Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Taste & See

John 6:41-51
19th Sunday in Ordinary Time

To me personally, John chapter six is one of the most important chapters in the Bible.  Although it may not be as significant as, say, the accounts of the Resurrection, or that day on Pentecost, or even John chapter three for that matter, John 6 is certainly up there.  Like I said, that is my personal feeling.  You don’t have to hold John 6 in such high regard, but I think you should.  We’ll be looking at this chapter next week and maybe the next, so maybe take a few minutes to read it again this week.  The themes we find here have shaped who I am lately [by “lately,” I mean over the past few years].  What Jesus has to say to us throughout this chapter ought to mold who we are as his followers and also as his church in this world.  

Now, having said that, notice I never said I liked John chapter six.  For the record: I do not.  In fact, that’s why this chapter is so important to me: it’s made me work on my faith and how I live it out.  Here, Jesus shows us things about ourselves and about who he is that are alarming and not just a little offensive.  We’ll talk more about that next Sunday at the park; but for today, realize that Jesus is not trying to make friends here.  When Jesus offends people today, it’s on purpose.  Jesus is indeed the Bread that has come down from heaven and the Bread of Life, but he might also have reason to leave a bad taste in your mouth.  

I imagine, you don’t have the same love/hate relationship with John 6; so let us start with a brief background.  John chapter six begins with an interesting version of the feeding of the multitude.  In John’s version, Jesus, the disciples, and the multitude are out in the middle of nowhere.  Apparently, Jesus had gone out into the wilderness to get a break from the religious people—who were actively persecuting Jesus as this point—but it seems everyone (including the religious people) followed out there.  Now, the reason I mention that story is because there are two things about it that set a context for the rest of the chapter.  The first thing is bread.  

I’m sure you’re familiar with that feeding story: it got late so they started they taking stock of their food situation; and apparently, the only  person who thought to bring food into the wilderness was a child.  The only person in the entire multitude with food is some kid with five loaves of bread and two fish.  Now just as an aside, I would point out that, although that is not enough food to feed something like five thousand people, that is a lot of food for one boy.  But as you’ll also recall, Jesus takes that boy’s food and feeds everyone with twelve baskets full of bread left over.  So that story brings into chapter six, this theme of—not only bread—but abundant bread that we will hear throughout the chapter.  

There is another thing that sets a context to John 6.  We’ll talk in more about it next week, but it’s worth mentioning: before Jesus feeds the multitude, he turns his disciple Philip and asks, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?”  This freaks Philip right out because it’s meant to.  The Gospel writer tells us that Jesus asked Philip this to test him.  Jesus is trying to challenge Philip’s faith and Philip does not pass the test.  The panic-stricken Philip says, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.”  So another context that runs through John 6 is that Jesus will be testing everyone; and I mean everyone.  He will test the faith of his disciples, the gathered multitude, the religious leaders, and if we’re paying attention, even us.  In fact, if we’re paying attention, we’ll see that, even in our lesson today, Jesus is testing us.  

In our lesson today, John begins by saying, “The Jews began to complain about [Jesus] because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven.’”  Today, in Washing DC, there is a march going on.  I don’t think I know anyone in that march and I certainly don’t know what the motives are for every participant in that march; but I know there are some in that march would read that verse and say, “See.”  I know that there are some there who would distort that verse to reinforce their prejudice against Jewish people; as though Jesus would ever be okay with that.  Not only would Jesus not condemn or exclude a group of people because of their so-called race, but I think he would prefer we would take his words more personally.  Rather than hearing from Jesus only that which reinforces our stereotypes, I think Jesus would prefer we pay attention to what he’s saying to us.  

John refers to these complainers as “the Jews,” but I should point out that there isn’t anyone in John 6 that isn’t Jewish.  Jesus is Jewish, the disciples are Jewish, the crowds are Jewish, and these complainers are Jewish.”  So what is John actually saying?  Well, he probably means is “Judeans”; he’s indicating that these complainers traveled from the south, where Jerusalem is, up to Capernaum just to keep an eye on Jesus.  They travel all that way, just to complain.  So what John is alluding to is that these complainers represent the Temple; they are from the religious establishment; they are important church-going people.  They are, I’m afraid, a lot like us.  

I know: we don’t like being compared to the religious people in the Gospel story; they’re typically the bad-guys.  We’re not bad-guys; we wouldn’t have crucified Jesus, right?  Well maybe, but in retrospect we would have at least regretted it; but as religious people, we do share their “tendencies”.  If we’re not careful, we risk making their same mistakes.  We would be wise to hear what Jesus says to them as though he is speaking to us.  

John tells us that they complain about Jesus, but what is their complaint exactly?  Is it that he fed thousands?  No.  Is it, as it often is, that he does these things on a Sabbath?  It doesn’t seem so.  Does their complaint even really have anything to do with Jesus saying, “I am the bread that has come down from heaven”?  Not really.  They certainly don’t like it, but their complaint comes down to something else: they know his family.  They say, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know.  And now here he is calling himself bread from heaven.”  They are offended by Jesus, not because of anything he’s said or done.  They are offended by him because they think they know him.  “How could God possibly have anything to say through this son of Joseph?”  

We see in these religious people, something we see a lot in religious people: a tendency to practice a faith without risk.  We have our routines.  We practice our religion this week like we did last week and the weeks before that.  We fulfil our obligations.  We care for the folks we go to church with and we even like most of them.  But do we trust them?  Do we trust that God might say something profoundly new through them?  Would we follow one of these people into a new direction for the church if God actually spoke through them?  Do we trust that God would even speak through them?  

I saw a great metaphor this week when I was visiting our sister church up in Lake City on Wednesday.  They are starting the process of looking for a pastor and I am the Presbytery’s representative to them from the Committee on Ministry.  So this week, as a part of those responsibilities, I went up there to moderate their Session meeting.  It’s funny: in my thirty-some odd years of church work, I can’t say I’ve seen everything, but I’ve seen every kind of thing.  They started talking an issue they were having and a little bell went off in the back of my mind; it was kind of like the sensation you get when you hear the opening notes to a song and you realize, “Hey, I know this one.”  

They were talking about a flower garden on their church grounds and they were having trouble figuring out how to care for it.  Should they ask for volunteers?  Should they try to hire somebody?  Should they just let it go fallow for now?  As they were debating, I asked a question that I thought was terribly insightful.  They didn’t notice how insightful it was and I’m afraid you won’t either; that’s why I’m telling you.  As they were talking about how to care for this garden I asked, “Well, who used to do it?”  They told me about this lady (we’ll call her “Martha”) who used to coordinate everything—she had an entire team of helpers—but then “Martha” had to move away.  I don’t know the “Martha” or the garden in question, but I knew all those things before I asked; I’ve seen it before.  

You see, “Martha” started this garden and this was “Martha’s” baby.  Everyone loved the garden and “Martha” for tending to it; but now “Martha” is gone and no one is brave enough to touch “Martha’s” baby; no one is brave enough to seek a new purpose for “Martha’s” garden; so now, they have an unattended garden, overrun with weeds; and their Session can’t pinpoint what to do.  

I didn’t feel it was my job to make their decisions for them, but the solution to me was obvious and awful.  They don’t need to walk away and let it go wild.  They don’t even need to hire someone to care for it.  What they need is trust.  What they need is siblings in Christ who can trust each other enough to hear God’s calling and mission through this crisis.  Because it’s going to take more than just volunteers; because something is going to go wrong.  It’s going to be my day to water and I’m going to show up and find out you’ve already done it.  Do I love and trust you enough to find out why?  Will I just bail on the project and let you be the new “Martha,” or will I hear your apology and listen to your story; maybe a story about a neighbor, who never goes to church, but likes to tend to gardens, and this was a window.  

I love that garden metaphor because I think it speaks to the obvious and awful truth about being a part of the Body of Christ, the Church: that it is all about our relationship with one another.  Relationships are complicated, and messy, and they can sometimes hurt.  Having the love for one another that allows that complicated, messy hurt to then strengthen our relationships is what makes it worth it; but it takes work.  It takes trust.  Trust in one another, but trusting more in the Bread of Heaven, who nourishes us for eternal life.  A nourishment that sometimes comes in the form of the people you call “your church.”  

Let us not be like the religious people of Jesus’ day.  Let us not be so comfortable in what we think God is doing that we neglect to see it even in those next to us.  Let us have eyes that are open, ears that will listen, and spirits that will be fed by our Risen Savior.  And may the world around us see the life-giving Bread of Heaven alive and at work in us and among us.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018


Ephesians 4:1-16
18th Sunday in Ordinary Time 

Often, when I come up with sermon titles, I do it maybe weeks or even months ahead of time.  I base them on a preliminary study of the Scripture lesson, what I discern might be something God is trying to say to us through it, and something hopefully clever that gives a hint about what the message will be about.  But then sometimes, somewhere along the line, the Spirit changes things on me; sometimes at the last minute.  With that in mind, you can make the following correction to your bulletin: the actual title of this sermon is “Therefore.”  [The original title was “The Adult Table,” because I was drawn to the maturity theme of vv. 11-16.  Clearly, God had other plans.]

I like the word “therefore.”  It sounds a little silly to use “therefore” in casual conversations, but it’s a good word.  Maybe we should throw it into sentences like, “My wife came home from her trip on Saturday, therefore, I spent most of Friday cleaning the house.”  It’s kind of an old timey word, so we use words like “so” instead; but wouldn’t “therefore” have sounded just a bit more classy?  Seems like the only time I regularly run into the word “therefore” is in the Bible, especially in the letters of Paul.  

It’s right there in the beginning of our reading today, where Paul says, “I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.”  I had a professor in seminary that used to say a thing that maybe you’ve heard before too: when you see a “therefore,” find out that the “therefore” is there-for.  It’s a cute little pneumonic, but it reminds us that context is important; “therefore” tells us that this is a continuation of something else.  The thing before us is a result of something that came before it; so we ought to look into what that was.  

We will, of course, explore the context of what Paul is saying in a moment, but something related to that comes to mind: we are a “therefore” in this world.  Do you ever think about that?  I hadn’t, really; that’s why the title got changed.  We, who have received the boundless grace of our Risen Savior are now a “therefore” in this world.  Something has set a context for our very lives; something has come before our being here today, together.  That, of course, is the dying and rising of Jesus.  We are, therefore, set free in this world to live the lives we are saved and called to live.  As we are sent into this world, the question we must keep asking ourselves is, as you might expect: what are we therefore there for?  

So what is the context of Paul’s “therefore”?  As the Book of Ephesians enters what is its second half, this “therefore” actually refers to everything that comes before it.  This is common in Paul’s writing style; you’ll find this kind of thing in most of his letters.  Whether he’s writing to help a church with some sort of crisis or he’s just writing (as he is in Ephesians) to help a church be the church, he usually follows the same pattern.  In the first part of the book, he proclaims and teaches the Good News through Jesus Christ alone; and then in the second part, he talks about what you might want to do with this very Good News.  As we’ve talked about in this series, the first three chapters are all about God.  It is God who loves us more than we can imagine.  It is God who has, in Jesus, reconciled us back to God, and not ever anything we could have done to earn it.  It is God, who calls us into a new eternal family.  And it is God’s Spirit that is always present with us to lead us, to strengthen us, and to remind us of our eternal hope.  Three chapters about the abundant, unfathomable grace and love of God; and then three chapters, beginning with chapter four, about what to do with that gift we’ve received.  It turns out, these final chapters of Ephesians are really what the book is about.  That is, again, Paul’s style: the ending, practical part is the point Paul is getting at and the first, theological part is the argument for it.  

This sermon, by the way, the end of this series on Ephesians.  If this seems like an abrupt place to stop, rest assured, it is on purpose.  We end here, for a couple of reasons.  You can think of the first reason like this: remember when you were young and still in school?  Do you remember wondering during class sometimes: will this be on the test?  It’s as if, you’re about to take a test, say, on the Revolutionary War.  You know very well that this test is only going to be about the names of the central figures, the names of the important places, and the dates when important things happened.  It’s a memorization test.  But then in the class before the test, your teacher keeps going on about the theologians and philosophers who shaped the minds of the founding fathers; about the economic and political climates of the day.  Nothing that is helpful for remembering names and dates.  None of that is going to help you choose between right and wrong answers on a test.  But then again, that information might be helpful to those who want to be responsible members of a democratic society.  That is a different kind of test; that is a big picture kind of test.  In the big picture, the dates and names are not nearly as important as the influences and the reasons; but even in faith we do lose sight of the big picture sometimes. 

Sometimes we read the letters of Paul and we get hung up on “part two.”  We read Paul’s instructions about what it means to live as a faithful follower of Jesus as if they are like names and dates to be memorized.  I can’t help but imagine how annoyed Paul, a reformed Pharisee, would have been with us in that.  He spends half a book talking about the free life and grace that we’ve received in Jesus alone, and we focus on the last part like they are rules to follow.  

So we’re stopping the series here, before we can get too distracted; before we start telling each other about how wives and husbands and children ought to treat each other.  And besides, in our reading today Paul shows us all we need to know.  “Lead a life,” Paul says, “worthy of the calling to which you have been called.”  Simple.  It’s good to keep it simple, even if rubs against our urges to have rules.  

Speaking of which, I’ve been trying to brainwash you lately.  You may not have noticed because I do try to keep my mind control subtle; but today I’m done being subtle.  Throughout this series, I’ve been throwing a phrase in every week (often several times) in the hopes that it will get stuck in your head like a catchy tune.  My hope is that, as you hear this phrase repeated again and again, the Spirit will stir something in you like it has been stirred in me.  My hope is that this simple phrase will sound to you as a fitting description of who we are.  That we, as a church, are a people who simply seek and serve Jesus.  Simple: we seek and we serve Jesus.  I see that as an adequate and accurate description of our mission.  We may not need it embroidered on our shirts, but we should probably write it down somewhere: we are a church that seeks and serves Jesus.  

We seek Jesus in the ways you’d expect: in our study of Scripture, in our prayers, in our worship, and in our fellowship; and then we serve.  The serving is the “therefore” part.  The seeking sets a context for, simply put, everything we do to “Live a life worthy.”  It’s everything we do, as a gathered people of God, that proclaims and embodies God’s love.  You know, all of those things we wear our shirts to.  It is everything we do as faithful followers of Jesus even throughout our lives.  We serve Jesus as we make every effort to maintain our unity in the Spirit.  We serve him as we use the gifts that we have been given as a church and throughout our lives.  We serve him as we lovingly speak the Truth to one another and to the world around us.  We serve him as we recognize and care for our Savior’s Body, here in this place.  

Being the church that Jesus calls us to be is deceptively simple: we simply strive to seek and serve Jesus.  But of course, it isn’t always that simple is it?  That’s why we return to this Table again and again.  Here we are reminded of the “therefore” that shapes what we do and who we are.  Here we remember the Savior who gave of his body and his blood, so that we might, therefore, be his Body in this world.  

Remembering the love, the mercy, and the life eternal that gathers us here, let us, therefore, live lives that indeed are worthy of the calling to which we have been called.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Ask and Imagine

Ephesians 3:14-21
17th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Like many of you, I suppose, I have more technology in my car than I had in my entire house growing up.  I mean, just the CD player alone, but the computers are faster than the ones that put people on the moon!  It has things like a USB port and Blue Tooth so I can add technology to my technology.  My car has a device built into the dashboard that connects it to satellites in space; in space!  I can plug in an address of anywhere in North America (Canada, US, Mexico), and this device will plot the most direct route to that exact spot.  Not only that, it will show me on a map, right there on the dashboard, a blue line that connects where I am to where I’m going!  Not only that, if I miss a turn for some reason, it will either figure out the best way to get back to my route, or it will figure out a completely new route!  Not only that, I don’t even have to look at the map.  There is a calm, woman’s voice that comes on to tell me what my next turn is and far until I have to make that turn.  And not only that, this device will show me how far I have yet to go until I make my destination and about what time I’ll get there.  

I don’t know if it’s such technological advancements or if it’s just our human nature, but I think sometimes we expect the same service in our life together in Christ.  I believe Jesus has called me to help lead His Church, but I can tell you: He did not give me a Church Leadership GPS.  I think the other Elders in this church would tell you the same.  I’ve heard the Bible referred to by things like “roadmap for life.”  It’s pleasant imagery, but it’s not exactly true.  If anything, it’s more like a compass: it will tell you which way is north; but you still need to figure out your way through the forest.  Don’t get me wrong, the Bible does help with that too, just not as directly as we’d like; God does not guide us turn-for-turn.  The Bible does, however, remind and point us toward the One who can help and guide us.  The Bible reminds us today that, by the Spirit of our Risen Savior, we have access to a source of strength and insight that is beyond all we could ask or imagine.  All we need to do, then, is to remember to ask and imagine.  

Once upon a time, in a faraway land, there lived an emperor named Constantine.  He is remembered in a variety of ways, as history often does, depending on who is doing the remembering.  He ruled from 306 AD to 377 and he’s generally remembered for bringing stability and religious tolerance to the Roman Empire.  Christians remember him fondly for this: it was Constantine who officially ended the state persecution of the followers of Jesus, allowing the faith to freely travel to the ends of the known world.  That’s the good news.  The bad news (possibly) is that he didn’t stop there.  

His mother was a follower of Jesus (many think Constantine was one too), which might explain why he seemed to show our faith a certain favoritism.  In fact, he did quite a lot to not only legitimize Christianity, he also did quite a bit to get us organized too.  You may have heard of the Council of Nicaea, where the Nicene Creed comes from.  Here, they had long discussions about “orthodoxy;” which beliefs about Jesus were in and which ones were out.  Because of what Constantine started, about 55 years later, Christianity would be declared the official state religion of the entire Roman Empire.  

Now, I go back and forth about whether or not this was a good idea.  On the one hand, we weren’t being arrested anymore, we weren’t having our property confiscated, we weren’t being fed to lions and such; so there is a positive side.  The Roman Empire provided an opportunity for the easy spread of the Good News to most of the world; an even more positive side, I suppose.  But as we find ourselves today in a world that is increasingly suspicious and even hostile toward the institutionalized Christianity, I wonder if the last almost-1700 years have properly prepared us for this moment.  Do we even remember how to be the church when we are not the dominant faith?  Don’t get too worked up just yet: we’re still “top of the charts” worldwide; but we also lose ground every day.  Ours is not the state religion it once was.  Even if you like to believe that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, you have to face the fact that it isn’t anymore.  Do we remember how to be the church without also being an institution?  

You may have noticed, throughout this study of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, I’ve been pointing out that it was written well before Constantine; probably around 60 AD, so around 250 years before Constantine.  I think, as we read this book, that it’s important for us to remember this point.  Paul is writing to a church before it was anything like an institution.  He’s writing to a church just trying to be the church: followers of Jesus, who are simply striving to seek and serve Jesus.  He is writing to the church before it was the dominant religion in the world; and perhaps he has something to teach us that is more important than being a dominating institution.  

Our reading this morning begins with the words, "For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name."  Before the church was “organized,” before it started thinking it had all the answers, before it was an institution, it followed Paul’s lead and prayed for God’s guidance.  Paul prayed that we might be strengthened by the Spirit; that Jesus might abide with us as we are rooted and grounded in his love.  He prayed that we might have an understanding of God’s love that comes from God alone.  Indeed, he prayed that we might be filled with all the fullness of God.  He prayed because he knew that we can only get ourselves so far, but by the power of God, at work in us, we can do “abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.”  

At our Friday morning men’s group, we talked a bit this week about worship.  We decided that people seem to seek two extremes in worship.  There are those who seek the experience of God.  These are your more-Pentecostal types.  For them, a “successful” worship experience is determined by how it made them feel the presence of God.  And then there are those who seek the knowledge of God.  These are folks who, to be honest, are a lot more like me.  For them, a “successful” worship experience is determined by how it made them think; what they learned about God.  I think we agreed on Friday that neither extreme is really what worship ought to be about, but more a blending of the two.  Good worship is marked by a deeper knowledge of God, but in the way that Paul talks about today: through the experience of God’s presence with us; a presence that teaches us things that goes beyond what we might come to intellectually.  In other words, if our goal, as we seek and serve Jesus, is first to be strengthened and led by the Spirit, the decisions we make together, might surprise us.  The things we find ourselves called to do and be, might or might not be things we’d come to on our own.  

For example, we have a decision to make in a little bit.  We’ve called a Congregational Meeting to answer a question, so we’re going to take a vote (as good Presbyterians should).  Honestly, I have no horse in this race: as moderator, I wouldn’t vote even if I had strong opinions one way or another, but I don’t.  But as members of this congregation, you not only get a voice and a vote, you are obligated to make a choice: yea or nay, it’s up to you.  But let’s talk about that choice: is it a choice between making a right decision or a wrong decision, or is it something else?  As we seek to be the church that our Savior calls us to be, Paul reminds us that there is a different, more important question to be answered.  Beyond making decisions that make sense to us intellectually, beyond making decisions that feel right, today we are challenged to ask, “How can we seek the will of God in this?  What does God want us to do?  What do we imagine God will accomplish through whatever decision we come to today?”  

Today’s vote may not be the most important vote we ever take, but it is certainly good practice.  As we strive to be the Christ’s Church in this world, let us first seek his Spirit’s presence as we pray.  And as we pray, may we see the glory of him who, by the power at work within us, is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Aliens Welcome

Ephesians 2:11-22
16th Sunday in Ordinary Time

I am, as many of you may know, an alien.  For those who didn’t know, well now you know.  Of course, I’m not admitting that I’m from outer space; I would never admit to being from outer space.  What I mean is that I am originally from somewhere else; like a lot of you are.  As I like to say when people find out I was raised in southern California: “You’ve got to be from somewhere.”  

That’s actually one of the many things I like about this town: almost everyone is an alien from somewhere else, just like me.  Being a pastor can sometimes be a bit alienating (pun intended).  I really came to realize that in my former call.  Del Norte was a fine place to live, but I would have always been an outsider there.  Had I lived the rest of my life there, I would still have been from somewhere else.  They weren’t mean about it and they certainly didn’t treat me differently on purpose, but almost everyone else was from there.  

One of the great things about Bayfield, for me at least, is that most folks here are aliens just like me.  Now, if you are from Bayfield, you might have a different attitude about it; you might feel a bit invaded by all of us aliens.  I mean, I hope not; I hope we make your lives better; I hope the rich cultures of places like California and Texas enrich your existence.  And hopefully, on a more spiritual level, we might be a good reminder to you that we were all aliens once; at least when it comes to our relationship with God.  Without the grace of God in Jesus, who has torn down the wall dividing us from God and one another, we would still be far off.  I would hope that we here would remind one another that here everyone is welcome; that here, we embrace and live out God’s new reality; that although we may all be from somewhere, our new reality is that we are all now citizens of heaven; and together, we are formed into the very dwelling place of God.  

We continue today in our brief series into the first part of the Book of Ephesians.  As I mentioned last week, I feel this book is important for us to look at right now for a couple of reasons: first, Paul’s letter to the Ephesians seems to just be instructions to a church just trying to be the church.  There is no false teachings to be corrected, there is no schism to be healed.  Unlike most of Paul’s other letters, this church is not in crisis.  It is a church a lot like ours: trying to be the church that Jesus intends for us to be.  

Which leads to the other reason why this letter is so important for us right now: what Paul meant by the word “church” is not entirely the same thing that we might mean.  In fact, if we were we to talk to Paul about the church in Bayfield (or, “churches” really) it would probably make him very confused.  We might talk of the Catholic church, or the Baptist church, or the Foursquare church, or the several Churches of Christ; we could give detailed directions for how to get to each one, and Paul would stare at us dumbfounded.  

The church that Paul wrote to in Ephesus was not a place it was a people.  The church Paul wrote to was not yet an institution, it was not yet even an organized religion, really; it was simply a movement.  It was the Good News of a Risen Savior, taking hold of hearts and lives and changing the world, one heart and life at a time.  Before it became buildings and budgets, the church was what Jesus left it to be: people simply called to seek and serve Jesus.  This is the church we strive to be.  This is the church our world needs us to be.  

So to help us better understand what it means to be this church, today Paul points out the elephant in the Ephesian’s room, as it were.  It was an elephant that showed up in a lot of the rooms the early church met in.  Although it does not seem to be an elephant that was causing many problems in Ephesus, it often did elsewhere.  That elephant was, of course, the friction that came with being a church of cultural differences.  As you know, church was born out of the Jewish faith, through Jewish people, and at first, with Jewish practices.  And you also know, it very quickly did not stay that way.  The message of hope, proclaimed of a Risen Savior, very quickly also took hold in the lives of non-Jewish people.  By the Holy Spirit, the message of Salvation quickly moved throughout the known world.  So the early church quickly had to figure out how all of these diverse, alien people fit together in what God was doing in the world.  Well it turns out, what God was doing, was what God had always been doing.  

Last week, I had a word of the day.  That word was “lavish”.  Last week “lavish” described the love and mercy of God that Paul talked about in the opening verses of Ephesians.  We see that same lavish love echoed here: notice that the peace Paul talks about has nothing to do with anything we’ve done.  We didn’t reconcile ourselves to God.  We didn’t even reconcile ourselves to one another.  All of that is God’s lavish gift, given in Jesus.  

Which brings me to today’s word of the day—a word that the Apostle Paul would have been very familiar with: “shalom.”  You may know the word “shalom,” it’s a Hebrew word.  If you’ve ever visited the Holy Land or met someone who spoke Hebrew, “shalom” is (on one level) how they say “howdy.”  One could say that “shalom” means “peace,” but it means so much more.  The Old Testament describes God as Shalom, so in a sense, it’s a name of God.  “Shalom,” in its fuller sense, means peace; but it also means harmony, wholeness, completeness, prosperity, welfare, and tranquility.  I think “shalom” is the Hebrew word Paul has in mind when he writes to us about peace.  It is that same gift of healing and wholeness that God has had in mind for creation since the beginning.  The shalom we find in Jesus is the restoration of what God has had in mind all along.  

I mentioned during “God Sightings,” wearing my shirt to a meeting the other day.  What I didn’t mention was what the meeting was about.  Over the past few months, I’ve been meeting with people from all over La Plata County who want to reduce problem behaviors, especially among young people.  These meetings include health care workers, social workers, non-prophets, teachers, librarians, and even just concerned citizens; all coming together to work towards making our communities healthier.  What I don’t see much at these meetings are other church people.  I’m working on it; I’ve made some invitations, but getting pastors to meetings like these is like herding cats.  

I know why.  The problem is it seems like just another meeting, and pastors have a lot of meetings.  The problem is, when you go to one of these meetings, no one seems to be led to Jesus or joining the church.  The problem is, we’ve lost sight of what it means to be the Church our Savior calls us to be.  If the church is a building where a few of us gather once a week, then working to make the community healthier is not our job; if the church is a place, then our job is to maintain the place.  But if the Church is people, living in the reality of the shalom we share between God and one another, then bringing that shalom into this world is central in what we are called to do.  

Don’t get me wrong: I love this place.  I love the 120 year-old heritage that we celebrate this year.  Did you know I keep a model of this church in my front yard?  They were looking for it on the 4th of July and I guess no one knew that it had gotten moved to my house a couple of years ago.  It’s getting a little run-down, so we need to give it a little love before Heritage Days, but I love having it there; I love it because I love this building and what it represents.  But let’s be clear: this building is not the dwelling place of God, you are.  You who were once far off, aliens and strangers, now carry the very shalom of God with you, wherever you go.  May the Spirit of God work in us to bring that same peace, healing, and wholeness as we seek to be the Church our Savior calls us to be.  

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.