Sunday, April 28, 2013

Something New

Acts 11:1-18
April 28, 2013

            Remember The Titans is a film about racism and reconciliation.  And football.  Based on actual events, Remember The Titans tells the story of T.C. Williams high school in Alexandria, Virginia.  In 1971 two white high schools and one black high school were forced to integrate.  This meant that the football team would also be integrated, and the head coach, Bill Yoast, was told that his job was being given to an African American named Herman Boone.  Boone, who had moved his family to Alexandria for a job at the African American high school, doesn’t want to take the job away from another person.  But he’s encouraged to take it because it will help continue the Civil Rights struggle.  Boone offers the assistant coach job to Yoast and he reluctantly accepts.    
            No one is happy about the situation.  Not the parents or the players.  They leave for football camp in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and Boone takes on the seemingly insurmountable task of making them a team.  He succeeds.  Not just by being a hard as nails coach on the field, but also because of how he leads in every other way.  He forces each player to spend time, one-on-one, with teammates of another race. They have to learn about each other and report back.  Slowly the barriers between them are broken down, and they return to Alexandria closer to being a real team than they were before. 
            But tensions at school are high.  Protestors are outside the school doors.  The other students haven’t gone through this intense process of getting to know each other and fights are breaking out among the students.  Two of the main player characters, Garry Burtier who is white and Julius Campbell who is black, have become tentative friends and they’re trying not to let the tensions at the school ruin that.  In one scene Garry is talking with his girlfriend who states that “they hate us.”  They are the black students.  They hate the white students and always will.  Garry tries to convince her that it won’t always be like that.  She questions his change of heart.  He tells her that sometimes when something new happens, something unexpected, you have to go with it. 
            When something new happens you have to go with it.
            The stories of scripture that we read about today are also about something new. 
            Peter recounts a new beginning in our passage from Acts.  In order to fully understand this part of the story, you have to go back to the beginning, to the start of chapter 10.  It begins with the story of a man named Cornelius who lived in Caesarea.  Cornelius was a Roman centurion, a high-ranking Roman soldier.  He was a Gentile.  These are particular facts that we have to know about Cornelius.  He was a member and leader of one of the most feared armies in the world.  He was a Gentile, an outsider from the chosen ones of Israel, the Jews.  But we also learn some other facts about him.  He was a man who feared God. He was devoted to God.  He prayed unceasingly.  He was generous, consistently giving alms to those in need.  Later in his story, his messengers tell Peter that Cornelius is well-spoken of by the whole Jewish nation.  His ethnic status and profession do not disadvantage Cornelius in the eyes of God.
            Cornelius received a vision one afternoon.  An angel came to him with divine instructions.  He was to send men to Joppa for a man named Simon who was called Peter.  Peter was staying in the home of another Simon, a tanner.  Cornelius obeyed the angel’s commands and sent men to Peter.
            The next day as the men from Cornelius set out on their journey, Peter has his own vision.  He was on the roof praying, and while he was there he saw what looked like a large sheet.  It was being lowered to the ground by its four corners, and on that sheet there were animals, birds and reptiles of every kind.
            As Peter watches this sheet full of critters being lowered, he hears the Lord’s voice commanding him to go, kill and eat.  Peter absolutely refuses!  Never before has he eaten anything unclean or profane.  He has always kept kosher, and he’s not about to stop now.  The voice speaks again telling him that what God has made clean, Peter must not call profane.  Peter again declines with a resounding “no!”  This happens three times.  After the third time the sheet returns to the heavens as suddenly as it came, and Peter is left to puzzle out what he has just witnessed.
            As he’s trying to sort it all out, the three men arrive from Cornelius and ask for him.  The Spirit now tells Peter that he should go with these men without hesitation. 
Peter listens and Peter goes.  He brings with him some of the circumcised believers, in other words, good Jews.  And when he arrives at Cornelius’ house all of Cornelius’ family and friends are there.  Cornelius sees Peter and falls to his knees, trying to worship the apostle.  Peter orders him to stop.  Get up.  Then he tells everyone there that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or even visit a Gentile.  But Peter has finally begun to understand his vision.  God was not just talking about food and Jewish dietary laws, God was talking about people.  Peter must not call profane or unclean the people that God has called clean.  After hearing Cornelius’ vision, Peter begins to preach.
            “Now I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”
            While Peter is speaking the Holy Spirit falls upon all of them, including the Gentiles.  All the people there are astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit would be poured out even on the Gentiles, the others.  Seeing this gift, Peter asks if anyone could withhold the water of baptism from these Gentile believers.  So Cornelius and those gathered around him were baptized just as the Jewish believers had been.  Gentiles were baptized!
            So now we come to our particular part of the story.  Peter and the other believers returned to Judea.  The news of Peter’s encounter with the Gentile believers has reached the ears of the apostles in Jerusalem.  Peter is called before them to give them an account of his actions.  He is criticized for what he has done.  He is criticized for eating with uncircumcised men. 
            But the criticisms prompt Peter to tell his story from the beginning, explaining his unorthodox decision.  After carefully telling the series of events from beginning to end, Peter convinces his listeners with these words, “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”
            A new door was opened.  New, unexpected people were given a gift by God, were welcomed by God.  It was something new.
            The stories of God and God’s people are full of something new.  The Law was given to the Hebrew people at the beginning of what would become the Jewish nation.  Jesus’ ministry, a ministry that would fulfill the old Law and begin a new law of love, was something new.  
With Jesus’ death and resurrection the church that would bear his name and follow his Way found its beginning in something radically new.
With the conversion of Cornelius, the Way was no longer just a Jewish belief; it was the inauguration of the Gentile mission and ministry.  It was something new.
Something new sounds like it should be wonderful.  Marketers must see me coming when they advertise something as “new and improved,” because there’s something about those words that makes me want to try a new product.  If it’s new it must be better.  But that’s not how it works in reality is it?  Something new is not always welcome, whether it’s at home or school, and maybe most importantly, church.  Something new means change.  Change, even if it’s necessary, is never as easy or comfortable as we’d like to believe.  Change, something new, can be downright scary. 
I don’t know the exact figures but I do know that a large number of churches in our denomination are 100 members or less.  That means that all of these churches, including ours, have a common hope.  We want to grow.  We want to add new members.  The hard, cold truth is that if we don’t we may die. 
Probably every one of us sitting here hopes that we’ll grow in membership.  Our congregation, our ministry, our life together has much to offer people.  But what will growth look like?  Does it mean that everyone who walks in these doors will look like us or think like us or act like us?  If we really want to grow we have to prepare for the fact that the people who come here may not be like us.   They will have their own stories, their own agendas, their own ways of seeing the world.   I think congregations sometime delude themselves into thinking that growth is just about assimilating new people into an old way of doing things.  But I’m learning that growth means something new.  How can we not think that after reading of Peter’s vision?
This wasn’t just about food that Peter liked or didn’t like.  This was about going against centuries of belief and custom.  Peter wasn’t being obstinate to God’s will or word.  He was being true to what he’d been taught to believe was the will of God.  Peter was trying to be faithful. 
But God had other plans, other ideas about what was clean, what was unclean, who was clean and who was unclean.  In that vision God proclaimed something new.  That something new challenged what Peter believed to be fundamental.  But in the end Peter didn’t run from God’s new something.  Instead he asked, “Who am I to hinder God?” 
I have no more idea than you do of what our particular something new will look like.  But I know that we as a congregation are faced with challenges.  Our building, our membership, our role in this community – we stand on the precipice of something new.  It’s exciting.  It’s terrifying.  I don’t know what’s coming, but I do know this.  The Holy Spirit empowered Peter and the other apostles to do God’s something new.  They weren’t alone.  It wasn’t easy.  It was never easy.  But they weren’t alone.  Neither are we.  Are we ready?  Are we ready for something new?  Let all God’s children say, “Amen!”

Monday, April 22, 2013

Our Every Need

John 10: 22-30
April 21, 2013/Fourth Sunday of Easter

From the moment I first heard about the bombings at the finish line of the Boston Marathon to the explosion at the fertilizer plant in Texas, the manhunt that ensued Friday for the second suspected bomber, as well as observing the anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, I feel as though I have been bombarded by voices.  Voices trying to assess a dangerous situation, or discern the motives behind terrorist attacks; voices lifted in grief and anger and warning.
But even during a “normal” week, I’m surrounded by voices.  Sitting in the quiet of my office is not necessarily quiet.  I can listen to music or talk radio on my IPad, as well as read newspapers from around the world.  I’m never far away from social media and the multitude of opinions and ideas that provides.  I can listen to a sermon brainwave podcast on my computer and receive calls and text messages on my phone.  As I said, I am surrounded by voices.
            This is not all bad.  I receive a lot of good from many of the voices that I listen to.  But if you’re trying to discern that still, small voice, it can become problematic.  The symbol for RCA music was a white and black dog sitting in front of an old-fashioned Victrola listening to “his master’s voice.”   But discerning the voice of God in the midst of all the other voices that demand our attention is not as easy as the little dog listening to his master’s voice on a recording.  I wish it were.
            I can blame my inability to hear Jesus’ voice on the external noise inherent in my life, but what was the excuse of the people who confront Jesus in John’s gospel?  It was at the festival of Dedication and Jesus was walking in the portico of Solomon.  This was the area of the temple where the kings would sit and mete out justice.  The Jews come to Jesus and say to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense?  If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” 
            One commentator writes that there are two ways to look at this question posed by the people who confront Jesus.  One is that this is a politically charged question.  The people questioning him may have been trying to give him enough rope in a sense.  If he answers that he is in fact the messiah, then they can charge him with blasphemy.  The second understanding of their question is that these are people who just want to understand who Jesus is.  They don’t ask this question to trick or trap Jesus.  They ask him because they want to understand, they want to grasp his identity. 
            In earlier verses it says that the people were divided over Jesus, so scholars suggest it is reasonable to see both of these angles at play.  But I think that what is more important is how Jesus responds.  “I have told you, and you do not believe.  The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.  My sheep hear my voice.  I know them, and they follow me.” 
            My sheep hear my voice.  The implication is that if these folks really were believers, they would hear his voice.  They would have already figured it out.  And Jesus makes it clear that his voice is heard most loudly, most clearly in his works.  He does works in his Father’s name and those works testify to him.  They testify to his identity.  His works proclaim beyond any words he might speak that he is in fact the Messiah.  The passage then ends with Jesus saying, “The Father and I are one.” 
            Biblical commentator Gail O’Day writes that the Greek that is translated as “one” in the New Revised Standard Version is not speaking so much about Jesus and God being one person or one essence or one being.  Instead it means that the Father and the Son are “united” together.  Jesus’ works are united with his Father’s.  When you see what Jesus does, you see what God does.
            So the people who are truly his sheep hear Jesus’ voice.  They recognize Jesus’ voice in his works.  They see God in him.  They see God in what he does.  Because they hear his voice, they are given eternal life.  They won’t be snatched out of the Good Shepherd’s hands.  They won’t be snatched out of the Father’s hands.
            I make that sound very simple, but the truth of the matter is that hearing the voice of Jesus is hard.  I think I fall on the side of the people who came to Jesus just wanting to understand him, wanting to comprehend who he was and what that meant for their lives.  That’s really all I want as well.  I want to understand Jesus.  I want to know his identity and I want to know what that means for me, not just in worship, but every day.  And that is from the perspective of a believer.  I believe.  But I also doubt.  There are moments when I have recognized Jesus’ voice.  But more often than not that voice gets lost in the din of voices around me.  There are moments, many of them, when I doubt whether I’ll ever recognize Jesus’ voice again.   So I have faith, but doubt is never very far away.  Especially in weeks like this past one where violence and death and destruction are at the forefront of our consciousness. 
            Yet in the midst of the tragedies that have occurred this past week, we have seen people united.  People in Boston were certainly united in, first in how they responded to the bombings.  It wasn’t just first responders that ran into the fray.  Marathon volunteers, by-standers, runners all ran toward the chaos to help, to assist, to care and to comfort. 
            Our nation has united around them.  I can’t think of a bigger rivalry in any sport than there is between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox.  But at the first Yankees game after the bombings, the team and the fans showed their support for Boston through their actions on the field and off.    
            We certainly don’t need to look very far from home to see how tragedy unites a people. One of the sights that Phoebe, Zach and I were shown when we came here for my interview was the Oklahoma City bombing memorial.  I quickly learned that what came out of that horrible time was a city united – united to rebuild and revitalize Oklahoma City into a better, stronger place to live, work and thrive.
            Several years ago when our denomination was close to irrevocably splintering over the issue of gay and lesbian ordination, the General Assembly commissioned a Peace, Unity and Purity task force to deal with this controversial issue.  Their task as I understand it was to help us as a denomination stay together and find a way to address this without killing each other.  Representatives from every spot on the spectrum were asked to serve on the task force; people who opposed the ordination, people who wanted it and moderates who fell at different places in between.  Two of the people who served on that committee – Mark Achtemeier and Scott Anderson – were both members of my former presbytery, John Knox.  And after the tas k force had made its report to the General Assembly, members of the Peace, Unity and Purity task force were speaking to presbyteries about the recommendations the committee made and educating us about the process they engaged in. 
            What I learned from Mark and Scott was that one of the first things the task force agreed to do was begin each meeting together with worship, and that worship had to include communion.  The members of the task force realized that the only way they would be able to bridge their differences was if they first acknowledged what they had in common.  So nothing else was done, no decisions were made, no steps were taken, until they had broken bread and shared the cup; every time they met.  Everytime.  It was in the act of communion with one another that they realized that what bound them together was more powerful and more meaningful than what drove them apart.  They found their unity with one another when they participated in the meal that strengthened their unity with Christ. 
            We believe that it is in this meal, at this table, that we recognize the living Christ, the living God, in the breaking of bread.  It is at this table that we are nourished and given strength to continue following, to continue on the narrow path of discipleship.  It is at this table that we acknowledge that God in Christ is with us.  With us.  It is at this table, in this meal, that we see Christ in each other.  We are one with God in Christ at this table.  We are one with each other at this table. 
            Unity born of tragedy, disaster or out of chaos is powerful, necessary, but not necessarily enduring.  Too often once the tragedy ends so does the unity we feel with one another.  I think, though, that the unity we share here, in this place, partaking in this meal, around this table runs deeper.  At this table we hear Jesus’ voice.  At this table we see one another in Christ and Christ in one another.  At this table we meet our Good Shepherd.  At this table our every need is met.  At this table we are one.  Let all God’s children say, “Amen.” 

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Beginning With Me

 The following is the article I wrote for the Minister's Corner of The Shawnee News Star, April 20, 2013.

“Merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.  We have not loved you with our whole heart and mind and strength.  We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.  In your mercy, forgive what we have been, help us amend what we are, and direct what we shall be, so that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways to the glory of your holy name.”
Confession of Sin, Book of Common Worship, 1993 Westminster/John Knox Press

            As I write this article we as a nation continue to reel from the terrorist attacks that happened Monday, April 15, at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.  While it is still unknown who did this and why, we do know that three people were killed – an 8-year-old, a grad student and a young woman in her late twenties.  There have been more than 170 people injured, many of them traumatic injuries resulting in amputations.  The debris from the blasts is being meticulously sifted through, and remains of what looks to be the potential bombs are being analyzed.  The people of Boston are understandably shaken and horrified at what has happened – as we all are – but they have rallied in spirit and determination and are refusing to shrink down in terror in the face of this gruesome attack on their city. 

              Over 11 years ago the people of New York rallied in spirit and determination, refusing to give into fear at the indescribable evil that struck on September 11, 2001.  And 18 years ago this week the people of Oklahoma City and Oklahomans everywhere rallied in spirit and determination after the terrible bombings at the Murrah Federal Building in downtown OKC. 

            Whenever something terrible like this happens, people rally together.  All the factors that divide them on ordinary days don’t seem to matter as much when the unthinkable occurs.  The late children’s television host and fellow Presbyterian minister, Fred Rogers, shared wisdom his mother told him when he was little and something scary happened.  “Look for the helpers.”  We’ve seen countless helpers in Boston.  Ordinary citizens, as well as first responders, rushed toward the explosions, to offer help and care.  Runners left the race and ran to nearby hospitals to donate blood.  Doctors and nurses who were runners assisted with triage.  There were many helpers in Boston.  There were many helpers in New York and in Oklahoma City.  For this I am grateful because it does, as so many people have said already, reinforce my belief in the goodness of humanity.  Those who would commit such monstrous acts of violence against innocents are far fewer than those who would rush in to help. 

            But even saying that, it is at times like these that I wonder about the violence of our race.  We are capable of such great beauty and equally capable of such brutality.  I will make the assumption that no one taking a few minutes to read this article would ever commit a crime against their fellow human beings like the one perpetrated in Boston this week.  Yet violence and hatred have the same potential to wreak havoc within me as they do anyone.  Maybe I don’t act on it, but it’s there.  The events in Boston are not the first time that people have acted viciously towards other people.  It seems that from the moment human life began we’ve been trying to kill one another.  I might not have harmed others in big ways, but I know I’ve harmed in small ways.  One of those ways is that too often I am silent in the face of violence, which makes me complicit in its continuation.  

            I am sickened by the violence and carnage on Monday.  I was sickened by it over 11 years ago and 18 years ago.  But violence against innocents happens every day, here and around the world.  And if I’m not raising my voice against that, if I stand silent or turn away at the acts of terror that happen in other countries or in homes or in schools, then I am guilty of allowing violence to go on.  I am guilty of proclaiming that I believe in peace, but do not act on it.  I am guilty of not loving my neighbor as I do myself.  So I confess today that as a human being I am culpable for the violence that is too often enacted against my fellow humans.  It has become a cliché, but truly, if peace is ever going to make it in this world, then it has to begin right here, right now, with me.