Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Harassed and Helpless

Matthew 9:35-10:23
June 18, 2017

            Harassed and helpless.
Hapless and hopeless.
Harried and hurried.
Hurting and haggard.
Heartbroken and heartsick.
The villages and the cities were filled with all of these. People pushed and pulled by life and circumstance. People sick and getting sicker. People surviving but only just. People loving their children and children loving their parents. People working hard, trying to care for their families. People trying to make it, just make it, without harming others and without bringing harm on themselves.
Keeping their heads down.
Hands to the plows.
Noses to the grindstones.
But still the world or life or existence plays by its own rules. People get sick and sicker. People are pushed and pulled. Hard work doesn’t always take care of a family. Love is not always returned.
People are harassed and helpless. Hapless and hopeless.
Harried and hurried. Hurting and haggard.
Heartbroken and heartsick.
Jesus saw this. He saw this in every village and in every city that he visited. He saw the people, harassed and helpless, and he had compassion for them. They were like sheep without a shepherd.
How many of you are feeling harassed and helpless today? How many of you are here just trying to hang on from whatever storms are buffeting you beyond these doors? I feel that way. I feel harassed and helpless. From the valleys of daily living, from personal circumstances, but even more by the circumstances of our world.
Two mass shootings this week, and I’m sure there were more that I have not seen reported. A terrible, horrific fire in London; a city which has already endured a terrorist attack along with the terrorist attack in Manchester a few weeks ago. The anguish so many are feeling over the acquittal in the Philando Castile case in St. Paul. So many people hurting. So many people angry. So many people sick and getting sicker. I cannot seem to shake this feeling of being harassed and helpless, hapless and hopeless. From city crowds to small towns, it seems as though we are sheep without a shepherd. My heart cries out, “We could use some compassion, Jesus. We could use a shepherd.”
But Jesus did not only feel compassion for the people, so harassed and helpless, so hapless and hopeless, harried and hurried. He acted on his compassion. He was God’s hands and heart and arms and feet and mouth and mind. But even the Good Shepherd could not shepherd so many. He told the disciples,
“The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
The disciples were his laborers. Although this took place before the Great Commission that we read last week, this is all part and parcel of what the disciples were called to do at this moment and in the future. Later on in this passage, the disciples were given specific directions to:
“As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.’”
There is much more to this passage than I am focusing on, more that should be contemplated. But for this morning, I have narrowed it to these beginning verses. Jesus called the disciples to labor, but the labor did not end with them. Each generation has called new laborers. We are descendents of those disciples, and we are inheritors of the call. I cannot claim that I have ever managed to do anything that Jesus commanded, other than proclaim the good news about the kingdom coming near. I’m not sure I’ve even done that all that well. I certainly have not cured the sick, raised the dead, cleansed the lepers or cast out demons.
Have you?
But that does not mean that we are not still called to labor, to go into that plentiful harvest. We are called as the disciples were called to shepherd the harassed and the helpless, even as we are also harassed and helpless.
Here is the funny thing about following Jesus’ call to be a laborer, to shepherd the lost sheep. When we reach out with compassion, even as we need compassion, miracles do happen. You can be dead in spirit and dead in your soul and yet your body lives on. But someone showing compassion, someone reaching out to you – another harassed and helpless person offering a hand – might give you new hope and new purpose. Isn’t that raising someone from the dead?
Every week, every day we pray for people who are sick. Sometimes they become well. Sometimes they don’t. But compassion can change a heart. It can open up the way to reconciliation. It can heal old hurts and provide a balm to wounds that run deep, or soften invisible scars.
What about those lepers? Lepers were not only diseased. They were outcast. They were segregated and separated from the community. Who are the lepers who need to be cleansed? Who are the unclean in our midst? Are they the mentally ill, the homeless, the out of work and out of luck? Are they the ones ignored by society? Is a leper the least of these that Jesus spoke of, the ones who are oppressed or forgotten? How can our compassion cleanse them? How can our compassion bring them back into community, into relationship? How can our compassion bring them home?
            And what do we do with this talk of demons? Does Jesus call us to perform exorcisms or is it more about giving people space to and permission to acknowledge and confront the demons that possess them? What possesses you? Is it anger? Envy? Fear? I may not believe in demons in the way they were believed in Jesus’ context. But I know this, depression is a demon. Anxiety is a demon. They are cruel demons that can cripple. But showing compassion, offering compassion, being compassionate can help to drive those demons out.
            At one time or another, all of us feel:
            Harassed and helpless.
            Hapless and hopeless.
Harried and hurried.
Hurting and haggard.
Heartbroken and heartsick.
We are like sheep without a shepherd. But Jesus looked at those people and he had compassion for them. He looks at us and has compassion for us. He acted on his compassion. He called the disciples to do the same.
So we are also called: to be his discples, to be his laborers, to go into a plentiful harvest, with compassion and with love.

Let all God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

An Honest Failure

            I recently watched a TED talk given by one of my heroes, Anne Lamott. She made a statement, and I paraphrase, “Think about how crappy you’ll feel if you don’t write what tugs at your heart.”

            I don’t want to feel crappy, not about that anyway. So here is one of the many things that has been tugging at my heart. When it comes to ministry, I am a failure. No, I am not stating that to gain your sympathy or empathy or make you argue with me. I am not looking for feedback or pushback. This is not a self-deprecating, feeling sorry for myself kind of piece. Yes, I am discouraged. I am frustrated. I am tired and worn-out and weary and exhausted with the effort of trying everyday. I’m just exhausted at trying not to be a failure, when I know full well that I am.

            I’m serving on a search committee at the Synod level, and our task is to call a new executive to lead the Synod. For those of you unversed in Presbyterianism, the Synod is a mid-council. It is one of the governing bodies between a congregation and the General Assembly. Because I am on this committee, I have been reading PIFs from potential candidates. PIF’s are Professional/Pastoral Information Forms, i.e. resumes for ministry folks. The first question in the narrative section of the PIF asks the candidate to describe a time when they have felt successful or a sense of fulfillment.

            Let me tell you, these candidates seem to have no problem describing their successes. Their accomplishments and achievements are many and wonderful. Non-profits have been built. Faltering organizations have been restructured. Struggling churches have been turned around and brought back from the brink. Budgets have changed colors from red to black. Loving, well-organized teams have been created out of disparate individuals. And it would seem that the kingdom has been furthered through every action taken, every decision made.

            I’m not mocking these candidates. Their achievements are real. But when I think about how I would answer this question, I cannot come up with those same kinds of answers. In fact, I wish that there were a question that asked about our failures. I think a question like that might allow a candidate to be more honest. At least it would allow me to be more honest. When it comes to my belief that I am a failure in ministry, I am not writing this on an impulse. I have been struggling with this for a long, long time.

            To say that I am a failure in ministry does not mean that I don’t have strengths. I do. I know them. I am a good preacher. I have my down days and my off days, absolutely. Not every sermon I have ever preached has been golden, but when I am good, I am very, very good. My sermons challenge, and they make you think. Sometimes they make you feel warm and fuzzy; yet other times they might make you squirm uncomfortably in your seat. I’m okay with that. The gospel makes you squirm. It makes me squirm too.

            I am good at sitting with people who are dying. I am good with children. I am good at teaching. I am good at listening. If you are wrestling with your faith, with doubt; if you feel lost and alone in a wilderness, then talk to me, because I have felt the same way. I am good at irreverence. I am good at holding your hand and not saying anything, just being there.

            But I am not good at “growing a church.” I am not good at evangelism. I am not good at drawing in new members. I am not good at starting new programs and seeing them take off. I am not good at filling the seats at worship. I am not good at contemporary worship. I am not good at making people feel self-satisfied and content with where they are in their faith. I am not good at making faith easy. It isn’t easy. At least it isn’t easy for me. I wish it were.

I see others whose faith seems to hinge on Jesus’ words in John’s gospel about being “born again.” They seem to just know exactly what God wants of them. I realize that is in part because of their more literal reading and interpretation of scripture. I don’t interpret scripture literally. But the difference goes deeper than that. My faith does not rest on being born again. My faith turns on Jesus’ words about “the least of these.” What you do to the least of these, you do to me. How do I care for the least of these? How have I missed opportunities to care? How have I failed them? When have I remained silent in the face of injustice when it comes to the least of these instead of speaking truth to power? Faith is not easy when you take seriously Jesus’ words about the least of these.

            I am not good at proclaiming salvation, because to me faith is more about compassion now than salvation later. I am not good at preaching the hell I learned about as a kid, because I think we create our own hell on earth. I am not good at blaming God for the evils and ills we see all around us. I do not believe God allows evil to happen, we do. I am not good at telling people what they want to hear. I am not good at that. I know that not all successful pastors with large and growing churches just say what people want. It is beyond unfair of me to make that generalization. But they seem to know something I don’t. They seem to have some ability or knowledge or skill set that I lack.

            I am good at a lot of things. But the things a church needs to be successful today, the qualities in a pastor that attract others, I don’t seem to have those. I am not looking for pity or reassurance. I just needed to say it. I needed to say that when it comes to successful ministry, I have failed. I fail. Yet like Sisyphus pushing that damn boulder up the hill, I’ll keep trying. Maybe tomorrow or next week or in 2019 I’ll finally feel like I have ministry all figured out. I’ll be successful, and I won’t be a failure anymore. 

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Always -- Trinity Sunday

Matthew 28:16-20
June 11, 2017

            When I was in seminary, I was studying with some friends for a quiz on the gospels for our Bible survey class. We were reading through these last verses in Matthew’s gospel, because it was a sure bet that the Great Commission was going to be a question on the quiz. A fellow student said that whenever she read these last words of Jesus to the disciples, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age,” she just wanted to throw up her arms and cry, “Yay!!!!”
            I understand how she felt because I feel the same. Honestly, if it weren’t for those last words, I think I would dread reading the Great Commission much more than I already do. Yes, you heard me correctly. Dread.
            I guess I could try to explain that by reviewing hundreds of years of church history and examining how this passage has been used to justify colonialism, forced conversions, making them, the other, into our image. I could pounce on Jesus’ use of the word “authority,” and talk about our misuse of authoritarianism and the damage that it has done to so many people in so many places; and the damage that it still does.
            But while I think honest discussions about these topics are vital and important, that’s not where my sense of dread comes from with this passage – at least not at this moment. So often this passage has been interpreted as Jesus commanding the disciples to go out and do what is known in the sales world as “cold call.” I am the worst sales person ever when it comes to making a cold call. This is my technique.
“You wouldn’t want to buy whatever the product is that I’m selling, would you? No? I didn’t think so. Thank you and have a nice day.”
As a new pastor, I served briefly on the nominations committee for the presbytery. I was a disaster, because I felt the same dread asking people I didn’t know to serve on a committee I wasn’t sure about as I did trying to sell strangers a product.
“You wouldn’t be interested in serving on COM would you? No? Okay. Thanks.”
Cold calling for whatever purpose and in whatever circumstance is not my gift, my strength, or my forte. If the Great Commission is a call to hand out tracts door-to-door, that’s fine, but y’all go on ahead. I have to go the bathroom and I’ll catch up with you in a little while. (Psst. I won’t catch up with you. Ever.)
I realize that I am setting myself up for a very tense session meeting after worship, so let me offer another interpretation of these last verses in Matthew’s gospel. Jesus told his remaining followers to go and make more disciples in all the nations of the world. Make them through baptism in the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach them to obey the commandments that he taught. And Jesus told them, before you become too overwhelmed or too daunted by this task, know this, you are not doing this alone.
“I am with you always to the end of the age.”
Some may hear this and interpret it as going door-to-door with tracts, and that is fine. That is their calling. But it seems to me that while Jesus was very specific about the necessity to make disciples, to make them in every nation and to do so through baptism and teaching, the means was not necessarily spelled out. If we want to understand how to make disciples, perhaps we need to look at how Jesus made disciples.
Yes, much to my introverted soul’s horror, he called strangers. He walked up to fishermen and said,
“Follow me.”
But he also talked to people. He healed them. He sat at table with them. He ate with outcasts and outsiders. He listened to them. He touched the untouchables and he broke the barriers between who was welcome and who was not. He even let children come to him and blessed them – something that other rabbis may not have had time for. Jesus loved people. Jesus created relationships with people. He made God’s love real and visible and tangible to the most broken and hurting. He invited any and all to sit at table with him, and he embodied the truth that love is not a limited, finite resource. The more love is given the more love grows.
Jesus was God’s living, breathing, walking, talking embodiment of love in the world.
Jesus, God’s love in the world, sent the disciples, that ragged, motley crew, out … out into the world to love others, to welcome others, to invite others to the table, to call all of God’s broken and beautiful people to hear the Good News of the gospel, to teach them, to baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
In just a few minutes, we will baptize little Bailee. This is the beginning, the first step of her journey of discipleship. When I met with her parents this week, we talked about what it means to baptize babies, and I said that one of the main reasons we do this as Presbyterians is because we believe that God’s grace works in our lives whether we realize it or not. This is true for us as babies, children, and as adults. God’s grace works in our lives whether we know it or not.
While I may not always recognize God’s grace in the moment, what I do know is that the times I have experienced God’s grace, God’s love, God’s care most profoundly is through other people. When I have felt the healing hands of Christ, it has been through the hand of someone else holding mine. When I have experienced the courage and strength of the Holy Spirit, it has been through the witness of someone else encouraging me, pushing me, and challenging me.
When we make our promises to Bailee and her parents to love and encourage them with our prayers and witness, we are also promising to try and be expressions of God’s love for Bailee in this world. We are promising to help her grow in faith, courage, hope, and love. These are no small promises. They are not lightly made. We make these promises to this beautiful and uniquely wonderful child of God so that she will grow in her own relationship with God, and also that one day she will heed these words in Matthew’s gospel to go out, to welcome others to the table, to make disciples of all nations.
But perhaps most importantly today, what we give to Bailee is the good news that we also remember and joyfully claim for ourselves; no matter what, no matter where we are called, no matter where we are sent, no matter how narrow the way or how rocky the path, Jesus the Christ is with us always to the end of the age. Jesus the Christ is with Bailee and with us always. Always. Always. Yay!

Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

All Together -- Pentecost Sunday

Acts 2:1-21
June 4, 2017

            “Hola.” “Mi casa es su casa.” “Mi perro es un dupa.” “Uno, dos, tres, quarto, cinco, seys.” “Cinco de Mayo.” “Corona, por favor,” “Gracias.” 
            These words and phrases are about the extent of my knowledge of Spanish. I took French in eighth grade and college. I took German in high school. I took Hebrew and Greek in seminary, but I never took Spanish. I was told that Spanish was easier to learn than other languages, but I was also told that to speak Spanish you had to be able to roll your “r’s.” I can’t do that. But thanks to Sesame Street and other friends, I can now say a few words and a couple of relatively useless phrases.
            Sadly a few words and phrases don’t help me much when I meet people whose first language is Spanish. I learned this quite vividly when we were living in New York. Our church was asked to host some Christian visitors from Costa Rica who were traveling in the United States for church related reasons. We were assured that they all spoke excellent English, so finding host families who spoke Spanish would not be necessary.
            One of the host families invited church folks over for a potluck in honor of our Costa Rican guests. We were all excited to meet them, and learn more about them and Costa Rica. Just one problem; they did not actually speak English. A few of them spoke about as many words in English as I speak in Spanish. But a woman who attended the local Methodist church was a native Spanish speaker, and she was happy to come to the potluck to help with translation.   
            That was helpful in general terms, but it didn’t make individual conversations any easier. That’s what happens at potlucks and events like it; you sit and get to know each other in smaller groups. At first it seemed that it was going to become a segregated party – English speakers with English speakers and Spanish speaker with Spanish speakers. But many of us were trying. I sat next to a young couple. The wife and I did a lot of smiling at each other. We would take a bite of food, mime yummy, appreciative gestures, and then smile some more. She knew a few words in English, and you’ve heard my Spanish. At first I didn’t think there was any chance that we’d be able to communicate. 
            It’s funny, though. The more comfortable we became with each other, the more we started to understand each other. We used some words, but we also spoke in gestures and pantomime. Eventually we were having a conversation about trying to keep up with our houses and working. We were laughing, and it became as comfortable and as familiar a conversation as any I’ve had with my oldest and dearest friends. We found that we had a common language that went beyond words. Our ability to understand one another’s language may have been limited, but we understood each other in a deeper way, in a truly human way. We were together in that moment in a way I could never have expected. It was a profound experience.
            But even this incredibly powerful moment in my life cannot compare with the moment we hear about in this most famous passage from Acts, chapter 2.The people gathered in that place hear the good news in their own languages. They hear the good news being spoken to them, translated for them, by the disciples, men they knew to be Galileans who should not have been able to speak the native tongues of Parthians and Medes and Elamites. What happened when they were there, all together, should have been impossible, yet it happened.
            What I love about this passage from Acts is that the Spirit enters that place with a bang. That is a profound understatement. The Spirit swooshes down upon them like a violent wind. That sound, that wind, filled the entire house where the disciples were staying. The sound of a violent wind has taken on a new meaning since I moved to Oklahoma, and my first response would have been to seek shelter, to hide from what was coming. If the disciples thought something like that we don’t know; before they even had time to register this awful, wonderful sound of wind and spirit filling their home, filling them, they were descended upon, literally, by tongues of fire. Those tongues of flame, forgive the pun, lit them up. Not only were they able to speak new languages, they were transformed, completely and utterly.   
            This wild happening drew the crowds gathered in Jerusalem to them. Jews from every part of the Diaspora were there, and hearing their own languages confused and puzzled them.  Along with their confusion, there were skeptics in the crowd. While some immediately believed that something wonderful and incredible and completely unexpected was happening, others dismissed the whole thing as being a drunken coincidence. The disciples weren’t filled with anything but new wine.
            Peter began his great sermon by dismissing this notion. This isn’t a drunken hoopla. This is the outpouring of the Spirit. What is happening is a fulfilling of the prophet Joel. The Spirit has been poured out on them. They are all together, and they are now able to speak in new languages and do new things. And this has all occurred because of Jesus the Christ. This has all happened because of the good news he brought, the good news he lived.
            I know that I have used this quote before, but it bears repeating. Author and theologian Barbara Brown Taylor once wrote, “That if you believe the Bible, than there is no better proof that Jesus was who he said he was than the before and after pictures of the disciples. Before Pentecost, they were dense, tired bumblers who fled at the least sign of trouble. Afterwards they were fearless leaders. They healed the sick and cast our demons. They went to jail gladly, where they sang hymns until the walls fell down. How did this transformation occur? You can read all about it in the book of Acts.”
            Jesus promised the disciples the coming of the Spirit. The last thing he told them before he ascended into heaven was to go back to Jerusalem and wait there for God’s promise to come true. They would be baptized by the Holy Spirit there, he told them. They did as they were told.  They went back to Jerusalem.  They prayed and they did not have to wait long for an answer.  On the day of Pentecost, the Jewish festival of weeks or the harvest which is set 50 days after Passover, they were all together in one place when they got a crash course in power. 
            That’s really what happened, isn’t it? They got a crash course in power. When the Holy Spirit came upon them, it came in with wind and flames and power. One commentator wrote that we should consider the noise it must have made. Think about the sounds and the sights that the disciples experienced. The coming of the Spirit on that day of Pentecost was like a special effects show. But this was a display that even Industrial Light and Sound, the company that has done special effects work for everything from Star Wars to Star Trek, could not have conceived. 
            More importantly than what this immense descending of power sounded like and looked like, is what it did. As Ms. Taylor wrote, the disciples went from being scared, anxious, unsure, and insecure men, constantly misunderstanding the good news that Jesus shared with them to men who were transformed. They preached with authority and taught with passion and expertise.  The disciples stood before huge, often hostile crowds and preached the gospel. They spoke in whatever language was necessary for them to be heard and understood. They baptized without hesitation. Evangelism flowed from them like water. They suffered whatever persecution and backlash came their way. When the power of the Holy Spirit came upon them, they were transformed. 
            When the power of the Holy Spirit came upon them, they were transformed.
            It seems that I pray all the time for transformation, for the power of the Holy Spirit to move among us, to gift us with whatever is necessary so that we can make a difference, so that we can spread the good news as individuals and as the church. But as I read this familiar passage this week, I was feeling discouraged and frustrated. Sure the Holy Spirit made a huge scene some two thousand years ago, but where is it now? I could do with hearing the sound of rushing wind that filled the disciples’ room? I could stand to see tongues of flame resting on us today? Why can’t miraculous, unbelievable things happen through us, just like it did for the disciples when they were able to speak in different languages? As much as I pray for the Holy Spirit, I’m just not always sure that the Spirit is there, that it’s moving, that it’s breathing new life into our midst. 
            But I read something in my studies that helped me reconsider the power of the Holy Spirit. Someone wrote that power can be understood in two ways. Sometimes power can be so intense that it erupts on you all at once. Think about the explosion that would happen if a match were lit to even ten gallons of gasoline. But then think about those same ten gallons of gasoline being channeled through the slow burn of a car engine. I can drive for a couple of hundred miles on those ten gallons. Power can explode among us. Or it can be channeled through us, all together.
            On that Pentecost day, the power of the Holy Spirit exploded on the disciples. It exploded in a way that brought new life, to the people who felt its power and to the church created in its wake. Today, we may not always experience that same explosive energy. But the power of the Spirit is alive and well right here, right now. It is being continually channeled through us, whether we recognize it or not. It still moves among us. It is breathing new life in our midst. We cannot control its power. The Spirit blows where it will. But I know, with renewed faith I know, that it is right here, where we are gathered all together. So come Spirit, come. Give us new life, new hope, and send us out, empowered, enlivened and enthusiastic to do God’s work in the world. 
            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Why Are You Looking Up? -- Seventh Sunday of Easter

Acts 1:1-14
May 28, 2017

            I checked the records and I haven’t used a Harry Potter illustration in quite some time, which means that I am about to use one now. One of my favorite moments from the third book, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” is when Harry and Hermione use her time turner – a device that lets you move through time. They used the time turner in order to rectify and right certain events that had taken place in one day and to save Sirius Black, the prisoner of Azkaban and Harry’s godfather.
            The climax of their time travel is watching a scene earlier in the evening when Harry, Hermione and Sirius were surrounded by dementors. I’ve loved both the books and the movies, but in the movie telling of this it is just Harry and Sirius surrounded the dementors. In the book, Hermione is also with them. I’m working from the book version. In the original moment, they are surrounded by the dementors – these evil, horrific guards of the wizard prison Azkaban, who don’t use capital punishment as the ultimate sentence, instead they suck out your soul. They are pretty awful. And they have surrounded the three. Harry tries desperately to conjure up the one thing that dispels them – a patronus. But this is advanced magic, and he does not yet have the power to create a patronus strong enough yet. Or so he thinks.
            Just as they are about to be completely overwhelmed by the dementors, something large and silver comes galloping at them across the lake. It charges at the dementors and casts them away. Harry and Hermione both pass out and are taken to the hospital wing; Sirius is taken to the tower to await a second and final meeting with the dementors.
            So, now we come back to the future Harry and Hermione watching this happen to the past Harry and Hermione. Harry realizes that it was a full-blown patronus who dispelled the dementors. And just before he passed out, he got a glimpse of the wizard who came to their rescue. But when he tells Hermione who he things he saw, she thinks he must be delusional. You see the person Harry saw send the patronus was his dad. Only Harry’s dad, James, was dead; long dead. So who was this wizard? From whom had this powerful patronus come? Harry and Hermione watch the scene at the lake unfold, and although Harry knows he must not be seen, he has to see the wizard who saved them. He rushes down to the edge of the lake looking for his dad. But as the dementors prepare to deliver their deadly kiss, he realizes who the wizard actually was … is, pulls out his wand, and cries out,
“Expecto Patronum!”
And this amazing, splendid, powerful stag springs forth from his wand, gallops across the lake and charges the dementors, scattering them in every direction away from Sirius, away from Hermione, away from Harry. A stag was the animal Harry’s father became to help his friend, Sirius. A stag, the symbol of his father, came to help Harry when he needed it the most, but it was Harry who made it happen. It was Harry who realized what he had to do, and did it.
What does any of have this have to do with Jesus ascending into the heavens? What does any of this have to do with the apostles continuing to look up, even after Jesus had disappeared into the clouds?
Just as two men in dazzling clothes appeared to the women at the empty tomb in Luke’s gospel, two men in white robes appear to the apostles in this first chapter of Acts. The two men at the tomb asked the women,
“Why do you look for the living among the dead?”
These two men asked the apostles, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
As I have always understood it, the ascension of Jesus as it is written in Acts clearly points to the second coming of Jesus. The second coming is a big deal to a lot of people and a lot of churches today. It certainly looms large in our particular theology. The second coming was a big deal in the church of my childhood. The second coming was a big deal to my grandfather and to so many members of my extended family. It still is. My father told me that every New Year’s Eve, his father would gather them all together and they would pray that in this New Year, the Lord Jesus would come. But I’ve wondered for a long time now if this isn’t missing the point. I wonder if we haven’t gotten way too caught up in looking up when instead we should be looking out.
I had never really considered the reason why Jesus did not ascend immediately into heaven after his resurrection. Why does it take 40 days before he ascends? Like the Israelite’s 40 years in the wilderness, and Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness, the number 40 signifies a time of preparation. Jesus’ earthly ministry might have been over with his crucifixion and resurrection, but his preparation of the apostles was not. There was still 40 days of preparation to be done. Now, at the end of those 40 days, Jesus ascended. He had done all that he could on this earth to prepare his followers for their work, their ministry. He could ascend because the time of preparation was completed. If the apostles fully understood that though, it’s hard to know. I wonder if that’s why the men in white robes or the angels show up in this scene just as they did at the empty tomb. They had to prod the witnesses on to the next step. The women had to be prodded into the realization that Jesus was not among the dead, but among the living. The apostles had to be prodded into the recognition that their work was not focused on looking up, waiting for Jesus’ return, but on looking out. Their ministry was to go out, to reach out, to set out, move out … into the world, into the midst of the brokenness and the hurting and the chaos. Their ministry, their call was to bring the good news of the gospel to the world, to be Christ’s body, hands, feet, mouth, mind and heart in the world.
The men in white robes appear at that moment, when the apostles are staring up at the heavens – as one commentator put it mesmerized or paralyzed we aren’t sure – to move the apostles into action, to prod them into their calling.
“Why are you looking up? You should be looking out.”  
Why are you looking up? I struggle with looking up. It’s not that I don’t believe that we should turn to God in all things. I do. It’s not that I don’t believe we should trust in God’s presence or moving in our lives and in God’s world. I do. It’s that I think our looking up has become symbolic of what I see as a privatized faith. It is about my personal relationship with Jesus. It is about my belief in God. It is about my salvation. It is about the relationship between God and me. It is an individualized, privatized faith. I have accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior, and I know that when he comes in again in glory that I will be okay, so I am going to spend my time looking up.
I am not trying to make other expressions of our faith into a caricature or stereotype. But I feel strongly that our tendency to individualize our faith – not personalize, individualize – is dangerous. It’s dangerous because it makes us forget that Jesus came not just to save individuals but to usher in the kingdom. That kingdom was community. Jesus modeled what it means to truly be human, and time and time again he modeled that humanity in community. He was not human in isolation, just him and God. He was human in relationship, in community with others. And they were not the others in the “in crowd.” They were the others on the outside, the “least of these.” He came in the most vulnerable of ways to be with the most vulnerable of people.
Jesus spent his earthly ministry and 40 days after his resurrection preparing the apostles for what it would mean to carry on without him. He taught them and demonstrated what it meant to do God’s work, to be in God’s kingdom, and to live God’s love. So when he ascended, in some ways, he gave the reins to them. I know that the men in white robes did not ask the apostles the question, “Why aren’t you looking out?” But to me it is implied.
“Why are you looking up? You should be looking out.”
The reason I used this illustration from Harry Potter is because Harry kept waiting for his dad to show up. Harry was so sure it was his dad who had sent the patronus that he almost missed the moment to act for himself. I realize that this is an imperfect illustration. To try and make this an analogy of God and us would stretch it to the breaking point. It could become a slippery slope of saying, “Hey God, I got this. I don’t need you to save me. I can do it myself.”
The biggest mistakes I have ever made in my life have been when I have told God,
“Don’t worry God. I’ve got this.”
We need God. We need to know that God is calling us, not the other way around. One of the things that we talked about in last week’s session meeting, and we will continue to talk about – in those meetings and with all of you – is that this is God’s church, and we are invited to follow God on God’s mission in the world. We need God. It isn’t that we shouldn’t look up. It isn’t that we shouldn’t put all that we are and all that we have in God’s gracious and merciful hands. It’s that we cannot look up to the exclusion of looking out. It seems to me that God requires both.
Look up, look to me, trust me, believe in me. 
Look out. Look out, look at my children made in my image, how are you caring for them? Look at the world I have made. How are you caring for it? Look up to me, but also look out to them.
Why are you looking up without also looking out? God requires both. We cannot look up without also having an outward vision. We cannot look out without also knowing that our strength and our power come from God, from looking up.
In Latin the words, Expecto Patronum, means “I await a guardian.” When Jesus ascended into heaven after 40 days of preparation, he did not leave the disciples completely alone. A Guardian, an Advocate would come to them. So as we observe the ascension, as we look up, know that we too have the power of our Guardian, our Advocate, the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit empowers us to look up to God, to trust in God, and to look out into the world and do the work of love we are commanded to do.
Look up and look out and do the work of the Lord. Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Our Known God -- Sixth Sunday of Easter

Acts 17:16-34
May 21, 2017

            In the movie, “Elf,” Will Ferrell’s character, Buddy the Elf, is working in the toy department of Gimbel’s Department Store in New York City. The announcement is made over the loudspeaker that Santa has arrived to greet the children and Buddy loses it.
            “Santa! Santa! I know him! I know him!’
            That’s how I felt when I first read this passage from Acts and saw two names: Epicureans and Stoics.
            “Epicureans and Stoics!” “I know them!” “I taught them!” “I taught them!”
            In case you were wondering, I taught a brief overview of Epicureans and Stoics when I was teaching Ethics. While what I learned from teaching intersects with my ministry in a myriad of ways, it doesn’t always happen this overtly. So, yes, I was excited to see Epicureans and Stoics mentioned in the scripture passage I was preaching.
            Epicureans were hedonists. But not in the way we tend to understand hedonists. They were not the drunken, toga wearing gluttons ala Animal House. Epicureans believed that the only thing that was intrinsically good was pleasure. That which increased pleasure was good, that which decreased it was bad. Pleasure and pain came in both mental and physical form, and to Epicureans there were two types of acute mental pain: fear of the gods and fear of death. The Epicureans believed in the existence of the gods, but they did not believe that they intervened in human life. The gods were set apart from humans on a completely different realm, indifferent to humanity and all of its ills. The Epicureans were materialists; they believed that everything down to the smallest atom, including humans, was made up of matter. Matter does not have an eternal soul. So when we die, we are dead. The Epicureans point was why fear gods who were indifferent to humans, and why fear death when it was a complete end? There would be no punishment in some life after this one. Live for today and live in simple moderation and tranquility.
            The Stoics valued reason. They believed that the universe was based on reason and rationality. The Stoics, like the Epicureans, believed that tranquility and peace of mind were the foundation of happiness. That tranquility and peace of mind came from reason governing our desires, self-control. The universe was based on Divine Law. That Divine Law was based on reason and rationality. Therefore, there was no point in getting bent out of shape over anything because everything was happening as it should. The example that I learned to illustrate the Stoics was a dog being tied behind a moving cart. The universe is the moving cart and humanity is the dog. If we fight against the rope tying us to the cart; if we chew and pull and resist, then we are going to be miserable. We are going to be unhappy and in pain, always hurting ourselves. But if we resign ourselves to follow along behind the cart, trusting that the cart is moving according to reason then we won’t be in pain. We will not expend our precious energy on useless resistance and struggle. The cart is reasonable and rational, and we just need to accept that it is going where it should.
            Then along came Paul. Remember last week, in the story of Stephen’s stoning, we get our first glimpse of then Saul. The people doing the stoning laid their cloaks before Saul’s feet. While we have skipped over the story of Saul’s conversion, and his transformation from Saul to Paul, we now meet him full on as Paul. Knowing what we know of Paul; knowing what we know of his zeal for the gospel, perhaps it is easy to understand why some in the crowd called him “this babbler.” Paul was preaching the good news of Jesus – God born into human flesh, crucified on the cross, resurrected into new life – pretty much the opposite of everything the Epicureans held dear. Paul preached the good news of Jesus – God willingly becoming vulnerable by being born into human flesh, taking on its frailties and weaknesses; not just dying as a human but being brutally executed as a human, then not staying dead! This upside down gospel also seemed to be the exact opposite of the reasonable universe the Stoics valued so highly.
            One of Paul’s best traits is his mastery of rhetoric. The man knew how to use language – in his writing, in his speaking. He knew how to turn a phrase, and articulate ideas that still have scholars and commentators and preachers like me trying to fully grasp his thought process. This sermon is no different. Our passage starts off with Paul wandering through Athens distressed by the vast number of idols found in the city. But when he is invited to the Aeropagus to speak, he does not chide or chastise the Athenians for being pagans or heathens, etc. Instead, he uses that to draw them in.
            “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.”
            That’s a way to win friends and influence people. He goes on to say that he found a particular object that intrigued him.
            “For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.”
            My first thought when I read this was that the Athenians were covering all their bases. They did not just believe in their own gods, they believed that there might be other gods out there. And if there were, they wanted to make sure they recognized that god as well. It seems to me that Paul was telling them that they were on target when they recognized this other god. But what the Athenians think of as an unknown god is actually the God. This god is the God, the creator of the universe, the One from whom they are all offspring. This is the God, the One who made them, not the other way around. They did not make God. This God, the God, is not enshrined in objects. God does not live in anything made by human hands – even the most beautiful of things made by human hands. This God is the God, and this God is not unknown but known. This God, the God, is not far way on some other plane, in some other realm, but right here; close by, at hand, in their midst and up close.
            This God, the God, is a known God, known through Jesus his Son. This God, the God, is the God they have been groping for, searching for, looking for, hoping for, even if they did not recognize that God was the object and the subject of their search.
            This God, the God, is the known God, and God is known because Jesus, God’s Son, was resurrected from the dead.
            As so often happened (and happens), the resurrection was the wall that some people ran headlong into. Remember, in that crowd were Stoics and Epicureans, people who believed that dead was dead, and the universe was a rational cart leading us along on a reason-lined trajectory. Resurrection was too much, too irrational, too unreasonable, too upside down, too illogical, too much for some to take. So at those words, some scoffed. But not everyone; some wanted to talk with Paul again, and some believed and joined him.
            It seems to me that this is the eternal struggle of our faith. To really tell the gospel, to really preach the good news, we have to share a story that sounds … just weird. God becomes flesh and dwells among us. God lives. God is executed. God rises again. At some point, reason and logic only go so far. Don’t get me wrong, part of what I love about being Presbyterian is being allowed, encouraged even, to think critically about faith. It isn’t that other denominations don’t do this, but I have not always been given permission to do so in other denominations. I love that I feel free to ask questions, to argue, to wrestle with angels. My arguing and questioning – with professors, with others, with God – has not diminished my faith, it has deepened it. But I also know that at some point, faith is an experience. I can tell you about my experience of the Holy Spirit. I can tell you about the moments when I felt as though God was pushing me or pulling me to see or feel or think in a new way. I can tell you about the times when it seemed as though God was right next to me, holding me hand, telling me it was going to be okay. I can tell you, but I cannot make you feel it. You have to feel that, you have to experience that for yourself. I cannot make you understand why our upside down, illogical faith makes complete and utter sense to both my head and my heart. You have to experience it for yourself. Paul told the Athenians that the unknown god they paid tribute to was the God he knew, the God of Jesus, the God of resurrection, the God of all Life and Love and Grace. Paul’s God was the God they were groping for, but they did not know it. But they could not know it, they could not know God the way he knew God until they experienced God for themselves. You have to know God in your heart and in your hands and in your feet and in your mind. Our God is a known God – here in our hearts and here in our minds. Our God is a known God, a lived God, an experienced God. And once you know it, you know it.

            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Living and Dying for Faith -- Fifth Sunday of Easter

Acts 7:55-60
May 14, 2017

            “We will not listen!” “We will not listen!” “We will not listen!”
            “We refuse to hear him, even if his words ring clear.”
            “We refuse to believe him, even if he speaks God’s truth.”
            “We refuse to accept him, what he says, what he stands for, who he stands for, no matter what!”
            “We will grind our teeth at him.”
            “We will cover our ears.”
            “We will close our minds.”
            “We will close our hearts.”
            “We will not listen!” “We will not listen!” “We will not listen!”
            “While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he said this, he died.’”
            As we seem to be doing this Easter season, our passage begins at the end of a story. This is the end of Stephen’s story. What do we know about Stephen? Many of us know him as the first deacon. We know him because of the modern-day ministry he inspired – Stephen’s Ministries, which is a laity-led pastoral ministry. And we know him from these verses, from the end of his life. Stephen was martyred for his faith.
            How did Stephen go from being ordained the first deacon to being brutally stoned to death? How did he move from serving to sacrifice, from a ministry of life-giving compassion to giving his life for his faith?
            That is the part of Stephen’s life that most of us don’t know much about. That is the part of Stephen’s life that leads to this moment; the time between deacon and martyr.
            In those first days of the early church, the numbers of believers were growing by leaps and bounds. At the end of Acts, chapter 6, we learn that the numbers of disciples were growing so rapidly that the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews saying that their widows were begin neglected in the daily distribution of food. So the apostles gathered together with all the believers and decided that it was not right that they should neglect God’s word in order “to wait on tables.” It was decided that “seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom,” should be appointed to serve. That way the apostles could continue with prayer, study, and “serving the word.”
            Everyone agreed, and Stephen was the first man chosen. It would seem that Stephen was not just good at waiting tables. He was also “full of grace and power,” and he “did great wonders and signs among the people.”
            Men who represented various places in the synagogue tried to argue with Stephen, but they were no match for him. When they could not beat him with logic, they decided to beat him with cunning. They whispered that he was speaking blasphemy. They stirred up the people against Stephen. They said that Stephen never stopped saying things against the Law and against the synagogue, the holy place. They spread the word that Stephen spoke of Jesus of Nazareth, and Jesus’ plan to destroy what was holy and change the customs that Moses himself handed down to them.
            Stephen was arrested. And even though the men on the council heard the accusations against him, when they looked at the face of Stephen, they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.
            When Stephen was asked if the charges against him were true, he did not recant his testimony. Instead he preached. He preached a sermon that told the story of the people going back all the way to Abraham. He preached a sermon that held the people accountable for rejecting the people God sent to lead them: first Moses, then Jesus.
With a prophetic voice, Stephen called them,
 “You stiff-necked people,” uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous one, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.”
            The people were enraged at Stephen’s words. They ground their teeth at him. But Stephen did not seem to see or hear them. Instead, filled with Holy Spirit, he saw the glory of God and Jesus, exalted, in his true place at God’s right hand. He tried to tell the people what he was seeing. He tried to get them to see it too.
            “Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”
            But the people could not or would not see. They could not or would not hear. They could not or would not believe.
            They covered their ears. They dragged him outside of the city. They picked up stones and threw them at him, each blow chipping away at his life. Stephen, filled with the Holy Spirit till the last, cried out for forgiveness just as Jesus cried out for forgiveness from the cross. With those last words, Stephen died.
            In Stephen’s end, we get our first glimpse of Saul. From what we can tell, Saul in not an active participant in this scene; yet he must have bore some importance or influence, because witnesses lay their cloaks in front of him.
            Why is such a brutal passage a chosen text for a Sunday in Easter? Why do we have to read about the stoning of Stephen when we should be rejoicing about the resurrection of Jesus the Christ? Why do we have this particularly hard text before us, not just in the season of Easter but on Mother’s Day?! There is no way to bring the joy of Mother’s Day into this. Believe me, I tried. Why? Because as one contemporary writer put it, the Roman Empire did not pack up and go home with the discovery of the empty tomb. Although we wish it were otherwise, Jesus’ resurrection has not caused the worlds’ inhumanity to cease. Wars continue to be fought; and they seem to get only more deadly. People still treat other people with cruelty. Hatred, bigotry, intolerance, injustice, every ism that we know of – none of those things disappeared with the resurrection. If anything, perhaps the resurrection causes us to see them in even sharper relief.
            The stoning of Stephen is a reminder that the terrible things we are capable of doing to one another still happened and still happen. In some ways, this story is a continuation of the questions I asked last week. As those who follow Jesus, are we living as Jesus lived? Are we loving as Jesus loved? And the question that we add today is, are we willing to die as Jesus died? Stephen was willing. Stephen was willing to live and die for his faith, as were so many others; as are so many others to this day.  
            I’m not saying that we should go looking for martyrdom; I think the opposite is true. Nor, do I think that we our faith will automatically place us in positions of life-threatening danger. But I think we do ourselves, the church, and God a disservice if we act as though discipleship is easy. It is not easy. It isn’t meant to be easy. How could it be?
            In the middle of joy, atrocities still happen. In the midst of life, death refuses to be ignored. Even as we celebrate the power of the empty tomb, the empire clings to the power of the world. People still lay their cloaks in front of the world’s Saul’s, but here is the good news, here is a word of hope; Saul’s become Paul’s.
            So with that hope, we go back to what we said at the beginning. Only now, we say this: we will listen! We will listen! We will believe! We will live and die and love for the sake of the good news, for the sake of the gospel, for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord. We will! We will!

            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.