Sunday, April 24, 2016

Conflict in the Body (Matthew 18:15-22)

15 “If your brother or sister sins against you, go and correct them when you are alone together. If they listen to you, then you’ve won over your brother or sister. 16  But if they won’t listen, take with you one or two others so that every word may be established by the mouth of two or three witnesses. 17  But if they still won’t pay attention, report it to the church. If they won’t pay attention even to the church, treat them as you would a Gentile and tax collector. 18  I assure you that whatever you fasten on earth will be fastened in heaven. And whatever you loosen on earth will be loosened in heaven. 19  Again I assure you that if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, then my Father who is in heaven will do it for you. 20  For where two or three are gathered in my name, I’m there with them.”

21 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Should I forgive as many as seven times?”

22 Jesus said, “Not just seven times, but rather as many as seventy-seven times.

Today we’re continuing in a series of messages on “Living as the RISEN Body of Christ.”  Since Easter, we’ve been exploring what it means for us to not only call ourselves members of the Body of Christ, but also what it means to actually live like it.

We are meant to live in community.   It’s been said that one of the greatest things about being part of the church are the people!  And one of the most difficult things about being part of the church are . . . the people!  Where two or three are gathered, someone is eventually going to rub someone else the wrong way.  We call that conflict.

Even as we try to live in harmony with each other, within established boundaries of a healthy Christian community, there will still be times when we “miss the mark.”  Whether intentionally or accidentally, there are times when our words or our actions offend one another with the potential of harming our life and work together.  The Greek word for “sin” is hamartia, and it literally means, “to miss the mark.”  As one rabbi explained:

You shoot an arrow, but it misses the target.  Maybe it hits someone’s backside, someone you didn’t even know was there.  You didn’t mean it, but it’s still a sin.  Or maybe you knew he was there—his backside is where you were aiming.  Now that’s a sin! (Forest, “Rest for our Souls,” p. 30).

Matthew 18 are Jesus’ instructions for resolving conflict within the Church.  Think of it!  Have you ever heard of conflict within the Church?  Mercy!  Christians unable to get along with each other – my heavens!  Have you heard of such a thing??!

For some reason, people - even people in the church - think that following Jesus is easy.  Real churches have real conflict, which Jesus anticipated.

Conflict does not kill churches. Refusing to deal with conflict does.  In Matthew 18, Jesus gave us a four-step process for resolving conflict.

Step One: Go to the offender one-on-one in private.  Verse 15: If your brother or sister sins against you, go and correct them when you are alone together. If they listen to you, then you’ve won over your brother or sister.  Jesus clearly puts the responsibility for the first step of reconciliation on the person who has been offended, Person A.  Why?  Because, sometimes we sin, “miss the mark,” without even realizing we’ve done it.  Sometimes the only way we will know is for the person we’ve slighted to point it out directly to us.  Therefore, if you have been offended by someone, you must first go one-on-one in private to the person who has offended you to point out the offense and to try and understand what happened with that individual.

Maybe, after you’ve talked one-on-one, they still don’t get it.  They haven’t heard you.  So, Step Two:  Take a Christian witness with you.  Verse 16: But if they won’t listen, take with you one or two others so that every word may be established by the mouth of two or three witnesses.  Take one or two others with you who are committed to both of you and who want to see the relationship restored between you.  Do not take people who will choose sides.  The purpose of this witness is to help the two of you speak and listen for the truth in love for the purpose of understanding each other and restoring your relationship.

Maybe there’s still no reconciliation at this point.  So, Step Three: ask for help from the church.  Maybe you need to ask someone from church leadership to speak to the offender with you.  That could be the pastor, or a member of the SPRC, or the Lay Leader, or any number of people.  Again, that person is not there to take sides, but to continue to listen for and speak the truth in love, with the purpose of understanding and restoring the relationship.

Maybe it still hasn’t worked.  Verse 17 says to treat them like you would a tax collector or a Gentile.  What that means is that Step Four is to regard them as one who has chosen to remain outside the boundaries of belonging to the Body of Christ.  If the offender, after all those steps, still refuses to do what is needed to restore the relationship, then the church responds by treating the individual as one who has stepped outside of, and chooses to remain outside of, the fellowship of the Body of Christ.

But, this doesn’t make them an outcast.  It’s critically important for us to also acknowledge how Jesus regarded pagans and corrupt tax collector as we determine how to treat a brother or sister in this situation.  What did Jesus do to tax collectors and sinners?  He loved them, while also making it clear what behaviors and attitudes were expected and required to be part of the community of believers.  Likewise, our willingness and commitment to reconcile among one another as believers is one of the most crucial among these expectations.

When I look at this process, one thing stands out clearly to me.  99% of conflict can be resolved at Step One.  And yet, 99% of the time, we skip to Step Three or Step Four.  This doesn’t resolve conflict; it magnifies it.  It brings people into the conflict who have nothing to do with it.  We talk about each other rather than to each other.

We talk about people before we talk to them because we trust our own way more than we trust Jesus’ way.  In all his teachings in Scripture, Matthew 18 is the only place where he gives detailed step-by-step instructions.  Jesus knew that we would try to make things right “our way” rather than his, with the best of intentions, certainly, but that doing it our way would ultimately harm our relationships and the Body of Christ as a whole.  When we follow our own pattern of talking about people rather than to them, another sin results, the sin of gossip.

It’s said, “loose lips sink ships.”  They sink congregations, too.  I want you to meet Person A and Person B.  Person B has offended Person A, and again, Jesus has made it very clear that Person A must go to Person B privately, one-on-one, in order for reconciliation to take place.  But too often, we go to a third party.  Person A, instead of talking to Person B, tells Person C.  What does Person C have to do with it?  Absolutely nothing.  But now, all of a sudden, they’re part of the conflict, which is starting to grow.  And then, what if person C gets on the phone and tells Person D, P, M, and Z, and then all of them get on the
phone and call a few others, well, you can see how the conflict snowballs and involves a whole bunch of people who have nothing to do with it.  It’s the sin of gossip and triangulation.  Everyone is talking about the incident, except for the only two people who can resolve it – Person A, and Person B.

Why are we mortified to talk directly to someone about whatever the issue is, but we are not mortified to call 17 other people and tell them about it? 

Proverbs 26:20: Without wood, a fire goes out.  Without gossip, a quarrel dies down.

Gossip in our relationships is highly corrosive, and is the greatest sin that threatens the Body of Christ today.  Gossip magnifies the original offense and forces Person A and Person B farther and farther apart.  What was initially an offense that involved only two individuals becomes an invasive cancer that can threaten the entire Body.

We must remember that ONLY Persons A and B can reconcile the relationship through the grace of God and the unifying work of the Holy Spirit.  However, when other parties get involved without Persons A and B working together to heal the relationship, these two individuals are often forced further apart, and healing is delayed or destroyed.

What do we do if we find ourselves as Person C?  The only appropriate and godly action is for Person C to show compassion to Person A, and then redirect Person A to go one-on-one in private to Person B.  Furthermore, Person C should talk to no one except God, committing to pray for reconciliation between the two.

It happens sometimes that Person A shows up in my office to tell me what Person B did.  And I say, “Hold on, there.  Before you tell me anything, have you talked directly to them?”  And there’s usually this uncomfortable silence, and then I’ll say, “Tell ya what, before you talk to me, you need to talk to them.

Do not pass Go, do not collect $200, until you have talked directly, privately, one-on-one, face-to-face, to the person, so that the relationship can be restored. People sometimes say, “You’re just direct because you’re from the North.”  No, I’m direct because Jesus told us to be.  99% of conflict would be resolved, right there, if we would intentionally commit to talk to people and not about them.

Remember, for Christians, the goal is always reconciliation.  Before you share something, before you speak, before you CC someone on that email, ask yourself why you’re doing it.  Is your goal reconciliation?  Or are you trying to get people over to your side?  Prove a point?  Look good?  Make someone else look poorly?  Giving the old pot a stir just to see what bubbles up?  Does it have anything to do with you?  Will it fan the flames of conflict, turning a brushfire into an inferno, when you could rob the fire of fuel, and help it die down?

Friends, too many incidents of conflict are bigger and involve more people than they should.  99% of conflict can be resolved at Step One, by talking to each other, and not about each other.

Reconciliation takes place on a small stage, usually with only two people.  Two or three, united in Christ, that’s the basic building block of the body of Christ.

My Dad’s first pastorate was in a town of 700 people about 60 miles north of Oklahoma City.  The two big industries there were oil and agriculture.  There were two farm equipment dealers in town – one who sold John Deere equipment, and the other who sold Case Harvester International equipment.  They were competitors.

They were also members of my Dad’s church, and every week, they arrived to worship about 15 minutes early so they talk, and the goal of that weekly meeting in the back corner of the sanctuary was to go over the previous week, and to make sure that in their dealings with each other they had been fair and honest.  On the off chance that one had offended or wronged the other, whether intentionally or unintentionally, forgiveness was sought and extended, and then, together, they came to worship, having each grown a little bit, and having grown closer to each other.

Conflict is natural, inevitable, and actually essential to refine who we are, whose we are, and what we are to be about.  Conflict cannot harm us; how we respond to it can.

Let’s start by talking to each other rather than about each other.  If we can do that, we’ll already be 99% of the way there.

I am indebted to Rev. Beth Crissman and her book, Longing to Belong, in the creation of this sermon.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Unity in the Body (Acts 2:42-47)

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.

Think of a baby’s first word – the first time a baby can intelligibly utter that word and correctly identify something in their world – that’s a huge deal!  I have a cousin whose first word was “bang!” – and that is all you need to know about her personality!

Typically, baby’s first word names an object.  Their first words will be objects that are most important to them: things and people that make them happy.  They will name the things close at hand, things they see on a regular basis, things they enjoy.

But, early in their development, when their vocabulary is still quite small, research indicates that every baby will have two non-nouns in the first 30 words of their vocabulary – “No!” and “Mine!”  If you’ve spent any amount of time with a baby or a small child, they understand “Mine!”

“Mine” is one of the earliest concepts we grasp.  And grasp we do!  Think of the instinctual way a baby will grasp at the things in the world around them.  No one has to teach them this.  The concept of “mine” comes to each of us quite naturally.

It’s our default mode.  You’ve seen where two kids are together in a room full of toys, and they will both want to play with the same toy.  Even if there are other versions of the same toy in the room, they will want to play with the same exact toy.  The point here is not to pick on babies, but to understand that we all start out in this world completely self-centered and self-absorbed.  And for some of us, we simply never outgrow it.

How many human conflicts, are at their root, simply a fight about “mine?”  From kids scrapping on the floor over a toy, to countries at war over borders and territories and resources, we see how the concept “mine” drives so much human conflict.  Because, if we both have our eye on the same thing and only one of us gets it, conflict is sure to follow.

Growing up, every Monday was grocery day in our house.  As a matter of principle, my mom would only buy one box of kids’ cereal a week – you know, something sugary with cartoon characters on the box.  The rest was “healthy” cereal.

Cereal was not a snack in our house, it was only for breakfast, which meant that the first opportunity to have some of that delicious kids’ cereal was breakfast Tuesday morning.  And so, with four kids in the house, every Tuesday, my sister, Megan, who, on most mornings could not be pried out of bed with crowbar, would wake up extra early and single-handedly eat the entire box of Lucky Charms or Froot Loops or Apple Jacks or whatever it was, and leave none – none, zero – for her three siblings.  And after 25 years and a whole lot of therapy, I can now talk about it without getting too upset (although, I’m still talking about it 25 years later, so maybe that should tell you something!).

But, the way the world works is that everything is in limited supply.  Only so much to go around; early bird catches the worm; you snooze, you lose; too bad, so sad!  We go through life with a scarcity mindset, always grasping at what is “mine” and what we want to be “mine,” convinced that there will never be enough to go around, someone will always get the short end of the stick, and so it may as well not be us.

But as people of faith, we’re called to live differently.  We’re called to live better.

Today’s Scripture reading gives us a glimpse of Christian community as God intends.  These few verses provide us with a beautiful picture of what church life is supposed to look like: everyone devoted to the teaching of the apostles, to sharing, to breaking bread together, and to prayer.  A place where everyone pools their resources, and gives freely and abundantly to anyone among them with need.  A community of worship and wholeness.  Gladness and generosity.  Simplicity and kindness.  Awe and wonder.  This is the picture of Christian community, and it’s a picture of unity.

To me, this is the most remarkable and amazing miracle recorded in Scripture.  To think that God could start with individuals whose natural inclination is to take care of themselves and look out for number one, and knit them seamlessly together into a community of great love and grace and sharing and simplicity.

Only the Holy Spirit could cause us to lay aside our inherent selfishness, biases, prejudices, and self-importance to bring us together with such a clear sense of purpose and unity.  Community like that – such radical sharing – doesn’t just happen; it’s a gift of the Holy Spirit.  When each of us stops worrying about and grasping for what is “mine,” we are formed into a Christian community who so whole-heartedly, completely, and joyfully does precisely what Jesus wants us to do.

We touched on this last week, that the unity to which we are called is never unity for its own sake, but always unity in Christ.  Christ is the head of the church, not you, not me!  He’s the brains of the operation, he’s the one in charge, he’s the one calling the shots.  The church doesn’t belong to you or to me, it belongs to Jesus, to do the things in the world he wants, even more than the things you or I might want.

Vance Whicker was telling me last week about a friend of his who is in a business where he sells to a lot of different organizations.  He said his two most difficult clients are country clubs and churches, because each member thinks they own the place, and each member thinks they’re in charge.

We can forget quickly who we are, and to whom we belong.  We revert back to “mine” pretty quickly.  But, friends, let us never forget that we belong to something that doesn’t belong to us.  The church belongs to Jesus.  One body with many members.  Each member doing its part for the good of the whole.

That’s how different people with different opinions and preferences and perspectives and dreams can come together into a unified whole.  The Holy Spirit empowers us, not to lay aside our differences or overlook them, but to allow our differences, whatever they are, to be secondary to our unity in Christ.

John Wesley said, “If you heart is as my heart, then give me your hand.”  He didn’t say, “If your music is like my music,” “If your skin color is like mine,” “If your politics, or your age, or only if you come to the 9am service or the 11am service,” no – if your heart is as my heart, then give me your hand.

The heart of a disciple of Jesus is simply one who loves God and loves neighbor.  The church in our passage from Acts is described as “continually praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.  When the early Church spent their time praising God and having the goodwill of all the people, they were living out Jesus’ command to love God and love neighbor.

And what happened?  The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved.  Filled with the Holy Spirit, everyone was part of it – it took the whole community, everyone contributing according to their own means, and united in Christ, of whose body we are a part, whose church this is.

You see, we’re not “owners” of the church.  We are stewards.  To be a steward is to take care of something that doesn’t belong to you.  It’s entrusted to you, you may be able to use it and enjoy it and enhance it, but ultimately, it belongs to someone else.

The Psalmist says, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.  The world and all its people belong to him” (Psalm 24:1).  Don’t let that one slip by too easily – this is pretty important!  The earth and everything in it belong to whom?  To God.  The world and all its people belong to whom?  To God.

Even we belong to God.  If there were a tag on you, it would have “Property of God” written in permanent marker on it.

Your hands and feet, your intellect and skills and all the things you have used to make a living, those belong to God as well.  The title to your car should really be in God's name, the deed to your house should have God listed as owner, and your bank statement should have God listed as the account holder, and you as the custodian of the account.  It all belongs to God - everything we own, everything we have, everything we are - it all belongs to God.

Now, here is the fun part - God loves to share.  So yes, it all belongs to God, but God freely shares everything with us that we might enjoy it.  God is generous, gracious, radical, and conspicuously abundant with everything God has, and invites us to be the same.

It's like when you soak the stem of a white carnation in colored water, and after a day or two, the color of the water shows in the petals of the carnation.  If our lives are soaked in the generosity and blessing and abundance of God, eventually those same characteristics are going to start showing up in our lives, as well.  We may start out grasping and fighting over what is “mine,” the character of God overrides the system, and so we become generous and gracious and loving, just like God.

Ultimately, it’s God who shapes us and forms us as a community, but always with our cooperation and commitment.  God works in and through people who are willing to teach and be taught, who are open to the gifts of God in others, and who give themselves to God and to one another, who are more interested in being in right relationship than just in being right.

Maybe the first thing is to resist the temptation to so neatly divide the world into yours and mine, us and them.  We’re all on the same team, thanks be to God, and we’re all in this together.  Rather than worrying about what belongs to us, would we remember that we belong to Jesus, and because of that, we belong to each other.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

We ARE the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:4-7,12-27)

There are different spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; and there are different ministries and the same Lord; and there are different activities but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. 7

12 Christ is just like the human body—a body is a unit and has many parts; and all the parts of the body are one body, even though there are many. 13 We were all baptized by one Spirit into one body, whether Jew or Greek, or slave or free, and we all were given one Spirit to drink. 14 Certainly the body isn’t one part but many. 15 If the foot says, “I’m not part of the body because I’m not a hand,” does that mean it’s not part of the body? 16 If the ear says, “I’m not part of the body because I’m not an eye,” does that mean it’s not part of the body? 17 If the whole body were an eye, what would happen to the hearing? And if the whole body were an ear, what would happen to the sense of smell? 18 But as it is, God has placed each one of the parts in the body just like he wanted. 19 If all were one and the same body part, what would happen to the body? 20 But as it is, there are many parts but one body. 21 So the eye can’t say to the hand, “I don’t need you,” or in turn, the head can’t say to the feet, “I don’t need you.” 22 Instead, the parts of the body that people think are the weakest are the most necessary. 23 The parts of the body that we think are less honorable are the ones we honor the most. The private parts of our body that aren’t presentable are the ones that are given the most dignity. 24 The parts of our body that are presentable don’t need this. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the part with less honor 25 so that there won’t be division in the body and so the parts might have mutual concern for each other. 26 If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part gets the glory, all the parts celebrate with it. 27 You are the body of Christ and parts of each other.

Today we’ve read part of St. Paul’s letter to one of his churches, in the ancient city of Corinth.  It’s one of many places in Scripture where we are given this metaphor of the Church as a body, namely, the Body of Christ.

I love this way of thinking about the Church.  One body, with many members.  Diversity and variety in who we are and the gifts we have, yet united together as one, with a common life, a common purpose, a common mission.  Let us pray.

For the Church, unity is the name of the game.  Unity is at the heart and soul of what it means to be a Christian, to follow Jesus, to be part of the Church.  I can’t understate the importance of unity.  We’ve all seen that famous image of Jesus praying in the garden on the night before he crucified, whether in paintings or stained glass, and every time I see it, I think of what Jesus actually prayed for in that prayer.  Did you know that Jesus prayed for us?  That you and I, and all his followers, were chief among the things on his mind that night?

Here’s part of what he prayed, from John 17: “I pray they will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. I pray that they also will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me. 22 I’ve given them the glory that you gave me so that they can be one just as we are one” (John 17:21-22).

That’s what we sang in the first hymn today.  “May thy great prayer be answered, that we may all be One.  Close bound by love, united, in thee God’s blessed Son.”

I love that!  Unity is at the very center of our faith.  Now, to be perfectly clear, unity is not the same thing as uniformity.  Uniformity is the belief that we all have to be the same.  Unity recognizes the reality that our gifts and skills and preferences and tastes and experiences may all be vastly different, and yet, we are all connected and pulling together as part of the same team.  A spirit of unity isn’t threatened by that diversity, rather, diversity is a strength upon which to build.

Going back to this metaphor of the Church as the body of Christ, the body has an eye, and a hand, and a mouth, and a foot – each part has a specific role, a specific function, that makes the whole thing just work better.  If the whole body were an eye, we’d see everything!  But without feet, we’d never go anywhere.  If the whole body were a mouth, we’d talk all the time!  But without hands, we wouldn’t do anything.

As we look around at the other members of the body of Christ, we begin to recognize each one’s gift.  Some people are visionaries – they’re the eyes.  Some people love to really dig in do stuff – they’re the hands.  Some people are just able to listen quietly and patiently to others – they’re the ears.  Some people just want to go-go-go all the time – they’re the feet.

But, you see how all of these parts work together, need each other?  How they’re all necessary for the body to function and work as one?  Every part, every member, has a role to play, no matter how big or how small, no matter how public or behind the scenes, every function is important.  Friends, we need each other!

A member of the church had stopped attending worship services.  Another member, whose task it was to follow-up with such folks, dropped by a couple of weeks later.  The absentee member invited the other inside, where a roaring fire was going strong.  The visiting member stared at the dancing flames for awhile, and then, without saying a word, used the fire tongs to pick up a brightly-burning ember from the middle of the fire, and placed it off to the side of the hearth.  Its glow began to fade, and eventually, it was cold and dead as a doornail.

No words had been exchanged the entire time.  The visiting member eventually got up to leave, and placed the cold ember back into the fire.  Almost immediately, it began to glow as it was surrounded by the warmth of the burning coals around it.  As the guest left, her host said, “Thank you for your visit, and especially for your fiery message.  I’ll see you next Sunday.”

Friends, when we remove ourselves, when we withhold our gifts and our resources, ultimately, who are we hurting the most?  We hurt ourselves, but we also weaken the rest of the body.  God gives us to each other for the upbuilding of the body, not to tear it down.  When we withdraw, we lose our connection with the life-giving fire of the Holy Spirit, and the heart-warming presence of Christ at our center.

We’re called to unity.  But, and this is important, not unity for its own sake, but unity in Christ.  That in Christ part is really important.

Let me see if I can put it another way.  I need three volunteers.  What I need the three of you to do is to spread out as far away from each other as possible.  Now, up here at the altar table, I want you to imagine Jesus sitting right here.  Everyone got it?

Now, what I want each of you to do is to get as close to Jesus as possible.  Ready? Go!

Would you look at that! The closer we get to Jesus, the closer we get to each other at the same time.  Christian community, the unity we desire and are called to, happens rather naturally when we each set an intention of getting close to Jesus.  By drawing close to Jesus, that very process naturally draws us closer to each other.

But remember, we’re called to be one in Christ.  Sometimes, we put a lot of energy into drawing close to each other, without also drawing close to Jesus.  Jesus may be here, but we can all clump up some other place.  When we clump up somewhere far away from Jesus, you’ve got one of two things in the body of Christ – you’ve either got a clot or a tumor.  Neither one of those is particularly desirable.

Fortunately, clots and tumors are easy to diagnose in the body of Christ.  Unlike this group of folks, who are gathered around Jesus, a clot or a tumor isn’t centered around Christ.  It may be centered around gossip or negativity or criticism.  In which case, we become the body of gossip or the body of negativity or the body of criticism.  Maybe it’s focused on a particular person or issue, in which case we become the body of that person or the body of this issue.

Even when our focus is just on enjoying each other’s company, we become a body of fellowship, which we think is good, but let’s be honest, it still misses the mark of being built around Christ.  And, it doesn’t really matter what it is, it can be something good or something bad, if we build our community around something, we become the body of that thing – and so long as it’s something or someone other than Jesus, then we miss the mark of being the body of Christ.

We’re called to be together, to be unified, but to do so as the body of Christ, with him at our center, no ifs, ands, or butts about it.

And speaking of butts, that’s a part of the body, too.  And last I checked, every body has one.  For everyone’s sake, out of love for God and for one another, that’s one part of the body which none of us should aspire to be.

But even when someone has decided that’s the part they want to be, we love them anyway.  The Scripture says we treat those parts that are less honorable with special honor.  Sometimes people can’t help acting that way.  Sometimes they don’t know any better.  And so, we learn to love the difficult people – indeed, it’s a particular honor to show love toward someone when they’re not being particularly loveable.  Sometimes, loving them requires us to do the difficult thing, to love them enough to take them aside and let them know when they’re doing something that’s damaging themselves or others.  Being loving is never the same thing as tolerating or encouraging or putting up with bad behavior.  But the point is that we ARE called to love everyone as Christ loves us, even when people sometimes do things that stink.

There’s yet one more part of the body which none of needs to be: the head.  So, don’t be the butt, and don’t try to be the head, either.  That position has already been filled, not by you, not by me, but by Jesus.  In the body of Christ, Jesus is the head.  He’s the brains of the operation.  Ultimately, he’s in charge.

The Christian faith isn’t about me or you; it’s about Jesus!  None of us are the main character in the Bible!  We are the body of CHRIST, not the body of me, not the body of us!  We are part of Christ, we are an extension of him, we are his hands and feet in the world, we are given the wonderful privilege of carrying his mission forward.

Years ago, our Conference mandated that every church had to write a mission statement.  One pastor was telling me the process his church went through in writing theirs.  He called together most of the key leaders in the church one evening, and one lady said, “All this is silly.  We just need to do the things Jesus told us to do!”  And my pastor friend looked at her and said, “Write that down.”  And so, they turned in a very official-looking piece of paper to the district office that said, “The mission of our church is to do the things Jesus told us to do.”

Those things aren’t rocket science.  We can read the Scriptures and see what Jesus actually did when he walked among on earth, and what he called his followers to do since, and then to make sure those things are always our number one priority as a church – that those things are getting the most of our time, and energy, and resources.

We’ll look at some of those things in greater depth over the next few weeks, but for today, just remember this: We ARE the body of Christ.  Divided we fall, but united we stand.  We can do far more for the cause of Christ in the world together centered around Jesus, than we can on our own.

So long as we recognize ourselves, first and foremost, as members of the body of Christ, so long as our desire is to be the hands and feet of Jesus in the world, if we are willing to let go of what we want and instead dedicate ourselves to what Jesus wants, if we can take our own agendas and preferences out of it and put Jesus at the center of it – then I guarantee you, we WILL be the Body of Christ at work!

And when the body works together, it’s a beautiful thing.  So go be beautiful, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Holding on Lightly (John 20:1-18, Easter Sunday)

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdelene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.  So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”  Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb.  The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first.  He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in.  Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb.  He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself.  Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.  Then the disciples returned to their homes.

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb.  As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet.  They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?”  She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”  When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.  Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?  Whom are you looking for?”  Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”  Jesus said to her, “Mary!”  She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher).  Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.  But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”  Mary Magdelene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

I remember family beach vacations as a small child – maybe 3 or 4 years old – when I would scoop up a handful of sand and carry it back to where my family was sitting, and by the time I got there, the sand was mostly gone.  So, determined, I would trek out again, and hold the sand even tighter than I had before, and was disappointed to find that I’d still lost it.  I did the same thing trying to carry handfuls of ocean water, each time, with the same results.

Have you ever tried to hold on tightly to something, only to have it slip through your fingers?  When that happens, our instinct may be to hold on tighter, only causing it to slip through fingers all the more rapidly.

The scripture we’ve just read is John’s account of the Easter story.  Perhaps you noticed a curious little detail in the story, in which the risen Christ tells Mary Magdelene not to hold onto him.  I invite you to hold onto that little detail this morning.  May we pray.

Maybe you’ve heard the story of the little girl who went to church for the first time, and it happened to be Easter Sunday.  Her parents picked her up after Sunday School, and said, “Well, what did you learn?” She said, “Aliens came from outer space and lived for awhile on the earth.  God is one of those aliens, and when we die, we go to live forever in a spaceship with him.”

Her parents said, “Is that really what they taught you?”

She said, “No, but if I told you what they really said, you would never believe me.”

John’s Gospel begins the Easter story with a solitary figure walking through the darkness, filled with fear, uncertainty, and grief.  While it was still dark, Mary Magdelene went to a tomb because earlier in the week, Jesus – her teacher, her Lord, her friend – had been executed.

Mary arrives at the tomb, and she’s startled to find that it’s empty.  We’ve read the story, and we know why.  Jesus has left the building!  But the characters don’t know that.  They’re not thinking of resurrection.  They’re wondering who took Jesus’ body away, and why?  Was it grave robbers?  Body snatchers?  Had the authorities come and moved the body in the middle of the night to an undisclosed location?

The characters in the story didn’t know, as we do, that it’s Easter Sunday.  All they know is that the body of Jesus is missing, and it’s too much to take.  One final insult on top of injury, and Mary bursts into tears as she peers into the empty tomb.  She asks the angels who are sitting in the tomb where Jesus is, and she is so upset, it doesn’t even register in her mind that she is talking to angels – real, honest-to-goodness-God’s-messengers-to-earth-dressed-in-white-glowing-halo-whole-bit – angels.

She turns to leave the tomb, and in the cool of that still-dark morning, she bumps into a man she supposes to be the gardener, and, through her sobs, she says, “Sir, if you have taken him away, please, just tell me where you’ve put him.  Please . . .  Please  . . .”

Sometimes in our darkest days, we can’t find hope.  Yet, God moves even in the darkness.  The gardener just says one word, “Mary . . .”  And when, out of the darkness, we hear our name called, we recognize the One who stands before us – the crucified One is the risen One, he who died now lives again.

Friends, Easter begins in the dark, but thanks be to God, it doesn’t stay there.

And here, where Mary goes to embrace Jesus in her joy, he says those curious words: “Do not hold onto me.”  Why?  Simply put, Mary is reaching for things as they used to be. But resurrection is not a restoration to the way things were before. When Jesus says, “Do not hold onto me,” it is as if he is saying, “Mary, don't hold onto the way I was in the past, because everything is different now. There's no going back to the way it was before. The hope I give you is not about turning back the clock—it is about transforming your life from here on out.”

Mary was trying to hold onto good old days that lay behind her, unaware that the best days with Jesus actually lay ahead of her, and Jesus was calling her to reach, with faith, toward a future that was brighter than her past. 

It has been 18 years since I graduated from high school – Class of ’98, baby, Powercat Pride!  That means we are two years away from our 20th reunion, and some of my classmates, bless their hearts, have started a Facebook group for the reunion.  They’ve been posting photos and sharing memories, which is all well and good, but I’ve realized in seeing those posts, that mentally, emotionally, socially, I think some of them are still in high school.  Don’t get me wrong.  I enjoyed high school.  I’m still in touch with a handful of close friends.  I look forward to seeing people at the reunion.  But I don’t want to re-live those days.  I don’t want to go back there. 1998 isn’t coming back – and the more tightly they hold onto those glory days, the less able they are to live in the now, let alone step with boldness into a future that could be, and should be, brighter.

We can do the same thing in our faith – holding onto our glory days so firmly that what could be a promising future slips through our fingers.  We can become so convinced our best days are behind us that we stop looking for good days ahead of us, and so pine for yesterday that we mortgage tomorrow.

Craig Barnes put it this way: He said, “What we long for, what we miss and beg God to give back, is dead. Easter doesn’t change that. So we cannot cling to the hope that Jesus will take us back to the way it was. The way out of the darkness is only by moving ahead. And the only person who can lead the way is the Savior. But not the old Rabbi we once knew, which is only one more thing that has to be left behind. Until we discover a new vision of the Savior, a savior who has risen out of our disappointments, we’ll never understand Easter.”

Resurrection is not simply a fancy word that explains why the tomb was empty. Resurrection is the experience of the presence of the risen Lord! More than just the realization that Jesus has somehow defeated death for himself, resurrection is the promise that conquered death so that we might have life, and have it abundantly. He conquered death, not just so we could know that death isn't the last chapter in his story; he conquered death so that you and I can rest confidently that death and darkness and pain and sorrow and confusion and despair are not the last words in our own stories—that through the risen Christ the last words of our stories are words of divine love that conquers all.

Resurrection is a central belief to our faith, and yet, there are a great many people of faith who live as if the resurrection never happened.  Their lives aren’t transformed by the presence of the risen Christ, and they’re still stumbling around in the darkness, holding onto grudges and hurts and sins and negativity, all manner of self-destruction and spiritual dead ends.

So long as we hold onto these things, they keep a hold on us.  But friends, today is Easter; because of the resurrection, we need not allow those things to maintain their hold on us.  It’s a great day to let those things go and turn toward new life in Christ. And so, if you’ve come today and you’re holding onto grudges, behavior, attitudes that are less than Christ-like, or

If you’ve come today and you’re holding onto guilt, regret, or shame from something in your past,

Whatever it is that you’re holding onto that’s got a hold on you and is keeping you from experiencing the joy of walking in the new life Jesus invites us into, today is a great day to let go of all that is holding you back, so you can follow the risen Christ down the path
of new life.

The Easter story begins in the dark.  But thanks be to God, it doesn’t end there.   Mary was never the same after the resurrection.  An encounter with the Risen Christ changes us.  It always does.

Today’s the day for new life in Christ.  The hope of resurrection is not only for Jesus, it’s for all of us who follow him, too.  Jesus is out of the tomb; no need for us to hang out in there, anymore.

No need to keep holding on to what has been.  The risen Christ stands before us today, with a better offer: what is yet to be.  Let’s not hold onto our past so tightly that our future slips through our fingers.  Jesus has left the tomb and stepped into new life.  Whaddya say we go with him?

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Footsteps of Jesus into the Holy City: From "Hosanna!" to "How Dare You?!?" (Luke 19:29-42)

29 As Jesus came to Bethphage and Bethany on the Mount of Olives, he gave two disciples a task. 30 He said, “Go into the village over there. When you enter it, you will find tied up there a colt that no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31  If someone asks, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say, ‘Its master needs it.’” 32 Those who had been sent found it exactly as he had said.

33 As they were untying the colt, its owners said to them, “Why are you untying the colt?”

34 They replied, “Its master needs it.” 35 They brought it to Jesus, threw their clothes on the colt, and lifted Jesus onto it. 36 As Jesus rode along, they spread their clothes on the road.

37 As Jesus approached the road leading down from the Mount of Olives, the whole throng of his disciples began rejoicing. They praised God with a loud voice because of all the mighty things they had seen. 38 They said,

“Blessings on the king who comes in the name of the Lord.
    Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heavens.”

39 Some of the Pharisees from the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, scold your disciples! Tell them to stop!”

40 He answered, “I tell you, if they were silent, the stones would shout.”

41 As Jesus came to the city and observed it, he wept over it. 42 He said, “If only you knew on this of all days the things that lead to peace. But now they are hidden from your eyes.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.  With apologies to Charles Dickens, so it is on this Palm Sunday.  It is the start of Holy Week, for people of Christian faith, the most important week of the year.

Palm Sunday is one of the great days of the church year.  Most Palm Sunday sermons focus on Jesus riding into the city.  Other Palm Sunday sermons focus on the donkey – leaving no shortage of word plays at the creative preacher’s disposal.  Others talk about the disciples, how they obeyed Jesus’ command to get the donkey and serve as an example of faithful obedience.

All of these would make a fine Palm Sunday sermon, but today, I want to talk about the crowd – that great multitude no one could number who lined the road from the Mount of Olives to the Great Eastern Gate of Jerusalem.

Through the season of Lent, we have been on a spiritual pilgrimage to the Holy Land, we have been walking in the footsteps of Jesus.  The hope, of course, is that we each find our own footsteps – our own place, our own face – in the story.

Walker Percy once asked, “Why is it that when we see a photograph of a crowd the first thing we do is to look for ourselves?”  When we look at a church directory or a high school yearbook or ESPN crowd shots, the first thing we do is look for ourselves.

On Palm Sunday, as we look at the crowds who lined the road and greeted Jesus as he rode into Jerusalem, I guarantee you, your face and my face, all of us, are somewhere in that crowd.  This week, in that crowd, we will see the best of human nature, and the worst of human nature, both on full display for all to see.  We should all know by now that the crowd can be fickle.  The tide of public opinion can turn on a dime.  Today’s breath of fresh air can quickly turn to tomorrow’s foul wind.

Why?  Much of it has to do with unrealistic, and therefore, unrealized, expectations.  Have you ever had unrealistic expectations placed upon you, and then, when you failed to fulfill those expectations, disappointed someone?  If so, then perhaps you know how Jesus feels today.  Have you ever placed unrealistic expectations upon someone else, and then been disappointed when they didn’t live up to them?  If so, then perhaps you know how the crowd felt.

That’s what I’d like you to consider today, that the crowd who greeted Jesus had unrealistic, and therefore, unrealized, expectations about who Jesus was, and what he was there to do.  It’s not that Jesus was unable to fulfill them, it’s that these expectations simply missed the mark in terms of Jesus’ mission.

Throughout history, Israel had been alternately independent and occupied by various foreign powers.  Every time they were independent, they soon let the power go to their heads, drifted away from God, made stupid decisions as a nation; and the natural result of this was that they gave up their independence yet again.

During the entire lifetime of Jesus, the nation of Israel didn’t exist as an independent nation, it was an occupied territory of the Roman Empire.

The events of Palm Sunday took place at the beginning of Passover week in Jerusalem.  Passover is one of the great, high holy festivals of the Jewish religious calendar.  It commemorates God’s deliverance of the Hebrew people from oppression and bondage in Egypt.  Passover was sort of an Independence holiday, although more in spiritual terms than national ones.

However, as often happens, the line between the things of God and the things of the nation became blurred.  The people of Israel began to conflate the two, and the Passover festival became a political powderkeg, as everyone’s nationalistic hopes crept into, and then took over, this celebration of spiritual liberation.

Our hindsight allows us to read the story of the Palm Sunday parade in an overly-spiritualized way.  The palm branch, a symbol of royalty, because Jesus is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.  Cloaks laid in the road, symbolically preparing the way for Jesus to enter the stronghold of the human heart.  Cries of “Hosanna!” literally, “Save us,” repentant cries of confession from people who needed to be liberated from their sin.

And while all of that is true, those reasons were far from the minds of those who cheered Jesus as he rode into Jerusalem.  The palm branch was a national symbol, meant to be interpreted as the mark of an armed rebellion against Rome.  The salvation they wanted was political – namely, a warrior who would lead an armed rebellion against the Roman government and drive them out.  They laid their cloaks in the road as a way of rolling out the red carpet for their conquering hero.

Many who cheered Jesus along the Palm Sunday road did so with hopes that were more political and nationalistic than spiritual.

To be sure, Jesus is the promised King.  The Messiah.  The Savior.  He’s just not the one they hoped for or wanted.  Before the week is over, King Jesus will declare that he is not there to restore the fortunes of Israel.  His kingdom will be one of peace, not war.  Those in his kingdom will be called to serve rather than to be served, and that what matters in this life has more to do with what we give than what we get.  He’ll tell his disciples to stand down when they want to defend him with violence, and gives instruction that those who want to be great in his kingdom will take up a cross rather than a sword.

When he teaches that his kingdom is greater than the kingdoms of this world, he’ll be a great disappointment and irritant to those who want him to make Israel great again.  Hopeful cries of “Hosanna!” will give ways to incredulous accusations of “How Dare You?!?” and finally, the cruel and angry shouts of “Crucify Him!”

As I scan the crowd on that first Palm Sunday, looking for my own face in the crowd, I’m challenged by those who cheered for Jesus, but for all the wrong reasons.  For those who came to the party with preconceptions, prejudices, and presumptions, those who came with agendas they wanted to co-opt Jesus to fulfill, those who had boxes they wanted Jesus to fit inside.

It’s a fundamental misunderstanding in who Jesus and what he’s about.  Jesus does not conform to our way; he invites us to follow in his way.  Then and now, Jesus continues to be a great disappointment and irritant to those who place unrealistic expectations upon him.

When God sent us a king, God didn’t necessarily send the one we wanted.  God sent the one we needed.  Not one who would baptize our self-serving agendas – whether those are political or national or economic.  God sent us a king who would save us from our worst selves; we cheered him on Sunday, and we tried to send him back on Friday.

Even there, against the cruel, hard wood of the cross, Jesus continued to teach and show what his kingdom was about.  He showed a strength that’s made perfect in weakness, victory in what the world counted as his greatest defeat, and up until the very end, was pronouncing words of forgiveness for those who caused his pain.

Jesus shows us the true nature of the kingdom of God.  A kingdom of peace, and love, and forgiveness.  A kingdom of grace rather than judgment, a kingdom where all humanity is welcome to sit at the table with God.  A kingdom where enemies are made friends, where the weak are lifted up, where the proud are brought low.  A kingdom where lives are transformed, where the blind see, where the lame walk, where the deaf hear.  A kingdom where the love of God rules in every heart, and the very fiber of everyone’s being become instruments tuned for praise.

On that first Palm Sunday, the crowd was a mixed lot.  There were those who were against Jesus.  There were those who were initially for him, but then when they began to understand the implications of actually following him, turned on him quickly.  But there were also those who got it.  And friends, that’s where should hope to see ourselves.

Earlier, the disciple Thomas had said to the others, “If he is going to Jerusalem to die, then let’s go die with him.”  Thomas understood at least that much of it.  Mary Magdalene loved him so much that she refused to leave his side when the other disciples fled and hid; she understood it was about the forgiveness of sins and the amazing self-giving love of a Savior.  There were those in the crowd who understood.  They understood Jesus’ message, they realized the true cost of God’s love and grace, they understood the sacrifices they would make to be his followers.

That’s where I want to find my face, and my feet, in the crowd.  How about you?

The old hymn says, “Where he leads me, I will follow.  I’ll go with him, all the way.”  Friends, that’s the cost of discipleship – a willingness to follow Jesus all the way.  Jesus does not call us to a life that is easy, safe, or comfortable.  All the way through suffering, all to the way through death, all the way to changed and new life on the other side.

There were those in the crowd who were willing to follow him all the way.  I pray we find ourselves among them.