Sunday, March 30, 2008

Sermon 3/30/08 1 Peter Part One: "Aliens in America

“Aliens in America”
1 Peter 1:3-2:3

I am not sure how many people watch the television show Aliens in America, but I could not help but think of the show as I studied 1 Peter. The show is about a high school student named Justin who is trying his hardest to fit in, but let’s just say, he is socially awkward. To make matters worse, his mother Franny keeps butting in and trying to help him fit in. All you have to do is remember high school and you know this is a bad idea.

Franny decides to take Justin’s popularity into her own hand and decides to be a host to a foreign exchange student. She selects a cool, athletic guy who she thinks will bring instant popularity to her son, but there is a mix up and Raja shows up instead. He is a sixteen year old Muslim from Pakistan and he in no way fits into the high school scene either. Instead the two boys become good friends and navigate school together as outsiders.

Interestingly enough, I have only seen one episode, but I did notice some parallels between this show and the letter of 1 Peter. Although some people debate who wrote this letter containing the name of Peter, for our sakes we will call him the author, which is very probable. If Peter wrote this letter, it would have been written in the early 60’s AD. The letter is addressed to different churches in Asia Minor. This type of letter is called a “circular letter” because it circulated from church to church. Peter refers to the recipients of this letter as “exiles,” (1:1) “foreigners,” (1:17) and both foreigners and exiles. (2:11) Peter’s audience, while they are not literal exiles, they are living a life that is separate from the culture.

Asia Minor was heavily influenced by Greek and Roman culture where numerous gods were worshiped. The society as a whole believed they were to gain honor by whatever means they could, even by harming others. Due to the values that Christians held, they were at odds with society and they at least suffered culture and emotional persecution. It is in the backdrop that we must understand the words of 1 Peter. After the introduction, Peter begins the letter with these words,

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God's power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
Peter begins by giving praise to God, who has given us Jesus, which has given his readers a living hope. Throughout this section, Peter compares this hope that Christians have compared to that of those without Jesus. Repeatedly he says that thing Jesus gives us is imperishable. In verse four he says it will never perish, fade, or spoil. In verse seven it is greater than gold because gold will perish. Again in verse 18 it is greater than silver or gold. In verse 23 Peter tells his readers that they have been born again with something that is imperishable rather than something perishable.

As I was working through the text, more and more I think Peter has to sway his readers to continue on in their faith. I am sure it was difficult for them to follow Jesus in this society. Their faith in Jesus was causing them to experience dishonor while other people gained status and wealth by following the status quo. I am sure they were struggling to live out their faith when it would be so easy to conform and prosper.

I think we have similar struggles today. For instance when we watch prime time TV shows, we are told that guys are normal only when they view pornographic material. We are told that relationships are abnormal if they do not lead to sex. We are told that couples ought to live together before they are married and we are taught that if we believe the Bible is in any way inspired, then we are psychotic. With all the messages that we see and hear telling us that our faith and values are outdated, it seems hard to not give in.

Peter addresses this difficulty as we have seen by telling us that our faith will lead to something worth far more than the values of the world. He follows this up by grounding the Christian faith in the very purposes of God. He writes,

Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things.
Peter tells them that the faith they have now came from the searching of the prophets who spoke of Jesus. Now, Peter’s audience has been privileged to have this revelation given to them. The very faith that causes them to be aliens in their own community is the same faith the prophets longed to know and the angles yearn for. What makes the suffering worth the effort is that we, as Christians, believe in something real and alive. Our faith is grounded in the very purpose and heart of God.

Whenever we study the Bible, there are several words that we should pay close attention to because they give us textual markers. The word “Therefore” is one of those words. “Therefore” means we should take the material we have just read and use that as the cause for what follows. So, the text in 1 Peter says, “Because we our hope is built on Jesus, which is grounded in the very purpose of God, we are NOT to conform to the evil desires we have when we were called by God, but rather to be holy as God is holy.” Most of the Christians Peter is addressing may have been 1st generation Christians, meaning they had at one time lived just like everyone else did. The have been called out of that lifestyle and are now to be holy or set apart.

In keeping with Peter’s advise, we have to be able to rise above the way culture tells us to live and follow Jesus. This means being “set a part” for God. Just because society tells us belief in the bible is ludicrous, we are to stand firm and be set apart in our faithfulness to the truths it contains.

In verse 22, Peter continues on with his second imperative. Once we have been “set apart” or purified, we are to then sincerely love one another. He says this means to love each other from the heart. In this context, I am quite certain that Peter has in mind that Christians are to love one another. Later in the letter he tells Christians how they are to act towards non-Christians. We will discuss this next week. Here, Peter wants Christians to love each other.

There are two ways in which these words could be taken. First, since this letter was passed around, it could be urging the churches to love and support each other. There is no evidence that I have seen that the churches in the introduction of the letter are not getting along, but if all of the Christians are being marginalized and alienated by those around them, then they should love and support one another.

Peter could be speaking to individuals within each of the churches, urging them to love one another deeply. Either way, Peter is convinced that they will not be able to live out their high calling in this non-Christian world if they do not love each other. I want to submit that the only way we can live out our faith in the world in which we live in is with sincere love.

The church can be a funny place. In every church, there are sub groups by the very nature that we meet together. We have different Sunday school classes, we have different small groups. Some people come on Wednesday, some don’t. We support different mission groups. In the Methodist church, we have different committees that do different things. In our church we have three different worship services which reach different people. Each of these groups have their ideas of what is important and sometimes these ideas will clash. Sometimes we get this crazy idea that other people in the church are out to get us and kill the ministry that we are involved in.

Peter’s message to the churches of Asia Minor and his message to us today is that the gospel of Jesus is so amazing, yet so difficult at times, that we have to be able to trust each other and work together. The only way to do this is to love each other from deep within out hearts. We have to be able to put our own agendas aside and love each other.

Finally, Peter uses one more”therefore” in verse 2:1. He says, “Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind.” This is really an expression of loving each other sincerely. He then says, “Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.” This is the perfect way to end this section. It is about growing up and growing in our faith. Peter realizes that we do not get to the goal of salvation over night. It is a process. It is a journey. Many times it is a tough road, but the journey is worth it.

When I had recently moved to Chattanooga after seminary, I was invited to be a part of the Emmaus Walk, which is a retreat that happens a couple of times a year. I had heard of people going on this retreat, so I was interested in going. I went up on the retreat after being at the church about seven months. I remember clearly thinking early on in the retreat that if had a car up on the mountain, I would have driven back home and slept in my own bed. One guy in my cabin snored like a chain saw. I could not sleep for the life of me. I remember analyzing and critiquing everything that happened. I was miserable.

At some point during the retreat I felt like God was trying to tell me something. I remember something like God telling me that I was very arrogant. That is not the message you want to hear from God, but it was true. My arrogance was standing in the way of me experiencing what God wanted me to learn. On that retreat, God showed me that regular church folks could minister to me if I would let them. It was a painful process on the journey, but it was a step I needed to take. It was a step I needed to take to be pure and holy and to follow God.

I am not sure what steps God wants to take you today. I do know that we have to agree to go on the journey and to be willing to let God take us there. This may mean giving up things that God asks us to give up. This may mean being uncomfortable in the world around us, but God promises that the prize at the end is worth it.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Sermon 3/23/08 Easter Sermon "You're the Reason I am Alive"

“You’re the Reason I am Alive”
John 20:1-18

When I was growing up, I was a huge fan of the band Motley Crew. Even as an adult, I own Motley Crew’s greatest hits album and I listen to it on occasion. A couple of months ago I was driving to Maryville to taste some coffee as a possibility for a cafĂ© that we hope to open at some point along the road. I popped in Motley Crew’s greatest hits and was caught by the lyrics of a song called Without You. It begins by saying,

Without you, there's no changeMy nights and days are greyIf I reached out and touched the rainIt just wouldn't feel the sameWithout you, I'd be lostI'd slip down from the topI'd slide down so lowyou'd never, never know...Without you, without youA sailor lost at seaWithout you, The world comes down on me

Of coarse the song is about how a particular female makes the particular guy feel, but I thought it was a reminder of how Jesus’ disciples felt when Jesus had been crucified and they were waiting for the Passover and the Sabbath to end to they could go and anoint his body in the tomb. Jesus represented all of their hopes and dreams. In John’s gospel, they have been following him around for as long as three years.[i] The believed Jesus was Israel’s long awaited Messiah who would restore Israel to its past glory and bring God’s reign and kingdom once more. Now they wait and grieve not only the death of a close friend, but the loss of hope.

Playing the Different Parts of the Story

One of the things I did during Lent was to read a book by N.T. Wright called Christians at the Cross in which he shares meditations from each of the days during holy week, beginning with Jesus’ journey into Jerusalem. He compares the story of the Bible to singing in four-part harmony. He says the main tune in the story is melody which represents the story of Jesus itself. The bass sets the tempo and he calls the bass in the story the Old Testament. The tenor part of the song tells you which note to sing and is represented by what is happening in the community that we live in today. Finally he adds the alto is our own personal story. Wright believes these four things go together to create the story we read in the Bible.

While I found this helpful, I am a pastor in the contemporary worship service so I want to change things up a bit and use contemporary parts to help tell the Easter story this morning. I am going to add several parts to this, one because there are more parts in a praise band than in singing four part harmony and because I think that there are more things that go into understanding the story.( I think NT Wright would also agree with this).[ii]

First, there is normally someone or a group of people leading the singing or telling us what the words are. I would call this the Holy Spirit, who directs us anytime we open the Bible and read from it. Second, there is the rhythm guitar or the keyboard that plays the main melody of the song so we can sing with the music. This part is the words of the text that we are reading which is guiding our thinking. Next, we have drums which provide the beat of the song in the same way that the Old Testament provides the heartbeat for what is happening behind the words we read is Scripture. The bass also works with the drums is giving us the beat, in the same way that the culture in which the original words that were written gives us insight into the story. The lead guitar provides the notes of the song and tells us what to accent in the same way that the culture around us and our experience place emphasis on certain parts of the text. Finally, there is the part where we all sing and worship together, showing our response to the text we encounter. It is important to note that you do not have to use every part on every musical piece. Today I will not be using the bass notes.

1. The Lead Vocal
Let us pray

2. The Drums
As we begin to look at our text this morning, I want to begin by looking at the drum beat or the Old Testament that gives us the beat of our text and helps us understand what those witnessing the empty tomb were expecting. An example of this can be found in Ezekiel 37 where Ezekiel has a vision in which God shows him a valley of dry bones and God causes skin to form on the bones and breaths breath into them so they become alive. Ezekiel says that this represents Israel who God will breathe life into their dead bones, leaving the Jews with the impression that one day; God would resurrect all of those who were righteous.

3. The Lead Guitar
As we read this text together this morning we have to allow the Lead Guitar to guide us to the notes in this text, given that this is the first Sunday in the New Worship Center. We have been working on this project since the very first Sunday the Vine began on September 7th, 2003. This is an exciting time in the life of the church and we are excited to be in this place at last.

4. The Rhythm Guitar
Let us now turn to John 20:1-18

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don't know where they have put him!"
So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus' head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen. Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.) Then the disciples went back to where they were staying.
Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb 1and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus' body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. They asked her, "Woman, why are you crying?" "They have taken my Lord away," she said, "and I don't know where they have put him." 14 At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. He asked her, "Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?" Thinking he was the gardener, she said, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him." Jesus said to her, "Mary." She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, "Rabboni!" (which means "Teacher"). Jesus said, "Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, 'I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.' " Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: "I have seen the Lord!" And she told them that he had said these things to her.

As with the other gospel accounts, Mary Magdalene is the first person to the tomb but unlike the other gospels, John does not mention any of the other women that may have been there. When she sees that the stone has been rolled away, Jesus is very uneasy. It is possible that she is upset because she thinks someone has stolen the body from the tomb. It was common for people to rob wealthier grave plots in the first-century. After seeing the stone, she leave immediately to tell Peter and the other disciple what she had witnessed.

It seems that the disciple whom Jesus’ loved (some believe this was John himself) get into a foot race and apparently John is faster because he gets there first. John sort of stands there while Peter goes on in and notices that Jesus is not there, but the cloth that was around him is lying there as if it were not taken off him, but like he just disappeared. When John sees the sight, the text tells us that “he believed.” However, we get a side note that reminds the reader that while he believed, he did not yet understand from the Old Testament why this was important. It begs us to ask the question, “What did he actually believe?” I want to suggest that his new belief was that, while he did not know the importance of this moment, he now knew that something more had happened than Jesus’ body was stolen. There was some significance to this event.

It seems that Mary has now come back to the tomb and she is standing outside of the tomb after the disciples have left. She is weeping and looking into the tomb where she saw two angles. The angles ask her why she is crying, and as in the other gospel accounts, she says, “They have taken my Lord away; I don’t know where they have put him.” She is obviously still thinking that someone had stolen the body. The she turns around and sees Jesus, but does not know it. Jesus then asks her almost the same question, to which she thinks that he is the gardener and he has put the body somewhere. Then Jesus calls her name, “Mary” and she recognizes him. After a brief interaction, she goes back and tells the disciples.

This is an amazing passage of Scripture with a lot of things happening that we cannot explain. We don’t know what happened inside the tomb the morning, all we know is that Jesus was not there. It seems that the text is less concerned with those details and more concerned with what happens when Jesus meets people after the resurrection. Barbara Brown Taylor, who is a prominent preacher and professor, says it like this,

Those appearances cinch the resurrection for me, not what happened in the tomb. What happened in the tomb was entirely between Jesus and God. For the rest of us, Easter began the moment the gardener said, "Mary!" and she knew who he was. That is where the miracle happened and goes on happening -- not in the tomb but in the encounter with the living Lord.[iv]

This trend continues as we move through the gospel of John. He visits the disciples in a locked room. He comes back to see Thomas who misses the first appearance. He sees more of the disciples on the sea shore. In these encounters, those who witnessed Jesus believed and their lives were forever changed. Their songs had a different ending, like the Motley Crew song,
Without You

Without you in my lifeI'd slowly wilt and dieBut with you by my sideYou're the reason I'm aliveBut with you in my lifeYou're the reason I'm alive

The Song We Sing

This brings us to the part where we sing with the music. Given that we are now in this new building today after the long journey of planning, voting, and construction, there is a great note that sounds through this text that asks for us to respond. If we compare what God did in the original creation story in Genesis 1 to what God has done in Jesus in the gospels, it helps us know how to respond today. In Genesis, after God had created the world, he rested on the seventh day. Jesus died on a Friday and was in the tomb on the Sabbath, the day of rest. The first day of the week, Jesus was resurrected; symbolizing new creation, but the week has just begun. God has acted on our behalf to bring new life, now we are to carry that work forward.

In the same way moving into this building on Easter is not showing that the work is over, but it has just begun. We are now in the business of bringing life to the lives of people who are stuck in darkness and despair. We are to bring hope to people who have had their dreams shattered. We are to bring comfort to those who have been afflicted. We are to bring freedom to those who are in physical and mental bondage. We are now to be the light of the world and to bring God’s transforming love experienced during the resurrection appearances to the world.

[i] The three years is based on Jesus going to Jerusalem three times. The synoptic gospels only have Jesus going there as an adult once. His ministry could have lasted a year or less.
[ii] N.T. Wright, Christians at the Cross (The Word Among Us Press: London, 2007) Chapter one, pgs. 5-10.
[iii] TNIV John 20:1-18.
[iii] Barbara Brown Taylor, Escape From the Tomb

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Holy Week: Tuesday, March 18th "Authentic Faith"

Gospel Reading: Mark 11:20-12:44, Matthew 21:18-23:39, Luke 20:1-21:4
As I mentioned yesterday, the Mark’s gospel probably gives us the best chronological account of Jesus’ last week. On Tuesday, it appears Jesus has a very busy day in the temple. There is no real break in Mark’s rendering of the gospel from the time Jesus and the disciples go to the temple on Tuesday morning in Mark 11:20 until Mark tells us he has a meal with Simon the Leaper in Mark 14:3. Chronologically, Mark seems to jump from Tuesday to Thursday when Jesus has his last meal with the disciples, leaving his Wednesday pretty uneventful.

It could also be though, that some of what Jesus does on Tuesday could have bled over to Wednesday and the events are from both days. In order to both save time in the reading and to allow for some activity to happen, I am going to use Jesus’ material for the destruction of the temple and the end times talk for Wednesday.

Tuesday was quite a busy day for Jesus. Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell us that Jesus responds to criticism from religious leaders by giving the John the Baptist puzzle, telling the story of the tenants who kill the son, paying taxes to Caesar and God, and talking about marriage after the resurrection. Mark and Matthew share the stories of Jesus summarizing the greatest commandments (Luke uses the story earlier with the Good Samaritan parable). Mark and Luke share the story of Jesus watching the widow place her offering. Matthew alone tells the stories of the wedding banquet (Luke uses the story earlier) and the extended seven woes speech. Again, Jesus was quite busy on this day.

As I reflected about Jesus’ question/answer sessions with those around him in the temple on this Tuesday, I thought a lot about “authentic faith.” It seems that Jesus could easily tell when people were fake or using their religion for personal gain. He cherished it when he saw examples of authentic expressions of faith. In much the same way, people in general can tell when our faith is authentic and when it is not. I hope we will learn to be like the widow who put all she had in the offering when she had little to begin with rather than the people who were wealthy and put large sums of money in the offering for show. It is when we have authentic faith that we convey what Jesus really desired, taught, and lived out.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Holy Week: Monday, March 17th "Why Not to be Out of Season"

Gospel Reading: Mark 11:12-19, Matthew 21:18-22, Luke 19:45-17
Mark tends to give us the best timeline for the events in Jesus’ final week. He mentions that Jesus came into Jerusalem and first goes to the temple and leaves in the evening and spends the night in Bethany. This makes sense because in John’s gospel, Jesus is friends with Lazarus, Mary, and Martha who live in Bethany. This is where John says Jesus stayed the night before coming to Jerusalem and Mary had poured perfume on his feet.

On Monday, Jesus went back to the temple and on his way he notices a fig tree which is not in season to bear fruit. Seeing that there was no fruit, Jesus cures the tree and tells it that it can no longer bear fruit. Then Jesus reaches the temple area and begins driving out those who are buying and selling things. He even overturns the tables of the money changes and the benches of those selling doves. There were things flying everywhere as Jesus seems to be having a fit of rage. He then quotes from two Old Testament passages, from Isaiah 56:7 which says that the temple will be a place of prayer for all nations and Jeremiah 7:11 in which Jeremiah tells the Jews that they have made the temple a den of robbers.

In understanding this passage it may help to remember that Gentiles (non-Jewish folks) were not allowed to go into certain areas of the temple, so they had to come and pray in the temple court area. This is the location that Jesus has found people buying and selling things. The temple court had basically become a market place and a popular short cut for those walking in and around Jerusalem. This obviously upset Jesus.

I do think there is more to this passage than just Jesus’ “righteous Indignation.” I think this display by Jesus was calculated. Notice that Jesus was not just reacting to this out of anger. He had witnessed all of this the day before and left without doing anything. The next day, Jesus responds to the obvious injustices he sees by cleaning house.

I also think his response is hinted at by Mark’s telling of Jesus cursing the fig tree. Before getting to the temple, Jesus notices the fig tree, which is not bearing fruit, so he curses it. In the same way, Jesus finds the temple not bearing fruit so he acts out a prophecy in which he is telling those around him that the temple will one day be destroyed.

As we prepare for our first full worship service in the new building, I pray that as we begin having worship there, God will find it a place that bears fruit. I pray that authentic worship will happen, causing the people who worship there to reach out in love and concern for the community around us. I pray that this building will be more than beautiful architecture and excellent audio/visual capabilities. I pray this building will lead people to a deeper commitment of faith to Jesus Christ.

Holy Week: Palm Sunday, March 16th "Crossing Over"

Scripture Reading: Luke 19:1-44, Matthew 21:1-9 Mark 11:1-10, John 11:1-12:50

During Holy Week, I am going to be posting one devotional a day leading up to Easter. I am going to do my best to stay in chronological order from Jesus' entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to his ressurection on the following Sunday. For today's devotional, I am going to let you read some of Dwight Kilbourne's words, which were preached at First-Centenary on Palm Sunday because we celebrated the opening of our new worship center.

Luke, as well as the other Gospel writers, understood the significance of that parade. They included clues in the story that linked the past to the future that would become a reality through Jesus Christ. The event and the clues found in the gospels make it clear that the new reality is firmly built on the Old Testament spiritual heritage.

This is a wonderful part of our faith and a significant part of its strength. Jesus is not a religious transformer or creator who just appears on the scene and starts something new. Rather Jesus is one who is deeply tied to the past and to the covenants God has made with people and then moves to the new covenant. Faith enters a new dimension. Had it not been for the new reality built of the foundation of the past, we would not be here in this context today. The new dimension transformed history.

The richness of the connections of events to the religious history for the Jews and their expectations is missed by most of us who read this lesson. But for many in Jesus’ day, they picked up on the clues. Let’s quickly look at several of these.

· Luke makes note of the place where this story begins – “The Mount of Olives.” Zechariah had prophesied of day when a new day would dawn and the Lord would be king over all the earth. In that prophesy, Zechariah speaks of Lord’s feet standing on the Mount of Olives (14:1-9)

· Riding a donkey was significant. When Jacob blessed his sons prior to his death, he foretold that Judah’s descendants would have a special role in the future of the people. He said the “scepter,” the royal symbol would not depart from Judah. Then he goes on to speak of the king binding his foal to a choice vine.

· The donkey connection with a king reappears again in the prophesy of Zechariah. He wrote: Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey (9:9).

· The words Luke records regarding what the people were shouting come from Psalm 118:26a: Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. This psalm is part of the Hallel or Praise songs that begin in Psalm 113. Psalms 115-118 were sung following the fourth cup of the Passover meal. Jesus and his disciples probably sang this verse following their last meal.

Today as we gather here in this place we not only celebrate our rich heritage of Palm Sunday, we also celebrate a historic moment in the life of our church. This service and this day is a bridge that links important aspects of our church life.

Getting to this point of being able to cross the bridge and to enter the new building is part of a long journey. I have only been part of it for nine months, yet it seems longer to me. This has been a dream for some for many years and has been engaged the building committee for more than three years. During this time there has been a variety of opinions about this project in terms of what should be done and its scope. The diversity of thought is OK and it is good we have had the dialogue and discussion. On one level it could and can divide but if we keep our faith centered on Christ and his mission and continue to respect and to love one another, our diversity will make us stronger. Today, the building project is a reality with all the opportunities and challenges it brings.

As we begin our holy week journey, I also hope it will bring opportunities for us to grow and challenges for us to change our lives to better follow Jesus.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Sermon 3/9/08 The Beatitudes Part Five: "A Generation of Love"

“A Revolution of Love”
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the Sons of God.

When preparing for this sermon, I found a “peacemaking” website[i] advertising a one day conference called, “Peace that Lasts.” In the middle of this image advertising the conference was the words, “Postponed.” I am sure there is a good reason that this conference was postponed, but it was ironic that the words, “Peace that Lasts” and the words “Postponed” went together, because that is the image I get when I think of the way peacekeeping actually goes.

The idea of peace in the world is one that we talk about quite often. I cannot count the number of times that I have heard people say, “Pray for Peace in the Middle East.” In reality, I am not sure how many of us actually believe there will be peace there. Most of us think the lasting peace has been postponed for another day and time.

In the seventh beatitude in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be sons of God.”[ii] When I think of peacemakers, I think of two types of people. I think of the people who take the position of pacifism, which means that we are to never engage in violence no matter what the scenario is. I also think of people like Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. who practiced passive resistance. They were attacked, criticized, beaten, and some killed for a particular cause. They would not respond to violence by acting violent themselves. The question remains, “What did Jesus mean by “peacemakers.”

The Peacemakers

When we think about what it meant to be a “Peacemaker” it is helpful to understand what the culture in Jesus’ day would have understood by the term. The Romans used a term called pax romana which meant “preserving the peace.” One of the benefits of being under Roman control was that the Romans promised that when a nation submitted to Roman rule, they would they new Rome would defend them from other nations. In a region that was ravaged by war, this seemed like a good deal. Israel itself was never taken over by the Romans before 70AD, they simply submitted to Roman rule for protection.

As beneficial as this could be, there were some drawbacks to this plan. Citizens had to pay taxes to Rome and submit to Roman authority. As long as the people were doing what Rome required of them, they actually were OK. The problem occurred when Rome was threatened.[iii] In order to maintain power and control over the region, Roman authorities would crucify any offenders on a cross and hang them so everyone would see. The cross became the Roman method of maintaining peace.

Within Jesus’ own Jewish culture we find some help as well. The Hebrew word for “peace” is shalom. Shalom literally means “wholeness.” It was actually used as a standard greeting. Shalom did not mean just the absence of violence in someone’s life, it meant to bring about someone else’s well being.

If we put these together, it seems that Jesus may have been confronting the idea of pax romana with a type of peace that is deeper. It is one thing to have the mere notion of peace; it is quite another thing to have a peace that brings wholeness and well being. While the Romans may have offered piece from war with neighboring countries, they could not offer wholeness and well being to people.

Jesus, later on in this same sermon explains how to bring peace in such a way that will create wholeness and well being. He states several things that he wants his followers to do.

1. Do not resist an evil person, instead if someone strikes you on the check, turn your other cheek. If someone wants to sue you and take you tunic, give him your cloak as well, and if someone forces you to go one mile, go the second one.
2. Love you enemies and pray for them.

On first reading, often times Jesus sounds like a baby who is afraid to stand up for himself. We either reject Jesus’ teaching because we know this does not work in the real world, or we take it to heart and become passive. We allow ourselves to get walked on. However, I think this is a misreading of what Jesus is actually saying.

Jesus is not advocating passiveness. When Jesus tells us to turn the other check, what he actually means is turn the other cheek in order to show that you are not offended by the slap on the face you have just received. Jesus is telling his followers that they are not turn respond with the same action that has been used against them, because to do so would be to sink to their level. Instead respond in a way that shows that the action done by the other person is harmful and inappropriate.

The same is true for giving your cloak or your undergarment. This would have meant you were literally naked, thus shaming the person who is taking from you. By law Roman solders could ask someone to carry their equipment one mile, but they must take it back after that. If you were to carry it two miles, then you could get the Roman officer into some trouble.

Being a “peacemaker” is to take an action. It means to take a stance for what is right so that you can be one who brings about wholeness. Peacemaking brings about wholeness in two ways. First, it does not allow anger caused by another’s action to consume us. Second, it allows others to experience grace that may turn their hatred into love. The goal of peace is not just for the benefit of those being the peacemakers, but it is to bring peace to those who are in the wrong as well.[iv]

I am convinced that the way in which Christians respond to the negative things around us is the most important thing we can do. If we respond with hatred or by being passive, then we miss an opportunity to show God’s grace. When respond in a way that brings wholeness and healing, we shine God’s light into the situation.

Being Sons of God

There are two ways of understanding the phrase, “sons of God.” The first way to understand this is to say that we have become sons of God through being reconciled to God. Through being reconciled we have been adopted as God’s children. In the Ancient Near East, a person would be known by their name and who their father was or where they were from, for example, “Joshua son of Nun or David son of Jesse.” We take the name son of God when we are reconciled to God through Jesus.

The second way to understand the phrase “sons of God” is to say that we take on the characteristics of God. We are now like God. This makes the most sense out of the passage. When we decide to bring peace to the world, when we bring wholeness to relationships, then we then become “like God.” We are sons and daughters of God because we live the way the Son of God lived.

When we take on the role of being “peacemakers” we will be sons of God, I believe, in both ways. By being peacemakers we identify with Jesus himself who took up a Roman Cross and showed the world how to have “wholeness” as Dietrich Bonhoeffer says,

The peacemakers will carry the cross of our Lord, for it was on the cross that peace was made. Now that they are partners in Christ’s work of reconciliation, they will be called sons of God as he is the Son of God.[v]

Bonhoeffer is right to suggest that we become sons and daughters of God by identifying with Jesus in bringing peace to the world and to those around us. We will also be sons and daughters of God because we are acting out the character of God in our lives.

Bringing out the Good in Others

On Saturday, I was sitting with my wife Melanie, my mom, and my aunt in the emergency waiting room because my cousin had to be taken in my ambulance. We were talking about my cousin, who is one of the kindest people you will ever meet. She has been going through a rough patch in her life, which has been complicated by her job. She works as a cashier at a large store here in town and she has thousands of people walk through her line at work. Of those people, sometimes she gets folks who are in a bad mood for some reason and they take it out on her as the go through the line. Sometimes they will even try to get her fired over the most trivial things.

We began to reflect upon how we treat other people as we go through various lines and it really convicted me that we as Christians should strive to be a peacemaker in every situation we find ourselves in. When we are going through a line at the store, no matter how long the line is or how rude the person is to us, God calls us to offer peace and wholeness to the other person.

I believe Walter Wink, in the book Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way is corrected when he asserts that the problem we have offering peace is that we see people as either good or bad, but the truth is that everyone has both good and bad in them. It is our job as peacemakers to show unconditional love and accountability in order to bring out the good in the people we see. This does not have to start in Washington DC; it has to begin with us, who claim to be followers of the ultimate peace maker, Jesus Christ.[vi]

Revolution of Love

Last week Laura Walters came and sang a song called Revolution and the lyrics are simple, but profound:

Let it be a movement.
Let it be contagious.
Let it be a revolution of love.

The song in it simplicity is saying that the way we have been doing things is not working. We cannot continue to respond to injustices the same way those who are unjust act towards us. We see these failures on an international level and in our own personal lives. Nether can we sit by and allow injustices to continue to happen around us. As Christians, we have a third way, the way of Jesus where we confront the injustices around us with love. It begins with the choices we make in our everyday lives until it becomes contagious, until like leaven in the dough, it works its way throughout the whole world, bringing true peace and wholeness.

[ii] Matthew 5:9
[iii] There is good information found in Hans Dieter Betz’s commentary, “The Sermon on the Mount” Hermeneia (Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 1995)
[iv] Walter Wink, Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way (Abington Press: Nashville, 2003) This is a great little book about Jesus’ way of peace. Most of the information presented in the previous two paragraphs can be found in the book. It defiantly influenced the direction of this first part of the sermon.
[v] Dietrich Bonhoffer, The Cost of Discipleship (Touchstone: New York, 1937)112-113.
[vi] Jesus and Nonviolence

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Lenten Devotional: Days Twenty-one and Twenty two, Monday and Tuesday "Take You To Our Leader"

Gospel Reading: John 5-10Devotional Emphasis: John 7:18 “He who speaks on his own does so to gain honor for himself, but he who works for the honor of the one who sent him is a man of truth; there is nothing false about him.”

John is an amazing piece of literature and it is very symbolic. As I have mentioned in an earlier devotional, there are seven miracles in John’s gospel. The first was turning water into wine; the second was the healing of the official’s son. In these six chapters in the book of John, we read about four more miracles. In miracle three Jesus heals a blind man who has been sitting by a pool (archeologist believe there were actually two pools) called Bethesda for thirty-eight years. This isn’t any old pool, but it brought healing. This man claims he could not enter the pool because someone else got there first. Jesus heals him instead. Next, Jesus feeds five thousand people with 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish. Just after feeding five thousand people, Jesus allows the disciples to take a boat across the lake, but when due to a strong wind, the waves began to be rough. Jesus then walks across the water and meets the disciples in the boat. The sixth miracle in the Gospel of John is the story of a man born blind who is healed by Jesus and, unlike the first blind man who was healed, comes to believe in Jesus. If you are keeping up, the numbers look like (1) Turing water into wine (2) Healing the man’s son (3) Healing the Blind man (4) Feeding Five Thousand People (5) Walking on Water (6) Healing the man born blind.

John’s symbolism does not stop with miracles. John also uses seven “I am” statements. “I am” is important because this is how God described himself to Moses in Exodus: “Tell them that I am sent you.” Jesus uses this to respond to his critiques in chapter eight by saying, “Before Abraham was born, I am.” In chapters five through ten we also see several “I am” statements. Jesus says (1) I am the bread of life (2) I am the light of the world (3) I am the sheep gate (4) I am the good shepherd. These “I am” statements and the miracles stories noted above play an important role is painting the picture John wants his audience to see about Jesus. Over and over again, we hear Jesus telling his opponents that he only speaks and does the things God tells him to do so that if they see him and believe in him, they will see God and believe in God. The reason they reject him is because they have already rejected God. This is a harsh criticism for religiously pious Jews.

This is also a good reminder that as followers of Jesus we have to give honor to God and do things for God. When we speak on our own, we only bring honor to ourselves. I have learned the hard way that drawing people to me does them little good and does me no good. The Newsboys sing a song called Take Them to Our Leader in which we are reminded to show people Jesus every chance we get.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Lenten Devotional: Days Nineteen and Twenty "Illogical Love"

Gospel Reading: Luke 14-18Devotional Emphasis: Luke 15:32 “But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is now found.”

For the third time now in the gospel of Luke Jesus is invited to eat with the Pharisees. Just like the previous two times, Jesus does not make for a great dinner guest. As soon as he sees the dinner guests securing seats of honor, he tells them that they should wait and be invited to the seats of honor. Luke seems to play off this theme quite a bit by reinforcing Jesus’ theme of “the last shall be first and the first shall be last.” Over and over in these chapters we see traditional roles being reverses in Jesus’ teachings. The rich have a difficult time following, the tax collector’s prayer is heard over the Pharisee, the servant is honored over the master, and the children are the ones welcomed.

Perhaps the most famous of these passages take place in Luke 15 where Jesus’ is being questioned for taking dinning with sinners. He begins his explanation by sharing two parables about the shepherd leaving the 99 sheep and finding the one that is lost or the woman who turns over everything in search for the missing coin. In the same way, God rejoices when he finds the one who is lost. Then Jesus tells a third parable, which begins somewhat like the first two. The son takes his share of the inheritance and leaves his father’s house. He blows his wealth and ends up having to work with unclean pigs and he feeds off the same pods he gives them to eat. Finally he comes to himself and returns home. His father is overjoyed and welcomes the lost son home, much the way the shepherd rejoices when the lost sheep is found and lady rejoices in finding the coin. Jesus adds a twist at the end however, the older brother is not happy about the celebration being given for his brother. He feels like he has been faithful and yet not rewarded. Jesus’ twist is that the older brother is the Pharisees and religious leaders. The invitation is left open for the older brother to join the party just as the invitation is open for the Pharisees and religious leaders to join in the celebration for those who have been lost and are now found.

In a book I have been reading by A.J Jacobs, in which he sets out to live the Bible literally for one year, he comments about how this parable hits him. He is not a Christian, but grew up in a secular Jewish family. At the beginning of the project he considers himself “agnostic at best.” He writes, “When I first read the parable of the prodigal son, I was perplexed…. It seems outrageously unfair. But that’s if you’re thinking quantitatively. If you’re looking at life as a balance sheet. There’s a beauty to forgiveness that goes beyond rationality. Unconditional love is an illogical notion, but such a great and powerful one.” While Jacobs may never be an “evangelical Christian,” he is certainly on the heart of Jesus’ message. Forgiveness may be illogical in that people get what they do not deserve, but that is the beauty of the goodness of Jesus.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Sermon 3/2/08 The Beatitudes Part Four "Can't Get NO Satisfaction"

Can’t Get No Satisfaction
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”

Some people are familiar with The Onion which is an on-line news sources. I read an older article entitled New Pen Brings Fleeting Moment Of Satisfaction To Local Man. I normally do not read articles out loud, but I wanted to share this with you.

HARTFORD, CT–Duane Grunfeld, a 44-year-old Hartford-area insurance-claims processor, experienced a passing moment of satisfaction in his otherwise agonized existence Tuesday when he purchased a new pen.

"It's a nice pen–smooth-writing and easy on the hand," Grunfeld said of the $2.79 UniBall Gel Writer XT he purchased during his allotted 30-minute lunch break.

With its retractable fine point and rubberized grip, the quality pen briefly helped Grunfeld forget about his thinning hair, the severe reprimand he received from his supervisor Monday for tardiness, and the Aug. 11 death of his only companion, a 9-year-old parakeet named Mr. Whistles.

"It's got a really nice feel when you click it," Grunfeld said during his three minutes of pen-induced solace. "I like how the body is made of clear plastic, so you can see the springs inside."

Added the spiritually broken Grunfeld: "The ink seems really sharp, too. Pens of this kind often tend to bleed."
Grunfeld, a longtime widower who has been passed over for promotion six times during his 10 years with Hartford's TriState Mutual Insurance, said he purchased the UniBall Gel Writer to cheer himself up after "a particularly tough morning at work."

"Let's just say things weren't going well," Grunfeld said, "so I decided to treat myself to something nice."
Also factoring in the decision to purchase the pen, Grunfeld said, was the cramping he had recently been suffering in his writing hand.

"The claim forms I process all day long have to be filled out in quadruplicate, so my choice of writing instrument is important," he said. "TriState provides Bics for its employees, but with those cheap ballpoints, you have to press pretty hard."

Grunfeld made his purchase at a local office-supply store, where he reportedly tested over two dozen pens for fluidity, ease of use, hand comfort and overall "writing feel." After trying out pens for 10 minutes on the small scratch pads provided by the various pen manufacturers, the clinically depressed Grunfeld settled on the UniBall Gel Writer.
Grunfeld then returned to his office cubicle and broke out the newly purchased pen.[i]

"It writes through all four forms with a lot less pressure," said Grunfeld, using the pen moments before returning to his usual deep malaise. "I could process claims all day with this pen

As I was reading this article, I could not help but think about this poor guy taking such delight in a stupid pen. I do wonder what his life will be like when the pen runs out of ink or when he gets tired of it. I also think that if we are honest with ourselves we use things like this pen to bring us momentary feelings of satisfaction. Jesus though, tells us that the was a person can be truly satisfied is to hunger and thirst for righteousness. Notice Jesus does not say we should hunger and thirst to find satisfaction. So, what does it mean to find satisfaction by hungering and thirsting for righteousness.

Hungering and Thirsting for God

Psalm 42:1-2 captures the meaning of hungering and thirsting. I love the phrase used in the NASB, “As the deer PANTS for water, so my soul PANTS for you, O God. My soul THIRSTS for God, the living God.”[ii] This is the kind of thirst that calls us to drop everything and search for water. Psalm 63:1 says, O God, You are my God; I shall seek You earnestly; My soul THIRSTS for You, my flesh yearns for You, In a dry and weary land where there is no water.” If we have this kind of thirst for God, we will drop everything until we find God. To be sure, this is not something that a simple drink will quench. Often, when we say we hunger and thirst for God, we seem to be looking for a quick fix, but this beatitude is about something deeper.

The Message says, “You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He is food and drink in the best meal you will ever eat.”[iii] The best way to work up a good appetite for God is to spend as much time with God as possible. Reading God’s word causes you to desire it more. Being in worship will cause you to desire it more. Serving God will cause you to desire it more. We will find the more we take in of God, the more we will hunger and thirst to be with God and the more filling God will be to our lives.

Every year youth groups all across the country take part in an event called The Thirty Hour Famine. As the name indicates, the goal is for the participants to go 30 hours without eating. In the process, they get sponsors for the event to raise money for World Vision. I remember the first time I did the fast; I kept imagining how much I was going to eat when the fast was eventually broken. I was so excited. When breakfast was served, I was starving. We were at a buffet, which I was very excited about. I got my first plate piled high with bacon, sausage, eggs, biscuits and gravy, hash browns, and even grits. I began to eat and discovered that I could not even finish my plate.

I have also noticed that when I eat breakfast, usually I am hungry before lunch time. When I skip breakfast, I am not as hungry. You would think this would be the opposite, however, I have heard that this is a normal pattern. When you go a very long time without eating your stomach shrinks and you cannot eat as much. When you eat breakfast it gets your metabolism going early, so that by lunch you are hungry again.

The same is true when we hunger and thirst for God. When I am reading my Bible and spending time in prayer, it makes me want to read my Bible more. When I stop for some reason, the longer I go without reading and praying, the easier it is to miss. When we spend time with God in worship, prayer, reading the Bible etc, our hunger and thirst is not quenched for good, but we find ourselves wanting more.

What is Righteousness?

In comparing this beatitude with the one in Luke’s gospel, we will quickly notice that Matthew adds the phrase “thirst for righteousness.” When I was writing the beatitude study for the high school students, I was in Cynthiana, Kentucky. I went to the Wal-Mart there to buy some things for the worship service and I was standing in line behind this lady who was having a conversation with the clerk. By the way, this was also Election Day and one of the big items on the ballet for Kentucky was Gay Marriages. I just happened to be listening in on the conversation and I heard the clerk make this statement, “I hope that Gay Marriage Law doesn’t pass because we will be in big trouble.” Then she said this, “We will be in big trouble, because God is righteous you know.” One of the reasons this caught my attention was because I had just been wrestling with the term “righteous.” What does it mean to say that God is “righteous” or that we are to hunger and thirst “for righteousness?”

I once heard someone say that “righteous” means being “rightly related to God.” I believe this to be a very helpful definition and it is a starting place for our exploration of “righteousness.” The word is used often in the New Testament and it seems to be used to denote something that only God can do. Notice this beatitude does not say, “Blessed are those who are righteous”, it says blessed are those who seek after God’s righteousness. God is the one who make things “right” and the one who makes us “righteous.” We need to hunger and thirst to be rightly related to God which will allow God to make us righteous.

I believe this is one of the meanings of the word. We are to hunger and thirst for “being rightly related to God.” However, I think the word “righteousness” is larger than that. I think it means that everything is to be “rightly related to God.” If this is true, God must be upset when things are not related to God the way they should be. This is why God hates sin so much. Sin destroys and it separates God’s creation from God.

The reason we say God is just is because God is opposed to the things in the world that cause destruction in our lives. Often times thinking about the righteousness of God and God’s justice in the world gives us nightmares. We are reminded of street preachers standing on the corner telling of God’s condemnation of the world. I think there is however, a better way to understand “righteousness.” Because God is righteous, God wants what is best for all of us; therefore, God’s justice is to see the right things prevail, such as love, peace, joy, kindness, gentleness, and self-control.

It seems to me that the opposite of “God’s righteousness “self righteousness.” Jesus warns about this later on in the Sermon on the Mount. To be a faithful Jew and to show you were righteous, a person had to partake in three disciplines. One had to give alms to the poor, fast, and pray. These are good things, but often times people would not only do theses things, but they would go around bragging about it. Jesus said that this would bring momentary satisfaction because they would get their applause from people, but seeking true righteousness meant to do these things in private where you would be rewarded by God. Then you would find true satisfaction.

Can’t Get No Satisfaction

Jesus tells us that if we will hunger and thirst for righteousness instead of all these things our culture offers us, we will be filled. The Greek word for chortazo is a passive verb and literally it means to “eat ones fill.” Jesus is saying that when we hunger and thirst for righteousness, we will be able to “eat our fill” and be truly satisfied.

Many people have heard the Rolling Stones song, “Can’t Get No Satisfaction.” I had never really listen to the lyrics, but when I went back to read them they really point to one of the saddest realities we face in our culture today. The second verse says,

When I'm watchin' my TVand a man comes on to tell mehow white my shirts can be.Well he can't be a man 'cause he doesn't smokethe same cigarrettes as me.I can't get no, oh no no no.Hey hey hey, that's what I say[iv]

We have so much stuff out there that is supposed to bring us satisfaction. If we would just buy this or do this or go to this place we would be happy and truly happy. With our faith sometimes we think if I could be as spiritual as the next person then I would find my faith to be satisfying. Just like the song suggests, we find that these things do not bring satisfaction.

I think we all know deep down inside what we hunger and thirst for. We all know deep down where it is getting us. We know if we are being truly satisfied by what we are seeking after. If you are someone who knows that you are unsatisfied, then maybe it is time to give up on that pursuit and seek after being “rightly related to God” and allow God give you water that will always quench your thirst.

[ii] NASB Psalm 42:1-2. Capitalizations added
[iii] Eugene Peterson, The Message Matthew 5:6
[iv] Rolling Stones, Can’t Get No Satisfaction