maybe Luke’s point in telling this story is that not every follower of Jesus gets to be famous.  I like that point.  Just because we never hear about these two men ever again doesn’t mean that they didn’t go on to live Spirit-filled lives that served Jesus.  For all we know, they went on to teach the Sunday school classes that inspired the next generation of disciples.  For all we know they were the ushers, and greeters, and choir members, and bulletin-folders that make their worship all the more inspiring.  For all we know, these two men were exactly like us.  Well, not Matthias: he got the fancy title of “Apostle.”  No, for all we know, we’re just like Justus. 

I haven’t been so excited about a sermon-title in a long time.  For all we know, we are in the Justus League: we are those followers of Jesus who, without fame, without glory, or maybe even recognition, we do what our Savior calls us to do.  May we continue to be faithful to our Master’s calling and may we celebrate our place in the Justus League in all we do and say.  May we know our Savior’s glory wherever he calls us to go.