Sunday, August 26, 2012

Following Jesus: We Live From the Inside Out

(A sermon based on Luke 11:37-44 for Sunday, August 26, 2012)

Trying to be a real Christian while living a real life in the real world is tricky business. I mean, just think of some of the tensions with which we live.

For one thing, we know on the one hand that being Christian is not a matter of doing all the right things but we know on the other hand that we should and could do better at doing the right things.

For another thing, we know that we are limited because we are human but we know on the other hand that we can be more than we can imagine because of the presence of the Spirit of God in our lives.

For yet another thing, we know that our behavior is often of a higher quality than the state of our hearts but we know on the other hand that the state of our hearts is sometimes of a higher quality than the quality of our behavior.

One of the challenges we confront is to face who we are in all our complicatedness, who we can by grace-infused effort become, and the gap that lies between them.

I agree with Robert Corin Morris who said, “I’ve come to believe God wants us to develop awareness of the state of our spirit, for our own sake and for the sake of others” [Wrestling with Grace: a Spirituality for the Rough Edges of Daily Life (Nashville: Upper Room, 2003), p. 11].

I’ve come to believe that, too. I’ve come to believe that we need to learn to become aware of the state of our spirit so that we can by the grace of God and through the Spirit of God grow and develop that spirit that it might become more and more as God intends for it to be.

What does God intend? God intends for us to grow in the image of Christ; God intends for us to grow in the love and grace of Christ; God intends for us to grow into the best version of ourselves that we can be.

But what do we intend? Do we intend to tend to our spirits so that we can grow in the grace of knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ? Do we intend to tend to our hearts so that our way of living will be characterized by ever-increasing integrity?

The observation that William Law made many years ago is a valid one for us: “If you will stop here and ask yourself why you are not so devoted as the primitive Christians, your own heart will tell you that it is neither through ignorance nor inability but purely because you never thoroughly intended it.” [William Law, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1955), p. 22].

Will we intend it? Will we commit together to tending to our spirits? Will we take steps to develop our spirits so that we will live our lives out of a solid center and bear good witness to Christ with our lives?

Sure, God still loves you and you can still be a Christian even if you settle for far less than you could be. But why would you settle? Why would you not want to be all that you can be by the grace and Spirit of God?

This story about Jesus having dinner with a Pharisee leads us to think about such matters.

One day Jesus was invited to dinner at a Pharisee’s home and Jesus went, which just goes to show you that Jesus would fellowship with any sinner, even a religious one (and those can be the hardest ones to abide). The Pharisees, you see, were very well-respected and very serious religious folks; nobody did religion any better than they did. They did all the right things in all the right ways. So the Pharisee could not believe that Jesus did not wash his hands before eating his dinner. Now, this was not a hygiene issue. It was a religious purity issue and by not washing Jesus broke the rules.

Jesus said to the amazed Pharisee, “Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You fools! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? So give for alms those things that are within; and see, everything will be clean for you” (vv. 39-41).

Jesus said, in other words, that it is what is on the inside that counts. We can look mighty fine and holy on the outside but on the inside be an unholy mess. Jesus also said, in other words, that the best living and the best giving come from within us—but we must have something positive and good on the inside out of which to give! The truth is that we’ll still be a mess, but better a holy mess than an unholy one!

Do we have the problem that afflicted the Pharisees? Jesus said that they were full of “greed and wickedness” on the inside. He later said that they “neglected justice and the love of God.” Yes, they lived good and right-looking lives. Yes, they did right and good-looking things. But they had no inner storehouse from which to draw to help them to live truly good lives.

They did not understand that it really did all boil down to loving God with all their being (they neglected “the love of God”) and loving their neighbor as they loved themselves (they neglected “justice”).

We give out of what we have. If we have greed and selfishness, those are the store houses from which we’ll give. If we have love and justice, those are the storehouses from which we’ll give.

We can move every day toward tearing down the useless store houses and toward building up the useful ones.

Working together, the grace of God and the living of life will form us. Let’s live life in a way that will help us learn who we are so that we can submit it to God for correction and discipline. It’s not going to just happen; we have to want it to happen.

That means paying attention to what is going on in our hearts.

That means paying attention to what is going on in our prayers.

That means paying attention to what is going on in our relationships.

And it means not letting our religion stunt our growth or stand in the way of our progress…

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Following Jesus: We Take Up Our Cross

(A sermon based on Luke 9:18-27 for Sunday, August 19, 2012. Eighth in a series...)

Gregg Allman’s disturbingly fascinating autobiography, which I recently finished reading, bears the unfortunate title My Cross to Bear. It is an unfortunate title because it uses that phrase in a way that is all too common but all too incorrect, namely, as a way to name the burdens that come upon us in the course of our living of life. In Gregg’s case, while some of the most difficult crises he faced were thrust upon him, namely, the murder of his father and the accidental death of his big brother Duane, most of his struggles were self-inflicted, such as the liver disease that resulted from his substance abuse. Still, whether we are at fault or not for our struggles, and as real and hard as the struggles of life are, such struggles are not our cross to bear.

Our cross to bear is our following of Jesus in the kind of life that Jesus lived. It is a particularly Christian way of living that is based in our relationship of discipleship to Jesus Christ.

To understand what it means to take up our cross, we need first to have a sense of what it meant for Jesus to take up his cross.

Too simply put, Jesus died on the cross to take the sins and suffering of the world on himself. He entered into human suffering so as to defeat it from the inside. He did so because he was the Messiah, the Son of God who came to inaugurate God’s reign on the earth. God’s way for him to do that was not by overt displays of power but by the living of a self-emptying, self-sacrificing life that led to a self-emptying, self-sacrificing death.

As Jesus said following Peter’s affirmation that Jesus was “the Messiah of God,” “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” As Paul said of Jesus, he “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:7-8).

It was a costly and painful way for Jesus. But Jesus did not undergo his suffering for the sake of undergoing it; he underwent it for the sake of living out his Father’s way for him and for the sake of the hurting, lost, and broken people in the world. He underwent his suffering to take their sins, their pains, and their sorrows onto himself and to suffer with and for them—for us. His suffering was real and he felt his own pains deeply, but he bore what he bore for the sake of others. “The Son of Man,” he said, “came to give his life a ransom for many.”

We very appropriately focus on the fact that Jesus died on the cross for our sins. We need also to focus on the fact that we are to follow Jesus all the time in taking up our own cross. The life that follows the Jesus who died on the cross is the life that follows Jesus in carrying the cross.

Simon of Cyrene carried Jesus’ cross for a while. We are to carry our own cross all the time.

We are called to be a suffering people; we are called to be a suffering church.

It may be that the only true church is a suffering church, a church that suffers for the sake of the suffering world. If we are the body of Christ in the world, we will join in the suffering that he endured for the sake of suffering people.

As Douglas John Hall put it, the church is “called to suffer because there is suffering—that is, because God’s creatures, including human beings, are already suffering, because ‘the whole creation groans.’” Hall went on to say,

The point is: the suffering of the church is not the goal but the consequence of faith. For faith…is that trust in God then frees us sufficiently from self to make us cognizant of and compassionate in relation toward the other—in particular, the other who suffers, who is hungry and thirsty, who is imprisoned; the other who ‘fell among thieves’; the other who knocks at our door at midnight in need. The church is a community of suffering because it is a community whose eyes have been opened to the suffering that exists. [Douglas John Hall, The Cross in our Context: Jesus and the Suffering World (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), p. 152]

So, just as Jesus took up his cross to enter into the suffering of people so as to overcome it, so are we to enter into the suffering of the people around us to overcome it.

There are many obstacles to taking up our crosses and following Jesus by taking on the suffering of the world. One is self-centeredness; the church is too often afflicted with an “us first, them if we can get to them” attitude when our first thought needs to be about them. Another is escapism; it’s just easier to turn our heads and close our eyes to the great hurts all around us than to bring that pain into our hearts and lives but that’s what we need to do.

Mr. Dylan posed the question 50 years ago: “How many times can a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn’t see?” Indeed. But surely we must open our eyes and see. We are Christians. We are followers of Jesus. We are bearers of our crosses. We invite the hurts of others onto ourselves and say, “Let us be with you. Let us love you. Let us heal you.”

What kinds of approaches should we take? They are innumerable. I’d encourage us to remember the story of the Good Samaritan so as to follow the Samarian’s model. The first step is to notice. The second step is to approach. The third step is to take whatever action you can.

Jesus told his disciples that there were some standing there that day who would see the kingdom come before they died. He was talking, I believe, about those who would take up their crosses and follow him, about those who would live his kind of life in the world, and about those in whom the kingdom would be seen.

Do you want to see the kingdom come? Take up your cross and follow Jesus….

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Following Jesus: We Care

(A sermon based on Luke 6:1-11 for Sunday, August 12, 2012. Sixth in a series...)

Our nation has in recent days been struck with two mass murders, one at a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado and the other at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Both were senseless, heartless, cruel acts that can finally only be explained, if they can be explained at all, by the presence of great evil and deep sickness among us.

It seems to be the case, based on what information we have, that the shooter in the Aurora murders was motivated by personal demons while the one in the Wisconsin attack, we might surmise based on his association with white supremacist groups, was motivated by racial and/or religious hatred.

Each tragedy is as heart-breaking as the other and we pray for the communities, for the victims’ families, and for the injured in both cases and in both places.

In the case of the Wisconsin shootings, the violence was carried out against a community of people who were gathering on a Sunday for worship. We don’t know much about Sikhs around here. In this week’s email issue of Sojourners, Eboo Patel wrote,

The Sikh community has been one of welcome and hospitality since its founding in India 500 years ago. With their belief in a supreme Creator and a deep respect for all human beings, Sikhs place strong emphasis on equality, religious freedom, human rights, and justice.

Sikhs from India began immigrating to the United States in the late 19th century, and currently the Sikh population numbers about 314,000 in America and 30 million worldwide. Today, Sikhs are successful business people, active community members, and advocates for social justice.

To care about people motivates us to learn as much about them as we can, so knowing about the Sikhs is a good thing.

Still, I can’t help but think about something that was going around on Facebook in the aftermath of the Sikh temple shootings: “I was gonna post something that would tell you the difference between Hindus and Sikhs and Muslims but I realized you don’t need to know anything about somebody’s religion to know that you shouldn’t shoot them”(Attributed to Eric Parsons). Indeed. “Thou shalt not kill,” the Top 10 list says.

But Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment…” (Matthew 5:21-22a). In other words, the stance of our heart toward people, our attitude toward others, matters.

So, we know that not only are we not to kill people but we are also not to hate them. We are even to go beyond not hating them to actually loving them.

We need to go deeper, though, and in going deeper we can put the matter positively: we who follow Jesus are to care about people. We need to care about people more than we care about our rules—more than we care about doing right. We need to care about people more than we care about our religious doctrines—more than we care about being right.

We need to care especially about those who are hungry, poor, sick, and on the margins.

Let’s compare the attitudes and approaches of Jesus and of the religious leaders of his day.

Those religious leaders cared deeply about being religious; that is, they cared about following the rules and about being respectable. We need have no doubt they truly believed that what they were doing was the best way to show their love and respect for God. But when your way of expressing your devotion to God encourages or even allows you to show no compassion to people, you need to reevaluate your stance.

I say that because I can’t get away from—we can’t get away from—what Jesus said when he was asked what the greatest commandment was and he said that it was to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and that the second was to love our neighbor as like we love ourselves. From that moment on, love of God and love of people have been inextricably intertwined.

So when the religious leaders saw Jesus’ hungry disciples picking and separating grain on a Sabbath day they did not see hungry people who needed food; they saw careless followers of a radical rabbi who violated the Sabbath prohibition against work. They asked, “Why are you breaking the rules?” Had they had compassion in them, they would have said, “Let us get you some food.”

Jesus’ attitude, for which he had biblical precedent, was that the needs of people took priority over the keeping of rules; his stance shows that he believed that it honored God more to meet people’s needs than to slavishly follow the rules and to maintain one’s respectability.

And Jesus said, “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”

When the religious leaders saw the man with the withered hand in the synagogue on a Sabbath when Jesus was teaching there, they did not see a suffering human being in need of help; they saw a situation and a circumstance that could be manipulated to try to entrap Jesus. The man was not to them a person to be helped; he was an opportunity to forward their agenda. When Jesus saw the man, he saw a human being who elicited compassion and who called forth help.

And Jesus said, “Is it lawful to save life or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?”

On a Sabbath last week in Wisconsin, a man did harm and destroyed life.

On our Sabbaths—indeed, on all our days—let us do good and let us save lives.

Let me suggest a four-step program that will lead us to do that.

The first step is to see people as people.

The second step is to see people as an opportunity to encounter the image of God and as an opportunity to minister to Christ.

The third step is to have the great compassion that God has shown to us pour out to others.

The fourth step is to act on that compassion.

Hear now a story of the Desert Fathers. A brother asked an elder,

There are two brothers, of whom one remains praying in his cell, fasting six days at a time and doing a great deal of penance. The other one takes care of the sick. Which one’s work is more pleasing to God? The elder replied: If that brother who fasts six days at a time were to hang himself up by the nose, he could not equal the one who takes care of the sick. [Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert (New York: New Directions, 1970), p. 47, cited in Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith (New York: HarperOne, 2009), pp. 103-104]

So…we can put our nose in the air like we just don’t care. Or we can follow Jesus.

It just may be that we will never see the world right, that we will never see God right, that we will never see ourselves right, and that we will never see life right until we see other people—particularly the stranger, the outcast, the other, the poor, the sick—right…

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Following Jesus: We Seek Solitude

(A sermon based on Luke 5:15-16 for Sunday, August 5, 2012. Sixth in a series.)

A few weeks ago the New York Times published an editorial by Tim Kreider entitled “The ‘Busy’ Trap.” He wrote,

If you live in America in the 21st century you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are. It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: “Busy!” “So busy.” “Crazy busy.” It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint. And the stock response is a kind of congratulation: “That’s a good problem to have,” or “Better than the opposite.”

Notice it isn’t generally people pulling back-to-back shifts in the I.C.U. or commuting by bus to three minimum-wage jobs who tell you how busy they are; what those people are is not busy but tired. Exhausted. Dead on their feet. It’s almost always people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed: work and obligations they’ve taken on voluntarily, classes and activities they’ve “encouraged” their kids to participate in. They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.

He’s right, it seems to me, and I doubt that many of you who live in the “working for a living raising a family trying to be a good citizen being active in the church” world would argue with what he says about how busy we are and how a good bit of our busyness is self-inflicted.

We might, though, want to give some careful consideration to this line in his piece: “They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.” What is it that we dread we might have to face if we stop being so busy? Kreider later says, “I can’t help but wonder whether all this histrionic exhaustion isn’t a way of covering up the fact that most of what we do doesn’t matter.”

In other words, Kreider suggests, perhaps we immerse ourselves in busyness so that we won’t have to face up to the meaninglessness in our lives.

I imagine there’s a great deal of truth in what he says.

But I want to come at the matter from another angle. As Christians, we believe and have the chance to know that everything in our lives is vitally important. Sure, there may be some things of which we should let go and sure, there may be vocational and personal changes that we should ponder, and sure, we may at times struggle to find our place in Fitzgerald, much less in the cosmos. The bottom line nonetheless is that we are the children of God and we are the sisters and brothers of Jesus; we are citizens of God’s kingdom and we are missionaries of God’s grace in all of our situations and settings.

Seen from that angle, everything we do is important, so how can we not spend all of our time doing it? How can we stop and take some time to ponder? When I was in college I had a picture on my desk of a chimpanzee sitting in a chair with the caption “Sometimes I just sits and thinks. And sometimes I just sits.” Who has time to “just sits” when there is so much to do and when all of life, from the Christian perspective, is so important?

Well, no one ever had more work and more important work to do than Jesus did. No one ever lived a life that was more filled with purpose, meaning, and vitality than Jesus did. And yet Jesus was very intentional and regular in taking time to be alone with his Father.

Another good example for us is the great 16th century reformer Martin Luther: “I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.”

What we do as Christians is so important that we dare not not spend time alone with God; the spending of such time needs to be as much a part of our routine as is eating meals and going to sleep—and it is just as necessary!

What will we find in solitude that is so important?

First, in solitude we find God. It is not that God is not there until we are alone; it is rather that we need to be alone to develop our awareness of the presence of God.

To love someone is to be in a relationship with that person; to develop a relationship with someone requires the spending of time together, just the two of you with nobody else around. Jesus had a relationship of love with his Father and so he would regularly go off to spend time alone with his Father.

The more time you spend alone with someone you love the more you find yourself absorbing her presence, the more you become aware of who she is and of the wonder of her identity. Then, when you are with her in a crowd you maintain that increased awareness. That’s the way it works with God.

Second, in solitude we find ourselves. Jesus was the Son of God and the Savior of the world but he still needed time alone with his Father in order to find and to form his identity. Think of the forty days that he spend in the wilderness after his baptism and before he began his public ministry. That story also demonstrates the pain and difficulty that can come with finding ourselves; Satan tried his best to get Jesus to be other than who he was and to live in ways that ran counter to his true identity, but Jesus persevered and emerged more fully formed on the other side.

As Christians, we find our true selves not by contrasting ourselves with some imagined ideal or with other people; we find our true selves rather in communion with God and as we grow more and more in our state of being in Christ.

Third, in solitude we find purpose & direction.
In the editorial from which I read earlier, Kreider wrote, “The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration — it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.” Only God can see the whole picture of our lives, of history, and of the universe, but we need time alone with God to gain the best insight we can get.

Perhaps we can learn something vital from our children in this area.

This much I know: I have never felt more at one with God and with the universe than I did when I was a boy lying in the clover in the shade with my dog Ruff...