Sunday, November 30, 2014

What Are We Waiting For?

(A sermon based on 1 Corinthians 1:1-9 for the First Sunday of Advent 2014)

We live in the Church and in our Christian lives with a tension between idealism and realism.

After all, we are followers of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Messiah. During the Advent season we look forward to celebrating the birth of the Christ Child who was God incarnate, God in the flesh. In Christ the fullness of God was pleased to dwell and when we open our hearts and lives up to him he comes into our lives and we are drawn into the very eternal life of God. God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, God the Father all come to be with us and in us and we come to be in them.

What amazing lives we should and could all be living! What an amazing body the Church should be!

Ideally, that is.

Here’s what we often tell ourselves, though: “We’re only human. We cannot really live in this world as the body of Christ; we have to settle for much less than that if we are going to get by. But it’s ok because when Jesus comes back and takes us all home then we’ll be everything we are supposed to be.”

Oh, by the way, that’s something else that we anticipate during Advent—the Second Coming of Christ. We’re waiting for it. But sometimes it seems that we’re waiting for it as if it will somehow by magic turn us into something completely different than what we have been becoming during our lives here rather than as the culmination of a process that began the moment Christ came into our lives.

Wouldn’t it be better to wait for it in a way that will enable us to be as ready as we can be for it? Wouldn’t it be better to be always growing toward what we will be when Christ returns?

This would be a good point at which to look at what Paul said to the Christians at Corinth here at the beginning of his letter to them. He began by saying that they were “sanctified in Christ Jesus” and “called to be saints” (v. 2). He went on to say that he thanked God because they had received the grace of God in Christ Jesus (v. 4), that they had “been enriched in (Christ), in speech and knowledge of every kind” (v. 5) so that they were “not lacking in any spiritual gift” as they awaited the coming of the Lord (v. 7). He also said that God would strengthen the Corinthians “to the end” so they might “be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 8).

Paul told the Corinthian Christians that they were holy people to whom God had given the great gift of grace and the great gift of the Holy Spirit that made them able to grow in being God’s people in the world in which they lived.

Wow! Just wow!

By the way, I would say the same kind of things about you.

But when we read the rest of the letter, we find that the church at Corinth was very fractured and troubled. Their great gifts had become a source of division among them; they were thinking too much of themselves and too little of others. They had become factionalized according to which leader they preferred or didn’t prefer.

In the living of their real lives as real people in the real Church in the real world they were running into problems. Even those realities that were among their greatest strengths had become their greatest weaknesses.

It’s like the Bradford Pear trees that are all over the place around here. Aren’t they beautiful this time of year? Their leaves are turning that glorious shade of red and they are absolutely and stunningly gorgeous. Well, they are gorgeous so long as the leaves stay up in the trees where stuff can’t get at them. But once they fall to the ground, it doesn’t take long before they are a big mess. And you have to clean them up! And they keep falling!

If we could stay up in the lofty heights maybe it would be easier to keep looking good and even being good. But the reality is that we live down here on the ground where things can get rough and dirty and where we might even get ground underfoot.

Let’s never lose sight of the ideal: we are the saints of God; we are the holy people of God who are being filled with God’s grace and with God’s Spirit and with God’s life so that we can and should every day be living more and more in God’s grace and love. The effects of God’s grace and love can and should be becoming more and more evident in our lives. We should be experiencing the constant strengthening of God “to the end” so that we will be “be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 8).

That is our ideal and we can and should always be moving toward it.

Living real lives as real people in the real world makes it a challenge. We can, will, and do mess up along the way. We will not always be or do our best; sometimes, even when we are trying to be and do our best we will come up far short.

But that’s ok because that’s the way it is.

Remember this: it is God who makes it possible for us to grow a little more every day toward being able to live up to the ideal of who Christ enables us to be. Remember this too: it is God who makes it possible for us to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and try again whenever we fall.

So here on this First Sunday of Advent, what are we waiting for?

We are waiting for our annual celebration of the birth of Jesus.

We are waiting for Christ to come again.

We are waiting for Christ to come to us right here and now.

We are waiting to be transformed into all that we can be.

But let’s not wait to seek God’s help in becoming more who God would have us be. There are things for which we have to wait. Being transformed by God’s grace so that we are constantly growing into who we should be—people who are marked by great faith, by great grace, by great love, and by great hope—is not one of them …

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The One and Only King

(A sermon based on Ephesians 1:15-23 for Reign of Christ Sunday preached on November 23)

We live in a society that is plagued by shortsightedness. We see that reality in how we live our personal lives and in how our leaders design and implement public policies. We tend to adopt the short-term fix rather than work toward the long-term solution. We think more about what’s good for us than we do about what’s good for the generations that will follow us.

There’s a Bible story that illustrates what I’m talking about. Hezekiah was king of Judah in the eighth century BCE. He received some Babylonian envoys during the time that Babylon was rising in power; he tried to impress those envoys by showing them all of his treasure. When Isaiah the prophet found out about it, he told King Hezekiah that there would come a day when all of Judah’s treasure would be taken to Babylon and some of Hezekiah’s own sons would be taken into captivity. I find the king’s response to the prophet amazing: “The word of the LORD that you have spoken is good … Why not, if there will be peace and security in my days?” (2 Kings 20:19). “Who cares what happens to my children?” Hezekiah said, “so long as I’ll be all right.”

That’s unbelievable—yet we often are afflicted by the same mindset.

The short-term view is not one that best befits those of us who call Jesus Christ Lord and who take seriously his status as King of all that is, of all that ever has been, and of all that ever will be. We can and should take the longest-term view—the eternal view. That eternal view, though, gives us the greatest incentive to do all we can to live fully, to help freely, and to serve sacrificially in the here and now.

We can have an eternal perspective because Jesus Christ is King. This last Sunday of the Christian year is a good time to look back over the life, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus—over all that we have been saying and celebrating about Jesus since last Advent— so as to remind ourselves of what his life is all about and what our lives are all about.

Let’s look at Jesus. Jesus was born as God incarnate, as God in the flesh, thereby showing us how far God will go to be with us. Jesus lived his life as the Son of God; he embodied grace, truth, trust, and love, thereby showing us how God would have us to live as God’s children. Jesus died on the cross, thereby showing us how great, how determined, and how costly is the love God has for us. Jesus was raised from the grave by God, thereby gaining a victory over death in which we by grace through faith participate. Jesus ascended to the right hand of the Father, the position of highest authority from which he reigns over all of the powers that exist.

God is bringing together in Christ all that is.

Now let’s look at us. Because of all that God has done and is doing in Christ, we know God—not just know about God but know God—and can come to know God better and better. Because of all that God has done and is doing in Christ, we are being delivered and will be delivered from all of the powers that threaten our life and our well-being, be they powers that show themselves in disease or in war or in racism or in sexism or in classism or in poverty or in any other reality. Because of all that God has done and is doing in Christ, we will be and we have been joined with Christ in the power of his resurrection. In Christ the powers that hurt and limit us are being overcome and will one day be completely overcome. As Paul says elsewhere, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18).

So what are we to be doing with our lives right now? Surely we are not to be sitting around bemoaning how bad things are; surely we are not to be giving up because we think things are just going to keep getting worse and worse; surely we are not to live in ways that make us part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

No, because we believe in what God in Christ is doing and will do, we want to be part of the process; we want to be involved in what God is doing as we move along toward that time when all of the powers that afflict us will be completely subjected to Christ. This marvelous good news about what God is doing and will in Christ affects the ways that we live right here and now.

Let’s look at just one example. Paul, in very lofty and inspiring language, celebrates the fact that God’s plan is “to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:10). Paul tells the Ephesian Christians that God is already doing that by gathering Jews and Gentiles together in the Church (see chapters 3 & 4). In other words, God will one day bring all of God’s people together and in the meantime, all who will come together in the Church are welcome by God to come together in the Church.

One day we will all be one in Christ. These days such oneness is a challenge for us. But we have the privilege and the responsibility of craving, seeking, and working toward such oneness. Clearly we should want and work toward oneness with all who call on the name of Christ; we should all try to grow in our relationship with Christ so that we can also grow in our relationship with one another. But we should also seek all the oneness with others that we can and to work toward understanding and helping to improve the world in all the ways we can precisely because we believe in God’s great future.

It is the power of God—the same power that is seen in the resurrection of Jesus and in the ongoing submission of all powers to him—that is working in us to make it so.

Thanks be to God …

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Counting to Twelve

(A Communion message based on John 13:21-38 and preached on November 16, 2014)

They’re not here. Did you notice? Somebody who should be here is not here. Some of those who are not here have legitimate reasons; some of them would give just about anything if they could only be here. But there are members of this church family who are not here because they have chosen not to be here; they are not here because they do not want to be here. They have chosen not to be here to worship God; they have chosen not to be here to celebrate the baptism of two of our children; they have chosen not to be here to observe the Lord’s Supper.

I wish we were all here. I don’t wish we were all here so that we could have a big crowd; I don’t wish we were all here so that we could talk next week about the large number of people that came to church. I wish we were all here because we are a family and whenever a family gets together we miss the absent ones. I wish we were all here because this is where we all belong. I wish we were all here because today offers a beautiful reminder of what it is to be the body of Christ. These things—the worship of God, the baptism of believers, and the observance of the Lord’s Supper—are so very meaningful. They remind us of not only of who we are but of who God is.

The truth is, though, that we’re not well served by looking around to see who’s not here; we’re not well served by counting. Sometimes a football team is penalized for having too many players on the field. Certain officials are responsible for counting the players: the Back Judge is responsible for counting the defensive players while the Umpire is tasked with counting the offensive players. Interestingly, though, there is no penalty in football for having too few players on the field. Of course, if you have ten players and the other side has eleven you are at a disadvantage.

The church is at a disadvantage when we are short on players; we are not a complete body when we are missing members.

We are here, though. So let’s talk about us. Some folks tend to want to talk about who should not be here—you know, who is not good enough or righteous enough or right enough. They count and they don’t like some of the ones that are here to be counted. Let’s not talk that way; let’s not even think that way.

On that last night that Jesus shared with his disciples, Judas Iscariot, the one who was going to betray Jesus, was there. He had been with Jesus for years and Jesus must have wanted him included; so far as we can tell Jesus washed Judas’ feet right along with the rest of the disciples. But Judas was a traitor to Jesus. Jesus brought up the fact that someone was going to betray him; the disciples could hardly help but wonder who it was. The “disciple whom Jesus loved” actually asked the question and Jesus, through a symbolic gesture, told him. Judas went out and, if anyone was counting, there were no longer twelve disciples in the room—they were down to eleven.

Before long, when the going got tough, the twelve would dwindle to zero.

So some folks aren’t here and some folks may be here that some of us don’t think really belong. But there’s always hope, even for those of us who pass judgment on others without seeing our own hypocrisy, who think we see specks in other people’s eyes but can’t see the log in our own eye. So let’s hold out hope.

Let’s hold out hope that we’ll count to twelve in the way that really matters. Let’s count to see if we love enough of our sisters and brothers and if we love our sisters and brothers enough.

After all, Jesus told his disciples on that night that he was giving them a new commandment: “I give you a new commandment,” he said, “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

So let’s focus on us. What’s our love like? Do we love one another like Jesus loves us? Do we love one another so much that we will give ourselves up for one another? Jesus had just demonstrated his love by washing the feet of his disciples; will we wash one another’s feet? Will we let love and humility and service flood our lives to the point that apathy and pride and privilege are driven out?

In Paul’s instructions to the Corinthians regarding the Lord’s Supper, he very famously said, “Whoever … eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves” (1 Corinthians 11:27-29). When we read the entire passage, we find that Paul is talking about the habit that some well-to-do members of the church had of getting to the supper early, long before the working poor could get there, and eating up all of the food and letting their less fortunate brothers and sisters go hungry. “So then, my brothers and sisters,” Paul said, “when you come together to eat, wait for one another. If you are hungry, eat at home, so that when you come together, it will not be for your condemnation” (11:33-34a). When we partake of the body of Christ, Paul says, let us partake as those who show love and compassion for all the members of the body of Christ—and especially of those who are in the greatest need.

Let’s pretend that there are just twelve of us and let’s count. Do we love all twelve? Do we love all twelve enough?

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Knowing God

(A sermon based on John 14:1-17 preached on November 9, 2014)

Let’s start with a question: Do we even want to know God?

Please note what I am not asking: I am not asking if we want to know about God. I am asking whether we want to know God. Do we want to be in a real relationship with God, by which I mean a relationship in which God is in us and we are in God? After all, such a relationship requires openness, it requires vulnerability, and it requires intimacy. It requires recognizing that while the basis of our relationship with God is God’s love for us, it is not a relationship between equals; God has the right to point out our sins and to expect us to repent of them, to point out our weaknesses and to expect us to strengthen them, and to point out our strengths and to expect us to build on them.

The question assumes that we believe that God in fact exists, that God is God and nothing less than God, and that God in God’s grace wants to be in relationship with us. It assumes that we believe that life is about more than keeping a bunch of rules, having a decent reputation, and even showing up at church services. It assumes that we believe that real life—the life most worth living—is the life that is always in and with God and is always aware that it is in and with God.

It was the night on which Jesus was going to be arrested; he would be crucified the next day. As Jesus shared supper with his disciples, he told them that he was going away and that they knew the way he was going. Thomas said, “Umm—no, actually we don’t. How can we?” Jesus replied, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” To which Philip responded, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.”

To which Jesus replied, “Really, Philip? Really?” (I wonder if Jesus rolled his eyes and sighed deeply? I wonder if he thought, “Philip, I just like 30 seconds ago said “If you know me, you will know my Father also.”) What he did say was, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father?’ Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?”

Jesus was telling Philip that if he wanted to see the Father he had only to look at the Son; he was telling Philip that the Son fully revealed who God is. What an act of amazing grace by Almighty God: God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son; God so wanted us to be able to know God that he sent Jesus so that we could know who God is. Philip and Thomas and Mary Magdalene and those other Marys and the rest of Jesus’ followers had the privilege of walking with and talking with the one who fully reveals God.

Just as surely as those followers of Jesus had Jesus with them, we have the Holy Spirit in us; that Holy Spirit also reveals God to us and teaches us how to know Jesus so that we can know the Father. We have just as great an opportunity to know God as we would have had if we had been able to walk around with Jesus. How can we pass up that opportunity? How can we not open our lives up to God and let the Spirit bring the Son and the Father into us?

Perhaps the saddest thing about the life that many of us who profess belief in Christ lead is that we do not take full advantage of it. We can know God and not just know about God. We can experience God and not just vaguely think about God. We can love God and not just casually assume God and presume upon God.

We really can. Listen to me—we really can!

And when we do, over time everything becomes different because we are living out the life that God intends for us. After all, Jesus said, “The one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.” Just imagine all of the good that would be done if all the members of Christ’s body—if all the members of the Church—were carrying out the works of Jesus through the power of the presence of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in and among us! Just imagine how we could touch the sick, the poor, the lost, the hungry, the lonely, and the hungry! Just imagine if we were so full of Jesus’s love that we couldn’t hate, if we were so full of Jesus’s humility that we couldn’t be arrogant, and if we were so full of Jesus’s service that we couldn’t seek power.

Jesus also said, “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” To ask in Jesus’ name means to ask in line with who Jesus was and with how Jesus lived; it means to ask in line with who the Spirit teaches us about the Son.

The Gospels tell the story of who Jesus was and of what Jesus did; Jesus served, Jesus gave, Jesus sacrificed, Jesus forgave, Jesus healed, Jesus helped—the bottom line is that Jesus loved. And if we get to know God as the Son revealed God and as the Spirit who is in God dwells in us and connects us to God, we will come more to live a life in which we serve, we give, we sacrifice, we forgive, and we help. The bottom line will be that we will love more and more and more and more.

So I return to my original question: Do we even want to know God? Do we really? Or would we rather settle for far less than God? Would we rather settle for less than in God we can be?

We have the blessed opportunity to know God. Let’s seize it!

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Tracks of Our Tears

(A sermon based on Psalm 126:5-6 a ndRevelation 21:1-4 preached for All Saints'/Souls' Sunday)

Mourning, crying, and tears will be part of our landscape for as long as we live in this world. That’s because, whether we are looking backward or looking forward, death is on the horizon. A time comes in everyone’s life when for the first time someone significant dies; from that time on, when we look back we will see that life and that death. From the moment we are born our own death is on the horizon; so are the deaths of other people that we know and love.

Something we ought to remember that we often forget is that we are all in it together. There are people who die with no one to mourn their passing and that is unspeakably sad. But 99% of the time, when someone dies someone else mourns. That is the case whether we are Americans, Iraqis, Canadians, Syrians, Israelis, or Liberians. It is the case whether we live in a capitalist or in a socialist society. It is the same whether we are rich or poor, black or white, male or female, straight or gay, believer or atheist.

It is the human condition. People die. And when people die, other people mourn. And when people mourn, we cry.

Our tears are a testimony. They are a testimony to the lives others have lived and to the ways in which they shared their lives with us. They are a testimony to all that we have been through together. They are a testimony to all that we have done with each other and to each other. They are a testimony to shared love, shared hope, and shared effort. That’s why not all tears are bad, even those to which loss and grief give birth: they testify to our relationship with the one who has died.

Still, there is no denying that loss and grief are hard and that tears produced by mourning come from a place of pain. So it is very good news that John shares when he tells us that in the new heaven and new earth that God will bring about one day that God “will wipe every tear from their eyes” and that “death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.” God will eliminate death, mourning, crying, and pain because God will be with us; notice how in John’s symbolic world the new Jerusalem, which represents the community in which God and all of God’s people live together, comes down from heaven to us. It is a beautiful picture of how God chooses to make God’s home with us and how in that home, when it is fully realized, God will take care of all of our ultimate needs forever.

It is all because of what God has already done in Jesus Christ our Lord; it is all because of what God has done through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. In him we will have new life free of tears.

But we already have that new life; we are already living in the power of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Through the Holy Spirit God is already with us, holding us while we weep. It is just that right now we cannot live without pain, mourning, and tears. But we can live in a way that gives them new meaning and that helps simultaneously to embrace them and to see beyond them.

A while back I saw something I had never seen before: I saw the end of a rainbow. I was driving along in the country when I saw a huge rainbow spanning the sky and as I looked across a pasture I saw where the rainbow touched the earth; I could see the trees of the woods through it so that the trees looked tinted with the colors of the rainbow. I briefly considered pulling over and walking over to the spot so that I could have the colors of the rainbow bathe my body. “Perhaps,” I thought, “the rainbow might bring a little color to my life.” I knew, though, that by the time I got there it would be gone and that even if it wasn’t I wouldn’t actually be able to see the colors on my skin.

Still, the sight gave me hope. It let me ponder how the beauty of the sunlight refracting through the moisture of the atmosphere could lift me up even while I could not become fully a part of it. At least I couldn’t yet.

For now, we cannot avoid the tears because we cannot avoid the pain. But we can know the power of God’s love and the wonder of God’s presence with us right here and right now. And one day, death and mourning and pain will no more and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.

There’s a part of me, though, that hopes that the tracks of our tears will remain. I’m not sure I want to forget what helped to form and shape me into the person that I am and that I am becoming, even those experiences that hurt …