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.

The Minister's Corner

This is the column I wrote for the Saturday, May 13th, Minister's Corner in the Shawnee News Star.

“Deep in the hundred acre wood, where Christopher Robin plays,
you’ll find the enchanted neighborhood of Christopher’s childhood days.
A donkey named Eeyore is his friend; and Kanga and little Roo.
 There’s Rabbit, and Piglet, and there’s Owl,
 but most of all Winnie the Pooh.” [1]

            This is from the theme song to Disney’s “Winnie the Pooh.” But in our house it was called “The Eeyore Song.” This was one of my daughter’s favorite songs, and we sang it over and over again. I do not know why she honed in on the particular lyric about Eeyore, but she did, so “The Eeyore Song,” it was.

            That little girl who loved Winnie the Pooh and singing The Eeyore Song is graduating from high school on Monday. Like every parent facing this moment, I am asking myself where the time went. How is it possible that my oldest born, my darling daughter, is getting ready to graduate high school and set off into the world? She should still be playing dress up, creating new fashions for her Barbies, and giving communion to her dolls (she is a preachers’ kid, after all). As my significant other says, “the days are long but the years fly by.” My, how these years have flown.

            When she was a toddler and her brother was a baby, we sat in our doctor’s office for a check-up. She was being a toddler all over the place, and I must have looked exhausted, which I was. Unexpectedly my doctor asked me a question I was unprepared for.

            “What is your job as her parent?”

            I thought for a second and said, “I don’t know; to make sure she’s happy?”

            He shook his head and said,

            “That’s not your job. You can’t guarantee that your kids will be happy. Your job is to make sure they can live in the world. Your job is to ensure they can function in society. That’s your job.”

            I have never forgotten his words. Now, as she stands on the brink of this new world, I find myself asking if I have prepared her for that world. Have I taught her the right things? Have I shown her and modeled for her ways to not only survive but thrive? Lately every parenting mistake I have made – and there are a lot of those – seems to be presenting itself to me. Will my mistakes keep her from doing well? Have I done enough? Have I done too much?
            Along with these questions, I also worry about the world she, my son and the others their age are getting. I have never felt more uncertain, more afraid for our world than I have in recent times. What problems are she and her generation inheriting? Some problems I can predict; many only time will tell.

            Yet in spite of my worries, I also know that my daughter, my son and their peers are some of the brightest, most compassionate, most passionate, empathetic and determined people I have ever had the honor of knowing. Their generation gets a bad rap, but I believe that if any generation has the potential to do great things in and for this world, they do.

            When I can remind myself to breathe, I can also remember that I trust in a God who is bigger than my fears. I believe in a God whose nature is Love. My sweet girl is loved more than she can possibly know – by her parents, grandparents, family, friends, and most importantly, by God. I am going to trust in God that she will be well. It is time for her to make her own way, make her own mistakes, learn her own lessons, and follow her own call. In my heart she will always be my little girl, but I could not be more proud of the woman she is becoming.

            So to the other parents and grandparents who are preparing for this moment as I am, I wish for all of us to experience nothing but joy for our children’s achievement. And to my daughter and all of the graduates, I wish you nothing but love and hope and blessings for a long life well lived.

            I started this off by quoting Winnie the Pooh, so I will end it with a quote from Pooh’s creator, A.A. Milne. The following is one I seem to see everywhere nowadays, but that does not detract from the wisdom of the words.

            “If ever there is a tomorrow when we’re not together..there is something you must always remember. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. But the most important thing is, even if we’re apart…I’ll always be with you.”

[1] “Winnie the Pooh,” written by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman. 

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

All Things in Common -- Fourth Sunday in Easter

Acts 2:42-47
May 7, 2017

            We believe that we are all one, that the material and spiritual are one,
and the spirit is identical and one in all of creation.
            We believe that marriage, childbirth and death are sacraments of our church.
We agree that child rearing and care of the elderly is a holy responsibility.
We believe that being truthful and compassionate is instrumental to living together in peace and as a community.
We agree to be honest and compassionate in our relationships with each other.
We agree to resolve any conflicts or disagreements in a nonviolent manner.
We believe that humanity must change to survive.
We agree to participate in that change by accepting feedback about ourselves.
We agree to accept personal responsibility for our actions.
We believe that inner peace is the foundation for world peace.”[1]
These statements are from The Farm’s website. They are some of the principles that members of The Farm agree to as part of their life together. The Farm is an intentional living community in Summertown, Tennessee, south of Nashville. According to the website, The Farm began in 1971 when 80 school busses filled with hippie type folks rolled onto a cattle farm they had purchased in Tennessee with a banner that proclaimed their intention to change the world.
The Farm is a commune, started by a bunch of idealistic hippies that caravanned their way from San Francisco to Tennessee. They have been in existence for 45 years, for as long as I can remember. In fact I do remember watching an interview with the two main founders of The Farm, Steve and Ina Mae Gaskin, on one of the local news programs. They were hippies, no doubt about it. I imagine that there was controversy surrounding The Farm and its practices over the years, but it is still there. It is still there and thriving. They have outreach programs such as Plenty International. They have a renowned Midwifery Service. When a longtime friend’s stepdaughter was expecting her first child, she delivered at The Farm. They have retreats for adults and bring inner city kids into the country to experience nature. They teach and model sustainable living. Obviously, with the existence of a website and a Facebook page, they have moved with the times. And while I was perusing their website for this sermon, I discovered I could sign-up for an e-newsletter for green gardening tips and information about programs. So I did. The Farm may have its place in the cyber world of the 21st century, but that does not take away from the fact that they are a commune started by hippies 45 years ago; an intentional community dedicated to life together.
 Although the conversations that led Stephen Gaskin to begin The Farm happened when he was invited to speak by a group of ministers, I am not trying to imply that the Church would be better off if it were a commune. But I use The Farm as an illustration because it is a long time example of intentional living. Intentional is the critical word here. The whole book of Acts is essentially a description of the earliest believers and their life in the early church. The passage before us today tells of the community that formed after Peter’s Spirit-filled sermon on Pentecost. The “they” our passage begins with are the newly baptized believers who welcomed Peter’s message.
            “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.”
            This sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? It sounds so easy, so effortless. They were filled with the power and zeal of the Spirit. They were filled with the heady rush that comes with a new belief and understanding. They were in constant awe and amazement because signs and wonders were being done in their midst. The NRSV does not do a great job of translating that particular verse. According to Biblical scholars, it should read “wonders and signs were being done through the apostles” rather than “by the apostles.” By implies that the apostles were performing these wonders by their own power, except they weren’t. It was through the power of God’s Holy Spirit. Even so, the people, these new believers, were witness to amazing miracles.
            What made it even better is that they were all together. They were not scattered hither and yon. They were not isolated from one another, believers alone in hostile communities. Together they were living in a community of support and understanding. They shared this new belief and understanding in common with each other. Not only were they together praising and worshipping in the temple, they were in each other’s homes as well; breaking bread and sharing fellowship with one another.
            They were taking care of one another. They were willing to sell their possessions so every person’s needs would be met. It would be like me selling my mandolin so Alice could go to the doctor or vice versa. It was a lovely, loving, idyllic life together. Certainly, it should be a model to us on how to be the Church with a capital C.
            But the idyllic never seems to last, and that is true for the early church as well. This idyllic fellowship did not last either. In just a few chapters we will read about trouble and dissension. There will be problems and disputes, conflicts and contentions. The church will struggle and grow, struggle and grow. The gentiles will enter the picture, and there will be a division between the Hellenists and the believers in Jerusalem. The church will become institutionalized and bureaucratic, and so on and so on and so on.
            To be fair to this early community, they thought that Jesus was going to come back any minute. It was probably relatively easy to live peaceably with one another when you thought your Messiah was just around the corner. But as the days dragged on, and Jesus did not come, things changed. As I understand my church history, part of institutionalizing the church was out of necessity; it was to keep the church going in what scholars call “the time between times;” the time between when Jesus came into the world and when Jesus will come again.
            The question is what does this mean for us? What does it mean for us today and next Tuesday? We are not privy to the miracles and wonders done by God through the apostles’ on a regular basis. We do not doubt that the Holy Spirit moves in our midst, but we cannot predict where and when it does move. We don’t always feel it or are aware of its presence. As wonderful as it would be to live in this ongoing state of anticipation – the state it seems the early believers were living in – we don’t live like that. We live in the day-to-day, the ordinary.
            What can this example of the early church teach us today? For that matter, what can The Farm teach us today? I know that we are not going to sell all of our possessions and go set up on a cattle farm –although the selling of the old church does feel a little like that. But I think that both examples share one thing in common: intention. The Farm is still around because it is intentional. Its members seek to be together. That early church, those early believers were intentional in how they lived with one another. They sought to live together, to be in fellowship together. Today, more than ever before, I think the church is called to be intentional in our fellowship – not just with one another but with the world. Fellowship isn’t just sharing cookies and punch after worship. Fellowship is being in community with each other, being in relationship with each other. Fellowship is really looking at one another and looking honestly at ourselves. Fellowship is listening to one another, loving one another, even when that love is hard – and it can be very, very hard. Fellowship is about creating community, not because it is a nice thing to do, but because it is a Christ like thing to do.
            That is the heart of the matter. That is what sets us apart from The Farm and any other intentional communities. That is what makes the Church the Church: Christ. We are to be Christ’s body in the world. We are to be Christ to others. People are to see Christ in us. I don’t believe we are called just to speak the gospel; we are called to embody the gospel. We are called to live as Jesus lived and to love as Jesus loved. And it seems to me that if the church is failing in the world, if the church is lacking in relevancy, then it is because we are not doing that. We are not living as Jesus lived, and we are definitely not loving as Jesus loved. Are you willing to sell your possessions to cover another person’s need? Are you willing to sell your possessions to cover another person’s need? Am I? Are we living as Jesus lived? Are we loving as Jesus loved?
            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

[1] thefarm.org

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Cut To the Heart -- Third Sunday of Easter

Acts 2:14a, 36-41
April 30, 2017

            My dad was the Executive Director of the American Lung Association in Tennessee. His job entailed many responsibilities, but fundamental to his work was educating the public about the dangers of smoking; not only to the health and well-being of an individual, but also to the health and well-being of other people. He was an advocate, essentially a lobbyist, for anti-smoking policies in every aspect of life. While my kids grew up playing with stickers, I grew up with playing with Christmas Seals. At three I was in a local Public Service Announcement. As country music star Bill Anderson spoke about the dangers of smoking to children’s health, the camera would pan over to me playing on the floor with toys. I remember this because I got to keep the toys! At four I took my first big plane trip with my mom to Minnesota. Smoking was allowed and there were no smoking and no-smoking sections in airport terminals back then, so I made sure to educate the smokers about the terrible things they were doing to their lungs. It’s a good thing I was a cute kid, otherwise I was just annoying.
            I knew that smoking was dangerous and bad for your health. My sister and brother knew it. When they were teenagers they started to smoke. The summer I was 15, I decided to try it too. I spent several warm nights, walking up and down my street, learning how to inhale – which meant that I coughed and gagged, turned green with nausea, and got lightheaded. But I was determined. One summer morning, I left the house to walk over to a friend’s house. As I was crossing our neighbor’s front yard, I lit up a cigarette. My dad opened the front door and called out to me about leaving without telling anyone – I’d gotten in trouble a few weeks earlier for not leaving them a note; my 15th summer was not my best summer on record. I turned around to talk to him, putting the cigarette behind me back, which was such a clever, clever way to hide it. Not. We had a brief exchange. He went back inside, and I went on my merry way.
            That afternoon, I was crossing the same neighbor’s front yard, cigarette in hand, only that time I was walking toward my house. My father got home earlier than expected. When he pulled up in the driveway he saw me, and I whipped the cigarette behind my back again. This time, he stopped the car, rolled down his window and called me over. I walked toward him with dread in every footstep. The smoke from my cigarette was haloing around my head. I was prepared for the grounding to end all groundings. Instead, he just looked at me and shook his head. Then he said,
            “I thought you were the smart one. Of all my kids, I thought you were the smart one. You know what a terrible time your sister and brother have had quitting smoking. You know that! But now you’re smoking?! I thought you were the smart one.”
            Then he rolled up his window and drove his car around to the back of the house, leaving me standing there wishing that he would have grounded me, yelled at me, given me any and all relevant punishments. He did none of that. Instead my dad made it very clear that he was not just angry with me, he was disappointed in me. He thought I was the smart one, but not anymore. If I had ever been cut to the heart by someone’s words before, I have no memory of it. But I remember that moment. I remember it as vividly as if it had happened an hour ago. My dad’s words cut me to the heart.
            Peter was not a parent expressing disappointment at his children for doing something they knew was dumb and dangerous, but he was making it clear to the people listening to him that they had failed. They had failed to recognize the very presence of God in their midst.
            In today’s passage from Acts, we start at the end. Peter has wrapped up his sermon in response to the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. He has told the crowds gathered around him about this Jesus, whom they crucified but whom God raised up. He has made it clear to them that the death and resurrection of Jesus is not, as one commentator put it, a completely new story, but a new chapter on a very old story. It is the old story of God and the Israelites. God has been with the Israelites from the very beginning. He promised their forefather Abraham that through him and his descendents the whole world would be blessed. The coming of Jesus, the Messiah, the Word made flesh, is the fulfillment of that blessing. Through Him the whole world will be blessed.
            But again, the people did not recognize Jesus as God in their midst. This Jesus whom they crucified, God raised up.
            “Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.”
            Was Peter placing the blame for Jesus’ death solely on the Jews standing before him? As I said last week, the accusation in this sermon has been used to justify persecution in the name of God. Matthew Skinner, professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, wrote that it’s unlikely that Peter believed that the crowds standing before him were the same crowds who stood before Pontius Pilate and chanted “Crucify him! Crucify him!” The people in these crowds were likely not to blame for what happened to Jesus. But there is a more general tone to Peter’s accusation. Humanity failed Jesus. Humanity failed to recognize God in its midst. Humanity itself was seemingly blind to God in the world, and certainly blind to God in the man Jesus.
            Luke who wrote the book of Acts as well as his gospel makes that blindness clear in his story about the followers on the road to Emmaus. Jesus walked with them, opening the scriptures to them. And just as the people listening to Peter were cut to the heart by his words, these followers’ hearts were blazing within them in the presence of the risen Savior.
            The people who listened to Peter preach the gospel were cut to the heart. They were humbled and distressed and wanted to respond. They asked Peter and the other disciples what they should do in response to what they have heard, witnessed and experienced. Peter told them,
            “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.”
            This is not the first time we hear people being called on to repent. In our context we tend to assume that repentance is directly connected to sins as moral failings. I messed up. I’m sorry I messed up. I repent.
I know that I have preached this before, but repentance is not just about being sorry. Repentance is a reorientation. It is a turning around. It is a 180 degree about face. It is a change in direction and a change in living. The people gathered around that sermon that day were not just repenting of Jesus’ death; they were turning their lives in a new direction. Before they had lived without the understanding of God in Christ, of Jesus as Lord and Messiah, but now they would live in that knowledge and understanding. Now they would live as those who saw God in their midst, as those who realized that God was fulfilling the promises of old, and writing a new chapter to an old, old story.
            They were cut to the heart by the gospel. They were cut to the heart that God had been in their midst. They were cut to the heart by their inability to see God in the world. They were cut to the heart when they realized that God was doing a new thing – in their lives, in the world.
            Their response was to repent and be baptized, not just as a washing away of sins, but as a new rising with Christ. In response to the gospel, in response to the good news, in response to the cutting of their hearts, they were turning around, changing direction, reorienting every aspect of their lives. They were cut to the heart, and from that point on their lives were changed.
            I wish I could say that when my dad confronted me on that day so long ago that I put down the cigarettes and never smoked again. I wish I could say that, but I cannot because it would be a lie. I kept smoking for a few more years. I never smoked a lot, but I did smoke. However, I never forgot my dad’s words. I never forgot how I felt at that moment. I was cut to the heart, and that cut never fully healed. When I did finally wise up enough to stop smoking, I did not go back. I was cut to the heart by what my dad said to me, and my life was changed because of it. It may not have looked like it, but it was. I slowly but surely reoriented myself. I turned around and I changed direction.
            I wonder if the people who heard Peter speak, who were cut to the heart by his words, by the gospel he preached, took a while to completely reorient their lives? I wonder if it was also a process for them. I think it might have been. I would like to believe that with repentance comes an immediate and lasting change. But I think for many of us, well at least for me, repentance as turning around and reorienting is a lifelong process. I have been cut to the heart by the power of the gospel. My heart has burned within me when I have gotten a glimpse of the risen Jesus walking with me and I did not recognize him. I have been cut to the heart time after time. I imagine that I am not done yet. But the good news is that neither is God.
            The power of the gospel, the overwhelming grace of the good news, cuts us to the heart. When we are tempted to walk in the wrong direction, it reorients us. When we are lost, it finds us. When we are blind, it opens our eyes by its light. We are cut to the heart by God’s good and wonderful and amazing and glorious news in Jesus the Christ, the Messiah. May our eyes and mind and hearts and hands be continually opened to God’s working in the world, God’s presence on the road beside us. We are cut to the heart by the gospel, and may that wound never heal.

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

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

This Jesus -- Second Sunday of Easter

Acts 2:14a, 22-36
April 23, 2017

            Because I grew up in a different denomination, I did not fully understand the seasons of the church year until I became an adult and a Presbyterian. Before that, all I really celebrated was Christmas, Easter, and we threw a glancing nod at Palm Sunday. The shepherds and the wise men from the East all showed up at the manger on the same night, and while we talked about Jesus dying on the cross for our sins – a lot – I had no idea about Maundy Thursday, Good Friday or Holy Week. When I became a Presbyterian, I went from celebrating only Christmas and Easter to observing Advent, Christmas, Christmastide, Epiphany, Ash Wednesday, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, Eastertide, Pentecost, and Ordinary Time.
When I went to seminary and discovered the wonder that is the Presbyterian Planning Calendar, I was given another gift. Inside this calendar is another calendar with all the church seasons blocked off – not just according to date, but by color!
            There’s a lot of green – that’s Ordinary Time; purple – that’s Advent and Lent – although Alice and I have gone rogue and introduced royal blue for Advent into the mix. Then there’s one lovely splash of red for Pentecost Sunday, and there’s white, for the time we are in right now – Easter.
            This organized, color-coded, symmetrical dream is how I want my life to look. That really is a dream and one not likely to come true. Real life gets messy and refuses to stay neatly boxed on a calendar square. Lines are blurred all over the place! So, if I want my life to be as organized as this church calendar, then why, why am I choosing to preach on this passage from Acts rather than the story that follows Jesus’ resurrection in the gospel of John?!
            That would make more sense. It would follow a more logical pattern. But the designers of the lectionary – the selection of passages assigned to each Sunday – have blurred the lines of Easter by designating passages from the book of Acts to be used between now and Pentecost. And I’m jumping into the confusion and chaos by preaching on them.
            I use the word confusion because the text we have from Acts today and for the next two Sundays is from Peter’s sermon on Pentecost. This is the sermon he preaches after the coming of the Holy Spirit, after tongues of flame rested on his and the other apostles’ heads, after people from all over the Diaspora heard the gospel in their own language, after some people in the crowd accused Peter and the others of being drunk. This is the sermon that Peter preaches after the coming of the Holy Spirit, so why are we reading about it now, today, when we are still in the Easter season?
            Perhaps one downside of following the seasons of the church is that it is easy to think of the events of that season happening only in that season. Our calendar was created to order the church year by following the life of Christ and “the events of salvation history.” But while Jesus of history was born and died and resurrected on particular dates, in the life of faith these events roll into one another. Lines are blurred and crossed all over the place. Through the eyes of faith, Jesus’ birth is never disconnected from his death. Through the eyes of faith, Jesus’ resurrection walks hand-in-hand with the coming of the Holy Spirit.
            Officially, we may be in the Easter, white-coded, block of the church year. The red of Pentecost is still several weeks away, but just as resurrection, new life, is not a one time event, neither is the coming of the Holy Spirit. God’s Spirit whooshed across the chaos and breathed creation into existence. God’s Spirit rushed through that tomb, and soared out into the open with the rolling away of the stone. Jesus’ resurrection from death into new life loosed God’s love and power into the world in a new way. The resurrection of Jesus the Christ and the rush of the Holy Spirit work together. There are no lines between them, keeping one apart from the other. With the resurrection of Jesus, the power of the Holy Spirit was set free in the world in a new way. Peter, also filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, understood this. He did not see Resurrection and Pentecost through the lines of a calendar. He understood these two events as making up the whole of the new thing God was – and is – doing. They were the foundation of God’s working in the world.
            “This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you both see and hear.”
            This Jesus God raised up. Peter’s sermon has multitudes of layers. It is not only a testimony on Peter’s part to the power of God, or to the Jesus that Peter imperfectly followed as a disciple. It is accusatory of the Israelites who handed Jesus over to the authorities. For centuries, that accusation has been used by the Church to justify persecution and atrocities against the Jewish people. In the same breath, Peter also makes it clear that what happened to Jesus was done because of God, because of God’s ultimate plan for Jesus and for the world God created. So there is a difficult tension between the blame placed on the Israelites and between the preordaining by God that Peter seems to be clearly referencing.
            But it is also one Israelite speaking to other Israelites. One commentator wrote that Acts was written for insiders. It was written for the folks who were supposed to already know God, and for those who knew the Scriptures and the prophecies of the Messiah; even if they rejected Jesus as the Messiah. Certainly, Peter seems to be speaking from the assumption that the people listening were ones familiar with the Psalms. They would have been familiar with David’s words about the coming of the Messiah. Peter preached from an assumption that the people in that crowd knew the God of power and might, even if they could not see how God’s power was at work in the raising up of this Jesus.
            There are many layers to this sermon, and my hope is that we will be able to unpack some of those layers over the next few weeks. But for now, for this moment, let us – the insiders, the churchgoers, the ones who have proclaimed faith in God through this Jesus – let us also claim our faith in the power of the Holy Spirit. The Resurrection and Pentecost are only two separate events on the pages of a calendar. In the mysterious workings of God, they are together. This Jesus God raised up was and is the Word in the beginning, the Word made flesh, the Word who continues to blow new life into what is seemingly dead. This Jesus God raised up in power is in relationship with the Holy Spirit who whooshes through the world and through us with that same power. The power of Pentecost is ours today. The resurrection from death to new life happens now.
            It was impossible for this Jesus God raised up to be held by death’s power. Isn’t that the truth we rejoice in on Easter Sunday, and on Christmas morning, and on Pentecost and throughout Epiphany? This Jesus God raised up could not be held by death’s power.
            In verse 26, Peter quotes from Psalm 15. The translation before us is satisfactory.
“Therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; moreover my flesh will live in hope.”
Yet in the Greek of the Septuagint – the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures – that second phrase reads more like this:
“My flesh has pitched its tent on hope.”
My flesh has pitched its tent on hope. Jesus raised up, God working in the world, the Holy Spirit creating new out of old, life out of death; that is the hope on which we pitch our tents. That is the joy of Easter, the power of Pentecost, the anticipation of Advent, the somber reflection of Lent, the sorrow of Holy Week; that is the theme of the church year, the reason for the liturgical colors, the point of every church season. Our flesh, our minds, our hearts, our souls, our very beings have pitched our tents on hope.
Thanks be to God: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. We have pitched our tents on hope.

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

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Resurrection Perspective -- Easter Sunday

Matthew 28:1-10
April 16, 2017

            “Joy to the world! The Lord is come! Let earth receive her King! Let every heart prepare him room, and heaven and nature sing. And heaven and nature sing. And heaven, and heaven and nature sing!”
            When I was in my first church as a solo pastor and preparing for my first Easter Sunday as a solo pastor, I read an article in some homiletics journal about different ways to approach Easter worship. The author suggested that in order to remind your parishioners of the intrinsic connection between Christmas and Easter it was completely appropriate to sing “Joy to the World.” After all, are we not joyful this morning? Should we not be shouting our praises from hilltop to hilltop, and making the valleys echo with the sound of our voices singing out,
“Joy to the world! The Lord is come! Let earth receive her King!”
All this may be true, but a few members of the congregation did not get the memo. And they made sure that I knew that. They were lovely, forgiving people who gave me a lot of room to try new things, but singing a Christmas carol on Easter Sunday was just too much. It was jarring and felt wrong. It shook them up, and they were not prepared for the shaking.
We are not going to sing “Joy to the World” this morning. You won’t hear anymore of it than what I just sang. But even though we are leaving the Christmas carols to Christmas, we cannot avoid the shaking that comes with Easter.
Just as a quake shook the earth at the moment of Jesus’ death, a second quake rocked the earth as the angel descended from heaven and rolled away the stone to the tomb. Sitting on the stone, the angel, with his lighting bright, dazzling appearance, must have been both splendid and terrifying all at the same time. It is easy for me to understand how the soldiers sent to guard the tomb must have fainted away in the face of this awful and awesome angelic presence. Yet, how ironic that in this moment of LIFE, the guards fall down as though dead; they could not bear the shaking.
Surely Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were equally as thrown by the descent of the angel as were the soldiers. But they saw the angel through a different lens, a different perspective. The angel’s descent did not send them into a dead faint. They were not overcome by fear, but seemed to take the angel’s words, “Do not be afraid” to heart. They heard the good news about their Teacher, and understood that the promises of God were now fulfilled. Everything was different. The shaking did not make the women fall. Instead, it gave them swift feet.
We may not be having an earthquake at this moment – although we here in Oklahoma know a little bit about that – but the ground is still shaking and quaking, rocking and rolling beneath our feet. Easter is that earthquake. A seismic event signaled the announcement of an empty tomb, and Easter is a cosmic event that signals that God is not done. God is not done – not done with us, not done with the world. Everything is shaken up. Everything is different and changed and new. Easter is here, He is risen, and the ground beneath our feet is shaking, rolling over and over, because the Lord is come. Joy to the world!
Joy to the world is wonderful, but I don’t think the world knows it is supposed to be joyful. The struggle I have every Easter, and every Christmas for that matter, is that I feel joyful and exuberant in here. I am overflowing with love and hope in here, in this place. But I cannot stay in this place. I have to go out there. And out there is still so broken. There is still so much pain, so much turmoil, so much hatred and hurting and killing and death. There is still so much death. If Easter is the earthquake, shaking the world to its very foundations, spinning even the cosmos into new patterns of glory, then the world seems not to have noticed. Nothing seems to have changed … and yet everything is changed because we are changed. How can we not be changed by that empty tomb? How can we not be changed by the knowledge that this day was and is about God? God resurrected Jesus not for Jesus’ sake alone, but for ours. A colleague once said that he can understand why God would resurrect Jesus, but us? And yet that’s what God did. That is what God is doing, resurrecting us from our old ways of living and being and seeing the world. Resurrection is not just a one-time event; it is a new perspective, a new way of seeing not just the world but the people who inhabit it.
Resurrection is a new perspective. It is like old eyes being made new. Easter may not seem to change anything, but we see differently. Resurrection is not something reserved for the last day or the end of time; it is a new perspective now. We see differently now. We have been given new eyes to see God working in this world, a new heart to feel God’s presence in this world, and new mind to understand God creating and re-creating in this world. We have been given a new perspective, a resurrection perspective.
Yesterday, Brent and I watched a video of a family gathering centered on their grandfather. The grandpa was color blind. The gift his family gave him was a special pair of sunglasses. When he put them on, he saw color for the first time. He saw the green of the grass and the blue of his ball cap. Those lenses gave him the gift of color. They gave him the gift of a new perspective. Easter is a new pair of glasses that allow us to see a glimpse of the world as it was created to be. It gives us new eyes, new lenses, new perspective.
When the women ran from the tomb, filled with both great fear and great joy, they met Jesus, the risen Christ. The New Revised Standard Version we read from translates his first word to the women as “Greetings.” But this is not a great translation. Put it into modern vernacular, and we hear Jesus welcoming the women with ‘Hi there!” But a better translation is “Rejoice.” Jesus meets the women and tells them, “Rejoice!” The women’s response was to fall before him and take his feet. He repeated the angel’s words, “Do not be afraid.”
Rejoice! Do not be afraid. These are the new lenses Easter gives us. These are the frames of our resurrection perspective. Rejoice! Do not be afraid. We know that the world is still caught in darkness. Harm is still done. Danger still lurks. Resurrection does not magically fix that which is broken, waving a wand of wonder over creation. But we are able to see beyond the dark’s long shadows. We are able to see the wholeness lying just beneath the broken places. We are able to see the ongoing presence of the risen Christ. We are able to see God everywhere, in every place, in every person.
Easter shakes the ground we walk on. Because of it we see with new eyes. We see with a new perspective: a resurrection perspective. And now that we see, we are also called to go, to tell others, to share the good news, to witness that we too have seen the Lord!
Rejoice! Do not be afraid. Rejoice! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

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