Thursday, April 23, 2015

Risen Week 4 - "Cornerstone"

This week we are concluding the sermon series that we've been working on for the past several weeks--a sermon series entitled, "Risen." 

We've been struggling with an important question each week during this series--a question that anyone who calls themselves a follower of Christ needs to be answering on a daily basis. 

Here's the question:  "Jesus is risen... now what?"  Do we celebrate Easter as a one off event, and then just go back to business as usual for the rest of the year?  Or is there something more?  

What does it mean that Jesus is risen?  What does it mean for you and me? For the church?  For all of Creation? This has been at the heart of our study for the past month--a study that we're going to conclude today.  

I'm actually going to go directly to our text this morning.  So if you have your Bibles, go ahead and open them to Acts 4:5-12.  This story is actually the continuation of the story we explored last week.  Peter and John, two of the original disciples of Jesus, had just healed a beggar who had never been able to walk.  

So, naturally, people freaked out, and wanted to know how they did it.  So they told them it was because of Jesus.  And so naturally, the religious powers-that-be took notice.  After all, the religious powers-that-be were the ones who got rid of Jesus in the first place.  

So here's what we find in Acts 4:5-12

5 The next day the rulers, the elders and the teachers of the law met in Jerusalem. 6 Annas the high priest was there, and so were Caiaphas, John, Alexander and others of the high priest’s family. 7 They had Peter and John brought before them and began to question them: “By what power or what name did you do this?”

8 Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them: “Rulers and elders of the people! 9 If we are being called to account today for an act of kindness shown to a man who was lame and are being asked how he was healed, 10 then know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed. 11 Jesus is

“‘the stone you builders rejected,
    which has become the cornerstone.’

12 Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.”

Okay, can I just say again that these are the very people who had Jesus executed?  I should qualify that a bit.  Some of the people in this group, which was known as the Sanhedrin, were not present during Jesus farce of a trial about 60 days before this.  The high priest and his cronies made sure of that.  The group that Peter and John stand before in this story are almost certainly all of the members, some of whom would have never been a part of Jesus' execution. 

Still, Peter comes correct doesn't he?

And then there's this.  When he starts talking about Jesus being raised from the dead, he is actually touching a very hot button for the Sanhedrin.  The Sanhedrin was made up of essentially two different religious sects--the Sadducees and Pharisees.  

The Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection.  They did not believe that anyone would be raised from the dead at the end of all things.  They pretty much just believed that the end of all things was the end of all things.  

The Pharisees, on the other hand, believed in the resurrection, which made them a bit more popular with the unwashed masses than the Sadducees were.  Because they were more popular, they tended to lord their position over people, which is what Jesus was always beating them up about.  

So when Peter hits this group with the whole resurrection thing, it's actually a stroke of genius.  Because it puts them at odds with one another right off the bat.  

Which makes them ask this very important question:  "By what power or what name do you do this?"  The reason why this question was so important is because in the ancient world everything came down to questions of authority--whoever seemed to be wielding it needed to be conformed to societal and religious norms--if not, they had to prove themselves.  

Peter doesn't miss a beat.  He replies, "By the name of Jesus whom YOU crucified."  He then goes on to quote some Scripture, but not just any Scripture.  Peter quotes Psalm 118 to the Sanhedrin.  Psalm 118 was a song of the Temple, you sang it when you were going to worship.  It was also a song that signified victory--as in God's victory of his opponents, evil in the world, etc. 

What Peter is quoting here is directly from this Psalm--"the stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone..."  In other words, those who were building tossed out a stone that was gathered to be used in the construction because it was too malformed, not neat, not perfect.  And then after all is said and done, the builders realized that it was the one stone that was needed in order to complete the building properly.  

And Peter is making no mistake that his remarks are being connected to the Temple, and to building as in building the Temple, but not the Temple, a new Temple, which in his later letters Peter referred to as a "temple not made with hands..."  

Then as if that wasn't enough Peter goes on to add this:  

"There is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved."  Interestingly, this quote is something that people regularly said in the first century--about Caesar.  

Just 60 days prior to this moment some of the members of the Sanhedrin were present when Pontius Pilate pointed to Jesus who was standing in front of a crowd, beaten, scouraged, bloody and maimed, and he said to them, "Here is your king."  To which the people, the priests and the ruling council members who were there replied, "We have no king but Caesar."  

Peter essentially reminds them all of that moment with is comments, but there's something deeper and more groundbreaking to what he says than merely pissing off the Sanhedrin.  

He believed it.  He believed that the only way to God was Jesus.  

And this, my friends, leads us to the very next step in our struggle to determine why the risen Jesus is so important.  

People give up on Christianity for a lot of different reasons.  Sometimes they give up because they've been hurt by the church.  I get that.  I have talked to more than my fair share of people who share horror stories of mean church members, hypocritical pastors, you name it.  

There was a young woman in my former church who came to be part of our college ministry for a while.  She had grown up in one of the local Baptist churches for as long as she could remember.  She got pregnant out of wedlock, and found out pretty quickly that the fine upstanding citizens who attended her church, the very ones who had always thought she was so cute and sweet when she was little, wanted nothing to do with her once she got knocked up.  So she left the church. And eventually walked away from any semblance of a vibrant faith.  

She got hurt.  

People also stop going to church because of things they read in the Bible that makes them feel as though they can't possibly accept any of it.  They'll say things like, "There is absolutely no archaelogical or historical evidence that there were ever Jews in ancient Egypt." Or they'll sketch out the dimensions of Noah's Ark and realize that there is no way that every species of animal, insect, bird or reptile would fit in it.  Or they'll say, "The Bible says that people lived to be 800-900 years old, but there is no evidence anywhere to back that claim up.  

So instead of finding people who they can talk about these things with who aren't afraid of questions, they keep their questions to themselves and just walk away.  

Sometimes bad theology causes people to give up on Christianity.  Maybe they were taught really idiotic things about what it means to be a Christian.  I was taught that when women wore pants they were sinning.  I was also taught that when Jesus drank wine it turned into grape juice.  

This kind of idiotic theology is the kind that some people say was the reason they gave up on Christianity because their basic common sense told them it was b.s.  

Here's the thing.  These are dumb reasons to give up on Christianity.  If one of these was your reason, you need to come back.  Because there is so much more to Christianity than that.  

But this one...  the phrase that Peter uttered to the Sanhedrin... it's tougher.  

"Only Jesus."  The only way to God is if you believe what the Bible teaches bout Jesus.  That's a tougher sell for a lot of people.  And you know what?  That's one that I would actually admit is not a dumb reason for giving up on being a Christian.  Because that reason is the one reason that requires something deeper from you than just assent to an idea or an interpretation.  

This is the part of Christianity that you kind of have to accept if you want to be called a Christian.  

So if you or someone you know struggles with this--let me share a couple of things with you to help you see things a bit more clearly. 

If we fast forward to the 15th chapter of the book of Acts--some twenty years after this story from Acts 4 we find the first church business meeting.  Some of you might be thinking that church business meetings might be a valid reason for giving up on Christianity.  I might actually agree with you. 

So there's this meeting going on and in the meeting a debate ensues about what it means to be truly Christian.  Most of the Christians at that time were Jewish, but there were missionaries like Peter and Paul who had encountered non-Jews who received the gifts of the Holy Spirit and accepted that Jesus was the only way to God.  Some Christians thought that the only way that these people could be real Christians is if they converted to Judaism, which would require among other things a little surgery for the guys. 

In the middle of that meeting a group of Pharisees stand up.  

Pharisees.  These were the people who opposed Jesus, falsely accused him, plotted against him, and had him killed.  These were the people who bore the brunt of most of Jesus ire in his sermons against overly-religious people.  

And yet, here twenty years later there are a bunch of Pharisees in the church.  How?  Here's what I think.  They met people who knew Jesus.  They talked with people who had seen him killed.  They sat around tables with people who had seen him after he was raised from the dead.  

And they believed it all. 

When someone says that they are going to be killed, but then raised from the dead and then it happens---you trust what that person is teaching.  And if that person says that he is the "way, the truth and the life and that no one comes to Father" accept through him.  You believe it.  

Because deep inside you feel it, you know it's true.  

Then in the same business meeting James, the brother of Jesus stands up and speaks.  James--the brother of Jesus.  He was never mentioned by name in the Gospels, only that he was among the brothers of Jesus who mocked him and did not believe him before he was crucified.  

Then he saw him.  And he believed it all.  

Historians agree that it doesn't make sense that Christianity spread as it did.  It's not logical based on the claims that it made, and the seemingly narrow and exclusive message that it offered that you could only get to God through Jesus.  But it did.  Because people encountered Jesus through his followers.  Their lives were transformed and then their lives backed up their claim that resurrection wasn't just a nice idea--it was a reality that changed all other realities. 

And these people--hundreds of thousands of them--died for this belief... that there is "no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved..."  

Some people say "That's not fair!  It's exclusive!  God loves everyone--surely he wouldn't make such a narrow claim, to only save through Jesus."  

It's only an exclusive claim--if it furthers the agenda of the person making it.  If some pastor some where in your past pounded you over the head with this claim so that you would tithe, or volunteer, or walk down some aisle to be baptized---that was an exclusive claim. 

That friend you have--the one that goes to that particular church and always goes on about all of the unsaved people who just need to believe in Jesus, but then seems to revel in the fact that they don't and will go to hell... yeah, that friend is making an exclusive claim. 

But when you say that the God who loves the world, the God who created and called it good the God who went to the very bitter end to rescue you and me and everybody--when you declare that God saves through Jesus.  That's not exclusive at all--it's inclusive, open, incredible beyond belief.  

I love the image that Peter lifted up to the Sanhedrin when he quoted Psalm 118.  The image of the builders coming to the end of their building project and then discovering that the one stone they need to finish it--the one that fits perfectly is the one they tossed aside earlier because it wasn't what they wanted at the time.  That's a beautiful image for what it means that God saves through Jesus, that Jesus is the way, that there is no other name under heaven whereby you must be saved.  

Listen, I don't know the details.  I'm not God.  I don't know how God saves exactly but I know he saves through Jesus alone.  

And I know this because it's something I believe we've all been hard wired to know at some level.  Within every human being is a missing piece, a stone that they need to complete building.  And they know they need it.  We all know we need it.  No matter who you are, where you came from, what religion you were taught...  You know this. 

I want to show a video that helps visualize what I mean: 

Listen to me.  As surely as these children knew their mothers, you know this.  The missing piece, the stone that you need, that hole in your life you long to fill, the desires of your heart that you can't explain.  

It's Jesus.  You know this, beloved.  It's only Jesus.  

Because Jesus is the very center of a risen life.  

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Risen: Week 3 - "Why Are You Surprised?"

This week we'll be continuing our sermon series for the season of Easter, a series entitled "Risen."  

The question that we've been struggling with over the course of this series is a challenging one.  Easter Sunday came and went.  Now what do we do?  Do we simply celebrate Easter and move on as if nothing happened?  

If we believe that Jesus is risen, that he's alive--then what does that mean for us?  For all of Creation?  For our church?  For our culture?  

Today we take another step in answering that question.  The passage of scripture that we'll be studying today from the book of Acts is about an unexpected moment of delight and transformation that shocked a bunch of people--who honestly had become used to disappointment.  

As I was thinking about the sermon this week, I remembered a story I had read some time ago about some unusual signs that were being used by the English Historical Trust in Great Britain.  These signs were not at all what you would expect to see at a historical site.  

You can read the entire story HERE 

What was it like reading those signs?  Imagine if you were visiting that historical site and you saw them?  Pretty awesome, don't you think?

Several years ago, when I was living in Chicago, I was in line at a 7-11 downtown to buy something or another.  A young woman came in to the store with a bedraggled-looking guy, who looked like a hoodlum.  I immediately had a bunch of judgements about her lack of judgement to be with a dude so nasty. Then I realized that he was actually homeless, and she was buying him lunch. 

I was immediately ashamed of myself and surprised.  Those kinds of things always take you a bit aback, don't they?

I don't know about you but I love watching the videos that get posted on Facebook and Youtube that show active-duty soldiers returning home and surprising their loved ones at public events, school, etc.  Every single time, I get choked up.  

What is it about unexpected good things that surprises us?  

Why do we delight in them so much?  

There's a story in the book of Acts that I think will help us figure this out.  

Let's read Acts 3:12-19

12 When Peter saw this, he said to them: “Fellow Israelites, why does this surprise you? Why do you stare at us as if by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk? 13 The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus. You handed him over to be killed, and you disowned him before Pilate, though he had decided to let him go. 14 You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you. 15 You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this. 16 By faith in the name of Jesus, this man whom you see and know was made strong. It is Jesus’ name and the faith that comes through him that has completely healed him, as you can all see.

17 “Now, fellow Israelites, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your leaders. 18 But this is how God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, saying that his Messiah would suffer. 19 Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord,

Let me tell you a little about this story.  

Peter and John were coming to worship and pray in the Temple that day.  This is after Pentecost, after the big revival that we talked about last week when 3000 people followed Jesus.  They walk through a particular gate called Beautiful, which was a popular entrance to the Temple.  There was a guy who could not walk that for most of his life had sat right at the entrance to that gate.  Every day someone would bring him there, and he would beg all day long.  He would get people going in to church and then get them going out.  Everyone who went through that gate on a regular basis knew this guy by sight.  

Peter and John healed the guy.  They told him to stand up and walk, and he did.  Then everyone starts freaking out.  "How can this be?" "Is this really the guy?"  "How could this happen?"  "What the heck is going on?"  

And so Peter preaches to them, but at the beginning of his sermon he asks them a question--the question that stopped me in my tracks when I was thinking about this sermon.  He asked, "Why are you surprised?" 

The people who went into the Temple every day to worship and pray were all praying for essentially the same things.  At some point in their prayers they would pray for the restoration of Israel, the coming of the Messiah, for the kingdom of God to come to earth.  They had been longing for a new world.  

And it came. 

Jesus ministry on earth was the opening act of God's future/present kingdom. His death, burial and resurrection were the middle and climax.  The kingdom of God was at hand.  The new world they had longed for had arrived.  And Peter and John healing the man in the name of Jesus was a sign of that kingdom.  

Because of the Resurrection, everything was different.  Everything they had been expecting was happening all around them.  

Yet, they were shocked when they saw it.  They were surprised by it when they were confronted with the new reality that God had done something so new, so extraordinary that nothing would ever be the same again.  

They had longed for this.  But when it came--they were still shocked, and not really able to see it properly.  Which prompted Peter to ask that very important, very telling question... 

"Why are you surprised?" 

Let's go back a bit.  

Those signs at the English Historical Trust that we saw...  why do they speak to us?  What is it about those unexpected signs that makes us feel something like joy and delight? 

Is it because they invite us to enjoy the grass, the trees, the flowers... all of the things that typically we aren't allowed to touch.  Is it because they encourage us to engage with the site, to take photos, to use our cell phones to tell others what we are seeing--when so many places like that tell you not to? 

Or is it something deeper than that?  

Could it be that it reminds us at a deep spiritual level that there was once a Garden--a perfect world, a world full of possibility, peace, beauty and oneness with God.  And that world is what God truly wants for us--that world is how it should be.  

And that woman in 7-11.  Did it surprise me to see her buy lunch for the homeless man because it destroyed my stereotypes and taught me a lesson about my own prejudice and lack of empathy?  Absolutely.  

But it also gave me a glimpse of a world where there were no hungry people, no sideways glances at couples who "didn't match," no one who was dehumanized to the point that they had to beg for food from people who "ate too much" for lunch.  The way the world should be, in other words. 

There are lots of reasons why we get teared up to see soldiers welcomed home by their families.  We think of the many hours that their children may have spent without them, wondering if they would return.  We think of all of the many women and men who didn't get to come home, or who came home changed, wounded, traumatized...  

But it also speaks to us in a deeper way.  We see in that moment, the end of all wars.  No more soldiers having to return home, because peace is more powerful than difference.  We see the swords being beaten into plowshares and we rejoice.  

Because that's how the world should be.  

These unexpected moments of resurrection are glimpses of a world as it should be.  Full of goodness, kindness, hope, peace, unity and love.  

So why don't we expect them?  Why are we shocked like those people in the book of Acts?

It could be that we want this new world on our own terms.  They certainly did.  Jesus came as their Messiah and they rejected him because he wasn't the Messiah they wanted.  We do the same thing all of the time.  When the change, the transformation that we seek for the new world we long for doesn't come in a package that is flashy and brilliant we often miss it when it happens.  Or are shocked by it, which is often the same thing.  

We also settle for the ordinary.  It's safer that way.  We lower our expectations so that we can be sure to hit them. 

Or, like a lot of Christians do, we neglect the "now" for the "someday when."  For many of us, our interpretation of what Jesus taught focuses solely on what happens when we die, or what happens at the end of all things, which we assume (like generations before us) is going to be any moment.   And we miss all that God is doing around us to bring his kingdom to earth.  

Some of us have grown jaded and cynical.  We don't think that things can get better.  We assume the worst.  We think there is nothing new under the sun and that tomorrow is just going to be a lesser version of today, which was a lesser version of yesterday and so on.  We lose our ability to create, to dream, to hope and to change.  

So why have you stopped expecting the unexpected?  

Who told you that you weren't worth more than ordinary?  Who led you to believe that you don't deserve delight, wonder, joy and hope?  Because you are worth more than simply ordinary things.  You were created by God to experience the fullness of all that life both here and the hereafter has to offer.  You should expect this.  

Who told you that this world is not your home and that you are just a passing through?  Some preacher?  Some half-baked televangelist? Some best-selling author hawking his books online?  

Listen, God has not given up on this world and neither should you.  One day all things will be made new, I believe that.  But until then, you and I are called to help people see what that looks like and to show them that they can begin living full and complete Resurrection lives right now.  That they can expect a new world.  They should expect it. 

Who told you that it's never going to be better?  Maybe you've been living under a cloud for a long time.  You've gotten used to bad things.  You've expected the worst is going to happen to you.  It's time to claim your inheritance, child of God.  It's time to step into the light of a new world, where sin, death, disappointment, guilt, shame, bitterness and fear are defeated once and for all. When he rose from the dead, Jesus left all of those empty things lying on the floor of that tomb just like the wrappings that had bound his dead body.  You are set free!  You need to expect the unexpected from this day forward!  

Can I get a witness?  

Because when you live a risen life, my brothers and sisters.  When you live into the reality of God's new world.  When you live into the hope of eternal life now and forever---you will learn to expect the unexpected.  

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Risen - Week 2: "Powerful Grace"

This week we are continuing the sermon series that we started last Sunday--a Sunday that happened to be the Sunday of Sundays in the Christian calendar.  We celebrated Easter with style last week.  For the second year in a row we had over 800 people experience worship at First Church.  

At our casual service, the Crossing we had 100 more people in the room than we did last year.  Everyone dressed up, wore hats and looked awesome.  Families came en masse, some of them even brought their wayward Uncle Larry, who never goes to church. 

And now it's the Sunday after the Sunday. 

Most of the snowbirds are gone.  Uncle Larry isn't here.  It's just us.  

Easter is over. 

Jesus is risen.  Now what?  

This feeling that we have today is not unlike what the disciples of Jesus felt after his resurrection.  There was joy at first, then elation, then unbelievable purpose and then he left.  Jesus appeared to them, he ate with them, taught them some more, commanded them to keep doing his kingdom work and then he left.  He "ascended" to God the Scriptures tell us, but more likely he simply stepped from here to there--from being with his followers to being where God is.  

And then his followers waited.  They huddled together praying in a room, waiting for the next thing, not knowing what the next thing would be. 

Then on the day of Pentecost the Spirit of God came upon them and lit them up--quite literally--with tongues of fire and a mighty wind.  They went out into Jerusalem to the very place where Jesus had been taken, beaten and executed and they began to preach at the Temple.  3000 people were added to their number that day. 

A new community was formed on that day--a symbolic community that embodied the work that Jesus had begun.  

Let's read the description that Luke, the author of the book of Acts, gives of this new community: 

Acts 4:32-35
32 All the believers were one in heart and mind. Some interpreters use the word "soul" here, too. 

No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. Another interpretation says that they shared everything "in common" 

33 With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all 34 that there were no needy persons among them.  The key phrase for us here is "God's grace was so powerfully at work..." Another way of saying this is "great grace was upon them."  

For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.

So why did Luke use these particular phrases?  What was important about them?  As it turns out, these are familiar phrases that most Jewish people would have heard and known by heart.  These phrases, "one heart and soul," "everything in common," "no needy person..."  These phrases were grounded in the Torah, describing the new community that God was creating in His chosen people. 

Which reminds me of the color blue. 

Of course, right?

Did you know that the ancients probably didn't see the color blue like we do.  In fact, depending on the shade of blue, they might not have seen it at all.  There's some compelling evidence that suggests most ancient cultures did not have any real words for "blue" and had no real way to describe it, no frame of reference for it, and no way to truly see the color the way we do.  

There was some research that was done in modern times with the Himba tribe from Africa--a tribe that was largely isolated in remote areas of Namibia.  The Himba had no word for the color blue.  When shown a color wheel that included shades of green and a block of blue, they could not see the block of blue at all.  

They did, however, have numerous words for the color green.  Because of this, they could pick out minute changes in a color wheel with multiple shades of green while Westerners could not.  

There is a connection between naming and having reference for something and truly seeing it.  

The community of faith being described in Acts chapter 4 was something so new, so different, so bold and unusual that there were no words to truly describe what people were seeing.  The Resurrection changed everything.  Jesus changed everything.  The people who experienced the Risen Jesus were forever changed, forever transformed.  They became something completely new.  

So Luke uses words that most of his readers would have understood.  

He draws from Deuteronomy chapter 15, which describes the Year of Jubilee.  The Year of Jubilee was a celebration that occurred in ancient Israel every seven years--a time when debts were remitted, property was returned to families who may have lost it to foreclosure, and much, much more. 

In this passage God declares to His people, "there will be no needy person among you..."  Luke is declaring that the Year of Jubilee is underway--that the kingdom of God that it represented is now at hand.  The new community that was formed after the Resurrection is now called to show the world what it looks like when God gets what God wants on earth as God does in heaven. 

And all of this stands in sharp contrast to the keepers of the Temple Model of worship that had existed until Jesus.  

The Temple Model claimed that grace is found in religion.  You get grace when you do the right things, say the right things, are born into the right family, worship God in the right places, keep the right rules...  

But this new model--the New Covenant Model--that Luke is describing here asserts that grace is found in the Risen Community.  When the early Christians had one heart and soul, when they lived as though God's kingdom was on earth right here and now, they created space for grace--and grace happened.  People saw God more clearly, understood God's will more fully and loved more completely.  

The Temple Model asserted that authority was found in tradition.  What mattered was what you did, what you believed what you could quote.  It was about doctrine and dogma.  

The New Covenant Model, however, embodied true life through freedom.  The only rules were these:  Love the Lord your God with all of your heart and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself.  The early Christians had freedom to be the people God had dreamed for them to be, unconstrained by the past.  

No one had ever seen anything quite like this before.  

Luke gave language to this new thing so people could see it--truly see it. 

So what does all of this mean?  

It means everything.  The Church is given the task of showing why it matters that Jesus is Risen.  We are called to care for one another.  To bear one another's burdens.  And we are also called to care for others in the same way with the same grace. 

Between 250 and 270 AD a plague swept the Roman Empire, claiming the lives of millions of people.  5000 people a day were dying in Rome itself.  In cities and villages the bodies were literally being thrown into the streets.  Family members of infected people left them to die, fleeing to the countryside.  

The only group of people that stayed and ministered to the sick, even at risk to their own lives were Christians.  As they cared for and even died next to their neighbors people said of them, "...see how they love each other."  One of the Roman Emperors once said, "the impious Galileans support not only their own poor, but ours as well."   

I was reading an article this week from the New York Times that was asking the question, "Who is battling the Ebola crisis in West Africa?" The answer: missionaries, Christian doctors, and volunteers, motivated by their faith, and by the fact that they have been serving there for years bringing the Gospel to the people they have grown to love.  These modern-day Christians, like their ancient counterparts, ran toward the plague rather than away from it.  

This great grace that abounds in the middle of the New Community is marked by people with one heart and soul---not because we agree with one another all of the time, but because we regard the needs of others as our own.  

I remember years ago, in a meeting of our church's elders, we asked ourselves a question:  If we ceased to exist tomorrow, who would miss us?  Would anyone other than our own members really care that we were gone?  

The sad answer that we had to face was: probably not.  

We were known mostly for our lovely stained glass windows.  In fact, I remember telling people I was the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Eustis, and they would say, "Oh, that's the church with those beautiful stained glass windows..." and I would say, "Yes... that's the one."  

Our elders and church leaders decided that wasn't good enough.  We were called to be a Risen Community.  We wanted to be known as something much greater than an historic landmark. 

So we began caring for one another.  And our neighbors.  And our community.  
We discovered a new way to talk about who we were called to be.  And our new language gave us a vision.  We knew that we were called to know Jesus and show Jesus.  

A few years ago, I met someone at a Chamber of Commerce event.  I introduced myself as the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Eustis.  "Oh," they said, "that's the church that does all of that awesome stuff in the community."  and then I said, "Yes... that's the one."  

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Would Jesus Deliver Pizza To A Gay Wedding?

I was listening to a story on the news the other day about the owners of a small pizzeria who found themselves at the center of the ongoing debate about civil rights for people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, etc.  A local TV news reporter, who knew that the owners were overtly Christian, essentially set them up by asking one of the family members on camera if they would cater a gay wedding.  

Predictably, they said that they wouldn't, and then went on to explain that the reason why they wouldn't is because they are Christians, and believed that catering a gay wedding would mean that they supported gay marriage, which they didn't. 

There was a national backlash against these folks by people who support gay rights.  The owners of the pizzeria were threatened, harassed and eventually had to shut down their business for a time.  All of which prompted a national backlash by conservative talk show hosts, pundits and pastors who helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to help keep them in business.  

The recent "freedom of religion" laws that have been enacted in Arkansas and Indiana--and which are now being debated in other states--were initiated because of fears that businesses (like that pizzeria) would be sued for discrimination if the owners refused to provide services because of their religious convictions.  

The opponents of these laws see the laws themselves as a license for religious business owners to discriminate against others under the guise of religious freedom

And so it goes.  

All of this basically accomplishes two things:  1) A lot of people who aren't Christians solidify their reasons why they aren't Christian.  2) And a lot of Christians solidify their belief that they are being persecuted for "taking a stand."  

As a Christian pastor, I am often called upon to explain the actions of people who call themselves Christians.  Honestly, it gets tiring trying to figure it out.  

To begin with, let me be clear.  Most Christians in America know very little about what it means to be persecuted for being a Christian.    

Dealing with nasty Facebook posts or the occasional frivolous lawsuit is a hell of a lot different than facing a firing squad of radical Muslims who execute you if you aren't Muslim.  The 147 Kenyans who died last week for simply being Christians are evidence of this.  

Jesus wept. 

I didn't read a lot of Jurgen Moltmann when I was in seminary. I should have. Moltmann was a German theologian and professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Tubingen. He came to Christ as a German POW held by the Allies in a detention camp in Belgium.  The hallmark of Moltmann's theology was his understanding that God suffers with humanity in our moments of darkness, but ultimately offers us incredible hope through the resurrection.  

Moltmann was haunted by what his nation had done during WWII in places like Auschwitz and Buchenwald--concentration camps where millions of Jews were exterminated.  As a result he developed a robust sense of the responsibilities followers of Christ had toward others--even others who were not like them.  
Christianity understands itself as witness to the triune God who liberates human beings from inward and outward inhumanity, who allows them to live in his covenant, and who leads them to the glory of his kingdom. Christians therefore stand up for the dignity of human beings out of which emerges their rights and duties. For the sake of God they will stand up with all means at their disposal, acting as well as suffering, for the dignity of human beings and their rights as the image of God. For their service to the humanity of persons they need the right to religious freedom, the right to form a community, and the right to public speech and action. (On Human Dignity, 35)
What Moltmann says here is that the reason our rights to religious freedom exist is so that those of us who call ourselves Christians can exercise those rights to stand with those who are suffering, marginalized, outcast, outside, etc.   

This means that for those of us who call ourselves followers of Jesus, there comes a time to put the debates aside, and stop throwing emotional hand grenades at people who disagree with us.  And to realize that our right to religious freedom is a gift to be shared not a shield to keep us at arms length from everyone. 

Perhaps your convictions, your interpretation of the Bible or your traditions keep you from affirming marriage equality for all people.  Maybe you believe strongly that homosexuality is a sin--a behavior that can be modified or suppressed.  Or maybe you don't know what you believe--you want to love everyone as Jesus commanded, but you can't shake the things you've been taught from your faith tradition.  

I get it.  

These are important and weighty issues that should not be taken lightly.  

But in the end we have to ask ourselves a serious question.  "With whom do you think Jesus would be standing in this debate?"  Would he be standing with the religious "elite"--the ones who have all the answers, and Scripture to back up those answers?  Or would he be standing with those who are like "sheep without a shepherd?"   

Jesus always went to the margins.  He ate with sinners.  Jesus took up the cause of those who were outcast, and left out.  

They needed him more.  

And if you are sitting there preparing your answer to this blog post by saying something like, "Yeah, but Jesus called out sinners and told them to stop sinning..."  Perhaps, but he called out religious people who went around flaunting their religion a lot more.  
Christians need to learn an important lesson.  Acceptance does not equal Endorsement.  So maybe your convictions keep you from endorsing someone's lifestyle, behavior, gender, sexual identity, beliefs, choices, etc. 

But if you want to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, your convictions should not keep you from accepting all people as human beings created in the image of God--whether you agree with them or not.  

Delivering pizza to a gay wedding doesn't mean you endorse gay marriage.  

And who knows? Maybe if you did, it might open the door for more dialogue, for grace, for the Holy Spirit to work through you to show the love of Christ to people who probably don't feel like Christ is all that loving... at least based on the way his followers sometimes act.  

Maybe it's time to start proving them wrong.  

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Risen - Week 1: "We Are Witnesses"

Today is Easter--Resurrection Sunday.

Today we're going to celebrate--even Presbyterians celebrate on Easter.  We might be the frozen chosen, but at least once a year we thaw out enough to raise the roof.

All over the world today Christians will be celebrating Resurrection Sunday.  They'll be celebrating their belief that God became one of us in order to save all of us.  That through Jesus, God entered into the world in human form, and--in the words of the Gospel of John--took up residence in our neighborhood.

Jesus preached and taught and did amazing things that gave hope to the downtrodden, marginalized and poor.  This caught the attention of the power brokers of his day:  religious leaders, politicians, military leaders, to name a few.  The worst thing that can happen to those in power, who are not concerned with the greater good, is for the huddled masses to find hope.  So they executed Jesus by crucifying him on a cross.  He was buried in a borrowed tomb and we believe that three days later he was raised from the dead.

After he was raised from the dead, Jesus appeared to his followers and gave them a challenge to go out into the whole world and proclaim the Good News that sin and death had been defeated.

This is the Good News that Christians proclaim in a nutshell.

So what role does the Resurrection play in all of this?  Why do we believe that God raised Jesus from the dead?  Lots of people struggle with this aspect of our story.  They dig Jesus and all, and they think that he was a great teacher and loving example, but the whole being raised from the dead thing is a bridge too far for them.

The same thing was true in the first century, too.  The Apostle Paul, who wrote like half of the New Testament, wrote that the Gospel was "foolishness" to Gentiles and a "stumbling block" to the Jews, which was an ancient way of saying that no one really got it then either.

The Resurrection defies logic.  It's impossible.

But according to the Apostle Paul, it is also the most important part of the story.  "If Christ is not raised from the dead," he wrote, "than why am I even preaching?"  Without the Resurrection, Christianity is just a nice idea--a pleasant set of thoughts about how to live your life.  It's not grounded in anything groundbreaking.

This is where a lot of Christians have gone south.  They've taken the words of the Apostle Paul to the extreme.  They come to believe that people who struggle to become Christians because they doubt the Resurrection need to be convinced. 

So these well-meaning, but misguided Christians pick up on something that Jesus told his disciples: "You will know the truth and the truth will set you free."  And they believe that if only people knew the truth about the Resurrection--then they would be set free.  But by truth, they really mean proof.  So they read every book about how the Resurrection can be proven historically, scientifically, journalistically and the like.  They memorize vast amounts of Scripture.  They prepare themselves to win an argument.

Because after all, that's what this comes down to for them--an argument.  They believe if they can just have enough information to win the argument about the Resurrection with people who are having a hard time believing it that they will win them over to Christianity itself.  They then engage in debates with these folks whenever they can, and with a great deal of gusto.

But when their arguments are rejected, they often believe that the person rejecting their argument is rejecting Christ and so they wash their hands of them.  Because in the end, the truth will set you free, right?  And if you won't believe the truth--read proof--then you are condemned.

If you have ever been on the sour end of that argument, you know it's not fun.

Listen, I am not against knowing what you believe and why.  I am completely not against being familiar with the Bible.

But let me ask a question.

What does it mean to you that Jesus is Risen?

What does it mean to the world?

What does it mean for Creation?

What does it mean for political systems, culture and art, strife between people?

What does it mean for the Church that Jesus is Risen?

I think that before we start giving people reasons, information and arguments we need to answer these questions.

Because there is a difference between "knowing" something and KNOWING something.

I was listening to one of my favorite pastors the other day and he was telling the story of how he was helping his son study for a Chemistry exam.  The kid was killing it.  He was answering every question that his dad threw at him.  The pastor related how he was shocked how much his kid knew, and how complicated the information was to him.  At one point he asked his son about a section on triglycerides--his son had just given him a complicated answer about them.

"What does this mean?" He asked his kid.  "What you just said to me, I don't understand it at all--could you explain what it mean?"  "Dad," the kid said, "We don't need to know what it means.  They aren't teaching us that.  We just need to know the stuff in the notes so we can pass."

He had no idea what it actually meant in the real world.  The kid just wanted to pass the test so he memorized the information so he could regurgitate it back on command.

There's a difference between "knowing" something and KNOWING something.

In Acts 10:34-43 we have this incredible sermon by the Apostle Peter.  He's preaching not long after Jesus has returned to the Father and the church was born at Pentecost.  He lets loose a sermon that is directed at the very group of people who executed Jesus.

Dude had some stones.

34 Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism 35 but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. 36 You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. 37 You know what has happened throughout the province of Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached— 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.

Then he says this:

39 “We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a cross, 40 but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. 41 He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

The phrase that stood out for me was the one that starts verse 39:  "We are witnesses."

What does it mean to be a witness?

A witness is someone who sees something--they were there.  They can testify to the facts about an event because they know what they saw, what they heard, what they--experienced.

In Greek the word for witness is martyr. 

A martyr in our understanding is someone who is murdered for their beliefs.
We came to know the word martyr in this way because of the fact that many early Christian witnesses gave their lives in defense of their faith.  Most of them never saw Jesus, never sat at his feet. They were second and third generation believers.

I get that they would give their lives for their beliefs even though they had never witnessed Jesus firsthand.  Their faith was passed to them by people they loved, and they saw the evidence of changed lives as a result. They knew what they believed and why--it was part of them.

But the disciples--the apostles--those firsthand witnesses of Jesus life and ministry...  Do you really think they would have been willing to die for something they knew wasn't true?  Would you?  If you knew that Jesus hadn't really been raised from the dead, would you be willing to die bearing witness to that fact as every single one of the apostles did?

They knew what they saw.  And it changed them.

There's a difference between knowing something and KNOWING something.

When Jesus told his disciples, "You will know the truth and the truth will set you free," the word that he used for "know" was special.  There were like twelve words for the word "to know" in Greek.  One of them was the word oida, which was commonly used to describe knowing something because it was in your head.  The other word that is used by Jesus is ginosko, which means "to know" but it's more commonly used to describe sexual intimacy.

There is a difference between simple belief, and intimate knowledge.

What I am about to say next is for the Christians in the room, so if there are people who aren't Christians here--you're off the hook for a second.  But you may want to lean in just a bit because what I am about to say is probably something that you wish you'd heard Christians say a long time ago.

The difference between knowing and KNOWING plays out in a lot of different ways when it comes to Christian-types like us.

Some of us memorized vast amounts of Bible verses and we can quote them on demand.  For every occasion, we have a Bible verse.  We can throw down when it comes to Bible verses.

I can't even tell you how much of the Bible I memorized when I was a kid.  Huge chunks of it.  Chapters, entire books, you name it.  But at some point I had a faith crisis and all of that head knowledge didn't do me any good.  I got to a point where I didn't think God cared all that much for me, and I didn't care all that much for God.

But later in my life after a long journey I re-discovered a verse that has now become my life verse.  Jeremiah 29:11 "For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans not to harm you but to give you hope and a future."  I know I quote this verse all of the time, but it's my favorite.

There was a time in my life when I felt like there was no way that God would ever want to use me--that there was no real purpose for my life.  I had done too many things.  I had run too far away.  But this verse spoke to me.  It spoke to me about grace and second chances.  It helped me to see that God's plans for my life were perfect and full of hope.

I used to know a lot of Bible verses.  But I KNOW that one.

Or what about Christians who love to give hundreds of reasons why certain things are sinful?  They can give you chapter and verse from the Bible on why that thing that those people do is sinful in the eyes of angry God.

What I want to ask them is simply this.  Can you tell me about a time when you received grace you didn't deserve?  Don't give me reasons and lists why those things are sin--tell me about how you've been forgiven.  Tell me about that time when you found yourself on your knees, broken, sorry, wounded, messed up--because of what you did, or said.  Tell me about how you felt peace wash over you, how that relationship was restored, how that addiction was broken...

I don't care so much about what you know.  I want to hear about what you KNOW.

Some Christians can give you list of all of the current events that are happening in the world today that point toward the Apocalypse.  They will warn you about the impending end of the world.  They have authors they can quote, verses they can share.  They wake up every day and see the world as a fearful place or worse as a place full of signs that God is going to wreak destruction on everything and finally... finally those people are going to get theirs.

I want to ask them: Instead of telling me how awful the world is---could you tell me something else?
Can you tell me about a time when you looked into the sky and you knew that God loved you.  Because you saw that sunset over the lake with the unbelievable color in all of its infinite variety and you realized that God could have made that happen any old way---but God made it beautiful because He loves us.

Tell me something that you KNOW.

There's a difference between knowing and KNOWING.

When it comes to the Resurrection, the signs are all around us.  We could spend all of our time trying to convince people that God raises from the dead, or we could just tell our stories.  Because every single one of us has a story about how they saw something that they thought was dead--come back to life again: a marriage restored, an addict cured, a wayward child returned, an unbelieving spouse come to faith...  We've seen the impossible made possible.

We KNOW this.

I remember years ago, I was working a late shift as a hospital chaplain and I was called to see a woman who was about to have surgery the next morning to remove her vocal chords.  I was about to have one of the very last conversations that she would ever have.  She told me that she was a believer in Jesus, that she had followed him faithfully her whole life.  She had done everything she was supposed to do.  She went to church.  She went to Bible study.  She gave to the church.  Her kids grew up in Sunday school and youth group.

And now she would never speak again.  She was angry with God.  The things she knew were failing her.  I took out my Bible and asked her if she would be interested in reading the Bible out loud--perhaps for the last time.  She nodded through her tears.

We opened the Bible to Lamentations chapter 3

1 I am the man who has seen affliction
    by the rod of the Lord’s wrath.
2 He has driven me away and made me walk
    in darkness rather than light;
3 indeed, he has turned his hand against me
    again and again, all day long.

As she read, her voice became tighter and angrier.  She read the indictments against God that begin the chapter--a book dedicated to sorrow, anger at the Almighty, frustration, fear and all the rest of it.

16 He has broken my teeth with gravel;
    he has trampled me in the dust.
17 I have been deprived of peace;
    I have forgotten what prosperity is.
18 So I say, “My splendor is gone
    and all that I had hoped from the Lord.”

I remember the tears running down her face as this woman with the last bit of voice she had cried out to God.  Everything she thought she knew seemed to have come to nothing.  And then she read this...

21 Yet this I call to mind
    and therefore I have hope:
22 Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
    for his compassions never fail.
23 They are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.
24 I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion;
    therefore I will wait for him.”

She paused after reading that verse--her voice trailing off.  She began to cry, but she smiled at me through the tears that came down her face in a flood.

"I am not consumed." She said to me.  "I am not consumed."

In that moment she realized that God had not left her.  God had taken her anger, her unbelief.  God could handle it.  And in the end, God would redeem it all.  She'd had knowledge of the Resurrection before, but in this moment she had INTIMATE knowledge of it.

There's a difference between knowing something and KNOWING something.

Christ is risen, beloved.  He is risen indeed.