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.