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Sunday, March 29, 2015

Ride On, King Jesus! (Mark 11:1-11)


When Jesus and his followers approached Jerusalem, they came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives. Jesus gave two disciples a task, saying to them, “Go into the village over there. As soon as you enter it, you will find tied up there a colt that no one has ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘Its master needs it, and he will send it back right away.’”

They went and found a colt tied to a gate outside on the street, and they untied it. Some people standing around said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them just what Jesus said, and they left them alone. They brought the colt to Jesus and threw their clothes upon it, and he sat on it. Many people spread out their clothes on the road while others spread branches cut from the fields. Those in front of him and those following were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord! 10 Blessings on the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest!” 11 Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple. After he looked around at everything, because it was already late in the evening, he returned to Bethany with the Twelve.

 

One of the formative experiences of any trip to the Holy Land is to walk the Palm Sunday road, from the top of the Mount of Olives, down into the Kidron Valley, and up into the city of Jerusalem.  Not surprisingly, at the top of the route and really all along it, vendors are waiting to sell all sorts of things to the religious pilgrims walking that route.  For a few bucks, you can have your picture taken riding a camel or donkey, and the vendor who seemed to get the most business was the one with the best sense of humor.  He led his donkey through the crowds, shouting, “Donkey rides, taxi! Ride Jesus’ taxi!”

 

I don’t remember my first parade.  But I know I love parades, and can’t remember a time when I didn’t.  What I always loved about the parades were the vehicles.  Red and yellow fire trucks with lights flashing, blaring their horn as they passed, volunteers from some organization riding on the back and pelting the crowd with as much candy as a kid could grab.  I loved all the special interest cars, from the shiny new convertibles (though I could care less about the mayor or city council member riding on the back), to the muscle cars and classic cars and antique cars that made their way through.

 

We lived in a small town in Oklahoma until I was about 3, and our friend and neighbor, Seymour, owned a restored Ford Model ‘A’ truck, which I thought was the coolest thing in the world, especially the “ahooga” horn.  Seymour’s truck appeared in just about every parade in town, and I have the vague recollection of riding in a parade with him, where he let me sound that “ahooga” horn all over the entire route, and I relished every single minute of it.

 

Another parade I have an early memory of is the palm parade every Palm Sunday.  As a child, I remember waving my branch high and shouting, “Hosanna,” much as we have already done, with our children leading the way, at the beginning of today’s worship service.

 

Palm Sunday is the beginning of the Holiest week in the life of the Church, and it moves in roller coaster fashion for Jesus and his followers from the highest highs to the lowest lows, and then back up again.  The traditional images of Palm Sunday with which we are so familiar – smiling crowds, fuzzy donkeys, colorful cloaks laid along the road – may lull us into the sense that what took place on this day in Jerusalem so long ago was a matter of child’s play, when the reality is that things of the utmost importance were in play, setting in motion a clash of forces that would lead to Jesus’ execution on the cross.  Let us pray.

 

It was the beginning of the Passover week, the highest and holiest of Jewish religious festivals.  During Passover at the time of Jesus, the population of Jerusalem would swell from 40,000 to 200,000, drawing religious pilgrims from around the known world together into one place.

 

But their minds were not only on things religious.  Several came with political agendas as well.  Passover celebrated the Hebrew liberation from the Egyptians, and during the time of Jesus, the people found themselves occupied by the Romans.  Passover parties of the past had proved to be a political problem, the perfect staging ground for rebellion and uprising. 

 

Picture Jerusalem as the center of a busy intersection.  Jesus’ ride on the stolen donkey was not the only parade taking place that day.  As he descended the Mount of Olives and entered the city from the East, another parade entered the city from the West.  This other parade was led by the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, atop a beautiful and powerful warhorse, with the reigns of worldly power held loose, but firm, in his hands.  600 Roman soldiers followed behind to reinforce Rome’s rule during the festival, accompanied by all the symbols of military might we would expect – flags flying, trumpets blasting, drums beating, armor clanking, spears gleaming in the springtime morning sun.

 

The Romans reinforced their occupation forces on Jewish high holy days to discourage any attempted insurrection by rebel leaders who might take advantage of the swelling holiday crowd. Pilate wanted to be close enough to the Temple complex with a strong display of Roman force to ensure the “Pax Romana,” Rome’s version of peace. And Rome had the cross, an intimidating execution device, to enforce Roman authority with any who would question it. Thousands of criminals and perceived enemies of the state were executed along the main roads so that all could witness the penalty for insurrection.

 

The cross was a particularly cruel device of both torture and execution.  Not only did it ensure that people died in the most painful and excruciatingly long way possible, but it dehumanized the crucified in a way we cannot imagine.  We picture crosses as high in the air, but the reality is that the crucified typically hung a few feet off the ground, next to a main road, close enough for people to insult and degrade them face-to-face, eye-to-eye. 

 

In contrast to the display of Roman imperial power, Jesus, who came with no sword, rode into the city on a donkey from the east with a group of ordinary fishermen and farmers and day laborers, tax collectors and prostitutes and sinners, the least and the last, the lost and the lonely, the downtrodden and the forgotten.

 

The Roman legion symbolized power and privilege; Jesus represented its opposite.  He was born as an oppressed minority.  He spent the first two years of his life as a political refugee in Africa, escaping Herod’s infanticide in Bethlehem.  Wherever you consider to be the most backward, middle-of-nowhere place on earth, that’s where Jesus grew up, as some had commented about his hometown, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (John 1:46).

 

Pilate and the kingdom of the world came from one direction; Jesus and the kingdom of God from the other, and there in the middle, caught between the two, was a third force: the compromised religious institution. The institution was more concerned with maintaining the status quo than with caring for the poor and marginalized.  They were intent on personal gain and institutional security, with no concern for God’s redemptive mission of justice and righteousness in the world.  More concerned with self-preservation than witnessing to God’s love for those beyond themselves, they had become, as some describe, “so heavenly bound they were no longer any earthly good.”

 

On Palm Sunday, the crowds who lined the road and greeted Jesus shouted “Hosanna!” literally, “Save us,” but those in the crowd were asking for salvation from different things.  Those with political aspirations were seeking salvation from the Roman government.  They had on their mind a coup d’├ętat in which Jesus would overthrow the Romans and establish a regime of his own.  Those with religious sensibilities were seeking salvation from the misguided, self-serving religious establishment, in the hopes that Jesus would establish a new one in its place.

 

In either case, first on everyone’s minds were their own aspirations or desires – whether political or religious.  Those looking for a political Messiah greeted Jesus as the new king – of the old kingdom.  Those looking for a religious Messiah greeted Jesus as the new priest – of the old religion. 

 

And though Jesus is king, he came neither to take over the old kingdom or to establish a new one, which disappointed those with political hopes.  And though Jesus is priest, he came neither to take over the old religion or to establish a new one, which disappointed those with hopes for a new religious institution.

 

Jesus is always a great disappointment to those who wish to use him to advance their own agendas. Whatever the disciples expected to happen, and whatever the crowds expected, just didn’t happen. Their expectations and Jesus’ agenda are worlds apart.  That explains how he lost the support of public opinion by the end of the week, and how the very crowds who exultantly shouted “Hosanna!” on Sunday, would, by Friday, in blood thirst be yelling, “Crucify Him!”

 

Nothing about the story suggest child’s play.  Jesus, riding a donkey, enters the Holy City from the east. The Roman contingent parades into the city from the west. In the middle were the compromised religious elite. It became known as Palm Sunday – when kingdoms collide.

 

When Jesus came to earth, he brought with him the reign of God, which uproots self-serving systems of greed, corruption, abuse, and exclusion, whether political or religious in nature.  The reign of God is always a threat to those who benefit from maintaining the status quo.

 

Friends, I wonder where we would place ourselves in the crowd.  In my own hand, there is a palm branch.  Today, we have waved these branches high and greeted Jesus with shouts of, “Hosanna!”  Have we done so in the hopes that Jesus will advance an agenda that reflects our own?  The temptation is always there to co-opt God to legitimate our vision of utopia, but today, shouts of “Hosanna” can be our cry for Jesus to save us from our own misguided, small-minded, self-serving, status-quo-preserving thinking and desires.

 

Today, as I wave my branch and greet Jesus as king, I do so with the whole-hearted desire to be a citizen in his kingdom, to pledge my allegiance to him alone, to bow my will and desires to his.  I may not fully understand his kingdom all the time, may not recognize it when it’s in my midst.  I may, at times, cheer for the wrong reasons, or have expectations for Jesus that reflect my own thinking rather than the mind of Christ.

 

Yet, Jesus has so much more in store than my little mind can fathom, and my limited understanding and misguided expectations do not diminish or dictate what God is up to.

 

When my expectations collide with those of Jesus, my waving branch indicates my desire to do it his way, rather than asking him to promote mine.  This branch is a reminder to me, to all of us, that there can only be one king, and that position has already been filled by Jesus.

 

So lift your palm high and greet him as King.  Hail Jesus as the King; love and serve him as your King.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Turning the Tables OR Remember that Time Jesus Lost It? (John 2:13-22)


13 It was nearly time for the Jewish Passover, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 He found in the temple those who were selling cattle, sheep, and doves, as well as those involved in exchanging currency sitting there. 15 He made a whip from ropes and chased them all out of the temple, including the cattle and the sheep. He scattered the coins and overturned the tables of those who exchanged currency. 16 He said to the dove sellers, “Get these things out of here! Don’t make my Father’s house a place of business.” 17 His disciples remembered that it is written, Passion for your house consumes me.

18 Then the Jewish leaders asked him, “By what authority are you doing these things? What miraculous sign will you show us?”

19 Jesus answered, “Destroy this temple and in three days I’ll raise it up.”

20 The Jewish leaders replied, “It took forty-six years to build this temple, and you will raise it up in three days?” 21 But the temple Jesus was talking about was his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered what he had said, and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

 

If you pay too much attention to Jesus, he will speak hard words that make you rethink your priorities.  Our purpose as a church is to love people into God’s family, and if we pay attention to Jesus today, we have the opportunity to love people for who they are, not for what they can do for us.

 

Now, you’ve shown up on a Sunday during Lent, when everything is draped in purple as a reminder that we are moving toward the cross, and that something within each of us needs to die so we can experience new life in Christ.  Indeed, any time you show up and see purple, get ready to ponder hard words about hard things; Jesus might make you angry enough to go Hulk and start turning over some tables yourself.

 

For those who grew up singing, “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild,” you may treat the incident we read about in today’s Scripture as an anomaly in the life of Jesus – that “one time” when an otherwise polite and quiet person just snapped and lost it – going into the temple and turning over tables and driving out those who were buying and selling.  How out of character for gentle Jesus to show both such white hot anger and brute force – he must have been under tremendous stress to act out in such a way.  Jesus is perfect, after all, and this behavior is not how good boys and girls resolve their differences, and so for centuries, preachers and teachers have tried to rationalize and smooth over the implications of an angry Jesus turning over tables in the temple.

 

What I would like you to consider today is that this incident is actually quite consistent with Jesus’ character, not the anomaly we might suggest.  For one thing, this is not an isolated incident.  This is not the only place where Jesus shows some anger or aggression, though it is perhaps the most memorable display of both.  To be sure, Jesus will say and do plenty that will anger the religious establishment, the political establishment, the rich, and generally upset the status quo.

 

For another thing, this is not an accidental incident.  All four Gospel writers include some version of Jesus getting angry and turning over tables in the temple, and driving away buyers and sellers.  They all found it important to let us know that Jesus got angry, so what exactly is Jesus so angry about? 

 

During the time of Jesus, the temple was the hub of religious activity for the Jewish people.  It is the second temple, the first having been built by Solomon, and this one having been built by King Herod The Great.    Herod built the temple, not because he was a particularly religious man – he wasn’t – but because he was a smart politician.  He built the temple to keep the religious Jews happy, to curry their favor and support.

 

The temple was the center of worship for the Jewish people.  Now, when we think of worship, we think of certain acts like singing and praying and reading and preaching.  All of that took place at the temple, but the central act of worship was sacrifice – the giving of valuable animals to be slaughtered and burned as an offering to God.

 

The altar was the place of sacrifice.  Sometimes, we refer to the table or the kneeling area in our worship space as “the altar.”  But, the activities around the altar are more like what would take place in a slaughterhouse than a quiet place to pray.

 

The Law required Jews to pilgrimage to the temple for at least one of three major festivals each year.  When they came, they were required to pay their temple tax and offer a sacrifice.

 

At the time of the festivals, the temple buzzed with activity 24-7.  It took a small army of priests constantly on duty to facilitate those sacrifices and continually offer prayers.  Don’t forget priests who were constantly burning incense through the whole thing – more for practical reasons than theological ones – after you’ve burned a few thousand animal sacrifices, see if the stench doesn’t encourage you to light some incense or spray a can of Febreeze.

 

That’s worship at the temple, folks.

 

To be sure, the giving of things of value as a sacrifice to God is still an important part of our worship.  Only, for practical reasons, we don’t offer animals, but offer things that have value to us in our context – we offer gifts of our time, our talent, and our treasure.  One key difference between the sacrifice and generosity of our worship and that of the temple worship is that what we offer is voluntary, whereas what was offered at the temple was required by law.  We teach generosity, our leaders model generosity by giving 10% of their income as a tithe to God through the church, we encourage and expect that kind of generosity from every single one of our members, but we don’t go as far to legalistically require it – because what anyone gives should always be voluntary, given freely and without compulsion, given because it’s what you want to give, not what anyone tells you have to give.

 

Further, we encourage it as a way of growing as disciples – we are made in the image of a generous God, and when we give generously, we reflect God’s image and grow in God’s likeness, and so we encourage generosity for your own benefit and growth as a follower of Jesus.

 

But at the temple, you were required under penalty of law to give, and the temple officials told you what you were expected to give.  It was a sliding scale based on your income – a pair of bulls or oxen if you were wealthy, a pair of doves if you weren’t.

 

When the sacrificial system was established, you raised your own animal for sacrifice.  But by the time of Jesus, you could purchase your sacrifice when you got to Jerusalem.  The whole system of buying and selling at the temple developed for very practical reasons – if you’ve travelled hundreds of miles on foot to make your sacrifice during the festival, you can see how expensive and cumbersome it would be to bring your bulls or your oxen with you – cleaning up after them, feeding them along the way, ensuring that they arrive at the temple unblemished after such a long and difficult journey, why it would be near impossible!

 

And so, the whole system of buying and selling at the temple developed out of a real need, and a sense of convenience to facilitate everyone’s sacrificing.  Now, convenience is never free.  When we go to the beach for a week, we do our grocery shopping once we get there, knowing that we’re going to pay a little more in the grocery store there than we do here.  We willingly pay the price for the convenience, however, of not having to pack our milk, eggs, and meat in ice to make the journey down.  Convenience and location always has a price – buy a hot dog in the stadium, and it will cost you twice what it costs from a vendor outside, and it’s more than a whole case of hot dogs will cost you in the store.  But again, we pay a premium for convenience.

 

It was the same situation at the temple.  For the convenience of purchasing your animal sacrifice right there instead of having to bring it several hundred miles, you paid a little more.  Honestly, it wasn’t the buying and selling itself that caused the issue – it was the predatory abuse of the system, that made dishonest profit off those who were there to worship God, that was the problem.

 

Imagine this scenario: you are a poor farmer, just arrived in Jerusalem to make your sacrifice.  You are devout, you genuinely love God and want to please God, whether the law says you have to or not.  Outside the temple, you purchase two unblemished doves to offer as sacrifice. They would cost you $5 at home, but here in the big city, you pay $10.  You go through the temple gates into the outer court, and get in line to see the priest who is inspecting the sacrifices, who happens to be a buddy of the guy who sold you the doves outside.  The inspecting priest finds a defect on the doves you just bought – even then, everything depreciates the moment you drive it off the lot – and so they are unsuitable for you to offer.

 

Fortunately for you, right over here, inside the courts of the temple, the priest’s cousin is selling pre-inspected doves, but again, location and convenience has its price, and these doves will cost you $100, and to you, they look just like the doves you paid $10 for 10 minutes ago.  But, what choice do you have – you have to make the sacrifice, you fork over the $100, and the guy says, “If you want, I’ll give you $5 for those defective doves [the ones you just paid $10 for] just to take them off your hands.”

 

Disgusted, and pretty sure you’ve just been had, you walk around the corner, and the dove seller in the temple walks over to the priest and gives him $30, and then goes and gives the dove seller outside $30 as well as the defective doves to sell to the next unsuspecting worshiper, which will start the whole scenario over again.  Repeat that a few hundred times, and imagine the piles of money that have been made by the sellers, and the inspecting priest, all at the expense of those who have come, as required by law, to worship God.

 

It’s a similar scenario with the money-changers.  Again, people have come from all over the world, carrying their local currency.  Most of that money had inscriptions and images of the local leader, many ascribing qualities of divinity to these world leaders.  The temple treasury couldn’t be defiled with these graven, idolatrous image coins, but fortunately for you, you could exchange your money into a temple-approved local currency, and there just happened to be a currency exchange on site.

 

Those of you who’ve travelled internationally know the rule that you lose money every time you exchange currency – true today, true then.  A modest administrative fee for the troubles of the money changer, again, multiplied several thousand times, makes the money changer wealthy, off the backs of those who have come to worship God.

 

A whole economic system had developed around the temple.  It wasn’t bad in and of itself – it developed for very good reasons, convenience being one of them.  An economic system was necessary for the buying and selling that facilitated people being able to worship by offering sacrifices, and so it’s not the system itself that Jesus took issue with.  What got Jesus angry were the abuses in the system, as personal profit and gain were pursued at the expense of those who had come to worship.  Jesus loses it because a system for relating to God was now getting in the way of people actually relating to God, and so the whole business of buying and selling and money changing was counter-productive to the overall endeavor.

 

Barbara Ludbland, a Lutheran pastor, grew up in the Midwest at a time of great animosity between Protestants and Catholics.  She said they didn’t know much about Catholics, other than they played BINGO on Tuesday nights, and she and her friends were sure this passage was a condemnation of BINGO.  They expected Jesus to show up in the Social Hall some Tuesday night, turning over tables, sending cards flying, the cage crashing open, and little white balls in every direction over the tile floor.  His anger would be reserved exclusively for the Catholics; they were pretty sure that Jesus would be okay with their chili suppers and youth car washes and fall festivals, because the money went to missions.

 

But Jesus’ anger isn’t about BINGO or car washes or fall festivals or hot dogs, unless – and hear this carefully – we begin to value people primarily in terms of an economic transaction and not as precious children of God.

 

Jesus wouldn’t be down on fund-raisers, per se, but the Jesus who turns over tables would take great issue with interacting with our neighbors in a way that suggests our primary interest in them is for their money, or nickeling and diming people to death with one fund-raiser after another and sending the impression that the church’s hand is always open.  He would be angry with fund-raisers that take time, energy, and effort away from our core mission, as well as fund-raisers and events on Saturday that leave people too tired to come to worship on Sunday.  He would be appalled when a church’s motivation for reaching out and seeking new members is that they need their money to fund the budget, and I can’t see that he’d be pleased if we only offered our neighbors a snack, for a fee, while ignoring our call to offer them the Bread of Life or a drink from the streams of Living Water.

 

Jesus got angry, turned the tables, and cleansed the temple.  His anger burned because a house of worship was overshadowed by a marketplace, where dishonest dollars were made by means of buying and selling and money changing, where people’s value was calculated solely in terms of what could be taken from them and how those in power could benefit from the vulnerable.  Jesus was angry with a system that took advantage of the poor, the outsider, the marginalized, the widow, the orphan, the foreigner – all within sight of the altar, where the smoke from the sacrifices rose toward heaven, and the holy of holies, where the very presence of God was said to dwell.  When Jesus got angry in the temple, he was turning the tables on a corrupt, abusive, self-serving system that kept people from experiencing God.  He turned the tables on that whole system of encountering God.

 

With those with ears to hear, Jesus is still cleansing the temple.  But the temple is not a building.  We are the temple.  Jesus is still cleansing us – driving away self-interest and greed and dollars that can only be made by taking advantage of others, turning over our tendency to value people based on economic factors rather than as children of God.  What does it profit us to gain the whole world and lose our soul?  From a spiritual perspective, we can make a few bucks, but at what cost?  Jesus was angry because the price was too high.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Cruise Ship or Disciple-ship? (Mark 8:31-38)


31 Then Jesus began to teach his disciples: “The Human One must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and the legal experts, and be killed, and then, after three days, rise from the dead.” 32 He said this plainly. But Peter took hold of Jesus and, scolding him, began to correct him. 33 Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, then sternly corrected Peter: “Get behind me, Satan. You are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts.”

34 After calling the crowd together with his disciples, Jesus said to them, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. 35  All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me and because of the good news will save them. 36  Why would people gain the whole world but lose their lives? 37  What will people give in exchange for their lives? 38  Whoever is ashamed of me and my words in this unfaithful and sinful generation, the Human One will be ashamed of that person when he comes in the Father’s glory with the holy angels.”

 

As president of my college class, one of my responsibilities was to plan and organize the senior class trip.  Previous classes had gone to such exotic locations as New York City, Washington DC, Myrtle Beach, and Hershey, PA.  Each destination was a direct reflection of the fund-raising prowess and leadership of the particular class.

 

As I did the research, comparing prices and seeing how far I could stretch our fund-raising dollars, I raised the bar and set a higher standard for senior class trips – taking 36 college seniors on a cruise to the Bahamas.  Those few days were a welcome relief to a bunch of college students in upstate New York, where even by March, we were still up to our hindparts in piles of gray snow.  To say that I earned the title, “class president for life,” because of that cruise would not be an understatement!

 

Has anyone here ever been on a cruise?  Cruises make their reputation on service and attention to detail.  If you get on a cruise ship, prepare for a few days of rest and relaxation that is focused all around you.  Prepare to be entertained, prepare to be pampered, prepare to be well-fed.

 

One of the oldest images of the Church is of a ship.  It’s an image that suggests the Church is a place of safety and refuge from the storms of life – something about how we’re all in this boat together.  The technical name for the part of the sanctuary where the congregation sits is “nave,” derived from the same word we get “navy.”  And indeed, if you look at the inside roof of many church sanctuaries, including ours, you can imagine that you are sitting inside hull of a ship turned upside-down.

 

So, the church is a ship, but what kind of ship?  Within every church, there are those who will act like it’s a cruise ship – where other people do the work so we can relax and be entertained and pampered and well-fed, which would be very comfortable and pleasant, to be sure, but it doesn’t square very well with the Jesus who tells us, in today’s Scripture reading, that those who would want to come after him must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow him.

 

For those who would like a life of ease and comfort and power and prestige, Jesus is making it very clear that following him will not get you there – news that is perhaps as unsettling to us as it was to his first disciples.

 

Peter, James, and John, and the other disciples had been among the first ones to follow Jesus, to respond to his invitation to “Come after me.”  They had already left behind much – their family, their friends, their careers.  They left much because following Jesus promised much more.  He was performing signs and wonders, healing and casting out demons, walking on water, raising the dead – gaining more fame, more prominence, more popularity with each move.

 

A movement was forming around Jesus, and these disciples were right in the middle of the action.  They had hitched their star to Jesus, and as he rose into positions of power and influence, they would be there at his right and left hand – the power next to the power, as it were.

 

Peter went as far to call Jesus, “the Messiah.”  Jesus said he was correct, but shocked them all by teaching that the Messiah would be rejected by anyone with any shred of power.  He would suffer and die a criminal’s death - naked & humiliated, hanging upon a cross for all to see.  Distressed, Peter took Jesus aside and said, “Say it ain’t so.  I was hoping for smooth sailing from here on out, and a cross just isn’t part of my plan.”

 

Jesus turned to Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan!  For you are thinking human thoughts and not God’s thoughts.”  Then Jesus called the rest of the crowd together and said, “Listen up, people, and listen good!  If any of you would be my follower, if any of you would be my disciple, if any of you wants a place in my kingdom, let them deny themselves and take up their cross - this emblem of suffering and shame - let them take up their cross and follow me.”

 

Peter, you see, wants and needs a strong God.  Peter wants a strong God...and who can blame him. Are we any different? When the crushing weight of hardship bears down upon us, when the voices of despair drown out all others, when it's one disappointment after another, don't we also want a strong God to avenge our hurts, to right all wrongs, and to put us back on top of things?

 

Except...except that it's precisely when I'm down and out, when life's setbacks and disappointments have conspired to make me feel like I'm nothing, that I wonder what a God of might, strength, and justice--the God of winners, that is--has to say to me, an ordinary schmuck and everyday Joe, who often feels far closer to defeat than to victory.

 

I think this is what Jesus means in his rebuke to Peter by contrasting divine things and earthly ones. By our human reckoning strength is everything, might makes right, and the one who dies with the most toys wins. But God employs a different calculus and measures strength not in terms of might but of love, not by victory but vulnerability, not in possessions but in sacrifice, not by glory but by the cross.

 

Following Jesus is not comfortable.  It’s not a golden ticket to an easy life.  Following Jesus is going to require more than just knowing things about Jesus.  Following Jesus means going where he went, doing what he did.  It means dying to self so we can be part of God’s greater life, submitting our will to Christ’s will.  “Take up your cross and follow me” – Jesus poured out his life, his access to power, wealth, prestige, comfort – in order to give life to others.  We are called to nothing less.

 

You see, there’s a big difference between a cruise ship and disciple-ship.  You climb aboard a cruise ship, and someone will hand you a cold drink and a hot towel.  Follow Jesus and pursue a life of discipleship, and he hands you a cross and says, “Here, you’re going to need this. And in the meantime, grab an oar and start rowing, or grab a net and start fishing, or grab a tool and start fixing, or grab a map and start navigating.”

 

To be part of the church, to be aboard this ship means to be put to work and service in some way.  Now, many churches operate on the 80/20 rule.  80% of the load is carried by 20% of the people.  In such churches, everyone’s favorite person to do a task is “Someone Else.”  Who will teach the children?  Someone Else.  Who will sing in the choir?  Someone Else.  Who will lock up the building?  Someone Else.  Who will lead the outreach effort?  Someone Else.

 

Can I let you in on a secret?  Someone Else already has enough on their plate.  In reality, Someone Else probably doesn’t have the time or energy to get to that project, and so it’s probably just going to go undone. 

 

Friends, the church is at its best when all of its members are at work in loving service in some way.  You see on the front of the bulletin, under the staff listing, “Ministers – all who lovingly serve God and Neighbor.”  The reality is that not just pastors, but all Christians are called to ministry, it’s just that many fail to claim that call.  Important, life-giving, life-changing ministry never takes place, for want of servants who get it all done.  We have important work to do, and it will take all hands on deck to get it done.  I can’t do it all.  Our staff cannot do it all.  Our leaders and committee chairs can’t do it all – each of us has a role to play, each of us has work to do.

 

The exception to that is when we’re going through a season in life where we cannot contribute, in terms of time, talent, or treasure, like we might want to.  Maybe a health or family situation or some other circumstance that is a barrier to us doing everything we’d like to or feel we should – friends, that’s where the rest of the church has a vitally important role to play.  That’s when those of us who can, who are able, need to step it up all the more to stand in the gap on behalf of those who can’t in any given season.

 

That’s something I stress to people who are preparing to join the church as members.  To every person who joins, it’s more than just about having your name on the roll, it’s about making a commitment to the ministry God is doing in and through this church.  Membership is a way to say, “This is my church, I am responsible for it.  I am committed to it.  I will give of my best – my time, my talent, and my treasure – to see God’s purpose through this church realized.”

 

Yes, it’s fun and safe and comfortable and easy to simply be along for the ride.  It’s nice to let everyone else do the work while we are pampered and entertained, relaxed and well-fed. It’s nice, but following Jesus calls us to more.  Jesus calls us to follow him, which will always come with personal cost and sacrifice.

 

The difference between the cruise ship and disciple-ship is the difference between being served and being a servant.  Don’t settle for just being a passenger.  Jesus needs us all to join the crew.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Say What? Series: Hearing God Speak Through Worship (Psalm 150, Acts 2:42-47)


Praise the Lord!

Praise God in his sanctuary!
    Praise God in his fortress, the sky!
Praise God in his mighty acts!
    Praise God as suits his incredible greatness!
Praise God with the blast of the ram’s horn!
    Praise God with lute and lyre!
Praise God with drum and dance!
    Praise God with strings and pipe!
Praise God with loud cymbals!
    Praise God with clashing cymbals!
Let every living thing praise the Lord!

Praise the Lord!

 

42 The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers. 43 A sense of awe came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles. 44 All the believers were united and shared everything. 45 They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them. 46 Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. 47 They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved.

 

Over the last several weeks, we’ve been in a series of messages looking at the not-so-obvious ways we hear from God.  We begin the premise that God is still speaking, right now, to ordinary people, like us, but that our ears and hearts need to be tuned in so we don’t miss out on hearing from God. 

 

Over the last several weeks, we’ve seen how God speaks to us in silence, through other people, through dreams, through donkeys, and through wrestling.  If you’ve missed those messages and want to hear more in detail, we have video of all our previous sermons on the church’s website.

 

Today, we’re wrapping up the series by exploring how we can hear from God through worship.  Now, maybe you’re thinking, “Wait a minute, I thought you said we were looking at the not-so-obvious places we hear from God, and now you’re ready to talk about hearing from God in worship.  Shouldn’t worship be one of the obvious places?”

 

It should.  But often it’s not.  I say that because what I’ve observed is that much of what we focus on in worship itself and in our conversations about worship are much more about us than about God.

 

I’m keeping it real simple and straight-forward today.  Worship is about God.  Worship is not about me.  Worship is not about you.  Worship is about God.

 

In fact, repeat that after me:

·        Worship is about God.

·        Worship is not about me.

·        Worship is not about you.

·        Worship is about God.

 

If you remember nothing else from today’s message than that worship is about God, then it will have been a good day!

 

That’s hard to remember, because so much of what we talk about in relation to worship has to do with our tastes, our preferences.  We come to worship with expectations about what we want to hear, see, and experience.  What is the right way to worship?  The right words?  The right songs?  The right instruments?  The right time?  Guitars or organ?  Choir or band?

 

Personal tastes and preferences are not a bad thing, so long as they are not the main thing.  We, or more to the point, me is not the main thing in worship; God is.  Worship is not about me.  Worship is not about you.  Worship is about God.

 

If you’ve followed the worship wars that characterized much of American Christianity over the last 30 years or so, you’ll notice that sort of heart was sorely lacking from the debates.  We think of these divisions as being primarily about traditional worship vs. contemporary, but the issues are bigger than that.  In reality, Christians have been bickering with each other about worship since the very beginning, and we forget that many things we take for granted were divisive and controversial in their day, and many of the hallmarks of what we consider “traditional” were cutting-edge contemporary when they were introduced.

 

Things like air-conditioning in churches across the South, evidence that we were getting too soft and worldly.  Hymns were controversial, people finding their tunes to be vulgar and more appropriate to the tavern than to the church.  Services being conducted in the native language rather than Latin was a sore spot for many.  Choirs were too showy.  The organ was considered more appropriate for carnivals and street fairs, stained glass was too decadent, and even having seats in the worship space – be they chairs or pews – were incredibly controversial to people who wanted to preserve the tradition of standing through three-hour Latin masses with no instruments, the Psalms only chanted and no hymns sung, in dark, gloomy sanctuaries, crowded in summer heat pressed up against strangers who only bathed once a year whether they needed to or not.

 

Things we take for granted were controversial enough in their own day.

 

There were fights – battles in the worship wars – over each one of these innovations.  We can look back on these things and think to ourselves, “How silly,” but at the same time, I suspect Christians in 100 or 500 years will look back on us and our fights between contemporary and traditional forms of worship – which will all be traditional, by then – and think the same thing about us.

 

Where we make worship about us instead of about God is when we allow our individual tastes and preferences to take priority over God.  We worship the instrument, the style, the format, or whatever else instead of worshipping God with and through those things.  That is just one more way we make worship about us instead of God.

 

It’s silly and sad and destructive to see people dividing churches over personal preferences, and choosing sides based on matters of style, fighting against each other and failing to realize, in the grand scheme of things, that we’re all on the same team.

 

Worship invites us to put aside our preferences and consider God’s preferences.  The most important instrument in the worship of God is a heart tuned for praise.  A heart more oriented toward pleasing God than pleasing self.

 

The Psalm we read a few minutes ago, Psalm 150, is a classic psalm of praise, a blueprint for worship, if you will.  Let everything worship God.  In the Hebrew, it is not so much granting permission for everything to praise and worship God so much as issuing an imperative.  “All that has life and breath, come now with praises before him” – or to employ local idiom, “Worship, y’all.”  It is the final psalm, an exclamation point of praise at the end of the Bible’s hymn book, one thunderous Doxology that wraps up the whole thing.

 

That the Psalms end with praise is a theologically significant point – a solid reminder that whatever else we go through in life – the ups and downs, the joy and tears, the dancing and mourning, the lamenting and loneliness, the thrill of victories and the agonies of defeat – all of it, in God’s time and according to God’s purpose, wraps itself up in praise and worship.

 

Now, it takes 150 psalms to get there.  We don’t get there because we worshipped in the right way.  If you’ll notice the details in Psalm 150, it describes worship that transcends the divisions of style and preference that so often characterize our worship debates.  God could care less about how we worship, so long as God remains the singular focus of our worship.  Indeed, authentic worship includes the blast of the trumpet.  It includes the lute and lyre – that’s a guitar and a harp.  It includes drum and dance – not the devil’s work, folks, but part of God’s orchestra.  It includes strings and pipes – cello and organ, maybe?  Authentic worship includes all things that breathe praising God in their own unique and beautiful way, coming together into a chaotic cacophony of praise that is bigger than a style, bigger than a preference, bigger than individual taste – friends, bigger than you or me.

 

One way to tell if we’re doing that is to check our pronouns when we talk about worship.  See if you use a lot of “I” statements – “I like,” “I prefer,” “I want” – when we do that, we may as well be singing, “Me, me, me,” and folks, “Me, me, me” is hardly an appropriate warm-up for the worship of God.  Worship is not about you.  Worship is not about me.  Worship is about God.

 

The life of faith must be bigger than our differences of opinion and preferences and matters of personal style.  God’s desire for the Christian community is one of unity in the Spirit – Jesus prayed as much in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night in which he gave himself for us, as recorded in John 17, and we see a glimpse of that community in the 2nd chapter of Acts.

 

Devotion to the apostles’ teaching, prayers, meals shared, fellowship built.  A sense of awe, a sense of unity and purpose, connections across lines of personal property and individual ownership.  A community marked by simplicity and generosity, joy and gladness, love and grace that was so tangible it drew people in each and every day – and it lasted exactly five verses.

 

Unity in the body of Christ is hard work, but friends, it is essential work.  We are all strong-willed, opinionated people with our own preferences, tastes, and styles.  But in the body of Christ, we must be vigilant to keep the me out of we, and if we manage to do that, to keep it from becoming us vs. them, for we are all on the same team.  It’s not about you.  It’s not about me.  It’s not about us.  It’s not about them.  It’s about God.

 

Worship is the first and last place we discover that.  Now, yes, we have a vitally-important role to play in worship.  We offer our best to God in worship.  We sing.  We pray.  We listen.  We build up.  We encourage.  We inspire.  We challenge. But anything we do is in response to God.  Worship is first a gift from God, and then quickly turns into a response of praise back toward God.

 

We can make worship about all sorts of things, but to what end?

 

I think of the lady who got up and walked out when the youth praise team led us one Sunday morning.  When I called her later in the week to ask about it, she fumed about the guitars and said, “I come to church to hear pure music,” which, when I pressed her on what that meant, was apparently anything written between 1700 and 1850 by a white, European man, and played on the organ.

 

I couldn’t help but wonder how her life might have been different if she had come to church to worship rather than to hear “pure music.”  She’s gone on to her reward, now, and I wonder how the music in heaven has since expanded her understanding of what is appropriate in worship.

 

I think of the couple who sat about halfway back on my right side.  Every Sunday, she talked, loudly, through the entire service, when she wasn’t looking around to see who was there and make sure they saw her, or working on her to-do list for the coming week.  Her husband would return to his seat from his ushering duties, sit down in the pew, and turn off his hearing aid just before the sermon began.

 

I couldn’t help but wonder how their lives might have been different if they had come to worship with the expectation that God might have something to say to them, that God might speak to them, somehow, through what happened in worship.  What was even sadder was that they had no sense of expectation that God might have something to say to anyone else sitting near them, either, based on the constant distraction they provided.  Sadder still, no one in that church loved them enough to tap them on the shoulder and simply say, “Shhhh.  There’s a worship service going on right now.  Pay attention, God might have something God wants to say to you.”

 

These instances beg the question from each of us, “Why are you here?  What do you expect to happen in worship?  What are you looking for?  What do you hope will take place?”

 

I’m a firm believer that our expectations set the stage for what we experience.  The invitation today is fairly straight-forward.  Today, I invite you to step into worship with a sense of expectation that you are entering into an encounter with God.  Every time you worship, you are expecting to meet with God, to hear from God, to offer your best back to God, and to be changed in the process.

 

Today, I invite you to never again approach worship as a critic, or a consumer, or a connoisseur.   Do you see how much more likely it is that we will hear from God in worship when we lay those other expectations aside?  How much more likely that we will encounter God in worship when we expect to do so?  How much more likely that we will hear from God about what God wants, when we’ve stopped obsessing over what we want?

 

Thank God, God is bigger than any of our personal preferences.  Our worship of God needs to be, as well.  Regardless of the format, the style, the instruments, the music, worship is about God.  When we stop focusing on those other issues, we can experience worship for what it is and was always meant to be.

 

Today, I simply invite you to remember that worship is not about you.  Worship is not about me.  Worship is about God.