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Sunday, June 15, 2014

Introductions (Acts 17:22-31)

Paul stood up in the middle of the council on Mars Hill and said, “People of Athens, I see that you are very religious in every way.  As I was walking through town and carefully observing your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: ‘To an unknown God.’  What you worship as unknown, I now proclaim to you.  God, who made the world and everything in it, is Lord of heaven and earth.  He doesn’t live in temples made with human hands.  Nor is God served by human hands, as though he needed something, since he is the one who gives life, breath, and everything else.  From one person God created every human nation to live on the whole earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their lands.  God made the nations so they would seek him, perhaps even reach out to him and find him.  In fact, God isn’t far away from any of us.  In God we live, move, and exist.  As some of your own poets said, ‘We are his offspring.’
“Therefore, as God’s offspring, we have no need to imagine that the divine being is like a gold, silver, or stone image made by human skill and thought.  God overlooks ignorance of these things in times past, but now directs everyone everywhere to change their hearts and lives.  This is because God has set a day when he intends to judge the world justly by a man he has appointed.  God has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

This week, over 3000 United Methodists from the western half of the state will gather at Lake Junaluska for the Western North Carolina Annual Conference.  This yearly gathering is part worship, part business, part family reunion.

Annual Conference concludes each year with the fixing of appointments – the official sending of pastors to some 1100 churches across the conference for another year of ministry.  I view this time as a yearly renewal of my commitment to go where I am sent, to represent God and serve God’s people, and lead God’s people in sharing God’s life-giving love and grace with the world around us as the Holy Spirit enables us.

This realization is, for me, anyway, humbling – wondering why in the world God would count on me, and empowering – for whatever reason, God is counting on me.  Not just the pastors, but all of us.  God is counting on me.

It’s a time to re-up.  This year, there will be a “2” next to my name in the appointment book, indicating it’s about to be my 2nd year appointed as the lead pastor here at Morehead.  I have already told our bishop and district superintendent to forget my name and leave me alone! We love it here.  Next year I want to see a “3” next to my name, and then a “4,” and then we’ll see how high it can go.

It’s weird to think that a year ago, I didn’t know you.  You didn’t know me.  We were waiting to be introduced.  I’ve often thought about that process you go through to get to know someone – how you can go from complete strangers to having a deeply-meaningful relationship with someone.

I am particularly grateful for those who facilitate introductions.  Even introducing someone to someone else doesn’t form an instant relationship between them – they still have to do a lot of the work themselves to make that happen – but an introduction is often a spark, the initial “oomph” that gets a relationship started.

When you think about it, we make introductions all the time.  We introduce mutual friends if we think they might hit it off.  We set people up on blind dates.  We tell people about restaurants we enjoy, where to get a good haircut, oil change, or frozen yogurt.  We share recipes, garden tips, articles, you name it, if we love it, we share it with great enthusiasm!

Do we have the same excitement for sharing our faith and introducing people to Jesus?

We call this “evangelism.”  Evangelism is a churchy word we use to describe introducing people to Jesus and talking about our faith.  Evangelism has gotten a little bit of a bad rap lately; perhaps because the very word conjures up images of TV evangelists with big hair and perfect smiles cajoling money out of a vulnerable TV audience, or angry people with hateful signs hurling slurs and insults at passers-by – maybe not the best picture for sharing God’s love!

Make no mistake – we are called to share our faith, we are called to be about sharing God’s love and grace in the world, and we are called to be bold in it – but, and this is critical – we are not called to be jerks about it.  Being a Christian doesn’t make us better than other people, and sharing our faith does not give us a license to be obnoxious or condescending. 

Friends, we cannot allow these to be the voices that speak for us, nor can we allow them to keep us from speaking.  Even though these voices represent the smallest sliver of the Christian community, they are perhaps the loudest and most persistent voices, and unless we also speak up, when the world hears the words “Christian,” “Jesus,” “Bible,” “faith,” or “church,” this is the picture they’ll have.

Now, I know, some people are going, “Talk about my faith?  Tell people about Jesus?  What are we paying the pastor for?”  You pay me to remind you to introduce people to Jesus.  Remember what we said earlier – God is counting on me.

The Apostle Paul in today’s reading from the 17th chapter of Acts, gives us a good pattern to follow for sharing our faith in a non-Christian world.  He has been criss-crossing the Mediterranean, preaching and setting up churches.  He has been met with resistance and hostility in each place.

He arrived in Athens for some down time waiting for his colleagues to meet him and figure out what they would do next.  There was no work on the agenda – no preaching, no teaching, no setting up churches, none of that – just a little R & R.  And yet we know that’s not what happened.

Paul was walking through the city, taking in all the cultural and historical treasures that make Athens the great city it is.

Everywhere he went, he saw altars and shrines to many gods.  The Greeks & Romans worshipped a variety of gods, but they were also deeply respectful of the gods worshiped in other places by other people.  Not wanting to leave anyone out, they even set up an altar to “an unknown god.”

Paul decides to share the Gospel with non-believers, and starts with a compliment – “Look at all these altars!  I can see that you are deeply religious!”  And so many altars – these people are definitely searching, definitely trying to connect with something beyond themselves!

We aren’t so different today than were people in Athens.  People are still longing for meaning and searching for significance.  So many altars where we bow – altars of wealth and power, materialism and nationalism, prominence and prestige, experience and esteem, friends and family, leisure pleasure – one altar after another, each built with the promise of enshrining our happiness, each one just as disappointing as the one before.

Before we know it, our lives have become more cluttered with altars to false gods than the streets of Athens.

Why do we do this?  Because God created us with a restlessness, a need deep inside us for a connection with God.  I think of it like the little shape ball I played with as a kid, trying to fit those yellow shapes into the various holes.  Now, imagine one of those holes is God-shaped.  You can try to cram all sorts of things in there, but only one thing can fill the God-shaped hole in each of us – God.  Anything else, we remain empty inside.

Paul knew that the people were searching.  So many altars?  So much devotion, even if misguided?  Yeah, they were looking for something.  Patiently, Paul says, “You’ve been searching.  You’ve been looking a long time” – what they’ve been looking for is the one, true God.

Paul’s presentation meets his hearers where they are.  They are intellectuals, and he presents the Gospel with quotes and allusions to their own poets and philosophers.  He builds bridges between their culture and his message, finds common ground, and says, “Let’s start here.”  He is not at odds with his hearers.  He’s not trying to fix them, correct them, tell them everything that’s wrong with their beliefs or way of seeing the world.  He’s not trying to prove anything about them or himself.

And though he uses reason and appeals to their intellect, he presents the Gospel not as an argument to be won or a puzzle to be solved or a set of prepositions with which to agree, but as an introduction to the living God, and an invitation to be in relationship with God.

He doesn’t say, “Let me help you know things about God.”  He says, “Let me help you know God.”  The God you’ve worshiped this whole time and didn’t even know it – would you like me to introduce you?  The God who created the world and everything in it, the God who created you and loves you more than you can imagine, the God whose image you bear, whose love and creativity are marked indelibly on you, the God and Father of us all, even though you’ve never confessed God’s name or realized that you were God’s child, has always loved you and knows your name, whose will has always been directed toward your good, the God who has been reaching toward you and calling your name even while you were completely ignorant of this God because that’s how much God loves you, the God in whom we literally live and move and have our very being, this very same God – would you like me to introduce you?

People cannot come to know God until someone introduces them.  Introducing people to God doesn’t mean you have to be an expert in theology or have a bunch of answers or arguments ready to go.  You simply need to be willing to share your experience of how God has been at work in your life.  If you have a story to tell, then God can use you.  It’s easy – it’s just your own story, and it’s powerful; you’ll watch God work through that in amazing ways, and before you know it, you’ll be introducing people to Jesus left and right.  As Paul showed us in Athens, we can invite people to get to know God in a way that is respectful and not pushy, but also has a holy boldness and passion for sharing God’s love and grace.

We talk about church as family.  A family of faith.  God’s family.  You may not have ever thought about it, but there’s a family business – bringing people (all people!) into relationship with God through Jesus.  The family business is growing the family.  Being part of the family means being part of the family business.

As a church, our job is clear.  It’s already been outlined.  We are part of God’s family, so our business is God’s business – introducing people to Jesus and making it possible for them to grow in God’s love.  What a great line of work we have, with no shortage of opportunity!  Just look around at all the people we have the opportunity to introduce to Jesus!

But it’s a family business – that means all the members of the family have a role, including you.  Though we have nice benches, do more than ride the bench here.  That’s not standing on the promises; that’s sitting on the premises!  Gather to worship, yes, but then depart to serve.  Come in to be fed, go out to feed others.  Come to get to know God better, go and out introduce Jesus to others.  Don’t just warm a pew; be part of God’s mission.

The beautiful thing in God’s mission of introducing people to Jesus is that there’s a job for everybody.  Maybe you can preach.  Maybe you can go somewhere to people in need, around the corner or around the world.  Maybe you can pray.  Maybe you can sing.  Maybe you can teach.  Maybe you can give.  Maybe you can cook, or set up tables, or greet people when they arrive or help them find a parking spot.  So many ways to serve, but each and every one of them supports our primary mission to introduce people to Jesus.

Friends, like the people of Athens, we can be easily distracted and pulled in so many directions that we quickly lose focus and get off track.  So many things vying for our attention, pulling us this way and that way.  Let’s keep the main thing the main thing.  Let’s stay focused on introducing people to Jesus.

I’d love it if church were a little more like Pinky and the Brain.  This favorite cartoon of my childhood features two animated lab rats – The Brain, a diabolical genius, and Pinky, his dim-witted but loyal sidekick.  At the beginning of every episode, Pinky says, “Gee Brain, What do you want to do tonight?”  “Same thing we do every night, Pinky: try to take over the world!”

Such a driving, clear, undebatable statement of purpose.  Said with clarity and conviction, unequivocally naming their purpose and mission.

I would love for the Church to have the same singular focus, that if I were to say, “Gee Church, what do you want to do today?” you would instinctively answer, “Same thing we do every day, pastor: introduce people to Jesus.” 

Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Answer is Blowin' in the Wind (Acts 2:1-21, Pentecost Sunday)

When Pentecost Day arrived, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak.
There were pious Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. When they heard this sound, a crowd gathered. They were mystified because everyone heard them speaking in their native languages. They were surprised and amazed, saying, “Look, aren’t all the people who are speaking Galileans, every one of them? How then can each of us hear them speaking in our native language? Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; as well as residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the regions of Libya bordering Cyrene; and visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism), 11 Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages!” 12 They were all surprised and bewildered. Some asked each other, “What does this mean?” 13 Others jeered at them, saying, “They’re full of new wine!”
14 Peter stood with the other eleven apostles. He raised his voice and declared, “Judeans and everyone living in Jerusalem! Know this! Listen carefully to my words! 15 These people aren’t drunk, as you suspect; after all, it’s only nine o’clock in the morning! 16 Rather, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
17 In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
    Your sons and daughters will prophesy.
    Your young will see visions.
    Your elders will dream dreams.
18     Even upon my servants, men and women,
        I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
        and they will prophesy.
19 I will cause wonders to occur in the heavens above
    and signs on the earth below,
        blood and fire and a cloud of smoke.
20 The sun will be changed into darkness,
    and the moon will be changed into blood,
        before the great and spectacular day of the Lord comes.
21 And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

As band geeks in high school, every fall we played in the pep band for the football team.  The band sat in the section closest to the cheerleaders.  We had our own cheers custom-tailored to our rivals – some a bit bawdier than others that I won’t repeat here – although, as the worst team in our division, it’s funny that we were trash-talking anyone, and of course, much like your high school, we had several different spirit cheers.

I do remember several times, as the cheerleaders were getting ready to start a particular cheer and asking, “Hey band, are we on offense or defense?”  There were times when they didn’t know a tight end from an end zone, a touch down from a touch back, a fourth quarter from a fourth down, but what they lacked in information, they made up for with spirit.

Which would you rather have – the right information, or the right spirit?  Nothing wrong with good information, but when God wanted to start the church, God didn’t give us a set of answers; God gave us the Holy Spirit.  May we pray.

Come, Holy Spirit.  Create in us a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within us. Amen.

Have you ever had the awkward occurrence of receiving a gift from someone, and upon opening it, you have no idea what it is or what do you with it?  The giver is so excited for you to have it, and they ask, “Well, do you like it?”  And you say, “Like it?  Why, how could I not love having – one of these.”  You want to say, “Thank you; what IS it?”

Asking “What is it?” is a theme in gift-giving, especially when it comes to mysterious and perplexing gifts from God.  We celebrate Pentecost as the gift of the Holy Spirit to the church.  Red is the liturgical color for Pentecost, often emblazoned with representations of fire, wind, and a dove - all physical ways the Holy Spirit has appeared in the Scriptures.

Pentecost is a radically important day.  In terms of our salvation, Christians have focused on other days in the salvation story.  Perhaps they focus on Christmas, when Jesus was born, God-in-flesh, true God from true God, light from light eternal.  Yes, we weep at the cross on Good Friday.  Yes, we are all rightfully dazzled by the empty tomb at Easter, but the story is just getting started there.  Where the story really kicks in is today, when the gift of the Holy Spirit is given and received at Pentecost.

Unfortunately, most Christians don’t give the priority to this day that are received by Christmas and Easter.  Perhaps it’s because we don’t understand the Holy Spirit, or we do and we’re scared, or we don’t want to be labeled religious fanatics.  Perhaps it’s because Pentecost, always 50 days after Easter, always coincides with the end of school and the beginning of the summer travel season.  Maybe it’s because the world hasn’t figured out how to commercialize Pentecost the same way it has Easter and Christmas.  No new outfits to buy, no Pentecost baskets to fill with candy, no Pentecost tree to put up and decorate, no hours at the mall waiting in line to buy Pentecost gifts.

And that’s okay.  The only gift you need to be concerned with on Pentecost is the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Here’s what you need to know about the Holy Spirit: the Holy Spirit is a gift.  The Holy Spirit is God’s active presence among us.  Everything we know, and think, and experience, and feel about God is made possible through the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit, as gifts of God tend to be, is a surprising gift.  On that first Pentecost, the first followers of Jesus, about 120 of them, were gathered somewhere in Jerusalem.  It was a clandestine meeting – location unknown, no printed agenda, no list of attendees – not because they were trying to keep secrets, but because they were trying to keep from being killed.  The last fifty days since the empty tomb had been a roller coaster of emotions: encounters with the risen Jesus as he walked with them on their journey, and continually made himself known to them in the breaking of bread.  Ten days ago, Jesus blasted off into the clouds saying something about not leaving them alone, but as so often happens with Jesus, no one understood what he was talking about.

When Pentecost came, no one was thinking of the Holy Spirit.  A spirit of fear and timidity, a spirit of second-guessing and confusion about what to do next, perhaps a spirit of despair or agitation that things hadn’t worked out for them quite the way they had hoped.  Pentecost began with a gloomy gathering of frightened Jesus followers, and I guarantee you that starting the church was the last thing on their minds.

However, God had other plans.  Thank God that God always has other plans.  As they were all gathered in one place, God sent the Holy Spirit, blowing through the room as the sound of a mighty, rushing, violent wind, appearing as tongues of fire that appeared to rest on each one.  No small thing that God’s Spirit appears as wind and fire – two elements with a mind all their own, and when you put them together, you get wild fire.   The Holy Spirit does what it will without our permission or control.  Locked doors are blown open and cold hearts are strangely warmed when the life-giving Spirit of God blows through the place and what will happen next is anybody’s guess, but we know it will be big, and we know it will be from God.

In Hebrew, the words for Spirit, wind, and breath are nearly the same. The same is true in Greek. In trying to describe God's activity among them, the Biblical writers were saying that it was like God's breath, like a holy wind. "The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes" (John 3:8).

The Holy Spirit isn’t a cool breeze.  It’s a hot wind.  It’s like those afternoons you go outside in late July or early August, and it’s already hot out, and you see the trees rustle at the edge of the yard and you think, “Oh good, a breeze,” and it hits you, and it’s anything but refreshing as you feel like you’re standing in a hair dryer – yes, the Holy Spirit is kind of like that.

The wind of the Holy Spirit has fire in it; it’s supposed to be hot!  Hot enough to burn off the other spirits that want our attention, that want to fill us and rule our lives – burning away the spirits of rationality, or pride, or selfishness or criticism or negativity.  The Holy Spirit whooshes into our lives and burns these things away like a holy fever, flushing them out of our system and igniting the things of God – letting those fill us, instead!

In another church, I had been preaching on the Holy Spirit one Sunday when a lady came out the door – a lifelong church member, and one of the grumpiest, most negative, critical people you could imagine – and she sneered on her way out, “I don’t believe in all that Holy Spirit business” and I was thinking, “Lady, I’m glad you told me, because, wow, I never would have guessed that on my own!”

You can’t harbor a negative spirit and the Holy Spirit at the same time.  Being filled with one evicts the other.  You see, the Holy Spirit is a unifying spirit.  The Scripture says that “they were all together in one place” (Acts 2:1) when the Spirit came.  “One place” is not only a common location, but a unity of heart and mind.  It’s one of the reasons we’ve gathered in one worship service today instead of two – our way of being “together in one place.”

The Holy Spirit unites us, forms us into a family of faith, people from different backgrounds, with different preferences and perspectives and opinions.  Unity is not the same thing as uniformity; unity doesn’t mean that we all think and act exactly alike.  And yet, the Holy Spirit helps us realize that what unites us is infinitely greater than whatever might divide us.

Friends, we’re all on the same team.  We are bonded together in a unity of heart and purpose.

John Wesley said, “Though we may not all think alike, may we not love alike?”  And that’s hard to do.  Impossible for us to do on our own, actually.  But thankfully, the Holy Spirit is not only a unifying spirit; the Holy Spirit is an empowering spirit.

On that first Pentecost, the Holy Spirit blew the disciples out of their comfort zone, past their fear, and into the street, proclaiming the good news of what God was doing with such power and clarity that tourists from around the world each heard the Gospel proclaimed in their native language.

They had started the day in fear and doubt, but then, the Holy Spirit got loose, whooshing through and anointing people left and right, and before the day is over, the fledging disciples will have started the church and with such power that it grew from 120 to 3000 members in one day.  Some sneered and accused the disciples of being filled with spirits rather than The Spirit; there will always be those who are resistant to the subtle and not-so-subtle incursions of God among us.

If we’re not careful, it’s easy for us to end up there, as well.  As the day of Pentecost began, those early followers of Jesus were fearful, suspicious, powerless, and pitiful.  The Holy Spirit changed all that.  The Holy Spirit gave them power and boldness to be about God’s work in the world.  When they received the Holy Spirit, they became the Church.  To this day, anywhere the Holy Spirit is poured out and joyfully received, there God’s Church is found.

How about us?  How about you?  Do you want to receive the Holy Spirit in the same way?  I hope so, but know what you’re praying for.  Remember, the Holy Spirit comes not as a cool breeze, but as a hot wind – fanning the flame within us, burning away our plans and igniting something that is both bigger and godlier.  Hot enough to make us uncomfortable with some holy discontent, strong enough to blow us out of our comfort zones, because God still has work to do, and is inviting us to complete it.

Pentecost witnesses to the reality that the Holy Spirit can be poured out on anybody – old and young, male and female, simple and sophisticated, saint and sinner, insider and outsider, like us and unlike us – doesn’t matter.  The Holy Spirit is indiscriminately poured out, and all who receive it dream dreams and see visions, of what can be and what will be as God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

When we open ourselves up to the Holy Spirit, we are giving up control and predictability, but we are opening up to God sized-dreams and visions being accomplished through us.  I’ll run that risk any day.

Tom Long tells the story of teaching 3 young girls in a small church he pastored.  He said, “Pentecost was when the church was seated in a circle and tongues of fire came down from heaven and landed on their heads and they spoke the gospel in all the languages of the world!”

He says two of the girls took that all rather calmly, but the other’s eyes turned as big as saucers.  When she could finally speak, she said, “Reverend Long, we must have been absent that Sunday.”

He said, “The beautiful thing about that is not that she misunderstood.  The beautiful thing is that she thought it could have happened in our church, that God’s Spirit could have come even to our little congregation and given us a word to speak that the world desperately needs to hear.”

The Gospel can be just a story about what God did through some people we don’t know in a distant land a long time ago.  But it can be more than that, too.  For those who are full of the Holy Spirit, the story isn’t finished yet.  The next chapter is about what God will do through us.  Faithfulness isn’t about knowing exactly where the wind will blow.  Faithfulness is, when the wind of God’s Spirit does blow, having a heart that’s open enough to get caught in the flow.

If you want to be filled with the Holy Spirit, whether for the first time or yet again, I’m going to give you an opportunity to invite the Spirit into your life.  You know, one of the great things about Pentecost is not that it happened just once, but that it happens again and again.  It is still happening.  The winds of the Spirit are still blowing, landing upon hearts that are open to receive.

If you want to receive the Holy Spirit, I invite you to open your arms in a posture of receptivity and repeat after me:

Come, Holy Spirit.  Fill my heart.  Kindle in me the fire of your love.

Come, Holy Spirit.  Burn away my agenda, burn away all other spirits.  Lead me beyond my comfort zone, and fill me with what you want.  I give my life to your control.

Come, Holy Spirit.  Fill our church.  Unify us.  Empower us.  We joyfully receive you today. We love you.  We’ll do what you want.  We’ll go where you lead.  We want to be part of your love story for the world.  Write the next chapter through us, in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Faith that's Bigger than a Bumper Sticker: Love the Sinner; Hate the Sin? (Romans 5:6-8, Mathew 7:1-5)

While we were still weak, at the right moment, Christ died for ungodly people. It isn’t often that someone will die for a righteous person, though maybe someone might dare to die for a good person. But God shows his love for us, because while we were still sinners Christ died for us.


“Don’t judge, so that you won’t be judged. You’ll receive the same judgment you give. Whatever you deal out will be dealt out to you. Why do you see the splinter that’s in your brother’s or sister’s eye, but don’t notice the log in your own eye? How can you say to your brother or sister, ‘Let me take the splinter out of your eye,’ when there’s a log in your eye? You deceive yourself! First take the log out of your eye, and then you’ll see clearly to take the splinter out of your brother’s or sister’s eye.

I realized this week that I haven’t been loving my wife as well as I should have been.  So what if I told you that, yesterday morning, before she had her first cup of coffee, I presented her with a list of everything she did wrong last week.  I did that out of my love for her; wasn’t that a loving thing for me to do?  You see, I love her, but I hate all her sins.


I didn’t want to leave anyone else out, so I started thinking about how much I love the rest of my family and friends, and how much I hate their sins.  I sent them all a list of all their sins, because I love them, you know, and that took awhile, because some of them are really big sinners!


But then, I started thinking about all the people I don’t even know.  I don’t want to let God down, and so I’ve taken it upon myself to go up to complete strangers when I see them sinning and letting them know what they’re doing is wrong, because that’s how I show my love for them.  I just can’t help but think of how pleased God is with me for doing such a good job hating sin!  I don’t want to brag, but I’m pretty proud of what a loving Christian I’ve been this week by hating so much sin!


If some of you are thinking of going home and applying this principle with your loved ones, let me know today so I can begin scheduling counseling appointments for the rest of the week.


“Love the sinner and hate the sin.”  A popular phrase many Christians claim to believe, but the only household I know of where I know of this being practiced is in the Costanza household on Seinfeld as they celebrated “Festivus.”  If you're familiar with the scene, you're can just feel the love, can’t you?


As Christians, we know Jesus wants us to love people – whether they be sinners or saints – I don’t think anyone would argue with that.  But, we don’t want to be soft on sin, now do we?  And so, we strike a middle ground that makes sense in our heads – love the sinner and hate the sin.  Perhaps with that duality rattling around in our heads, it’s just enough to help Christians sleep at night.


Loving the sinner and hating the sin is easy to say, but impossible to practice.  You can’t practice love and hate at the same time; it’s an impossible dual focus.  By the very definition, “whatever you focus on primarily requires you to focus less on everything else.  Either we focus on loving (the sinner) or hating (the sin).  When you put it that way it seems fairly obvious that we ought to choose loving over hating.  That is, we want to be like Jesus, which means that people would know us primarily because they catch us and feel us loving, not hating.”[1]


Some people point to Scripture as giving them permission, or perhaps even the mandate, to hate sin.  Scripture passages like Romans 12:9 that say: “Love must be sincere; hate what is evil, cling to what is good.”  Well there you go, right?  Hate what is evil – sin, right?


Let’s look at the context here.  Can you make someone else’s love sincere? No, you can only make your own love sincere. Can you make another person cling to what is good? No, you can only make yourself do that.”  So when it comes to hating sin, “you can only hate the sin that is inside you, because you are the only human being who can see into your innermost being.”[2]


So yes, you can hate sin if you want to.  But your own sin.  Not someone else’s.


We like to sit in the seat of judgment.  Feels good to feel right.  But, to hate your sin suggests I have none of my own to worry about, that I’m better than you, holier than you, more righteous than you, in my own mind, anyway.  The truth is, any time we look down our nose on others, we are likely further away from the kingdom of God than the sinners we condemn.


An unhealthy preoccupation with the sins of others is nothing new, but Jesus saved his harshest criticisms for those who were self-righteous and judgmental toward others.  In his day, that was often the Pharisees, whose favorite past-time just happened to be judging other people.  One time, a Pharisee and a tax collector were praying in the temple, and Jesus overheard them both.  The Pharisee bragged about what a good fellow he was, and even thanked God that he was not like other people, sinners, like this tax collector.  The tax collector simply looked at the floor and mumbled, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  Jesus said that it was the lowly tax collector, not the high and mighty Pharisee, who was redeemed that day (Luke 18:9-14).


Or another time, Jesus came across an angry mob who had surrounded a woman caught in adultery.  It takes two to tango, but for now, we won’t worry about where her partner was. They were worked up into a frenzy, and someone shouted, “The law says she should be stoned to death,” to which Jesus replied, “So it does.  Whoever among you, angry mob, is without sin, that person is free to cast the first stone” (John 8:1-11).


Jesus wants us to be less concerned with the sins of others than we are with our own sin.  Otherwise, it’s as if we are obsessed with a speck of dust in someone else’s eye, oblivious to an eight-foot-long two-by-four in our own eye (Matthew 7:1-5).


Do me a favor and point at the person next to you.  It’s not polite, I know, but do it anyway.  Keep ‘em pointed and take a look at your hand.  How many of your fingers are pointing at them?  And how many of your fingers are pointing back at you?


Same thing happens when we cast judgment on others.  What we say about others says more about us than it does about them.  Hating the sin of another exposes us more than it exposes them.


Even when we couch it in pious language and say we love the sinner but hate their sin, friends, that’s not our sin to hate.  We still sound very much like the Pharisees, even though we tell ourselves, “I don’t hate them, I only hate everything about them; see how different that is?”  Those who say, “Love the sinner; hate the sin” often speak out of an unacknowledged sense of moral superiority.  That’s not being compassionate, it’s condescending.


Jesus told us not to judge.  He did tell us to love.  Love God, love our neighbor.  The whole of God’s law is there.  God’s law is love; God is love.  Period.  You can’t love and hate at the same time.


About love, the Scriptures tell us “it keeps no record of wrong” (1 Corinthians 13:5).  No way around it – you can’t love someone while you keep a tally sheet of their sins.  You can’t love someone while you look down your nose at them.  You can’t love someone while you think you’re better than they are.  Mother Teresa said, “If you love people, you don’t have time to judge them.”


Love is God’s reigning attribute.  God is love.  Love always wins.  Love is always primary.

“But what about truth??” you ask.


What about it?


“We can’t sacrifice truth on the altar of love!”


But we can sacrifice love on the altar of truth? Love is the greatest.


“But I do love sinners! I love them enough to tell them the truth! That they need to repent of their sin so they can go to heaven!”


As my friend Jim Harnish says, “Our doctrine is based on the love of God, which means we’d much rather love the hell out of people than scare the hell out of them.”


Jesus said that people would know we are his followers by our love.  Not our slogans on tee-shirts and bumper stickers, but by our love (John 13:35).


Friends, love isn’t something you say or feel. Love is something you do.


If I ever tell you, “I love this person, but I hate his sin,” I want you to ask me something. “How have you shown him you love him?”


And if I say, “By pointing out his sin. Duh,” I want you to say to me, “That’s not love. Love isn’t pointing out sin. Maybe in the context of an already loving, trusting relationship, but other things have to come first. Like listening. A lunch invitation. An offer to help with something and following through. And finding out more about the person’s childhood. And smiling and laughing together. So, do you love this person?  Really?  How do you love them?”


If you’re so concerned about sinners, treat them like Jesus did.  Jesus humbled himself, left heaven, and came to earth for sinners.  Ate with them.  Befriended them.  Cared about them.  Gave his life for them.  God showed his love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:6-8).  To those who are shouting slogans about that sin or another, I’d like to ask them, “Those sinners you’re so concerned about – do you love them enough to give your life for them, or do you hope that your shouting will bring people over to your side?”


Shouting the loudest doesn’t make you right.  It makes you loud.  The Scriptures tell us, “Love does not insist on its own way” (1 Corinthians 13:5).


You can’t hate and love at the same time.  Hate is but a manifestation of sin. Evil cannot drive out evil (Romans 12:21).  Only love can overcome evil. Hating sin doesn't defeat sin, it only feeds it.


The path to overcoming sin is not hatred. It's love. Perfect love. The perfect love of our heavenly father who has created us all and who hates nothing he has made.  The perfect love of Jesus Christ, the embodied gift of the Father's unfailing love.  The perfect love of the Holy Spirit, who perfect us empowers us to love as God loves. And the perfect love of the community of faith, saints and sinners, all, ushering in Gods kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.


Sin is overcome through God's love, not our hate.  As long as we hate anything or anyone, sin still wins.


When it comes to how we will measure up before God, God isn’t going to ask to see the list of sins we hated to make sure we hit all the right ones.  What God will ask is, "How well did you love?”


Friends, we should all be less concerned with being right, and more concerned with being loving.


Maybe you’ve heard the story of the Cherokee grandmother who was known in her community to be the wisest, strongest, most compassionate member of the community.  Her grandson asked how she had become so kind.  She replied, “There are two wolves inside me.  One is full of love.  The other is full of hate.  There is a constant battle within me between them.”


Her grandson’s eyes went wide, and he asked, “Which one will win?”


“The one I feed.”


Love the sinner and hate the sin?  Well, no.  You can only feed one at a time.


Loving my wife by hating her sin is not only unwise, it’s not even possible.  If you love someone, you love them.  God loves us without any qualifications – through ups and downs, rights and wrongs, understandings and misunderstandings.  “Love the sinner, hate the sin” is a phrase that adds a comma where Jesus put a period.  We don’t need the second half of that.  We can stop with the first.  Choose love.  Period.

[1] Kendall, Bishop David. Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin:
[2] Collins, Ken. Hate the Sin but Love the Sinner:

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Faith that's Bigger Than a Bumper Sticker: God needed another angel in heaven? (John 10:7-11)

So Jesus spoke again, “I assure you that I am the gate of the sheep. All who came before me were thieves and outlaws, but the sheep didn’t listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out and find pasture. 10 The thief enters only to steal, kill, and destroy. I came so that they could have life—indeed, so that they could live life to the fullest.  11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
On your evening news, you may see an interview with someone, and you only see them on screen for a few seconds and hear a few sentences from them.  This is called a “sound byte.”  The person certainly said much more than what we see, but it’s been edited down to the most essential information.  Sound bytes don’t tell the whole story.  I understand the frustration from both sides – the person trying to condense the story accurately, and the one being interviewed, reading the paper the next day going, “That’s not what I said, or at least, it’s certainly not what I meant!”
A short, memorable phrase, when lifted out of context, is easily misunderstood.  If you’re just joining us today, we are in the middle of a series on “Faith that’s Bigger than a Bumper Sticker.”  We are looking at popular misconceptions of Faith – they are sound bytes that could also easily fit on a bumper sticker.
Each week we’ve peeled back a different phrase.  You may have noticed that many of these sayings are things that often get said around instances of suffering or tragedy, particularly at times of death.  Both in experience and observation, though these phrases are offered with good intentions as words of meaning or comfort, most of the time, they only add to the pain of those who are already grieving.  And so today, on this Memorial Day weekend, we look at another phrase that gets trotted out in times of death, that “God must have needed another angel in heaven.”  May we pray.
We’re just trying to help
“God needed another angel in heaven.”  Short phrase that says a mouthful.  Since August, my wife and I have lost, between us, three of the remaining five grandparents we had still living.  We lost my mom five years ago, and not a day goes by that I don’t still miss her like crazy.  Many of you have lost those closest to you just recently, and nearly all of us have someone we miss, whether they went on to the Church Triumphant recently or long ago.
My wife spent her first year out of seminary working as a chaplain at Duke Hospital, where she worked in the pediatric unit.  In that year, she personally had contact with 30 families whose children died at the hospital.  Those were only the families with whom she had contact; there were countless others.  Should we tell the grieving families, “There, there: God needed another angel in heaven?”  How good or loving is a God who takes the life of a child?  What higher purpose could that serve?  What end could possibly justify an end so cruel and callous?
There are related to corollaries to the phrase:  “Every cloud has a silver lining.  It’s always darkest just before the dawn.  Time heals all wounds.  God knows what he’s doing.  God needed them more than we did.”  I’m often within earshot when these phrases are offered, and I just want to say, “Please don’t.  I know you’re trying to be helpful, but it’s not working.  Because if this person died because God just wanted to add them to his angel collection, then, God sounds like a real jerk.”
Yes, I’m aware these things are said with the best of intentions, and Death makes many of us uncomfortable, we don’t know what to say, and get ourselves into trouble.  Often we don’t speak with God in these times, we speak about God.  We fill the silence with pontifications that begin “I think God this,” and “I think God that,” and what comes next is not true, not helpful, and not healing for the person about to hear it, as we place things in the mouth and mind of God that God never said nor thought.
Friends, when you don’t know what to say, you don’t actually need to say anything.  Turns out you don’t have to say much to let someone know you care.  Often, a hug, a smile, a call, a card, and a simple, “I’m so sorry” is all that needs to be said.  That’s all you need to do.
God is consistent, not confused
God isn’t a body snatcher, taking people from this life and adding them to his angel collection.  One of the issues with making God the acting agent in death is that this runs counter to what we do know about God’s nature.  We confess in the Nicene Creed that God is the Lord and giver of life.  Not the taker!
In John 10, Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd, who came that we might have life, and, indeed, have it to the fullest (John 10:10).  The thief comes to kill and destroy, but not God!  God gives life.  God doesn’t take it.  God is not giving life with one hand and snatching it away with the other.  To propose such an arrangement implies a very confused, split personality God, who is inconsistent, can’t make up his mind, who is actually working against himself all the time!
Now yes, people do this, but not God!  We humans are walking inconsistencies – our behavior often works against what we’ve stated as goals.  So, perhaps we say we’d like to be more generous with our money, or have more in savings, but we don’t change our spending habits.  We say we want to lose weight, while we continue to eat as we always have.
Each of us are walking contradictions, saying one thing, and then behaving in a way that works against what we’ve said we want.  Humans have these inconsistencies, but not God.  God doesn’t work against his own interests.  God is Love, steady, consistent, and unwavering.
We sing, “Great is thy Faithfulness,” not, “Great is thy Unreliability.”  The God who is the giver of life, Jesus who came that we would have life and have it abundantly – God is not giving life with one hand and snatching it away with the other.  Such a confused, conflicted and inconsistent deity wouldn’t know the difference between helping and harming, and anytime we imply that God is willfully grieving us by taking people away from us, then neither do we.
Death is not part of God’s plan
Death was never part of God’s plan.  God’s plan was for us to enjoy perpetual fellowship with God and each other.  The Westminster Catechism states that “the chief end of [human]kind is to glorify God and enjoy God forever.”  If you read the story of Eden, that’s what it’s about.  Nowhere is death any part of that plan.  But, when sin entered the world, death came along for the ride.  Death is the other side of the coin of sin; sin is nothing more and nothing less than a condition of separation from God – the very thing that works against God’s intent of uninterrupted fellowship with us.
But, since sin entered the world, God has been working diligently to defeat it.  God has been working overtime to restore our relationship to God so that we can enjoy the communion with God for which we were originally designed.  And so, death was never part of God’s plan, not part of God’s design, nowhere in God’s intent for us, and we, as the people of faith need to stop saying that God is causing and orchestrating death.  God is in the life business.  God is not giving life with one hand and taking it away with the other.
But, though God hasn’t caused death, God can still use it.  Though God doesn’t orchestrate death, God commands death to serve God’s purpose, such that on its other side, we are restored to the full fellowship with God for which we were intended in the first place.
You see, death has already been defeated.  In the death and resurrection of Jesus, God has already declared victory over sin and death, but death hasn’t gotten the message, yet.  It’s akin to what would happen in wars before modern times – the war of 1812, for example.  The war was officially ended by the Treaty of Ghent in December, 1814, but it took months for that news to reach the front.  And so, the Battle of New Orleans, the last major battle of the war, took place in January, a month after the treaty had been signed.  The combatants were fighting a battle in a war that was already decided; they just didn’t know it at the time.
That’s how it is for death in this time since the death and resurrection of Jesus.  Death has already lost; it just doesn’t know it yet.  A day has been promised of a new heaven and a new earth, where there will be no more crying and pain, where death will be no more, but until then, death refuses to accept its defeat.  And so, the result is that we live in this tenuous time between the times – the “already/not yet” of God’s kingdom – already here because of the death and resurrection of Jesus, not yet here in its fullness.
That means that death is still a reality, with all the pain and suffering it brings with it.  It still hurts, we still grieve, we still shed tears for our pain and our loss, and friends, that’s ok – even Jesus wept at the grave of his friend, Lazarus.
But, as people of faith, we do not approach death as those without hope.  Frederick Buechner reminds us that the resurrection is God’s way of letting us know that the worst thing is never the last thing.  God has frustrated death by taking away its sting.  Death does not get the last word.  It’s not final.  Because now, even in death, God’s promise of life prevails.
God doesn’t cause death, but God does redeem it.
So, God doesn’t take people when they die.  But God does receive them.  God doesn’t take; God receives.  Friends, that’s a big difference.  It’s the difference between God rudely snatching and grabbing people from this life, and God graciously welcoming and receiving them with open, loving arms in the life to come.  We don’t have a God who takes us.  We do have a God who receives us and rescues us from death.  Christ is victorious, even when we can’t save each other from death, God still can.
People don’t turn into angels
That clears up one misconception.  But there’s another one here, the idea that people turn into angels when they die.  It’s a popular idea, and I have no idea where it comes from.
There’s no reason to think that people turn into angels at death.  The Christian faith presents a different picture.  We believe that our loved ones have been graciously received into the nearer presence of God, where they are glorifying God and enjoying God in a way we can only faintly glimpse in this life.  The book of Romans says that nothing, not even death itself, shall separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:35-39), and neither shall it separate us from each other.  They aren’t dead and gone; they are alive with Christ, and wherever Christ can be, so can they.
But that doesn’t make them angels.  Like angels, perhaps, but people don’t turn into angels.  The Scriptures speak of angels in two ways: one specific, and one more general.  Specifically, angels are a being altogether different than we are.  Different Scripture passages describe them in a variety of ways, but here’s what we do know: angels are both beautiful and frightening.  Sometimes they are wrapped in light so bright and glorious they shine like the sun, but they are something other than human.  So that’s the specific description.
Now, onto the general.  In Scripture, angels appear as messengers – they have some message from God to deliver.  The word, “angel” comes from the Greek, angelos, and literally means, “messenger.”  And so, in a general sense, an angel is God’s messenger.  Anyone who provides help, or a message, or conveys God’s presence is, in this general sense, an angel.
In this way, anybody can be an angel.  So, people don’t die because God needs angels.  The idea that God needs anything from us is questionable enough to begin with, but really, if God needs messengers anywhere, does God need them more in heaven, or on earth?   Our loved ones who have already died aren’t the angels, the messengers; we are!  We should be less concerned with getting into heaven when we die, than in getting heaven into us while we live.
People don’t die because God needs angels.  God’s message getting out isn’t dependent on death.  God is the giver of life, not its taker.
Death is not the end of the story, neither for our loved one, nor for who they were and what was important to them.  Whatever of them made this life a little better reflection of the kingdom of God in our midst – make room in your life for that to continue to live and grow.  For those close to you who have gone on before us, take a few moments to ask yourself, “What is it about this person that made the world better, more Godly, and how can I make room for it to grow in me?”
Death need not be the end of the story.  Their legacy can live on through us.