Wednesday, May 13, 2015

I Like Giving - Week 2: I Like Being 98

Today we are continuing the sermon series that we started last week entitled, "I Like Giving."  During this series, which we'll be working through throughout the month of May we'll be learning what it means to live a generous life--with our finances, time, talent, etc. 

As I said last week, the very essence of God is generosity.  Out of the boundless generosity of God flows God's unmeasurable grace and expansive love.  And you and I are made in the image of God--with God's DNA all in us and through us. So it stands to reason that our default, our go-to should be to live generous lives. 

But we don't always live generous lives.  In fact, for most of us---even those of us who call ourselves Christians--we do quite the opposite.  This sermon series is going to wrestle with that issue--seeking to demonstrate that there are physical, emotional, mental and spiritual benefits to being generous, and as we will learn today there are also unbelievable benefits for those who receive--more than we may realize. 

Let's begin with our passage of Scripture today, though.  We're starting in Luke 6:37-38 today where we will find one of Jesus' most famous sayings that tends to be taken out of context pretty often. 

37 “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. 38 Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

First, let's take on the first line from verse 37, which is the one I was talking about a moment ago.  "Judge not, and you will not be judged."  I think more people who aren't Christians know that verse than any other verse in the Bible.  And for good reason.  There are Christians who have a tendency to be a bit judgmental from time to time--some more than others.  As we learned a few months ago, being judged by Christians was the number one reason why people don't want to go to church.  

But this particular verse isn't exactly about being judgmental.  And it's also not a prohibition against calling sin for what it is, and injustice for what it is.  

The word here is the same root word that we get the English word "critic."  Someone who is taking potshots at someone else unfairly.  This is for the person who is using his own template to criticize people, and his template emphasizes one set of sins as worse than others.  Typically, the type of sins that aren't all that bad in this kind of critique are the ones the critic himself is guilty of.  For example, there are lots of Christians who are guilty of gluttony, anger, envy, bigotry and pride will tell a gay person they are going to hell.  

What Jesus is saying here is--"If you are going to use your own template to criticize others, than you can fully expect for the mirror image of your template to be used on you."  

In the same way, Jesus says, "Forgive and you will be forgiven." The word here is the same word for "pardon," which is simply a reflection of God's grace.  In other words, when you forgive others, when you pardon them from the hurts they've done to you, the slights, the pain they've caused, the wounds and betrayal.  When you forgive them, you are not admitting that they were not guilty, you are pardoning them. 

Which is what God has done for us--we who slighted God, caused him pain, wounded and betrayed him over and over again by the things we've done and the things we've left undone.  It's not that we are innocent--we've just been declared not-guilty, we've been pardoned because of the love of God through Jesus Christ who loved us to the end, gave himself for us, and was raised to give us new life. 

Then Jesus shifts gears a tad.  It's almost as though we realizes that his audience isn't quite getting what he's saying--almost the way I feel a little right now.  

He suddenly says, "Give and it will be given unto you..." suddenly, he has everyone's attention.  This was the language of the marketplace.  When you came to the market with goods or money, you exchanged it for goods or money. 

Measure for Measure.  Pound for pound.  Penny for penny.  

Then Jesus paints an even more vivid picture:  "A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap."  When people would go to the market they would often use the folds of their robes as a shopping bag.  

Jesus is tapping into that imagery.  You can almost see it: A merchant with grain takes his measuring device, a clay pot, perhaps or a basket--he fills it to the brim, he tamps it down, he pours more in, more and more until it's overflowing and then he pours that into the lap of a woman who is standing there with her robe held out--more than she can hold, almost.  

Then Jesus says, "the measure you use, will be measured to you..."  

The implication is that whoever is standing there receiving that grain being poured into their lap has at some point given generously in order to receive such bounty.  

This kind of imagery would have sucked everyone into his teaching.  Hopefully, just like you've been sucked into this one. 

Because, as Jesus was trying to help people understand, when it comes to living generously, you get out what you put in.  If you see people with generous eyes instead of critical ones... If you give of what you have freely and abundantly...  If those are the measures you are using to give---then the same measures will be used in return.  

Here's the thing, we never know what might happen when we live generously.  When we put good out into the world in abundance---more often than not the same measure of abundance returns to us, though not always in the way we expect it.  

Let me tell you a story about Krispy Kreme donuts.  

Gotcha didn't I?  Sucked you right in. 

I was living in Chicago and working as the youth director for a church in the northern suburbs.  Every Sunday morning I would stop and get donuts on my way to Sunday school.  It was a requirement, I was told.  I knew better.  Kids hate mornings and need sugar to help them see Jesus.  

When the new Krispy Kreme donuts opened I started stopping there on my way in every Sunday.  After a while the manager asked me what I was doing, and i told her I was buying donuts for kids so they could see Jesus.  

From that moment on, every Sunday I walked in and she gave me a dozen donuts for free, and sometimes  a few more.  

A few years ago, one of our members paid for the meal of the person behind them at the McDonald's drive through.  The next day she stopped by there again and the young man working the window told her that after she'd paid for the guy behind her, he did the same.  Then that guy paid for the person behind him, and so on and so on.  It went on for about ten people until finally someone just received it and didn't pass it on.  

But still... what a story those Mickey D's employees told. 

When Merideth and I were living in Chicago we were working like dogs--me at my full time youth director gig with over 300 kids, and she at her white collar law firm position that required her to work 70 hours a week.  Oh and I was going to school full time, too.  

One day, the pastor of the church handed me a check for a $1000.  It was from an anonymous donor who saw how hard my wife and I were working both within and without the church to serve the youth there.  It wasn't the money that felt the best--although that was nice.  It was the fact that someone saw us, really saw us.  

Check out this video from the I Like Giving website: 

I Like Being 98. from on Vimeo.

Evelyn generously shared what she had: dignity, worth, purpose.  She did so in a determined and selfless way--going above and beyond what she had to do in order to provide dignity, worth and purpose to her friend.  

You can look at Evelyn and tell that she has not only spent her life not listening to people who told her she couldn't... She has spent her life giving whatever she had in abundance, and received in abundance more than she dreamed.  

When it comes to living generously, you get out what you put in. 

So what are you putting out into the world?  

Are you putting out judgment into the world?  Do you see the world with a critical eye, one that is quick to note the shortcomings of others, the sins of others, the fallenness of others, without noting your own?  

Are you putting out scarcity into the world?  Are you holding too tightly to the things you have, the money, the possessions, your talents and gifts?  Maybe you are afraid you won't have enough--money, time, security, whatever...  So you close your fists a little tighter and make the world a little poorer.  

Maybe you put out fear into the world?  You fear the future, you fear making decisions, you fear commitment...  

Or maybe it's selfishness you are putting out into the world.  You aren't worried about having enough--you simply want more.  

Based on what Jesus taught, what sort of measuring cup will be used to give to you if the one your using is tainted with judgment, scarcity, fear and selfishness?  

Or are you putting out something else into the world.  Forgiveness perhaps---reflections of God's grace.  Or Generosity of spirit--living into the hope of who you really are in the eyes of God through Jesus.  Or Courage instead of fear--you step into life unafraid, ready to live abundantly as Jesus promised.  Maybe you are putting out Selflessness into the world where you consider the needs of others before your own.  

By now you understand.  We all want these things don't we?  We want to be forgiven.  We want to be treated generously.  We want to know that we have people who will be our shield in troubled times.  We want for people to see us, truly see us and put our needs ahead of their own. 

Measure for measure.  

When we live generously, we experience generosity.  You get out what you put in.  Sometimes the things we receive are dramatic.  Sometimes they are ordinary.  Sometimes they are unexpected. Other times they are flat out miraculous.  

Several years ago, my wife was praying in a church service at our former church.  She was overwhelmed by the unshakable feeling that she needed to give extra money to one of her employees who was having a hard time.  The young woman was struggling with her ex husband over child support payments--as in he refused to pay them.  Merideth not only had the overwhelming feeling that she needed to give the woman a check, she also had an amount in mind--one that came to her in the midst of her prayers.  It was something like $642.16--that kind of specific.  

She ignored it. 

For a while. 

Then she finally wrote the check one morning and called her employee into her office.  She told her the story, and then handed her the check.  The woman burst into tears.  The amount of the check was the exact amount that she needed to pay an overdue bill.  Down... to... the... penny... 

Sometimes God loves to show off when we simply trust that the good we do in His name--will not return empty.  We didn't receive a hundred times what we gave in that moment, or even ten times, which is what a lot of those prosperity gospel guys will try to tell you will happen.  

We received ten thousand times worth of love and grace, though.  A priceless reminder of how much God loves everyone--including us.  

When it comes to living generously, you get out what you put in. 

Sunday, May 10, 2015

I Like Giving - Week One: "I Like Car"

This week we are launching a brand new sermon series for the month of May entitled, "I Like Giving."  Each of these sermons is inspired by the book and the website of the same name.  Generosity is not just a virtue--and it's certainly not an exclusively "Christian" virtue, but I do believe it is a virtue that flows from the very heart of God.  I also think that for those of us who  all ourselves Christians, it's more than just a virtue, it's a way of life. 

Over the course of this sermon series, we are going to explore what it means to serve a generous God, whose generosity is built into our very DNA.  You and I were made to be generous, it's how we were created.  But in order to fully experience the benefits of living a generous life, we need to learn what it means to practice generosity as a lifestyle.  

Today we're going to explore one of the most famous conversations Jesus had with someone about what  it means to be generous:  the story of the Rich Young Ruler from Mark 10:17-31.  

Let's read that passage now: 

17 As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

18 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’[a]”

20 “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”

21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

22 At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.

23 Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”

24 The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is[b] to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

26 The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”

27 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”

28 Then Peter spoke up, “We have left everything to follow you!”

29 “Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel 30 will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”

Don't you just love the way Jesus handles this guy?  The young man comes to him in earnest, and tries to butter him up by calling him "Good Teacher," which is a sign of great respect.  Jesus kind of chuckles at this and asks the young man, "Why do you call me good? There is none good but God." It's like he's putting the guy on notice that he can't schmooze his way into this conversation--it's going to be straight up honesty. 

And then he asks, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?  What do I have to do to live in God's kingdom?"  Then Jesus responds by relating to him all of the commandments that relate to others--in other words, he leaves out the commandments like "No other gods before me," "No graven images" and so on.  Interesting right?  

So of course the young man responds immediately, "I've totally got this!  I have kept all of those commands from birth.  I've been a good person.  I've faithfully kept the law.  No problem!"  

It says in the text that Jesus looks upon him and loves him.  He saw something in this earnest young man that the young man didn't see in himself--potential, enthusiasm, something good.  But he also knows that merely keeping the rules and regulations of religion aren't enough.  

And then Jesus hits him with this:  "Well there is one thing you haven't done.  Sell everything you have and give it all to the poor.  Then come and follow me. 

It says in the text that after hearing this the "young man went away sorrowful, because he had a lot of possessions.  He walked away from following Christ because he had a lot of stuff--things he had acquired.  And he could not let them go.  

Jesus turns to his disciples and says, "It's harder for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God."  When he said this, the disciples were kind of bummed.  They reply to Jesus, "well than who gets to go to heaven?  That doesn't seem fair!  Do you really want us to be dirt poor all of the time?"  You can imagine their dismay.  

Then Peter speaks up, trying to put his best foot forward in the moment.  "But Jesus," he says, "We have left everything to follow you."  To which Jesus replies, "Listen, there isn't a single person who has left everything for my sake that won't receive a hundredfold of all of it---with persecution--and then in the world to come eternal life."  

This seems like a strange saying.  It's almost as though Jesus is saying that those that give up everything will have everything and then some not just in eternity, but now in this life---and oh yeah, there'll be persecution as well so there's that.  

But if you examine both the story of the rich young ruler and Jesus conversation with his disciples, you can get a glimpse of what Jesus is trying to teach his followers.  In fact, you can see how they are interrelated.  On the one hand you have someone who is doing the bare minimum to get by, to be a good person without ever really giving anything up.  Then on the other hand you see someone who seems to go over the top with his giving, but in reality is simply wanting that giving to pay off in the end.  

The rich young ruler had led a righteous and very religions life.  He kept the rules.  By all outward appearances he was doing everything he was supposed to.  And yet he was defined by his possessions.  He lacked generosity--true generosity of spirit.  His things made him who he was, and the thought of being without them created for him an identity crisis.  

Peter's declaration about "giving up everything" to follow Jesus was the flipside of the same coin.  In the end, it's not about doing something in order to be considered righteous.  It's not about giving so you'll receive.  This isn't a passage of Scripture that bolsters the prosperity Gospel movement, although it's misused to do so.  Giving things away to curry favor with God isn't generosity.  True generosity Jesus seems to be saying here is when your identity is grounded in a relationship with him--and all that goes with it, even persecution.  It's when your generosity stems from caring less for the things you have than the Savior, you claim to follow.  

In the kingdom of God, Jesus teaches his disciples, things are topsy turvy.  The first are last, and the last shall be first.  All of the ways that the world defines success, and the way we are taught to form our identity by what we have, spend, acquire, etc. mean very little in this kingdom.  It's not impossible to be a wealthy Christian (and by almost every standard you can measure--most Christians in America would be considered fabulously wealthy in over 2/3 of the world), but it's impossible for those who are wealthy to find their identity in both their stuff and Jesus.  

I was walking through the parking lot of the gym that I frequent far less often than I should and I saw a tricked out Mustang parked there with a vanity license plate with these letters MINE printed on it.  I thought that was kind of interesting.  I wanted to find the person and ask them "Is this really yours?  Do you owe money on it?  How did you afford to pay for it?  Did someone give you a job, a promotion at your job?  How did you get the ability to earn that promotion, where did it come from?"  

"Mine" is one of the first words that pre-schoolers learn to say correctly, emphatically and in the right context.  I sometimes watch my little four year-old with his friends while they play.  When you're four and someone starts really enjoying one of your toys--even if you haven't looked at it in several weeks, and have probably forgotten it existed, you suddenly want it.  In that moment you want the kid who is happily playing with your toy to know it is yours.  "That's mine." you'll say. "MINE."  

Earlier I mentioned that because we are created in the image of God, we contain the generosity of God in our very DNA.  It's in our nature to be generous--it's how we should be.  But early on in our development we also learn about "MINE"  and what it means to have things, and how our things can shape our identity in our culture. 

So what happens when we give?  When we push back against the culture of MINE and do something differently?  Well, I think it actually connects us more deeply with who we really are, and who God has always intended for us to be.  

Giving can be messy.  Figuring out how to lead a generous life doesn't always look neat and well-defined.  But if we are going to lead truly generous lives--lives that aren't defined by our things, then we need to be ready for some messiness.  

Sometimes we need to give more than people need to receive.  Part of leading a generous life where you aren't defined by your things is being able to give "above and beyond."  It keeps you honest.  It also reminds you that you are giving a gift and not engaging in a transaction.  Transactional giving is where you give expecting something in return--a thank you, or repayment, or perhaps for the person receiving your gift to use it wisely and change their life.  

If there are strings attached to your giving, then it's not truly a gift, it's a transaction.  Practice giving more than is needed, so that you'll cut the ties to your stuff that keep you from following Jesus more fully. 

Sometimes people reject your gifts.  I read a story in the book "I Like Giving" about a woman who wanted to give her friend who had been battling cancer the gift of a cruise for the two of them.  The woman's husband was embarrassed by the gift and the lady told her friend that she could not go.  It devastated her, but that's part of the messiness of living generously.  

I want to show you a video about a couple who practiced giving generously, even when it meant giving more than was needed--and it was a sacrifice for them to do so.  

I Like Car from on Vimeo.

Let me ask you, when the couple bought a new  car for Katherine did that surprise you? What do you take from that?

The Rich Young Ruler teaches a valuable lesson.  When you are defined by your things, you let them go far less easily.  And they can become the very things that keep you from being close to God.  The saddest part of that whole story is summed up in two sentences:  Jesus looked upon the young man and loved him, and the young man went away sorrowful because he had great possessions.  

When you aren't defined by your possessions, you can let go of them more easily, you can use them more readily as a blessing to others, you can learn what it means to live generously. 

When you realize that what you have doesn't define who you are, you can be free.  

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."