Thursday, August 19, 2010

A Change of Focus

As of the first of August I began a new practice of preaching without notes. I find myself working harder than I ever did before trying to polish the flow of the sermon and let it become a part of me so I am free to preach. I am not writing manuscripts now, so I don’t know what that will mean for my contribution to this blog. I know things will be changing, but I don’t know how.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Famine – Luke 10:38-42 and Amos 8:1-12

Text: Luke 10:38-42 and Amos 8:1-12
Title: Famine

One of the worst things that could happen to a people is famine. Hurricanes, earthquakes, terrorist attacks, war, or economic collapse are terrible things, but nothing seems worse to me than the slow despairing death of starvation. I have seen pictures of children with bloated bellies who otherwise look like skeletons. I have heard stories of the desperate things people will do in such situations.  It is the great human nightmare.

The people of the Bible knew what famine was like. We are told stories of famine In the time of Joseph and later in the time of Elijah, but rain was so unpredictable or rare, and people lived so close to the edge that famine was a constant threat. In our Old Testament lesson, God begins by describing to the people of Israel the sins for which they are to be punished. Mainly, they have taken advantage of the poor by tricking them out of the little money they had. Israel deserves the very worst for these injustices and God describes their punishment in great detail.

When God gets around to describing what will happen to punish them, the ultimate punishment is a famine.  Yet he surprises us by saying that the famine will be not a famine of bread but a famine of the word of God. In other words, as bad as starvation and death is, there is even a greater suffering. The worst thing that can happen to Israel is the silence of God. They will be on their own. They will be abandoned. I hope that scares you as much as it did them. I hope it scares you because that fear means that you know just how important God’s voice and God’s word is in your life. Yet God is saying here that sin removes from us the capacity to hear God’s voice and to experience his word.  Our ultimate judgment is the silence we experience because we are no longer to hear the voice of God.

Now let’s turn to our Gospel lesson and see how this helps us understand what happens to Mary and Martha. This is a wonderful little story and it has bothered more women than just about any passage in the Bible. Jesus is a guest in the home of the sisters Mary and Martha, and Martha is working herself ragged and growing frustrated because her sister isn’t helping her. She goes to Jesus to ask him to fuss at Mary and get her to do her fair share. The first time you hear this you really do expect Jesus to go to Mary and give her a good scolding. That’s what we would do. There is nothing worse than a lazy person who lets someone else wait on them as if that is their right. But Jesus doesn’t take the bait. His response to Martha: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” I have never preached on this text without having at least several women telling me on the way out of church that this is one story they wish wasn’t in the bible or even that this was one time that Jesus was absolutely wrong. It’s a tough one no doubt.

But if you think about what it means to have a famine of the word, then what Mary is doing is absolutely understandable. It had become commonplace in the centuries before Jesus for Israel to believe that prophecy had ended. In other words, the prophecy of Amos had come true. There really was a famine of the word. When John the Baptist began to preach, hope was born that perhaps this famine was over. When Jesus began to teach, those who followed him were assured of it. So they drank up his word like people dying of thirst who come upon a pool of cool clear water. They ate up his word like someone who hadn’t seen any food for months. The famished, starving, thirsting people who had been cut off from God for so long now had a feast set before them and how could they do anything but eat until they were full, and of course you never get full of the word of God.

So what Mary does is quite understandable for someone who loves Jesus. Under the circumstances, the thing that is hard to understand is how Mary could be wasting her time making physical food when the very bread of life was sitting in the living room. How could she waste her life staying busy when what she really needed was just to listen to the word that would satisfy her like no other word could ever do. It all makes sense when you realize that the famine is over.

But of course Jesus is not really condemning work or action. He tells us over and over again to go and do and serve and heal and help. No, it is a wonderful thing to do for others like Martha was trying to do. What Jesus is doing, however,  is setting things in perspective. Eugene Petersen in The Message paraphrases the last part of this passage, “One thing only is essential, and Mary has chosen it – it’s the main course, and won’t be taken from her.” Stephanie Frey says that this translation puts the whole thing in perspective. When we eat a really nice meal, we don’t just eat the main course. No we have courses that prepare us for the main course, soup or salad or appetizers or a very elaborate series of things that are supposed to prepare us for what is to come. Then after the main course there is dessert to keep us from getting hungry again too soon. A good meal has several courses but obviously the highlight is the main course. The other courses are important, but only as they make the main course better. So Jesus is not saying that Martha’s activity is unimportant or that she is doing anything bad, simply that she is concentrating on the salad when she should be spending more time on the meat. Mary knows the main course. Mary knows what is central. For that reason, Jesus commends her.

Think of it this way. In the middle of a famine, Mary would be crazy to spend her time fiddling around the periphery of things waiting to get ready for a meal. A starving person is not likely to dress up before supper or even wash his hands. A thirsty person doesn’t even need a cup. He’ll lap it up like a dog or make a cup from his hands. That’s Mary. She is starving and she goes straight for the bread. Martha is starving too, but for some reason she is unwilling to go to the table until everything is perfect. She’ll never get satisfied doing things that way. Eat first. Then work. Get nourishment and then you are ready to burn the fuel and accomplish something in the world.

That is the message of this passage to us. It’s just the opposite of “Don’t just stand there. Do something!” Jesus tells us, “Don’t just do something. Stand there!” Jesus tells us that feeding at the table of the Lord, drinking at the well of God’s grace, reading the bible and praying and meditating – all these things must be first on the list or our actions will amount to nothing.

May this be true in your life and in the life of our church. May we begin everything we do with prayer and study. May we start out the day like Mary. Then when it comes time to imitate Martha and do something, we will act with power and passion because we have been fed of the Spirit. That is the main course. That is the part of the meal we must never leave out.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Why Do We Love? Luke 10:25-37

There are several different ways we love people. We love some people as friends. We simply enjoy being with them and having them as part of our lives. We can also love people we don’t know that well but who share something with us such as our love of our country. They are not exactly friends, but we love them because we love the same things that they love.  We can also love people we don’t even know. That’s what causes groups to go on mission trips or causes us to contribute to missions in lands we’ve never been. And of course there is a special sort of love we hold for our family and an even more special sort of love we have for one particular person that we want to share our life with. Yet as different as these forms of love are, I think that they all simply ways of expressing the one love that we have found in Jesus Christ. No greater statement is made in the bible than this: God is love. We can’t understand one without the other.

I don’t mean to say that people who don’t know God are incapable of love. Obviously there are many atheists or searchers who have deep love for a spouse or for their children or for humanity. Christians do not have a monopoly on love. But I do think we have a more profound understanding of love. Jesus shows us love in its purest form. He shows us the love that underlies every other type of love. And even better than that, he gives us the ability to love. It is not just an understanding of love we seek. We want to learn how to practice it.

This passage from Luke is rich in wisdom about love. A man tries to test Jesus by asking him “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus asks the man to tell him what is written in the law and he responds to Jesus by quoting the two great commandments, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”  It seems very odd that it is not Jesus who tells us these two great commandments. It is a lawyer trying to trap him. In other words, the Old Testament showed quite clearly what is expected of us – love of God and neighbor. And the Old Testament links the two laws – we cannot love God without also loving the neighbor God created, and we cannot love our neighbor without loving the God who created them. All of the wisdom of these two great commandments is available to anyone who considers the work of God in the Old Testament.  Jesus commends the man for his answer and says, “Do this and you will live.” It all seems very simple.

But the man tries to complicate things by asking a further question, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus answers him by telling what we call “the parable of the Good Samaritan.”  A man was going from Jerusalem to Jericho and is attacked by robbers and left for dead. He is lying on the side of the road when a series of people come by. The first two who come by are both religious figures, a priest and a levite. A priest is a full time religious worker. The levite is a member of the family of Levi and just goes to the temple now and then as he is scheduled. In Clarence Jordan’s Cotton Patch Gospel, these two are an evangelist and a song leader. In other words, they are supposed to be the best of the best, perfect examples of faith. Yet, both of these religious men pass the man by with no offer of help. The third man who comes upon him is a Samaritan, which was a group that Jews hated because of a long and bitter history of fighting over land and religion. The Samaritan, against all expectations, helps the poor man on the side of the road, takes him to an inn and pays the owner to look after him until he returns. Jesus tells this story to show us and the lawyer how a neighbor acts and to help us see who is our neighbor. Everyone is our neighbor and we are to care for them without consideration of their background and who they are.

So Jesus tells us that our first calling is to love, and that our love is for God and for all people. But that doesn’t really tell us why we love God or neighbor or how we can come to love them more. We don’t love just because Jesus told us too. I’m not sure it is possible to command someone to love. Arranged marriages don’t work in our society because we want to make our own choices when it comes to the biggest choice we make. Shotgun weddings don’t work because the only real marriages are voluntary. The law can make us be fair to various groups and not discriminate against them,  but it cannot make us love anyone at all.

I think Jesus is suggesting something about love that makes it contrary to all orders and demands. The Good Samaritan loves his neighbor from Judea simply because he is a loving person. He wasn’t ordered to be that way. He simply is. Jesus is showing us that love must be spontaneous and uncoerced or it really isn’t love at all. The only ones who can really love are those who can do it spontaneously, without reflecting, people who are just loving people without any consideration of why or what it will get them.

Ever so often a person is identified as a hero by some television station or newspaper. Perhaps they put their lives at risk to help someone. Or they sacrifice something precious in order to help someone else. Or they may be soldiers who gave their lives for their friends and their country. It is almost inevitable when such a person is asked why they did what they did that they really cannot give an answer. I just did it because it needed to be done. I did it because it was the right thing to do. In other words, they do it because it is a natural part of who they are.

The two men in the parable who bypassed the injured man were just the opposite. There was nothing spontaneous about them. Their first thought when they saw the man was, “How will this effect me?” or maybe “How can I get out of helping this man?” If the man is dead and I touch him, I will not be able to enter the temple and do my job. They were calculating from the very first what was the best response for themselves. They are the sort of people who married the woman with the biggest dowry and the richest parents. The sort of person who made sure that their children were well-educated and well-mannered because of the economic benefit to their family. These are the people who would have tried to love if it would get them ahead, but they could never do anything without calculating the cost and the benefit.

I believe that love is a natural thing and you can’t really love unless it has become natural for you. When God created the world and called it good he had already created love. We are born to love, to share our lives with people, to do for others and to be part of a community where people look after one another. We were not created to be selfish and isolated and to look out for number one, and when we start behaving that way it is because something terribly wrong has happened in us.

The way Christians explain what has gone wrong is that word “sin.” One definition of sin is simply “missing the mark.” It’s like shooting an arrow and missing the target. When that happens in our lives, however, we don’t just miss a target or goal. We miss the purpose of living. We live for something that is not true, something that is not good for us, something that tears our lives apart. Everything about us is disturbed and disrupted. We are no longer living in the way that is  natural to us. Instead, we spend half our time defending ourselves, lying about ourselves, or trying to feed the emptiness within us. We are under the power of something outside us. The only thing that seems natural to us is selfishness. Life becomes a jumble we don’t understand and love so complicated we are afraid to try it.

But when you get right down to it love is not that complicated. When you see in Jesus how much God loves us,  when you realize that God was willing  to give up himself for us, then you know that love is at the heart of creation. It is what comes natural. It is not something we struggle to do. It is a gift of God and when we are right with God we will love others as God loves us.

No one can command you to love, but may I give a suggestion about how you can learn to love. Go to the one who is the source of love. Go to Christ and ask him for forgiveness and acceptance. Go to Christ and offer yourself just as you are and wait for the cleansing flood of his grace to wash you clean and to make you what you are meant to be. When you receive that love, you will know how to love. And when you do what comes naturally it will not be selfish or uncaring. When God’s children do what comes naturally they love spontaneously, heroically, just because that’s who we are and because we have seen what love can do.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

My, How Things Have Changed – Luke 10:1-11

I mentioned last week that this is the 30th anniversary of my ordination. I hope I am still alive when the 40th comes around, but I hope to be retired by then, so this may be the last chance I have to talk in a sermon about what it means to reach one of those multiples of ten. I am feeling sort of nostalgic lately and I find myself looking back. I think it will help me and maybe even you if I share some of that reflection this morning. I will focus on the way things have changed in the church during my time as a pastor, but my hope is to show the truth that underlies those changes.

How have things changed for pastors? For one thing, I think the clergy were more respected 30 years ago, though even then people were complaining about how we weren’t respected like in the old days. People are more educated than they used to be and a pastor’s masters degree is just not that impressive any more. We have to earn our respect through what we do and who we are. Status doesn’t come automatically anymore.

Of course that is a good thing. Calling us pastors or shepherds may have given the impression that the flock should be like sheep, but when you talk about a flock of human beings you are talking about a flock of individuals with minds of their own. When a congregation stops following blindly and each person uses the gifts he/she has been given and the mind with which god has blessed us, things can only be better. So in that sense the change has been for the better.

Yet there is a swing in the other direction that it is very hard to take. This is the assumption that all preachers are crooks and liars. We have read enough about clergy sexual abuse of children and adults to know that it happens and that it has terrible consequences for the victims of the abuse. We have read about pastors stealing from their churches, defrauding the public who support their ministries, murdering spouses and children, and doing all sort of horrible thing. Now, when a pastor tells a stranger his profession, the person you are talking to just might assume that you are up to no good. That is a bitter pill to swallow, and it is quite a change from 30 years ago.

Yet the biggest change for us is not in the status we have, but in the work we do. I doubt that anything I learned in seminary can be directly translated to the church today. I have had to change my mind and my actions on just about everything I do. Worship is done differently. My sermons are different and shorter. When I started we all assumed that if we could do pastoral care and preaching then everything else would take care of itself. Not so anymore. Now the really successful pastors are more like business entrepreneurs. The focus is on vision and leadership and dealing not so much with individuals as with the church as a whole. The job has gotten harder and harder and these days it is not really so clear what sort of person can do the job. I think we are really struggling for understanding what it means to be a pastor these days.

Which brings me to how the church has changed. The changes in the role of the pastor simply reflect the changes in the church. The key to the change is how we relate to the world around us. At one time the church spoke to the world with some authority. It was assumed that we had a moral teaching and a teaching about the good life that people needed and that would bring them happiness like no other could.

Now, however, we seem to get our authority only by hitching our wagon to something other than the gospel. People were complaining about this 30 years ago, but it has gotten much worse. The main place we have failed is the way we have allowed politics to dominate us. In the church we are divided almost identically as the nation is divided – liberal and conservative, democrat and republican. Any time the church is divided it means that the world is setting the agenda, because God is not a god of division and disorder.

Another change is that we are now mostly consumer driven. “Give them what they want” is our philosophy. That means that churches have had to put more and more emphasis on entertainment and providing services. People are trying to find a place that can meet their needs and a place that will make them comfortable and help them to feel good about themselves. All of this meant that we must strive to put a positive face on everything that happens. Anything else will drive off potential customers. Some churches have gone so far as to remove the cross from their worship space. They want Christianity to be more upbeat and appealing.

The irony is that when we follow this pattern we give people less and less reason to pay any attention to us at all. After all, if our goals and values are largely those of the world then people really have nothing to look for from us, at least nothing they cannot get somewhere else. We have lost authority because we have thrown it away.

I see this most clearly in the way we now define success in the world and in the ministry. The world is a harsher place now than it was thirty years ago. The dog eat dog quality has been ratcheted up many fold. Jobs are shipped overseas. Loyalty hardly seems to exist in the marketplace. Incomes on the lower end of the scale have dropped. The division between winners and losers is harsh. We are very quick to judge churches and pastors failures who can’t keep up with the big guys. We have forgotten what success really means in the church.

A former pastor of this church, Herman Winberry, was once my District Superintendent. He was one of the most optimistic people I have ever known. He knew how to see God at work. I remember one time at a pastor’s meeting he went on and on talking about what a wonderful accomplishment it was that we had so many churches lifting up Jesus in worship on Sunday mornings. He said that we were having a tremendous impact on the world just by the fact that we exist and worship God every Sunday. I remember thinking that he must not have much good to say about us if that was the best he could do, but now I realize he was right. We do many things that are important, but the most important one is simply worshiping God. Just by being the church we have an impact on the world. We don’t have to be the Wal-Mart of churches to have an impact. The Mom and Pop church has an impact too. If we do God’s work, then God will bring the fruit.

I’m afraid we have forgotten the Bible’s definition of success. Remember what Paul said about his “thorn in the flesh”: “Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” We have forgotten that a pastor and a church can show us the power of God not through the amount of money they take in or the size of the building or even their weekly attendance. They can show the power of God through their humanity and their humility, through their willingness to let God be first. They can show the power of God through their weakness and their failure. Anything that allows the power and mercy of god to shine through is success.

Let me turn now to our Gospel lesson to make this point. As the story happens, Jesus is sending out 70 of his disciples on their first mission trip and he is giving them instructions on how to act. He tells them to take only the bare minimum with them. They are not to plan ahead but in each place they are to “rely on the kindness of strangers.” No extra clothes or food or anything else. Do not shop around for better places to stay, but rather take the first place that is offered. Rely on the hospitality of people and on the power of God to take care of you.

Nevertheless, you will not always be treated well. In those cases he says to do this: “But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.’” In other words, they are not ultimately responsible for the success or failure of the mission. They are responsible only for following directions and delivering the message. They are not to be vengeful toward those who reject them, but neither are they to shrug it off as unimportant. Shaking the dust off their feet is a way of saying that they are not slinking off as failures but that they have offered the people something wonderful and it is their loss if they don’t take it. And in spite of their failure to get the message accepted, Jesus says that nevertheless the kingdom of God has come near. Even in faithful failure the kingdom draws near.

And therein lies our hope. I believe with all my heart that God calls us first of all to be faithful and that the worldly success of our work is only secondary. I have heard that idea ridiculed over and over in recent years but the Bible teaches it over and over. God does not work through the high and mighty in the world. He works through things that are small and insignificant. Even when he deals with the mighty it is only when they are broken that they become suitable vessels for his grace. The hope that I see now is that we have finally begun to see the failures of recent years. Many of us, maybe most of us, have learned that a political church is a slave church. We have learned that a church which follows worldly models of success is a slave church. A church which goes anywhere but to the gospel for guidance is a slave church. You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free. Jesus is that truth. We have no right to be pessimistic for he who is in us is greater than the world.

Thirty years ago I did not know this. I believed that all the church needed was me and all its problems would be gone. What I needed was a good dose of failure to find out that the kingdom of God would draw near with me or without me. I needed a good dose of failure to find out that faithfulness really was the only thing that mattered.

Whether the world repents or not, whether it listens to us or not, whether it rewards us or not, let us witness in every way we can to what we know to be good and true. And when we finish, whether we hear the applause or not, they will know that the kingdom of God has come near.

God’s Way – 2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14

Text: 2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14

Title: God's Way

Last week I saw Toy Story 3, which I suspect some of you have seen because it was the top movie of last week. If you haven't seen any of the Toy Story movies, then you need to know that these three animated movies have followed the life of a group of toys which belong to a boy named Andy. They show the times that Andy plays with them, but also the adventures they have when Andy isn't around. This third one is about the crisis the toys face when Andy grows up and goes to college and won’t be around to play with them anymore. I have seen two articles which compare what might happen to them to what happens to us after we die. This is a stretch, but it’s still interesting. For instance, one of their fears is being thrown away. That is like annihilation, which is one theory of what happens after people die. When they are taken to the Sunnyside Daycare they are being abused by 2 year olds and that is like eternal punishment. Another option, putting them in the attic, is like purgatory where you wait around for something to happen. I won't tell what heaven is like because that would give too much away.

Even though no one literally dies in the movie, nevertheless the movie is talking about death. It is talking about what happens as we get older and leave home. It is about the grief that the one leaving feels as well as the grief of the ones who are left behind. Death is not just something that happens to our bodies. Death can also be an emotional or even a spiritual thing. Someone says that they stopped believing in God when a loved one died in a tragic senseless car accident. That is not just a physical death but also a spiritual death for the one who loses faith. Another person fails at some goal and gets so embarrassed and unsettled by it that they are afraid to even try again. That is an emotional death because it represents the death of confidence and hope.

Anything that causes us to grieve is a sort of death. Anything that feels like a part of us has been ripped out. Anything that makes us numb and causes us to spin out of control or makes us depressed and feel like life is a burden is a sort of death. When our home place burns down, when a valued object is stolen, when the little church we grew up in closes, when we go back home and see a Wal-Mart where our old playground used to be, all of these things grieve us and represent death. It may be harder to believe in life after these sorts of death than it is to believe in life after physical death. It is all too easy to give up, to grow numb and withdraw from life, to do anything to numb the hurt we feel. But the story of the bible is that none of these deaths need bring our lives to an end. The life we live after dying is the only true life.

My text is the story of Elijah and Elisha from 2 Kings 2. Elijah is near the end of his life and he is preparing to meet his maker. He wants to do it alone, but his disciple Elisha will not leave him. He insists on being with him and accompanying him down the long road he is about to take. The prophets in Bethel tell Elisha that today will be the day God takes Elijah away. The prophets in Jericho tell him the same. They go on together to the Jordan River trailed by 50 prophets. Elijah takes his cloak, rolls it up, strikes the water, and the river parts just like it had once done for Joshua and like the Red Sea had done for Moses. Elijah and Elisha cross the dry land and Elijah asks Elisha what he would like from Elijah before he is gone. He says "I would like a double portion of your spirit." That seems rather greedy but what he meant was that he wanted to continue Elijah's work and be appointed his successor. Elijah says that if he sees him depart, the request will be fulfilled. As they continue walking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire descend from heaven and a whirlwind carries Elijah and the chariot and horses away. Elisha goes back and picks up the mantle of Elijah, and he is officially the one to carry on his work.

Usually we get from this that God spared Elijah from dying. I'm not sure that's right. It’s told in a very mysterious way. He is taken away by god and that could be a euphemism for death. It is said of Enoch, the other biblical character thought to have escaped death, “Then he was no more because God took him.” Again, that does not necessarily mean that he escaped death. But even if the bodies of Elijah and Enoch were taken up into heaven without experiencing earthly death, still they experienced the kind of death I have spoken of. For all practical purposes Elijah was dead because none of the people who cared about him would ever see him again. If his body is alive but he is not in this world he might as well be dead. Yet either way you look at it, there is a resurrection in this story. There is life after death.

The main way the story speaks of life after death is through the confidence that God's work goes on. He has a new vessel to fill, a new instrument to use, but the work goes on. Elisha takes up the mantle of Elijah and the spirit of the lord rests on him. He even parts the waters for the return trip, proving that he is clearly the equal of his master.

It is very important for all us to remember about death - God's work goes on. I have been pastor of a lot of churches and periodically there comes in the life of each church a time when things are not going well. Yet it is amazing how just in those times God sends new people to the church to make up for the people who have moved or died and to offer us the opportunity for new friendships and new work. Sometimes we think that we are indispensable and that the church or business cannot go one without us, but I would say about 99.99% of the time we have simply deluded ourselves. The work goes on after we are gone, someone else steps up to take our place or surpass us, and things heal and get back to normal again.

If the work of the Lord is important to you, that is a source of great comfort. It tells us that the things that matter continue to matter, that God is powerful and resourceful enough to get along without us, and that everything we do on God's behalf will endure and be built upon by those who follow us. Doesn’t that take the pressure off of us? If we are close to god, whatever sort of death we suffer will not be an ending but a beginning to a greater work of God. The death of our bodies will not stop him. The death of our plans will not stop him. The death of our church or our community or of old tried and true ways will not stop him. There will always be faithful people to take up the mantle and carry on. Death cannot stop the work of God.

I want to ask you, whose work matters the most to you, yours of God's? When you die, your work dies. One in a million might be remembered for a while. Only a rare few are remembered like Elijah, Moses or Abraham or Alexander the Great or any of the world changers. Yet even these so-called “great men” eventually have their work wiped out. Kingdoms fall. Buildings crumble. The work of God endures.

Just when you had given up, you find more reason to hope than you ever had before. Just when you feel life is not worth living any more, you suddenly begin to value and treasure life as the most valuable wonderful gift of all. “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”

And the key to it all? When God's work is more important than yours, then nothing can kill your hopes and dreams and treasures. If you want something that will anchor you in all storms and hold you up in every flood, just remember this: God's work endures forever.

Monday, June 21, 2010

What Is Your Name? – Luke 8:26-39

Some people would disagree with me, but I don’t think it matters whether the man in Luke’s story is mentally ill or possessed by demons. The people of his day explained his condition according to their own understanding and we explain it according to ours. Regardless of what we call his problem, it is horrible and seemingly hopeless.

“For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs . . . For many times (the demon) had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.” Naked, chained in a cemetery, under guard, completely out of control to the extent that he was a danger to the community. Things don’t get much worse than that.

But we have seen people like him. We have people like him living here in Raeford, though modern medicine tends to keep them from going as far over the edge as he did. Ever since those times a few decades ago when it was decided to close the asylums and try to mainstream the mentally ill it has not been unusual to see on the streets people who are unable to take care of themselves, people who are often homeless, addicted to drugs or alcohol, people who talk to themselves and frighten children with their odd behavior. These people are the high functioning ones. Those with the really serious problems are hidden from our view in one way or the other, institutionalized or locked away in prison. Their situation seems almost as hopeless as did the situation of this man from the country of the Gerasenes.

This story touches me very deeply, and I suspect that if your reflect on it for any time at all it will begin to get to you as well. I remember people in my family and churches who suffered from depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, addiction, people who were hospitalized, people who committed suicide. If you have ever experienced it for yourself or shared with someone who did, then you know the tragedy of mental illness. People with wonderful gifts and talents, people capable of great love and great work, people with so much potential are kept from ever reaching that potential by something over which they have no control whatsoever.

The part of this Gerasene man’s story that is most touching to me is this: “Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him.” Think about it – he didn’t’ even know his own name. The demons or the sickness was so totally in control that he had lost a sense of who he was. You see this sort of thing in horror movies, like when that horrible thing burst out of the John Hurt’s chest in Alien. But it isn’t just in movies that people feel they are possessed by something that only wants to harm them. Many people live large parts of their lives with the sense that they have no control over their lives. They live as if their very soul is not their own. There is nothing they can call themselves.

But this particular man met Jesus, and for him everything changed. Jesus orders the demons out: “Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. Jesus accomplished the cure not with an exorcism, not with medicine, not with intensive therapy, not with voodoo or magic. He accomplished the cure simply by ordering the demons out of him. Jesus is just the opposite of the demonic. Jesus comes to free us from powers that want to hurt us. He comes to make us whole and well. The demons cannot abide this. They cannot exist in his presence. So when they see him they start to beg him to leave. They are terrified of him because they are completely at his mercy. They have no power over him at all.

So why doesn’t he speak that word more often? Why does he allow so many people to suffer a disease that he can so easily cure? That is the question, isn’t it? We puzzle over the ways of God and the only answer we get is to bow to the mystery of god, to accept that his ways are beyond ours and his thoughts beyond our understanding. That is true, of course, and remembering it will help us avoid many misunderstandings about god and keep us from blaming god when things go wrong. But there is a very specific answer that is given in this story. Remember how the people felt when they saw that the man was cured and in his right mind again. They were afraid and they asked Jesus to leave. Think about it. This man who had just cured the un-curable man was asked to leave. Those who were sick were afraid of him. The guilt ridden were afraid of him. All of those people who could have benefited from his power were too afraid even to come near him.

And isn’t that true of us? We are all too comfortable with our hurts and we don't want to go through the profound changes that healing them would require. This scene is like a thunderstorm or a horror movie. Demons shouting and screeching. A man wracked by powers beyond his understanding. A life turned upside down, all because of what Jesus does to him. Wouldn’t we run away too? We too are stuck in our fear while the only power in the universe able to help us is knocking on our door even now.

The Bible tells us that perfect love casts out fear. That perfect love is the love of God in Jesus Christ, the love that he shows us by going to the cross on our behalf and dying for the forgiveness of our sins. When we hear that message and when we believe that message and when we let that message go to the center of our lives we know there is nothing to fear. We are no longer “legion,” people without a name or an identity. We are named “Christian.” We are named after our savior and lord. We share his power, so we do not have to submit to powers of evil and injustice and illness.

I don’t mean by that that real Christians are immune to mental illness. That is not true at all. There is no sickness of any sort to which we are absolutely immune. But I do want to say that for all of us, no matter what the sickness is, our hope lies in Jesus. We get the best medical treatment we can get. We try the therapies. All of these things are good. But let us always remember that the source of our healing is the Lord. The one who will make all those cures work is Jesus. The one who can cause miracles to happen is Jesus. I cannot answer why some people suffer and others don’t, but I do know that Jesus never abandons anyone in their pain and Jesus never stops working for our good as long as we will let him, as long as we allow him to draw near.

When we have done that, when we have received God’s grace and mercy, then we can become part of the cure: “The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.” If mental illness and fear are ever to be cast out of this world it will be because Christians took up the work of the Gerasene, the work of speaking the powerful word of Jesus to everyone we know.

For us, then, it is really very simple – Receive the love of God and share the love that can truly free us all from fear.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Have You Found Me? 1 Kings 21:1-21a

Text: 1 Kings 21:1-21a
Title: Have You Found Me?

I want to begin with one observation about our Old Testament lesson, the story of Elijah, Ahab, Jezebel, and a man named Naboth whose vineyard was stolen by the king. My observation is this: the kings of Israel were in no way absolute kings. They were always to rule under the law of God and when they failed they always suffered the consequences. The most striking thing about this story is the fear that Ahab felt when Elijah met him. “Have you found me, O my enemy?” Ahab knew that Elijah was bringing a word of judgment and he expected the worst. Can you imagine any of our recent presidents quaking before the presence of some prophet? No way. As you reflect on this story, remember than Elijah had in his grasp a power that could bring Ahab to his knees. Ahab had reason to be afraid.

In the eyes of god, the sin of Ahab is as bad as any sin can be. The judgment that is given of his time as king is this: “Ahab did more to provoke the anger of the Lord the God of Israel than had all the kings of Israel who went before him.” His chief sin was allowing and even promoting the worship of Baal. In the story Pam read, he violated his God’s law and his position as king and used that position to take advantage of a poor man and even to have him killed. He violated all sorts of laws concerning property. If anyone deserved judgment it was Ahab. Yet he repented and god gave him a second chance. The grace shown to Ahab reminds us again that the judgment of God is intended as punishment to warn us and rehabilitate us. It is not meant to condemn us for all eternity. That means that judgment is like a message from god calling us back to the right path. There comes a time when it is final and our last chance is gone, but until then the judgment of god is an act of mercy to save us from our sinning.

This gracious judgment of God happens to us very often in life and it comes to us in many ways. We are facing the judgment of God in our lives every day, and one of the keys to living a life in Christ is to recognize that judgment as it occurs and deal with it before the ultimate judgment comes. I am not talking about dramatic events such as when paparazzi takes a picture of you doing something you shouldn't do. I am not talking about the dogs licking up your blood on the street. I am talking about simple experiences of life by which God is judging us and trying to bring us back to righteousness.  I want to mention just a few ways that can happen in our lives.

I immediately think of one way all parents have been judged - When you find there is something  your child says or does that really makes you mad and you suddenly realize that they learned it from you! Has that not happened to every parent? The apple doesn't fall far from the tree of course, so we shouldn't be surprised. But the painful part is that we are clearly being shown our own failings as if we are looking in a mirror. Our sins have found us out. It is a judgment of God, I think, but not a judgment to send us to hell but rather a judgment to correct us and call us back to a closer walk with god. If the behavior seen in our children is unpleasant, how much more unpleasant is it in an adult who should know better? Have you found me, O my child? We better do something about it now because, when our children become teenagers, they will really bring the wrath of God down on our heads!

Most of God's judgments are not so obvious. One means of judgment is simple frustration or dissatisfaction with life. When we are unhappy, it is a sign that we have wandered away from god. We may have plenty of reason to be unhappy - our job really may be terrible, our income really may be inadequate, our children really may be ungrateful, our parents really may be unreasonable, our neighbors really may be unbearable, our sickness may be incurable, and the list of misfortunes may be miles long - but ultimately god did not make us to be unhappy. When I say that unhappiness is God's judgment I do not mean it will send us to hell. It is a sign that we have forgotten who is the source of our happiness. It means that we need to turn to God and seek God's peace and find out even in the worst situations that God can provide.

Another way god judges us is through our fear. We are afraid of all sorts of things.  Did you see the internet video of Selma Hayak when she saw a snake? She started screaming and climbed up not on her own chair but on the chair of the woman beside her and tried to get behind her and push her toward the snake as if to say, “Take her, not me!”  Yet as frightening as snakes might be to some of us, there are certainly more frightening things than that - things like having a loved one killed in combat, losing a job, having a child killed in a car wreck, getting cancer. We have plenty to be afraid of but we also can sense the judgment of God in that fear. After all, did not Jesus say, "do not be anxious about anything." Fear is a sign that we have wandered away from God and it is time to turn to him and learn to trust him again.

He also judges us through our shame and guilt. I know that sometimes we feel those things when we shouldn't.  Some people are ridden with shame and guilt because of their upbringing and the way guilt and shame were used to control them. Some are wracked with shame and guilt because of their church upbringing. But we all have a certain amount of completely justified guilt. Paul writes, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of god,” and that means we all have things to be ashamed of. Yet whether that guilt and shame is justified or not it is a judgment on us that we have not come to god and received the forgiveness he so freely offers. Jesus died that we might be forgiven yet we treat that death as if it is merely a suggestion that we ought to feel forgiven. No, the death of Jesus is forgiveness, real true forgiveness and if we are not feeling forgiven we need to go to Christ and receive the gift which he offers us at the cross.

I could go on and on with signs of judgment that call us back to Jesus but the simplest way of putting it is to say that anything less than a full and happy life in Christ is a sign of God's judgment. We are often too easily satisfied with life and we think that we will always be unhappy and fearful and ashamed, but god did not create us for that. God created us for joy, and that joy can only be attained by faith in Jesus Christ. Yes, his judgment is upon us. But the question is, “How will we respond to that judgment?” We still have an opportunity to turn to God, for he judges us out of love.