The Faith to Which We Were Baptized – 2016/07/17

Psalm 52
Luke 10:38-42
Colossians 1:15-29


     Did you ever notice how certain towns lead people to do certain things? Like, I have a couple of friends who moved to New York or LA, and every single one of them wound up going into the entertainment industry (with varying degrees of success, mind you), whether that was their plan or not. It’s like the pull of those places were somehow stronger than their individual desires.
     This often happens with local cultures. Our cultures influence us to do things we might not otherwise have wanted to do. We are shaped by our circumstances. But that’s not something unique to today’s life. It was true in Paul’s day, as well.
     Collosae was a small town in modern-day Turkey. It was also home to a lot of “spiritual” religions – people seemed ready to experience the mystical there, and that led to a lot of different expressions of worship. There were a lot of cults that worshiped statues and animals, for example. There were also a lot of Jews there at the time, but they would’ve been less familiar with the lifestyle of Jews in Jerusalem, and more in tune with the wider Greek culture, and particularly the culture in Collosae.
     Just as Christians today express their faith differently in different places, there were issues with that in the ancient world, too. Most of the time, these minor variations are harmless. But sometimes, our wider culture can give us ideas that are particularly incongruous with our Christian beliefs. Paul’s letter to the Colossians deals with a lot of those themes.
     The wider, non-Christian culture around Colossae seems to have had a lot of unusual practices. For example, there were major emphases on specific religious practices: for example, dietary restrictions, observing specific holidays, and even engaging in self-harm, as well as worshiping of angels, among other things. It seems likely that Colossian Christians were led astray by some of these religious practices. However, Paul is writing to them to give them a different message.
     Instead of that wider view of how the world operates, with very specific procedures required for worship and being in God’s good favor, Paul presents us with the heart of the Good News: that Jesus Christ is enough! It’s not about worshiping in a specific way, it’s not about doing certain tasks. The way we’re connected to God has less to do with our actions, and more to do with putting our trust in the One who comes first.
     To illustrate this point, Paul quotes a hymn. Scholars have noticed that verses 15-20 are actually a sort of early Christian hymn to the greatness of Jesus, his connection to God, and his centrality in creation.
     These verses talk about the cosmic Christ – the one who was and is God incarnate, the one who comes to save. And they’re verses, not about what we do, but about who Christ is. These verses of an old, old hymn are a declaration of faith. Faith, as I’m sure many of you know, is not a word that means “belief,” but it’s more akin to “trust.” Faith is about you and what you put your trust in. Do you put your trust in things of this world, or do you put your trust in the all-sufficient Jesus, who comes to make us whole, heal us, and bring us back to God?
     When we enter the Christian family, we do so through Baptism. At our Baptisms, we make (or our parents or guardians make on our behalf) promises to be faithful to Jesus. In our times as Christian believers, we will express those beliefs differently; we will often fail to live up to the example set by Christ. Yet at the same time, we know that it is not our efforts, not our special things we do that win God’s favor – rather, it is the all-sufficient, all-surpassing grace and love of Jesus Christ that shows us God’s love.
     The same one who is the one in and for whom all things were created, the firstborn of all creation, the head of the church, the one in whom all things are held together – the one who, ultimately, died for us and for our salvation, and who was resurrected to show us God’s victory over sin and death and be the firstborn from the dead – he is the one in whom we trust, and he is the one to whom we look for salvation.
     In a few minutes, I will ask you to join me in a ceremony of Baptismal remembrance. I’ll invite you to come forward and be anointed with water and reminded of this faith into which you were baptized. This is the faith of the cosmic Christ, who is there for us. He is the one who urges us to become who God wants us to be, not because we must to earn God’s love, but rather because we have God’s love, and want to show the world how we have been changed.
     I’ll ask you to come down the center aisle and join me at the font, and we will recognize our shared faith, and renew our commitments to the one who committed himself to us. Let us be refreshed and renewed for service to Christ, the one in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, so that we may be the people God is yearning for us to be – created, redeemed, and transformed. Amen.

Wanting to Justify Ourselves – 2016/07/10

Psalm 82
Colossians 1:1-14
Luke 10:25-37


     One year, my high school football coaches put this huge emphasis on the idea of “no excuses.” It was a big deal – just about every practice, in most of the drills, in all of the scrimmages, if something went wrong, you were just supposed to put your head down, take responsibility, and do better next time.
     Now, my high school football team was a bad one, so there were a lot of things that didn’t go right. That meant a lot of chances for our coaches to remind us that there weren’t going to be any excuses. Now, one of the reasons I think were were a bad football team is that we were a heady bunch, more prone to thinking than to playing. We probably got as much enjoyment out of the philosophical discussions that arose out of this, “No Excuses” policy – we debated the difference between a “reason,” an “alibi,” a “justification,” and an “excuse.” Frankly, you can probably see why we weren’t very good – I don’t think good football teams probably spend too much of their time parsing their coaches’ words and having debates about their meaning.
     But nonetheless, those discussions we did have. We had those discussions because we were a bunch of nerdy kids who thought about those things, yes. But we had the discussions because we were also a bunch of kids who were looking to not be at fault. We were looking for the ways in which our actions were right, because sometimes circumstances beyond our control led us to do things that were… less than ideal. Someone else falls down in coverage; the safety runs up to help; the quarterback throws it over the safety’s head, to the guy he should’ve been covering. Safety’s fault – but if he had acted differently, a different play would’ve been made. There are tough calls on the football field, and even tougher ones in life; often, we’re just looking for someone to tell us that we made the right one.
     That’s what the legal expert in our passage today does. This story, perhaps the most important in all of the Bible, is critical to understanding Christianity, Christian action, and Christ. And it begins with a lawyer. A “lawyer” is what the text says, but it means someone who is an expert in Jewish law – a.k.a. a Bible scholar. He asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, and Jesus throws the question back at him, asking what the Scriptures say. The legal expert answers, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”
     “Correct,” Jesus tells him. And the story could end there, if it wanted to. The story could end there, because these two commands – love of God and love of neighbor – could not be plainer, even though they’re the most complex and difficult things of all. There’s no need for further clarification.
     And yet, the legal expert presses on, asking, “And who is my neighbor?” The text tells us that he asked this question, “wanting to justify himself.” He wanted the “a-ok” on everything he’d done in life. “You know, that time you were mean to one of those lepers begging by the Temple?” he wanted to hear Jesus say, “Well, that was fine, because only the people in your family and neighborhood count as your neighbor.” Or perhaps he wanted to hear this: “Only your fellow Jews count as neighbors, so don’t worry how you treat the Samaritans or Gentiles.” Maybe he wanted to hear that it was easy: “Your neighbor is the person who loves you. So only love those who love you, and you’re set forever.” Or perhaps, most selfishly of all, what this legal expert wanted to hear was this: “Oh, your neighbors? Those are the people you love already. So just go on loving those who love you, and you’ll be fine. But don’t worry about anyone else.”
     Instead, Jesus tells a story that we should all know. It’s a story of a man walking the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. That’s a dangerous road, in the days of Jesus – a road filled with robbers and thieves, all looking to take unexpecting travelers by force and separate them from their money or goods. As this man goes walking down the road, he is, of course, attacked. The robbers are particularly cruel – they strip him of not only his goods, but his clothes. Even though they already have everything he brought, they beat him and leave him to die in the hot, desert sun, all alone and without mercy.
     Fortunately, as he lay there dying, a priest walked by. This priest was, of course, a righteous man. He worked in the Temple and helped people in their relationship with God. He arranged for sacrifices. He undoubtedly counseled many people, both those who liked him and those who didn’t, on the ways of the Lord. And when he sees the man lying by the side of the road, he crosses to the other side. He’s a good guy in the story, keep in mind. The assumption of Jesus’ listeners would be that the priest was a righteous man – and he probably was. Yet he did nothing for a man in dire need.
     Thankfully, though, he was not the only one to pass by! A Levite, someone descended from the house of Moses’ brother Aaron, came by next. Levites worked in and for the Temple. They were trusted religious authorities, who were responsible for the religious lives of the people. They weren’t the ones leading services, but they were responsible for the worshiping community’s well-being. If we were looking for an analogy in our own Presbyterian church, we could say that the first person to pass by was a pastor, while the second one was an elder – someone charged with helping our spiritual well-being. But, just like the priest before him, when he sees this man dying, he crosses to the other side of the road.
     Over time, some well-meaning people have looked to excuse the actions of the priest and the Levite, so that this story doesn’t get turned into a story about how bad Jewish people are.
     People will note (correctly, mind you) that it is illegal to touch a dead body, and that therefore the priest and the Levite were simply doing the right thing. The problem with that kind of thinking, though, is twofold: first, you are permitted (in fact commanded) to touch a dead body to help bury it – it’s a worse sin to leave a body unburied than it is to touch a corpse in Judaism; second, the man wasn’t dead yet. So that excuse doesn’t work, whether they believed him to be dead or not.
     The whole point of the story is that not just one, but two good people, respected people, people who were probably pillars of the community and probably morally excellent at other times in their lives – those people walk by. And then in comes the Samaritan.
     You can be forgiven if you thought “Samaritan” means “good guy.” It doesn’t. Samaritans were a group closely related to the Jews (if you want to know more, ask me sometime – you’ll get a really long answer). They lived in a slightly different place (in the north of modern Israel) and they worshiped slightly differently. But they did not get along. Today, when we see a “Good Samaritan” hospital or counseling center, we don’t think twice about it – but the truth is, the word “Good” is in the story for a reason. It’s called the “Good Samaritan” because Jesus’ early hearers didn’t expect a Samaritan to be a good guy – in fact, they expected the opposite. If anyone in the story was expected to move to the other side of the road, it would be this Samaritan, yet he is the one who helps.
     The Samaritan does some remarkable things – above and beyond the call of duty, I think it would be fair to say. He bandaged the man, cleaned his wounds, gave up his own ride to the man, took him to an inn, and paid for his medical care, then (since he had to pre-pay the inn), decided to come back and pay whatever expense was left over that hadn’t yet been paid.
     And at the end of the story, Jesus asks who the neighbor is, and the legal expert replies, “The one who showed him mercy,” correctly pointing out that it is the undesirable Samaritan who is the true neighbor. When congregations hear this story today, even if they know the principles that underlie the story and understand it in theory, I don’t think they hear it the way Jesus’ followers would’ve heard it. So let me try again, in a way that might approximate the story.
     A man was lying beaten on the side of the road. A doctor saw him, but crossed to the other side. A nurse saw him, but crossed to the other side. And then a homeless man saw him, picked him up, paid his expenses, and made sure he was healed. Or how about this version:
     A man was lying beaten on the side of the road. A soldier saw him, but crossed to the other side. A judge saw him, but crossed to the other side. And then an illegal immigrant saw him, picked him up, paid his expenses, and made sure he was healed. That one may actually be the closest to how the original would’ve sounded to Jesus’ hearers. Or perhaps this version:
     A man was lying beaten on the side of the road. A pastor saw him, but crossed to the other side. A youth leader in the church saw him, but crossed to the other side. And then a Muslim saw him, picked him up, paid his expenses, and made sure he was healed.
     Those groups that are looked down on in our society are our neighbors, and we are their responsibility, and they are ours. Jesus is not telling a cutesy story that’s just about getting along with your next-door neighbor, or even about the person from town you’ve never liked. Jesus is talking about a radical acceptance of the people whom we view as being so different that we don’t even think about them.
     I have had many thoughts this week about people lying on the side of the road and dying. This week, I watched Alton Sterling and Philando Castille shot, and I watched the videos and saw them die. There are and have been greater calls for police accountability in those shootings. Certainly, we can’t have forces for law and order shooting people who aren’t committing violent crimes – we wouldn’t want to be shot for those things. But we often excuse those shootings and other events like them because the victims that we see look different than we do, and our preconceived notions of who those victims are get in the way of our understanding of the tragedy of police who aren’t bad people, and who are in fact good people, but who watched the man dying by the side of the road.
I’m 100% certain that this analogy made some – probably most, and maybe all of you uncomfortable. But remember that Jesus’ early hearers were uncomfortable with this story, too!!! This is not a story of comfort for the hearers. This is a story of compassion for the broken. Notice that Jesus didn’t say that the man walking from Jerusalem to Jericho was righteous – maybe he was, maybe he wasn’t. Maybe he was a criminal! What do we know? But the story is not about him and what he’s done or what he hasn’t – it’s about not allowing the walls that we put up between ourselves and one another to get in the way of loving each other. It’s about caring for one another, in spite of our differences.
     The Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller, who lived during the rise of Nazism and the Holocaust, is very famously quoted in a poem you’re undoubtedly familiar with:
          “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
          Because I was not a Socialist.
          Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
          Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
          Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
          Because I was not a Jew.
          Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
     We don’t live in Nazi Germany, obviously. But there’s a call to action here that’s inherent to the human condition: we must look out for one another, even when the “us” we’re looking at looks, or worships, or acts, or speaks, or behaves, or whatever, like someone who’s not one of “us.”
     And then, later in the week, we saw a very disturbed person decide to kill some police officers, perhaps as payback for feeling like the justice system did not bring people to justice. Lorne Ahrens, Michael Smith, Michael Krol, Patrick Zamarripa, and Brent Thompson were killed. And this is where we get to discuss the true nature of evil.
     Racism and racial prejudice are a supremely pernicious, insidious evil that run through the course of American culture. But even more pernicious, insidious, and evil is an idea that is a lie we’ve been fed our whole lives: the lie that violence is a solution to our problems. In a moment of weakness, we turn to violence for strength. We prize our own safety and security over just about everything else – when in fact the very call of the Gospel is to be willing to lose our lives.
     We worship a Savior who willingly gave up his life to save the world. He didn’t worry about the cost; he didn’t worry about the pain. Jesus was willing to walk into the lion’s den of utter human evil, and come what may. He was there to do the will of God, be it scary, or trying, or ultimately ending in death.
     We live in trying times, and it is our task as believers in Christ to follow his example, and he (through the legal expert in this story) names our first duty as devotion of the whole self to God. We do that through worship and recognition of God’s greatness. But we do it also through confession of our sins. And we must confess when we have allowed our prejudices, our personal dislikes, and our enmities to get in the way of what we’re supposed to do. Because our best way of showing our love of God is through our treatment of one another.
     Remember that in Christianity, it is not death that holds a final answer. The killing of one person, of a thousand people, does not end cycles of evil. What has the power to end evil is a willingness to stand up to it, the consequences be damned. This world does not belong to evil; this world belongs to God. The evils of racial hatred, of injustice, and the mistaken belief that violence holds the answer are the things that need to be killed – not our neighbors, our friends, and our fellow children of God.
     The cross is an open-ended question: the cross asks if the violence we perpetrate against one another, the violence that we believe will end the things that we don’t like, is the answer. And at the end of the day, that cross stands empty. Jesus could not be confined to it, because Jesus Christ is the answer. The cross is an open-ended question that God answers for us on Easter Sunday morning in the empty tomb.
     At the end of the day, in Jesus’ eyes, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a Samaritan or a Jew or a Gentile – he came equally for us all. That’s an easier truth to understand in principle than it is in fact. But in the story of the Good Samaritan, we see a life lived for God, and we must recognize that we, too, are called to that life. It’s a life of risk, of heavy cost, and of no expectation of reward. That doesn’t sound appealing – but then you remember that the Good Samaritan, if only for a moment, but in the absolute depth of human despair, was an angel; we are called to be that same angelic presence to one another.
     Although the world is indeed often a fearful place, remember the first words spoken by the angel to Mary on the announcement of Jesus’ birth: “Do not be afraid.” Beloved, we are held in the loving arms of the God of Life; the God who loves us all; the God who, in Christ, is willing to give up his life for the lives of us all, so that we might do the same for those we see beaten on the side of the road.
     So as you depart, depart in the knowledge of the love of God. Worship God with the loudest of voices, with the richest of prayers, and with actions that speak to a true understanding of Jesus own life. Amen.

Advice for the Road – 2016/07/03

Psalm 30
Galatians 6:1-6
Luke 10:1-11


     Oh Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable unto you, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
     We join today’s story from the Gospel of Luke at an important turning point. Jesus has just turned with his disciples, and headed for Jerusalem. Much like Dorothy and her friends heading down the Yellowbrick Road, or like Harry heading for the Forbidden Forest in book seven, or George Washington crossing the Delaware, we have the point in our story at which the person we’re following begins the journey to meet their fate.
     In Jesus’ case, this long walk to Jerusalem will be filled with miracles, with teachings, and with new relationships that bring people closer to God. But in the end, he heads to Jerusalem, where he will be crucified and die. And of course, the story will end in his resurrection and ascension into heaven. But until that time, we have this journey.
     In preparation for the journey, Jesus does some really interesting things. First of all, he sends out seventy believers ahead of him, to go be his “ambassadors,” as it were – meeting people in the towns where he intended to go, and making people ready to hear the Good News that Jesus himself would show to them. And as he sent them forth, he sent them with some good advice for how to act in the towns where they were to go.
     Now, normally, I don’t like sermons that just go point-by-point through a text, but it’s something I really felt like I should do with this particular text, because there’s so much rich stuff here, and I don’t know how else to do this. So you’ll see the Powerpoint behind me, and that will keep some of the words Jesus says up there, so that you can follow along.
The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.
     This is an obvious one; there is a lot to do, but not a lot of people to do it. So we need to ask for God’s help in providing labor. Now, this seems like it’s a pretty straightforward thing, right? We need more bodies! But… well, I’ll say this: look at the next line.
See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.
     “The laborers are few,” says Jesus, “So I’m sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.” In other words, because there are so few laborers, we are called to do the work. And, by the way, it’s not going to be easy, because we’re called to go out and work with people who might be openly hostile to us.
Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road.
     Don’t take a way to make money, don’t bring “stuff,” because this isn’t about “stuff.” and it’s not about small-talk, either, so don’t plan on being too friendly with the people you see on the side of the road.
Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you.
     Begin with an offering of peace, and if no one’s there to return it to you, know that you do carry that peace with you everywhere.
Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid.
     Eat what people put in front of you. Remember, these were Jews with strict dietary laws; yet, the countryside through which they traveled had a lot of non-Jews living there. And Jesus says, “Being a good guest is more important than your pride in following the law.”
Do not move about from house to house
     When you’re somewhere; be there. Do the job, and don’t be seduced by something shinier just because it comes along. Even though the place you are might not seem like the place you need to be sometimes, trust that God is calling you somewhere special to do something special.
Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’
     When you’re out doing God’s work, it’s not just about telling people about Jesus; it’s not just about doing the work of repairing people’s bodies. Our call as Christians is to the bodies, minds, and spirits of those around us. We should be willing to do, not only what heals one part of a person, but whatever we need to do to heal the whole person.
But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.’
     Finally, we come to the last point. That when people reject you and the message you bring, shake it off – literally. Don’t let the dust drag you down with it and keep you thinking of a place where things didn’t go well. Just remind people of the message and move on to the next place.
     Now, all of that sounds well-and-good. It’s important stuff, really. But how on earth is it applicable? We aren’t disciples, roaming the countryside in ancient Israel, looking to convert towns. How can this relate to our lives?
     Well, the answer I would give is that every single day, we perform missionary work. In every interaction with a person that we have, we are missionaries. We are bringing God to the people around us. When we greet people with anger, rudeness, or resentment, the very fact that we’re Christians means that we’re showing them an angry, rude, and resentful God.
     Not everyone is going to accept us, just as not everyone accepted those 70 people Jesus sent out ahead of him. But when we’re not accepted, we need to shake it off, move along to the next interaction, and continue to do our best to reflect the life of Jesus with our own lives, as well as to tell his story. Remember that you are an ambassador for God, so how you interact with others matters.
     Soon in the service, we will be confessing our faith in the words of the Apostles’ Creed. (Incidentally, I love that we call it “confessing” our faith; it means we’re admitting it. It means we’re telling the truth to a world that isn’t always ready to hear it. But I digress.) Soon, we’re going to say the Apostles’ Creed, and as we do that, I’d like you to think of those, not as words we simply recite in church, but rather about words of belonging – words that express a faith that doesn’t just belong to you, but to billions of people around the world, and to even more who have come before.
     The faith that we admit to having is a faith that shows a God in final victory. It is a faith that acknowledges the truth of life – we are going to be hurt and bruised, put through trials and difficult times. But at the same time, it’s a faith that believes that, in the end and even in the most difficult of situations, hope springs eternal and God prevails! We live in God’s victory.
     The central event of our faith is the cross and empty tomb – a place beyond hope, and an unbelievable outpouring of joy as the impossible happens.
     At no point does the empty tomb mean a denial of the cross – the bad things still happen, and we still weep at the sad and gnash our teeth at the evil. But at the end of the day, we believe in Good News. We believe that Jesus Christ came for us, to reconcile us to God and to one another. And even when that seems impossible, we must remember that Jesus’ story is the one about hope right in the most impossible of situations.
     A faith that we share is a faith that is stronger than a belief in ourselves and the indomitability of the human spirit. It’s a faith stronger than a simple belief that God created the world. It’s a faith in the ultimate hope that, no matter how dire, God will work the things that have been evil into things that are good, or at least as good as they can be on this fallible earth.
     Beloved, that is the faith for which we are ambassadors. So be ready to share in it joyfully, and remember that your each and every action is a reflection of that faith. As you treat those who have less than you do, that’s a reflection of how you feel about your role as God’s ambassador; as you act around those you dislike or who dislike you, that is what you think of God. So life your faith, and go out renewed for service and life in Christ. Amen.

Fruit of the Spirit – 2016/06/26

Psalm 77:11-20
2 Kings 2:1-14
Galatians 5:1, 13-25


     I tend not to like to preach from Paul’s writings. There are a lot of pastors out there that prefer the cut-and-dried nature of the letters of the New Testament – plainspoken words about what is and what isn’t, what should be and what shouldn’t. For me (and this is probably the English major in me talking), it’s all about stories. Because stories show instead of telling; stories are easier to remember and stick with us better.
     Yet, at the same time, I spent a lot of college writing papers about stories. Papers, as you may guess, are boring. They just try to explain something that somebody else already told better. Heck, that’s a lot of what we do in sermon-writing, too – take things that are actually well-written, and turn them into something different! Nonetheless, though, that’s basically what Paul was doing in his letters – taking the stories of Jesus, and turning them into something a little easier to digest, which is what we hope to accomplish in sermons, too. So I must recognize that Paul is, in some way, “my people.” He’s trying the same stuff I’m trying – he’s just doing it a whole lot more memorably.
     At the end of the day, though, we’ve all heard sermons that stick with us. Even if they might not be as powerful as the original text, they can be beautiful.
     Similarly, while Paul’s writing will never, for me at least, compare to the actual stories of Jesus as presented in Scripture, they are still capable of being beautiful, powerful, and inspiring in their own way.
     Today’s passage from Galatians is certainly an example of that, in my opinion. It starts with a couple of those classic Christian chestnuts – the freedom we have in Christ, which is to be used for good and not for evil, and the call to love our neighbors. In today’s passage, these two ideas are related, because Paul is trying to call people to a Christian life, and sometimes, a Christian life is a really hard thing for people to understand.
     There’s a temptation to say, “Well, if all our sins are forgiven, can’t I just go ahead and sin away, doing whatever I want? I don’t have to follow any rules of behavior, right?” On the one hand, yes – our sins are forgiven. And by the same token, yes – there aren’t specific rules of behavior we have to follow. But that still doesn’t mean we get to do absolutely whatever we want, absolutely whenever we want to.
     Paul, instead, is showing us that God’s relationship to us is more like the relationship between a parent and child than between a general and his army. Let me to elaborate. The military is run with the expectation that something said is something done; insubordination will not be tolerated.
     But being a parent isn’t about an expecting absolute adherence to the rules. Rather, being a parent is more about shaping than instructing; more about teaching than about telling. As a parent, you can’t possibly prepare your child for every single situation they’re going to encounter in life and tell them how to act; our imaginations just aren’t big enough to figure that out. But what we do is set a foundation of things that are important, and let those principles guide our children throughout their lives.
     So what we’ve been given by our divine Parent is the life of Jesus. Obviously, Jesus couldn’t possibly have told every single follower how to face every single problem we would – there weren’t enough hours in his too-short life to tell us all that. But we do have his life as an example for us to follow.
     Jesus shows us how we’re supposed to live. So we, as Christians, have an exemplar. Maybe we don’t know exactly how Jesus would act in every situation – but we do have quite a few examples of how Jesus acts in other situations, and that’s what we’re supposed to follow. We’re not supposed to take our forgiveness for granted and do whatever we want. To do that would be to prove that we don’t “get it.” Those with a true relationship with Christ won’t take advantage of him; they will seek to be closer, which means more in-line with what Jesus said and did, rather than taking advantage.
     Forgiveness is freely given to us. But our calling in that forgiveness is to live a life of gratitude; and living a life of gratitude means that we’re supposed to be more than “takers.” Nobody likes it when people take things and aren’t willing to work hard for them. Similarly, we can’t be expected just to take the forgiveness without working hard to show our commitment to Christ as a “thank you” for his commitment to us. Surely, our good behavior will always pale in comparison to his saving grace, but we must do the best we can for him.
     So how do we do that? How do we live lives of gratitude, showing Jesus our love through our actions? Well, Paul guides us here. First, he mentions that we must become slaves to one another – serving each other rather than ourselves; taking care of others rather than indulging in our own desires. But that’s a common theme in Scripture, and I preach about those types of things a lot. But even love of neighbor grows out of a change in our own hearts and spirits.
     In today’s reading from Galatians, Paul tells us that we should be led by the Spirit, and if we are, we will demonstrate what he calls the “fruit of the Spirit.” These things are: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” I wanted to repeat those, because most of the time in my life that I’ve heard this text preached, it’s been about the things we shouldn’t do, rather than the things we should. So hearing this text, my mind goes to “don’t be bad,” instead of “actively be good.” Those are different things, and I think it’s important to talk about what we need to do, not just what we need to avoid.
     Living in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control is not just a job to do – it’s not a mere task to accomplish, an item on a list to check-off. These things are habits to build – ways to live our lives. I would suggest that you listen to me read this list of things again. As I read, pick out the one that speaks to you. Which one weighs on your heart? Which one is God calling you to embrace more this week? If you need to, write it down and carry it with you this week. But whether you write it or not, choose something you’re going to work on, and figure out how God is calling you to work on it. Again, the fruit of the Spirit is this: love; joy; peace; patience; kindness; generosity; faithfulness; gentleness; self-control.
     When we do these things in Jesus’ name, we do them for him, and in his honor, which is our goal as Christians. And insodoing, we are bringing those around us closer to God through our good conduct. So let us go forth from this place in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, showing our love of God with how we live our lives. Amen.

Christian Unity – 2016/06/19

1 Peter 2:9-12

This sermon was delivered at the Marion school for the Marion Area Ministerial Association community service on reunion weekend, Sunday morning 6/19.

     It was very hard to determine what to preach for this event. I’ve been here in Marion three years this July, and, in that time, we in the Ministerial Association have not had one of these Reunion services. The last one was just a week-and-a-half before I moved here. So it’s been a while, and I’ve never been a part of one.
     Randy Maass and I sat down to plan some of the things we’d do today – Scriptures, hymns, etc. And as we were sitting there, we got really interested in the question of what we – all of us gathered here – have in common. We were raised in different ways and types of homes; we were born into different times; we may come from here, and we may have left; we may be transplants who came from somewhere else; we may have been here our whole lives; we worship differently, vote differently, dress differently, think differently, and have a world of things that make us completely unlike one another.
     And yet, there are things we have in common. There are things that we have together that brought us here this morning, or else we wouldn’t be here.
     First of all, there’s the obvious – we have this place in common. Marion means different things to different people. For some, it represents salvation from the pace of a world that continues to roll faster; for others, Marion is a prison, tucked away from the “real world.” For some, Marion is a place that represents days of childhood and youth, while for others it’s a place where they think of days as an adult. But nonetheless, though our times in this town with one another do not even overlap, we are all here today because this little town has formed us; and, in our own small ways, we have formed it. We have built it with the sweat of our brows, and it has shaped us like clay in the hands of a potter. We are different for this place, and it is different because of us. For that reason, we gather.
     When reading this passage in preparation for this message, when I ran across that section on “aliens and exiles,” I thought about how those are often two different things. I am an alien here; many of you here are exiles, coming home. But again, this place is what we share.
     Yet, there is a second thing we have in common, and that is our faith. Our faith, while it takes slightly different forms for each of us, it is something we have in common. And it is through that faith that we become one people, one body.
     “Once, you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once, you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy,” says Peter. You see, while we share this town in common, that’s not the only thing that binds us together; we were already a “chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” – simply through our collective faith in Christ.
     Yes, today, we are gathered here together because of our connection to a town. But if we were just here for that, we wouldn’t need to attend this service. Instead, this service is not just about town, but about the identity that shapes us even more than that – our identity as believers in Christ.
     This passage points out that the believers here would’ve been considered outsiders in the communities they were in, because they were living among non-believers. Perhaps we don’t feel that way – but I’m sure some of you do. You can’t simply assume your neighbor is a Christian in today’s world. But Peter calls us, not just to evangelize, not just to tell the Gospel – but to live it. We are called to conduct ourselves with honor and distinction, so that those around us will come to believe that the way of Christ is the way of life.
     We have been called, as Peter says, “out of darkness and into his marvelous light.” Let us allow this gathering this morning to be a chance for us to step up as a community. The offering we have taken today is a chance for the Ministerial Association to tell those in need that Marion is a community inflected by the love of Christ, reaching out to those in need through a shared sense of Christ’s calling. We are God’s people, and are encouraged to remember our own status as aliens and exiles – that, once, we (or our ancestors) were new to this land and had nothing. Now, when we see others in need, we are encouraged to offer the helping hand that we may or may not have received. But whether or not we received it, does not make it any less our responsibility to show the kind of Gospel-inspired living that proves to our neighbors that our lives have been transformed by Jesus Christ.
     On this day, we have a special and unique opportunity to gather here as a larger community, blessed by God and rejoicing in our common life and experiences. But more importantly than that, we can remember that our service this morning calls us to remember our deeper connection as believers, and our greater calling to witness to Christ’s love with our every word, breath, and deed. Let us go forth, truly experiencing and proclaiming this special love God has shown to us, and carrying out this task with joy. Amen.

That Christian Truth Nobody Wants to Talk About – 2016/06/12

Zeke’s Baptism video is below, if you’d like to see that, too!
Psalm 5:1-8
Galatians 2:15-21
Luke 7:36-8:3


     When I was a freshman in high school, there was this guy in my group of friends that we invited whenever we did anything as a group. The thing is, no one – and I mean no one – in our group of friends really enjoyed spending time with him. But we invited him faithfully, anyway. He would host things at his house, and we would attend faithfully. We kept not enjoying it, but we kept inviting him, anyway. We would talk among ourselves about how we didn’t really want him there, but we would invite him without fail.
     The fact of the matter was, like him or not, he was a part of our group of friends. There was nothing we could do about it. We wouldn’t have been “us” without him; so in order to still be who we were, we had to keep him around.
     This is, I think, how a lot of Christians feel about sin. We don’t like talking about it, we don’t like to think of ourselves as sinners. It’s like that guy we don’t like that we keep inviting to stuff, and start wondering, “Do we really have to keep inviting this discussion of sin in here?”
     I’m going to be honest, Christianity without sin probably seems a lot more appealing. And there are certainly people and churches who don’t mention it much anymore.
     In fact, I’ve heard of many a church that doesn’t do a prayer of confession. People will tell you that talking about sin is degrading to people; they’ll point out how people don’t identify with the idea; people think of themselves as basically good, so if you’re going to take a bunch of time in church talking about how bad people are, maybe church won’t be appealing and they’ll stop coming.
     But the fact of the matter is, church is about speaking the truth, not doing what’s best for advertizing. As it turns out, churches believe that, when we speak the truth in a world full of lies and half-truths, that level of honesty attracts people – at least, that’s the hope. So we are stuck talking about sin and admitting that we are sinners.
     And what is sin, really? “Doing bad things,” seems like the obvious answer. But that seems to mean we have to actively be doing something bad. What about when we could be doing something good, but we choose not to? What about when there’s an obvious good action to do, but there’s also a better action. Sometimes, we choose to merely do the good one, rather than the best. Is that sin?
     I think the most helpful way of thinking about sin is as the state of imperfection all humans are faced with. We are not perfect, so we are sinners; we have failings and neglect to do what we can and should in certain situations. This makes us sinners. No, we’re not (I hope) murderers or thieves or any of the really obvious things – but we all have our little ways of making the world a bit darker.
     In our text today, we see a woman who is a sinner. We’re not told what her sin is, but you can either tell by looking at her, or it’s really well-known in the area. A Pharisee named Simon sees her washing Jesus’ feet with her tears and a jar of ointment and drying him with her hair. Simon, starts judgmentally looking at Jesus and the woman, and Jesus takes notice.
     Jesus proves that he knows exactly who the woman is. He tells a parable about two people who owe money – one who owes 50 and one who owes 500. Jesus asks, “If both debts are forgiven, who will be more grateful?”
     Simon, the Pharisee, knows the right answer and gives it – the one with a greater debt (duh) will be more grateful. Jesus then points out that, similarly to someone who cancels debts, he is a forgiver of sins. And this woman is simply grateful because she is the greater sinner. She realizes who she is; Jesus realizes who she is, and she is appreciative of the gift he gives her – far more appreciative than this judgmental Pharisee, who has done nothing for Jesus in his own home, while the woman washes Jesus’ feet.
     The point of this story is not that we should become bigger sinners to more greatly appreciate Jesus’ gifts of forgiveness to us. Rather, the point is for us to realize that we are the woman with the alabaster jar of ointment and the tears and the hair. We are the great debtors whose debts have been forgiven, just as we say in the Lord’s Prayer every week here in church.
     And on this baptismal Sunday, we recognize that even my son is this woman. We are often asked why infant baptism is practiced, when a child hasn’t had (it would seem) the opportunity to sin. Yet we know that even Zeke will make mistakes; he is not perfect – not even in his current state as a child. The fundamental cause of sin is selfishness – we do what we want and don’t care about the cost to others. Babies have no choice but to be selfish. It’s the only thing they can be, and it sets the stage for all the sin he’ll commit in his life, as it did for the rest of us. He will hurt people and he will do things that will disappoint me and his family and the other people around him, will disappoint himself and God.
     I will do my best not to let him; so will his mother and his sponsor and his grandparents. So will all of you, as you will make that promise today during his Baptism. Of course, we won’t succeed 100% of the time, because we’re not perfect, either! We, too, are sinners. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” says Paul in Romans 3.
     Yet, today, Zeke is going to be baptized, and we’ll see his sins be washed away in those waters, now and forever. Those sins travel away from him and are taken on by Jesus. He is – and all of us are – washed clean, made anew for God.
     And that gives us our final task. As we realize that we are the woman in this story, that we are the sinners who are grateful, we need to do what she did. We need to show our gratitude with our lives.
     The woman in the story met Jesus personally and washed his feet. Now, while we can have a relationship with Jesus, we aren’t exactly going to have that chance. So instead, we need to live our lives out of that sense of gratitude, forgoing the childish impulse to serve ourselves, and realizing that it’s God to whom we owe our allegiance. We can live good lives in honor of what Christ has done for us, and live with a gratitude to God, not just for the earthly blessings we receive, but for the infinite and eternal blessings we can have through Christ’s redemption.
     Indeed, we are called to be grateful. When we give financially, we are to give as the sinful woman did. When we help out a neighbor or friend, we are called to do so in the spirit of gratitude that she showed. When we behave well in our personal, moral conduct, we are called to do so out of a sense that our sins have been redeemed, so our actions should match the conduct of someone grateful to see a debt forgiven. Let us go forth into the world, changed people for our encounter of the divine, remembering the sins washed away at our Baptisms, and ready to start anew in deeper gratitude. Amen.

Half a Sentence – 2016/06/05

Please see the bottom of this page for our youth program from VBS!!

Psalm 146
1 Kings 17:8-16
Galatians 1:11-24


     Did you know that the human brain is incapable of forming memories – what we think of as memories, anyway – until it’s about 18 months old? Most people probably don’t remember anything from before they were two, and I’ve met many people who don’t remember a single thing about their lives from before they turned school-age. This is pretty common.
     Waaaaaaaaaay back on April 10, I preached about Paul. If you can’t remember a sermon from two months ago… well, I don’t blame you. It’s tough to remember every little thing. Frankly, I forget a lot of the sermons I’ve preached – it’s why I keep my old ones, just so that I can look things up later.
     Well, anyway, on April 10, I preached about Paul. That sermon went into a lot of detail about the life of Paul, so I’ll gloss a little bit. But Paul is a really interesting figure, because he’s so responsible for Christianity as we know it today. A lot of Christian thought is based in Paul. Paul wrote (or is credited with writing) 13 books of the New Testament (scholars are in debate about about whether it was Paul himself, or merely one of his followers, who wrote six of the 13, but seven are accepted as his by even the most skeptical of scholars of Paul). His thinking has been unbelievably influential.
     So let’s do a very quick rundown of Paul’s life, since he has, whether you know it or not, influenced how you and just about everyone else in the world thinks.
     Saul (we’ll get to the name thing in a minute) was born a Jew, and a Roman citizen. This means that his family was likely powerful and wealthy. Saul was a very, very devout Jew. In fact, he claims to have been blameless before the Law (or at least surpassing all other followers of the Law). He was so zealous for his faith that, when he heard about these new “Christians,” he wanted to get rid of them. So Saul went about actively persecuting Christians – having them arrested and the like.
     One day, while traveling the road to Damascus, he heard a voice from heaven. It was Jesus, asking Saul why he was persecuting him. Jesus then asked Saul to believe, and to bring the Good News to the non-Jews of the world. Since he was really a new person after this revelation of Jesus, Saul took a new name – Paul – and went about trying to convert the whole world.
     Our reading from Galatians today fills out some of the other information. Paul’s revelation, he tells us, was directly from Jesus. In fact, Paul didn’t even bother meeting with the other Christians in the world after it happened! He went directly out to evangelize, only heading to Jerusalem after three years, at which time he met with Peter and James-the-brother-of-Jesus, the heads of the church.
     Then, after a few days with them, he returned to the mission field. And while he was out evangelizing, he tells us, the people he talked to remarked about how this man who had formerly been a persecutor of Christians was now telling people to convert! The irony was not lost on the Christians he encountered.
     At some point in his career, Paul comes to realize that traveling from place to place is expensive, slow, and unsustainable if you’re going to go all over Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa in the days he lived, nearly 2000 years ago. So Paul becomes a fairly prolific letter-writer; and the letters that he wrote that still exist form those 13 books of the New Testament I mentioned earlier.
     Okay, so today’s reading of Paul came to us from Galatians. Galatians is, depending on how you interpret some technical stuff and throw together a timeline of Paul’s life, quite possibly the oldest of Paul’s letters that still remains with us today. This letter can be dated as early as the late-40s – that is to say, only about 15 years after Jesus died. And by that dating, it’s really the oldest Christian writing in the world. And since what we read today was the beginning of Galatians, there’s an argument that we’ve basically just read the oldest part of the oldest book!
     So this is a really important part of the Bible, even though it’s just a short little preamble introducing Paul to his readers. But for the most part, it’s not that exciting. But the most interesting part, to me, is one short, little half-sentence.
     The half-sentence I’m talking about is in verse 15, when Paul talks about, “God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace.”
     There are three key parts to this tiny section of Paul’s letter to the Galatians. The first is the idea of being set apart, the second is the idea of a call before birth, and the third is a call through grace.
     First, Paul was set apart. He was set apart for service to God and to Jesus. Of course (obviously), he did not always know this; that’s what allowed him to live his life in the way he did before Jesus came to him. If he had known who he was called to be, he proooobably wouldn’t have been out persecuting Christians.
     Just as Paul was set apart for service, so are we. We are set apart to do the work of God. The very word “Christian” means “little Christ.” We’re not just supposed to show up in church; we’re supposed to actually let church become who we are. We are supposed to become “little Christs” in our lives. We, too, have been set apart.
The next part of that half-sentence, “before I was born,” is a reminder that Paul was always called for his service, but wasn’t always aware of it. While he was always meant to serve God in a specific way, he struggled to actually do it. Talk about your points of identification with a figure from the Bible! There are so many things I would love to do, but I struggle to do them. We all have those struggles.
     In fact, those struggles are normal, though we don’t want to stay in those struggles. We should strive for something greater. We need to pray for greater influence from God in our lives; to give up on ourselves and to have the will of God become the will of our lives. We may not have the same experience of Paul – Jesus coming to us in the sky to talk to us – but we do know about that story, so we know that God does care, and we should seek that same influence.
     Which brings me to the final part of this half-sentence that has so captivated me, which is about our calling through grace. We are, as I’ve mentioned already, called. That calling is (or those callings are) with us our whole lives. But most importantly, our calling comes not as a burden, but as a gift by God through grace. God didn’t have to give us purpose. We might even think it would be easier if we didn’t have one, because no purpose means no responsibility, right? We’d be free to do whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted.
     But instead, God calls us to more, and does so out of love. Think about it, parents and kids. Who does a parent have higher standards for, their children, or some other kid? Parents don’t assign chores to other people’s kids. Parents don’t give tasks to children because they’re looking to get out of work (though that’s a nice bonus); parents assign their kids chores and other work because they want them to grow into better adults. They do it out of love, even if it seems like a burden.
     The same is true of God’s love for us. We are given tasks to accomplish, things to do. They may be hard. We may struggle to complete these tasks. Yet, we are nonetheless set apart before we were born, called through God’s grace. May we all have the courage to embrace that call and, like Paul, live the lives God is laying out for us. Amen.


This is our youth program from our Vacation Bible School this year. Please enjoy!!!

Trinity, Parts 1-3

John 16:12-15

Part 1
     There are many different things a sermon can do. It can be there to encourage us, to comfort us, to make us better people, to guide us, to inspire us. At their best, many sermons will do those things. But today’s sermon – sermons, really – are there simply to inform.
     I realize that “teaching” or “informing” is not really that high on anyone’s list of what they want out of a sermon, yet I think it’s really important that we do that today. Today, as you may know, is Trinity Sunday. It’s not the most exciting holiday in the Christian year – there’s not a big Bible story that goes particularly well with it, since the doctrine of the Trinity is spread throughout the Bible, not just located in one place. Therefore, today is a day on which we celebrate one of the most peculiar, difficult, and, when all’s said and done, important Christian beliefs.
     We begin with a brief reading from John, which tells some of the words of Jesus. And since Christ is the first member of the Trinity we’ll be talking about, I think it appropriate to start with his words.
     But before we get to that, what do I mean when I say the word, “Trinity?” Trinity is the belief that Christians have about God. It’s a portmanteau – a combination of the prefix “tri” meaning three (like how a tri-cycle has three wheels) and the suffix “nity,” coming from the word “unity.” In other words, the very word “Trinity” means “three-in-one.” And that will be important as we talk about it more this morning, because the fundamental claim we Christians make is that God is three-in-one. This is different than claiming we have three gods, so hopefully no one is confused by that. Instead, we talk about one God with three different aspects or persons.
     So we start with Jesus Christ, who is at once the hardest and easiest member of the Trinity to understand. I call him the easiest because we have a direct revelation of God through him, when he lived his life on earth. He said things clearly, people wrote them down, and we can refer to them to understand Jesus (and therefore God) better.
     However, Jesus can also be the hardest member of the Trinity to understand because he is at once human and God. Those are two things that seem to be totally different. We as humans are necessarily limited, small, weak, and created; God is unlimited, too-big-too-imagine, powerful, and uncreated. How can someone be both God and human?
     But the thing about Jesus is that he takes all of that mystery of how God functions, and forces us to deal with it. It’s not just that we’re given easy, clear-cut answers that explain how all of this works. Rather, God is revealed to us in Jesus Christ, and we simply have to use that reality to determine who we are, in light of that information. How Jesus precisely fits into the Trinity is important, but it is also, in some ways, a mystery. And as Christians, we have to get very comfortable with mystery.
     Because, at the end of the day, while Jesus – a human person – has a mysterious connection to the Trinity, what we’re left with in Jesus isn’t someone mysterious with unclear motives; rather, we’re left with God-in-human-flesh, who teaches us how to live, reveals to us the character of God, and saves us from our sins.

Proverbs 8:22-31

Part 2
     When we talk about God the Father, we have a lot of issues. First of all, we often just say “God” when we mean “God the Father;” but “God” is also rightfully applied to Jesus, to the Holy Spirit, and to the Trinity as a whole! That makes the word “God” itself very confusing in Christian theology.
     The other thing is that the word “Father,” for a lot of us, means that God the Father must be the “chief” God or the “head” God – the God in charge of the other two. If one is the Son and another the Father… well, the Father must be in charge, right? But the thing is, that’s not how it works. Know this – there is no “head God” in Christianity, because there’s only one God! It’s very hard to think about, because here I am, splitting up my sermon into three parts, talking about Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and that sure sounds like three. And it is three – only it’s not three separate Gods.
     God is one God, revealed to us in three persons. And because God is one, we can’t really talk about the activities of one person of the Trinity without talking about all the other members. Sure, when we talk about God the Father, we often talk about the act of Creation – but that was an act of God as a whole, even if God the Father was the particular member of the Trinity with which the activity of creating is associated.
     In our passage from Proverbs today, we hear a lot about the activity of Creation, and it’s framed by Wisdom, also called Sophia, which is the name in the Old Testament associated with the Holy Spirit. Wisdom tells us that God created all we see around us – but that the Holy Spirit was there already. Perhaps you recall the beginning of the Gospel of John – “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” That is the passage that tells us that Jesus was there at the beginning, too! That means that neither Jesus nor the Holy Spirit is a creation of God the Father – the both just are God. Not lesser, not greater, but co-equally God, one and the same, and equally to be worshiped and praised.
     So when we talk about God the Father, we’re not talking about the “one in charge.” God the Father is just as much God as Jesus the Son or the Holy Spirit, because all of them are one, and they are all equally God.

Romans 5:1-5

Part 3
     Now, last week, we had Pentecost. Pentecost is about the day the Holy Spirit came to be with the disciples after Jesus left. This has led some people to the erroneous opinion that the Holy Spirit wasn’t around earlier. But, of course, we know that the Holy Spirit has been around since before the earth was created. So obviously, the Spirit wasn’t just waiting until that moment to show up.
     As I mentioned, the Spirit was often depicted in the Old Testament as the embodiment of Wisdom – our way of knowing what is wise and good. This is actually a really good metaphor, and it hints at a greater truth to Christian understanding of Trinity.
     The Roman Catholic theologian Elizabeth Johnson talks about how, as Christians, we experience God in three ways. We see God beside us, in Jesus Christ. This is how we need to describe the fact that God comes to live among us in human form. Yet, of course, we also know that God is far, far beyond us. God is greater than we could ever imagine, and we call that God the Father, the creator of all that is. And at the same time that we know God is so big, we know that God is also small, intimately involved in our lives, and closer to us that our own breath. This is God the Holy Spirit – the small voice that urges us to a better decision, the part that intimately calls us to be closer to God.
     We experience God in these three radically different ways – but the God we experience is one and the same. So this is not three gods; this is one God, and three ways of being. Ways of being that are equal, that are valid, that exist at the same time. These aren’t different “masks” God puts on, to be one thing at one time and another thing at another. God is always all three, but without ever ceasing to be just one God.
     So even if none of this makes sense, even if we’re not quite understanding correctly – maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe having a God who’s too easy to understand puts us in control and in the driver’s seat. Instead, we know that we’re not in charge, because God is much more than we could ever dream of imagining to understand.
     Because in the end, we are not saved because we know it all; we are not loved because God is happy that we know the most or the best, or because we have all the answers. We are loved because God is love; we are loved because God loves all of creation. Knowing all of this doesn’t make us more worthy of God – it simply helps us to clarify our thinking on God. But at the end of the day, it’s God’s unconditional love for us that’s most important. So while this sermon – these sermons – were about intellectual knowledge, the most important takeaway isn’t any of that. The most important takeaway is that God loves you, and Jesus Christ came to save you. So no matter how much or how little the mystery of the Trinity makes sense to us, we can all know that we are God’s beloved children. Amen.

Turning 2000 – 2016/05/15

Psalm 97
John 17:20-26
Acts 16:16-34


     This has been a crazy weekend in town for celebrations, right? I mean, school ended on Friday, so the kids at the Marion school were celebrating the end of the school year in their classes. Our youth soccer season wrapped up yesterday, and we had a party for that. Yesterday was also, of course, graduation. Needless to say, I’ve had more cake in the last 24 hours than anyone needs in a week. So please join us after worship this morning for more cake. 😉
     Anyway, while the celebrations of these milestones in the lives of our kids bring us a lot of joy, today is actually a much bigger and more important celebration than any one of those things. Today, of course, is Pentecost – the birthday of the church.
     When I say “the birthday of the church,” I don’t mean this particular church; Emmanuel’s birthday is at the end of April. I mean the birthday of the whole Christian church. We’re closing in on right about the 2000 year mark for the church, and I think that it’s time for us to think back about what those 2000 years have been like.
     It starts, of course, at the beginning – with the day of Pentecost itself. The first Pentecost was a day unlike any other. This occurs at a time after Jesus has died, risen, and ascended to heaven. The disciples are ready to start their ministry in earnest. So they set out in Jerusalem to do so.
     It was the time of the Jewish festival of Shavuoth – the festival of weeks, following the conclusion of Passover. There were, of course, a lot of people in town (town being Jerusalem) whenever there was a festival. Our text tells us that people came from all over – other, nearby parts of the Middle East, but also from Africa, other parts of Asia, and Europe – all over, really.
     As these people are milling about the streets, Jesus’ followers become overcome by the Holy Spirit. They hear a sound like a rushing wind. They see a vision of tongues made of flame, and then those tongues come to rest on them. They are filled with the Holy Spirit and begin to preach the story of Jesus.
     As they begin telling this story, a remarkable thing happens – suddenly, each person gathered around begins to hear in his or her own language. All of Jesus’ disciples are uneducated. They come from Galilee, and don’t have exposure to most of the languages represented there. Yet, as they speak, each hearer hears the words in his or her own language, and they are all amazed.
     Bewildered and confused, some of them simply accuse the disciples of being drunk – never mind that this explanation makes no sense, since people were hearing in their own languages. But this was the moment that the church reached out, and so the day that it was born.
     From there, of course, we can trace the history of the church. Christianity spread quickly in Europe and North Africa, as Paul and the disciples evangelized those areas. Eventually, in the 7th century, Christianity lost out to Islam in North Africa; however, it continued to thrive in Europe, becoming the major religion there. A thousand years later, Christianity flowed out from Europe and into Asia, where it thrives particularly in East Asia. It also spread (again) to Africa. And, of course, as European settlers conquered the Americas, they brought their Christianity with them.
     However, in the 20th century, Christianity started to fade in Europe. At the beginning of the last 100 years, the vast majority of the world’s Christians lived in Europe and North America. Now, with the increasing secularization of Europe and the explosion of Christians in South America, Asia, and especially Africa, the majority of the world’s Christians live outside of Europe and the US. While 100 years ago, the world’s average Christian was white, lived in the northern hemisphere, and was financially reasonably well off, today, the face of Christianity is black or brown, lives in the southern hemisphere, and lives in poverty.
     Perhaps Christianity’s most significant change has been its relationship to the world’s empires. Our faith has been the church opposed to an empire – remember, the Romans killed Jesus, made Christianity illegal, and fed our fellow believers to the lions. However, Christianity became the religion of that empire, and used its influence to take command of Europe. Through that connection, Christianity has been brought all around the world. Our faith has seen empires come and go, rise and fade while the faith of Christ soldiers on.
     In today’s America, perhaps for the first time, we no longer feel compelled by social pressure to come to church. No one is here because they’re worried about what the neighbors might say if they don’t show up. That’s not why we come to church anymore. In 1955, a lot of people went to church, simply because you had to. Nowadays, as compulsory church attendance is no longer something that drives the average American to church on Sundays, we have the opportunity to realize that we, for the first time in a long time, have the chance to be the church of Pentecost – the church of our beginnings. We are no longer the church of empire – we are the church of the poor, we are the ones with a message that comes from Jesus, a poor man who showed people a better way of life. We are no longer the church of empires, and the ones who take Christianity, our faith of love and peace and justice, and beat into people through violence, oppression, and force. Instead, we can embrace the church at Pentecost that reached, for the first time, across the boundaries of nation and language, and into a church that does four things.
     First, we go out and share the Good News of Jesus Christ. Jesus died for our sins; he rose from the grave to defeat sin and death, and he is freely available to all who come to him. That’s the heart of the Good News. We need to be ready, willing, and able to share that with the people around us. If we’re not willing to share, we’ve failed the very first test of Pentecost.
     The second thing we are set free to do as the church closes in on its 2000th birthday is to see what God is doing. In the Pentecost story, the critical moment is that the disciples pay attention to what’s already going on around them. The Holy Spirit is already moving; already working in the world. The disciples just catch on, and use what God is already doing to help other people understand the Gospel. Remember, the disciples didn’t use magic or something to speak other languages in this story; God was already working. The disciples just tapped into God’s actions to share them with others.
     Third, we need to be out among people, particularly among people who are different than we are. This story at Pentecost is not about people staying safely within their comfort zones – it’s a story about people sharing with those they don’t know. Last week, I met with our Christian Ed team to talk about what we’re doing with the youth next year. We’re going to be going to Denver to help serve with a Christian organization out there for a few days. We’ll be meeting people from a different part of the country, who don’t share the same background we share. That will be a tremendously different thing for us to do. But it embraces the spirit of Pentecost, in that we are going somewhere outside of the safety of people and places we know.
     Fourth and finally, we are called at Pentecost to be the representatives of Christ in the world. In the end, that’s what the disciples do in this passage. They look at absolutely everyone, and they’re willing to share the news that God loves them, and that we can prove it by how Jesus came, lived, died, and was raised for each and every person we see! But of course, if you read on in the book of Acts, you’ll see that the events of that first Pentecost day so long ago weren’t a one-time event; they weren’t intended to be just a story of sharing the Good News once. Rather, Pentecost signaled a change in the character of the church.
     No longer was the church a few close friends of Jesus. Rather, the church was a group of people throughout the world, gathered in the name of Jesus, who saves us. Jesus, who is God incarnated. Jesus, who teaches us how to live. That is what we need to take away from Pentecost – that we serve a risen savior who wants us to embrace the legacy he left for us.
     So let us go out from this place with the boldness of the church at Pentecost, to win hearts for Christ, to see what God is doing, to meet those we don’t know, and to represent our savior in all that we do. Amen.