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Sunday, December 23, 2007

He's Not Mine! - Matthew 1:18-25

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband, Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

In 1968, The Zombies put out a song called “Time of the Season.” One of the most memorable lines from that song is, “What’s your name? Who’s your daddy? Is he rich like me?” According to the online source of all things reliable and true,, use of the phrase, “Who’s your Daddy,” enjoyed popularity among radio shock jocks in the late 1980s, but gained widespread use during the early 1990s. According to Wikipedia, it is “a slang expression that enjoys the form of a rhetorical question. Use of the phrase implies a boastful claim of dominance over the intended listener. One variant commonly aimed at residents of Indiana is ‘Hoosier Daddy.’”

Those of you who have met my father would probably not deny the family resemblance. It is very clear, just in looking at the two of us, that I am my father’s son. A great deal of our identity is based on the simple fact of who our parents are. Rightly or wrongly, people will make judgments about us based on who our family is, or where we come from, or what associations we maintain. By knowing the answer to the question, “Who’s your Daddy?”, people can make some pretty clear assumptions about who we are. Knowing our origins can tell others a lot about ourselves, and it’s also interesting to know where we, ourselves, have come from. More often than not, we find that the apple don’t fall too far from the tree.

Who’s your Daddy? It’s a question that brings us around to Joseph. Throughout this Advent season, we’ve been looking at the nativity story through the eyes of some of the different characters. Last week, Pastor John helped us see this story through the eyes of Mary and Elizabeth, and tomorrow night he’ll look at the story from a perspective that may surprise some of you. But, not wanting to give that away, I’ll invite you to come to our Christmas Eve services tomorrow night at 6 and 11. This morning, we look together at Joseph and figure out together what he might say to us. May we pray.

Wedding plans
The wedding planning was already well underway. Joseph, son of Jacob, and Mary, daughter of Joakim and Anne were engaged to be married. Neither of their families were wealthy, and while the wedding wouldn’t be fancy, it still promised to be a wonderful celebration.

However, over the last couple of months, Joseph had noticed a change coming over Mary. She had always been somewhat shy, but now she seemed standoffish. Joseph couldn’t put his finger on it, but it seemed like Mary was carrying some burden. Well aware of the difference in their ages, Joseph wondered if Mary might be embarrassed to be seen with him, or ashamed of him, or utterly repulsed by him, a carpenter her father had arranged for her to marry. The seeds of doubt sowed themselves deep inside, but Joseph really didn’t know what to do about it. He shrugged his shoulders, said, “Women,” and didn’t really think about it again.

One evening as he was cleaning up the shop, Mary came by. “Joseph, we need to talk.” I assume “We need to talk” meant the same thing in the ancient world as it does today. It’s what employers say to someone who is about to be terminated. It’s the phrase I have used every time I ended a relationship. “We need to talk” is always a precursor of bad news.

“Joseph, we need to talk. I don’t really know how to tell you this.” “Go ahead, Mary. You know you can tell me anything.” “Well . . . this is so hard . . . . I’m pregnant.” There was a long silence, a truly pregnant pause. And then it hit him. “But Mary – we haven’t even . . . you know. Mary, that baby’s not mine! Who is the father of that baby?”

The text tells us that Joseph was a righteous man. Being a righteous man, he would have known the rules. One of those rules is that if the woman to whom you’re engaged is pregnant and you haven’t had marital relations with her, then someone else did. John reminded us last week that the punishment for such an indiscretion would have been death by stoning. However, that would have been the punishment for the man whose child it was, as well, assuming you could pin down the father’s identity.

“It wasn’t another man, Joseph. The Holy Spirit got me pregnant.” “Sure Mary. Of course that’s what happened.” The text says Joseph resolved to dismiss her quietly and divorce her. He didn’t believe her! Joseph knew that baby wasn’t his! They didn’t need to take a DNA sample! They didn’t need to throw chairs at each other on The Jerry Springer Show. Joseph knew the best option for him not having to claim a baby that wasn’t his was to divorce Mary.

But look at this, Joseph was not only a righteous man, he was a compassionate man as well. He didn’t want Mary to be disgraced; he chose not to file charges against her. Perhaps he hoped to “shame” the real father into marrying her and taking responsibility for the baby. Who knows? Maybe he assumed Mary loved the father, and that the father would love the baby. At the very least, perhaps the real father would face the consequences of his actions, and the child in Mary’s womb would have a shot at a stable, so-called normal home.

We are told that an angel, a divine messenger, appears to Joseph in a dream and confirms Mary’s story. The baby really does belong to the Holy Spirit, it turns out. From that point on, Joseph trusts God and puts aside any notion of dismissing or divorcing Mary. He takes her as his wife, and knowing full well that the child she carries is not his, willingly takes responsibility to be the baby’s father. Behold, the virgin who has conceived bears a Son and his name is Jesus.

A man of faith
In these events, Joseph is portrayed as a down-to-earth real man with real struggles and real questions and real fears and real doubts, but who wrestles with what it will mean to be faithful to the promises of God. Joseph shows us that the co-existence of faith and doubt is not only possible, but indeed, probable.

Faith, Joseph shows us, is not simply believing the right things about the right issues. Faith is not about having a bunch of answers to a bunch of ready-made questions ready to go. Faith is not the eradication of questions and doubts. Faith is not having an understanding of everything we’re going through. In other words, faith is not a purely intellectual exercise. Faith is not so much about what we believe in our heads, it is about what we believe in our hearts.

Joseph shows us that faith draws us into a personal experience of the mystery of God. Faith does not try to dismiss the mysterious, or provide a logical explanation for it. Rather, faith lives into the mysterious. Faith brings us face to face with the mystery of God, and we find that mystery to be pregnant with the possibility of God’s future. It takes an imaginative leap to live into that future, and that’s what Joseph provides for us.

Neil Postman, in his book, Technopoly, accuses us of being people with no imagination. We have fooled ourselves into thinking there is a shortage of data in the world, and if we can just wrangle all the facts together, figure out how to sort them out, and line them up correctly, we’ll arrive at the answers to all of life’s problems. The UN sends envoys on fact-finding missions. Our government tells us they can’t decide anything until all the information comes in. Postman says it flat out: “We don’t need more data. We have more facts than we can possibly consume. What we are dying of is lack of courage, lack of dreams, a failure of nerve.”

What Joseph can teach us
But through Joseph, a man who believed that with God all things are possible, we find ourselves swept up in a story that is loaded down with courage, dreams, and nerve. May it be so that we would have that kind of faith! Joseph dares to take responsibility for what the Holy Spirit has already started. And when it comes down to it, that’s a pretty good definition of faith. He shows us a faith that keeps hope alive, and finds himself at the extreme center of divine mystery. He came face to face with the Holy and was utterly humbled by the mystery of it all. “Joseph faced the skepticism of his neighbors in calm faith in the God who was beyond his human comprehension. Joseph had the faith to see in this impossible situation the improbable work of God. He had just enough faith to believe that this improbably conceived infant might in fact be Emmanuel, God with us” (James Harnish).

He is more than a man in the shadows. He is more than a silent man off to the side. He is more than a stand-in figure. He is the man who trusted God, and he is the man God trusted. He shows us that faith isn’t blind; it’s visionary. That is, faith sees things that can’t be seen with our own senses. Faith, rather than denying the improbable, hopes for the impossible. Faith keeps hope alive because it can see things other people cannot see. It’s a lifestyle Joseph faithfully lived, and I know it influenced Jesus. Later, when Jesus saw ordinary fishermen and called them to be fishers of people, or when he saw a tax collector and called him to be a disciple, or when he saw a dying thief on a cross and promised that he would be with him in paradise, I believe he might have actually been living out of a faith he had seen in Joseph, a faith that was not afraid to believe that improbable, even impossible things, might actually come true.

Friends, in these last hours of the Advent season before Christmas bursts in upon us, we find our imaginations pregnant with the hope of God’s possibilities. If you remember nothing else from this morning’s sermon, remember this: God wants to do extraordinary things in your life, as well – things that seem difficult, things that seem improbable, things that seem impossible. God is calling you to be part of bringing hope to the world. God seeks to bless your life in order that you may be a blessing to others. God wants to transform your life, so you in turn can transform the world.

You have come to church on this, the 23rd of December, the last Sunday in Advent. I hope you have come looking for hope, because in the story of this holy family we find it. If you come to church in December, you’d better buckle yourself in because we’re going to bombard you with hope. We’re going to stir up the poet within you, and teach you to sing again, and invite you to imagine yourself smack in the middle of God’s promises and possibilities.

Like Joseph, I hope we will be found faithful. May we allow hope to root itself in our hearts, in the very core and center of our being. May we come face to face with the Holy and be utterly humbled by the mystery of it all. May we be open to the movements of the Holy Spirit among us to accomplish great, and improbable, and impossible things. And as we do, may the true spirit of Christmas – Emmanuel, God-with-us, be born within each of us.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Trust Fund Baby - 1 Timothy 6:6-19

Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment: for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.
But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. In the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and to Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you to keep the commandment until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ, which he will bring about at the right time – he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords. It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.
As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.

Focusing: Our practices around money
I need everyone to get their wallets out this morning, as the beginning of the sermon is a little more interactive than usual. As I name a particular credit card and its slogan, if you possess one or more of that particular card, I’d like for you to hold it up.

“There are some things money can’t buy. For everything else, there’s Master Card.” “Visa: It’s everywhere you want to be.” “It pays to Discover.” “American Express: Don’t Leave Home Without It.”

The credit card has become our lifeline to economic freedom. It’s more convenient than cash, most cards provide rewards and incentives to their cardholders, the cardholder is protected against fraudulent purchases, and the opportunity to pay over time rather than in one lump sum is the biggest attraction. The credit card allows us to own today what we can’t afford until tomorrow, and has made the American Dream bigger and earlier for many people.

Yet, an article in U.S. News and World Report a few years ago stated “American dreams these days are built on hope, hard work, and often, a mountain of debt.” Indeed, American consumers last year spent an average of 107% of their income – consumer debt is at an all-time high level while personal savings are at their lowest rates in decades even as income levels have risen steadily. The pursuit of wealth, it seems, is fleeting at best. May we pray.

Contentment: How much is enough?
Our text this morning begins in a place that is strange territory to many of us. It begins with contentment. It tells us that there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment. Our culture has taught us that contentment is a goal toward which we work, not a starting place. All you have to do is look at advertising to get this message. If I hadn’t entered the ministry, I would likely be working in an advertising or marketing-related field right now, and every advertising message can be broken down into this basic formula: 1.) You are not happy. 2.) People who own product X are happy. 3.) If you purchase product X, you too will be happy. The logic of advertising is built on the premise that contentment rests on your next purchase.
The writer of 1 Timothy envisions an existence where contentment is the norm rather than something obtained only by the wealthy, where praising God is the highest ideal rather than building an impressive stock portfolio, where security lies in God and not in trust funds.

This teaching about money is one of the more controversial statements found in Scripture, and I think even more so in our day than in the time it was written. It is certainly one of the most misquoted Scripture passages I run into – people usually remember verse 10 as, “Money is the root of all evil.” In reality, what the text actually says is, “The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.” That’s a slight change in semantics, but it sure changes the meaning of what we’re talking about.

It would be simpler if the text said “Money is the root of all evil.” Oh, how much easier would be the preacher’s task! I could give you clear warning – to divest yourself of your stock portfolios and IRAs, to clean out your bank accounts, to sell off your home – lest you should fall prey to the evils of this world. I would admonish you to seek poverty as a sign of your piety. By this logic, the poorer you are, the more devout a disciple you are. Even if unpopular, even if hypocritical, my preaching would be incredibly clear on this topic.

However, I suspect many of us would think twice about our faith if material poverty were a prerequisite for being a Christian. For one thing, by worldly standards, all of us are rich people. If you slept in a secure place last night, if you had a meal or the opportunity for a meal last night, if you own a motor vehicle, if you have or will graduate from high school, you are more fortunate than most of the world. If you made $26,000 last year, your income is higher than 85% of the world; if $33,000, then you are wealthier than 95% of the world; and if $47,000 or more, then you are in the top 1% of world income earners. By worldwide standards, you and I are wealthier than most, and certainly wealthier than those to whom the apostles ministered. And, perhaps somewhat comfortingly, nowhere in Scripture does it say that money or worldly goods are a terrible thing in and of themselves. What our text today – and so many other texts like it – does say is that the love of money is something dangerous.

Lovers of money?
And that’s where it gets complicated. The writer of 1 Timothy seems to indicate that having wealth is not, in and of itself, the problem. However, there seems to be some sort of a gray area imagined in which our attitudes about money turn detrimental. What we’re not told is where the boundaries of that gray area are, mostly because they exist at a different point for everyone. The love of money is something to which anyone can be susceptible. You can be wealthy and consumed with the desire to acquire more and more. Yet, you can also be poor and obsessed with money; though you have little, you yearn for more. Perhaps the best example of the devastating consequences for “those who want to be rich” (v. 9) is the ruin the gambling industry has brought to many individuals and their families. It is estimated that 10 million Americans now have a gambling habit that is out of control, and the number grows daily.

Money – little pieces of paper with dead presidents on them – is not the issue here. Whatever a society collectively agrees has value can become currency. For Native Americans, it was wampum. For others, it was jewels and precious metal. For French settlers in North America, it was furs. In Kevin Costner’s worst movie ever, WaterWorld, it was clean, potable water. For small children, it can be candy.

As I said, the issue is not the money itself. The issue is everything a love of money stands for. Love of money represents self-sufficiency and autonomy. Love of money represents a self-worth that is determined by one’s net worth. Love of money represents a barrier between us and our neighbors, and between us and God. Money, in and of itself, is neither a good thing nor a bad thing. However, the attitude we have surrounding it shows clearly to the world what we think about ourselves, God, and our neighbors. Money can be used to keep others at arms’ length, put them in their place, or build impressive walls to keep them out. But money can also be used to bless others and to provide hope and healing in situations of bleak despair.
How can we use money to bless?

Several years ago, a self-made millionaire was to speak to the eighth-grade class at the junior high he attended in New York City. Statistically, the kids had little hope for a good future. He was basically going to give them a pep talk, that if he could pull himself up by his own bootstraps, so could they. Before he began his speech, he realized how hollow his message would sound without anything to back it up, and he decided to put his money where his mouth was. He announced to the entire class that if any of them graduated high school, he would personally pay for their college education. The next day he met with his accountants and lawyers and put $2 million into an endowed fund for the education of those students. At the end of six years, 80 of those 120 eighth-graders had graduated high school – in a community where the dropout rate would ordinarily have run right around 80%. It seems to me the investment he made is still reaping huge dividends. Money can be used to bless people, and to provide hope and healing in situations of bleak despair.

Friends, we have all benefited from someone else’s generosity. We have all gotten a hand up in life. We have all received things we didn’t deserve or work for. That’s what grace is. That’s who God is. God does it, not because we’re particularly special or have done some great thing to make ourselves deserving. God simply does it because that’s the way God is.

And I wonder, some years from now, what sacrificially generous act will be performed by someone here today. I wonder how that will change lives and inspire action. I wonder what a young preacher will say to her congregation about such an act of generosity being an example of someone who chose love of God over love of money. And I wonder how our lives will be changed because of it.

The author of 1 Timothy invites us to recognize the gifts that have been placed in each of our lives. We are invited to recognize that our contentment does not lie in the accumulation of things, but in a God who created us, who loves us, and provides for us. And freed from defining our self-worth by our net worth, our response is praise. That’s what our text this morning invites us into. But our praise is owed not to the things with which we have been blessed, we praise God from whom all blessings flow. The love of money is certainly one option by which we can live life, and all our attitudes and behaviors can be shaped by it. But we are presented with a vastly superior option: the love of God, and given the opportunity for all our attitudes and behaviors to be shaped accordingly.

I’ve seen what the love of money can do to people, and most of the time, it really isn’t pretty. There was a time in my life when I was consumed with the desire for money, and I found it an empty pursuit. I discovered at the end of the rainbow, there is no pot of gold.

What changed my attitude? Let me tell a difficult and personal story. It was the summer of 2000. I was 20 years old, and working as a manager in a food store that was one of 120 locations throughout the Great Lakes. I was placed on the company’s executive fast track, and was being groomed to be the executive vice president of marketing by the time I was 35, earning around $150,000 per year. On June 13, 2000, the store where I was manager-on-duty was robbed by a masked gunman. He only wanted access to the safe in the office. And as I knelt on the tile floor in that office, desperately trying to remember the combination to the safe before me, the unmistakable feel of cold steel was pressed to the back of my neck. A thought crossed my mind: “It’s only money. So this is how it will end for me – all for a few thousand dollars.” Somehow, the safe popped open, I pulled out the cash box, and handed it to the gunman. He left, no one was harmed, but all of a sudden I realized there had to be more to life than that. A process of discernment began within me that night that opened me up to God’s design on my life like I had never been open before, and allowed me to accept the call into ministry about seven months later. My life was intended to count for something more. The love of money has driven people mad, and their lives have been increasingly emptier because of it.

But I’ve also seen what the love of God can do for people. The love of God has made people whole, and their lives have been increasingly fuller because of it. May it be so for each of us.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Prophet, Pimp, and Prostitute - Hosea 1:2-10

When the Lord first spoke through Hosea, the Lord said to Hosea, “Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.” So he went and took Gomer, daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son.
And the Lord said to him, “Name him Jezreel; for in a little whole I will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of the house of Israel. On that day I will break the bow of Israel in the valley of Jezreel.”
She conceived again and bore a daughter. Then the Lord said to him, “Name her Lo-ruhamah, for I will no longer have pity on the house of Israel or forgive them. But I will have pity on the house of Judah, and I will save them by the Lord their God; I will not save them by bow or by sword, or by war, or by horses, or by horsemen.”
When she had weaned Lo-ruhamah, she conceived and bore a son. Then the Lord said, “Name him Lo’ammi, for you are not my people and I am not your God.”

I realize this morning, as you look over the sermon title in your bulletin, that I am getting quite a reputation for myself. I know some of you drove by the marquis and said to yourself, “A.J. must be preaching this week.” Someone about six rows from the back of the sanctuary nudged their neighbor and said, “Look, he’s talking about sex again.” You didn’t think I heard you, but I did. And, a few of you assumed that my parents must be visiting.

Let’s sort all this out. Yes, I am preaching this week. No, despite what you’re wondering about the title, I am not preaching about sex. And no, my parents are, to my knowledge, still at home in New York.

Our text this morning is not one with which most of you will be overly familiar, so I encourage you to hear it with fresh ears. May we pray.

Summer is wedding season. I have performed a few weddings already this summer, and I will perform another one this coming weekend. Most of us have been to enough weddings that we sorta know the routine. It’s usually a hot afternoon, and the wedding doesn’t even start until 3 or 4. The guys have squeezed into a white shirt, a tie, and a suit, and you know it takes an act of God to get us to dress up on a Saturday. Everyone is milling around in the foyer, and you get in line to sign the guestbook. A young man wearing a tuxedo escorts you to your seat, and you begin to take notice of the other guests. Everyone exchanges polite glances and little hand waves. If you’re single, you’re scoping out the other single guests and trying to determine which one you’ll be asking to dance first when the reception really gets going, while playing a mental game called, “Is that her boyfriend or her cousin?” Finally, the groom walks in, led by the pastor who nobody really notices because she or he looks pretty much like normal. But the groom looks nothing like the immature kid you remember. His hair is nicely trimmed and he’s even used product in it, he appears to have shaven this morning, and he’s wearing so much cologne the guests in the first four rows are gasping for air. The bridesmaids glide gracefully down the center aisle. Then, the organ swells, and everyone rises to their feet, and the bride comes in. Her dress is dingy, and her hair slightly unkempt. Her lipstick is a little too red, and she’s wearing a little too much blush. She stops in the middle of the aisle and grinds her cigarette into the carpet. As she walks by, the unmistakable scent of cheap liquor lingers behind her. The groom is still radiant, blissfully unaware that the guests sense something is amiss. This has to be the strangest wedding you’ve ever been too, including your hippie second-cousin who got married in a cranberry bog.

This is the wedding of the prophet and the prostitute, of Hosea and Gomer. Here we find two people whose lives and backgrounds could not have come from further extremes. Hosea and Gomer: the prophet and the prostitute, the man of God and the woman of the street, the respected and the rejected. To be certain, it’s an unlikely pair.

When it came to prophets, Hosea was one of the big ones. He was a household name, and tens of thousands of people a week tuned into his nationwide television broadcasts. Every preacher has a hot-button issue, and for Hosea, it was sexual sin. The people were constantly violating the boundaries given to them by God – sleeping around and even having sex with prostitutes who hung out near the main entrance to the temple.

And Gomer? She was one of those temple prostitutes. Let me offer a footnote here. Prostitution is often described as the world’s oldest profession, and we find prostitutes all over the world. Most begin young, and most sell their bodies for money, not for sex. In poor families around the world, there is no inheritance for the daughters to receive, and the daughters grow up and head off to the market for the day, and then return at night with food. Nobody talks about it, but the daughters have sold their bodies for food. I imagine Gomer was similar to these tragic people all over the world – a dejected shadow of a person for whom life had steadily gone from bad to worse. The lowest people in society used the services of prostitutes – the prostitutes themselves were viewed as something slightly less than human.

Hosea will marry Gomer, and she will bear him a son, but it’s a tenuous relationship at best. Before too long, Gomer will desert her husband, and have two illegitimate children. Her family will beg her to stay with him, but her life will continue to sink lower and lower, down into the pits of despair, so far below rock bottom that you and I have no way of understanding her condition.

In the following chapters, we find her being sold into slavery at an auction. Can you just hear the taunts of the people around her? “She’s finally getting just what she deserves. She’s made her bed, and now she can lie in it. Her bad choices are catching up with her and her types.”

Finally, she is on the auction block. The auctioneer cries out, “Who will buy this woman as a slave?” There is silence. Nobody wants her. She’s used up. She has no value. Finally, at the back of the room, one hand came up, and a voice said, “I will buy her. I will buy her back.” It is Hosea, and he is buying her back. The tongues were surely wagging. Here is this prophet, this man of God, buying a whore. But, she happens to be no ordinary whore – she is also his wife.

One way the preacher gets a handle on a particular text is to look at it from the perspective of the various characters and see how we might relate to the story. It would be easy for me, at this point, to say, “Therefore, let us be like Hosea, and show love to people the world has forgotten.” To be sure, this is something I feel we’re called to do. But there is some honest soul-searching that needs to take place first.

I quickly realized that, in this story, we’re not Hosea. We’re Gomer. The Church is filled with people whose lives are messed up, who don’t have it together, who make enormously bad choices and then must live with the nasty consequences. Now, we may pretend otherwise. We may put on our smiling Sunday faces, our perfect appearances, our images of having it all together, but we are a deeply flawed people. We are not right with God and we are not right with God’s people. Yet Christ chooses us, of all people, to be his bride.

Geoffrey Wainwright, theology professor at Duke, was talking about all the flaws in the church as it exists today. Someone asked why he still chooses to be part of it, knowing all the things that are wrong with it. He looked at my classmate and said, “The church may be a whore, but she’s also my mother.”

Why does Christ choose to stick with the church? I can almost hear him saying, “The church may be a whore, but she’s also my bride.” In spite of our imperfections and our shortcomings and our flaws, Christ chooses us. In spite of our inability to keep our promises, Christ chooses us. In spite of our brokenness and our deep hurts, Christ chooses us.

This is a story of pure grace, of pure sacrifice, of pure love. This story reminds us that God loves imperfect people. It’s a crystal clear view of God’s love and grace for people who don’t have their act completely together – people like us. We have been conditioned to think of love as a warm gushy feeling. Movies, television, and music all reinforce this idea. In reality, love has very little to do with a certain feeling, but it has everything to do with a commitment.

In the early-90s, when my grandparents were starting to celebrate their second half-century together in marriage, Grandma began to develop signs of Alzheimer’s. Papa, then in his mid-80s, became her primary care-giver, and took care to dress her, feed her, take her to the bathroom, fix her hair, get her medication, and tuck her into bed every night. With personality and memory changes, she was barely a shadow of her former self. Even so, Papa would gently stroke the back of her hand as they sat on the couch together, and tell her several times a day just how much he loved her. It was a love that remained faithful to a vow to cherish and keep her, in sickness and in health, for better or for worse, and he kept it until they were parted by death.

This is a love that is patient and kind, that does not seek its own way, that endures all things.

How much more, then, will God keep his vows to us? When everyone else has given up on us, when everyone else has said that we’re worthless and are good for absolutely nothing, when everyone else is ready to throw us away, God is still faithful; and lavishes upon us a love we don’t deserve.

There is a mindset that became very popular in some Christian circles that you had to get your life in order before you could even think of approaching God. You had to clean up all that nasty stuff – the attitudes, the behaviors, the bitterness, the resentment – before you were worthy to be in God’s presence, some people would tell you. From the outside, so many churches have projected themselves little enclaves of perfect people – a place where the children are always well-behaved, and where everyone is always nice and pleasant.

But the problem with portraying an outward appearance of perfection is that we never have a chance to acknowledge our brokenness. And I can tell you, keeping up an appearance of perfection is awfully hard work. It’s sort of like constantly applying makeup to a gaping wound, hoping that you can cover it up. Sure, for awhile you might be able to do a decent job hiding things. But eventually, you can’t keep up with it. What’s worse, the whole time you were covering up the wound, it grew larger, became infected, and is now a much more severe problem than it would have been if acknowledged in the first place. Here’s a simple truth: wounds are ugly. It hurts to open them up. It’s painful to clean them out. And they take time to heal. But when we are able to acknowledge them and deal with them, we end up healthier in the long run.

Friends, we are an imperfect people. But God loves imperfect people. That’s what this story of Hosea and Gomer – the prophet and the prostitute – so readily reminds us. Christ is the perfect groom and the Church is the imperfect bride. Christ looks lovingly on the Church, broken and bent and utterly unattractive, and immediately we know what grace is all about.

The church is a place we come together in all our brokenness in order to be made whole. And I am convinced that God calls us and uses us, not in spite of our brokenness, but because of our brokenness. We all have scars, but each of those scars tells a story – a story of God’s healing and redemption in our lives – a story that can help another wounded person. Our wounds can be used to offer healing to others, in the name of a wounded healer who has offered wholeness to us.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Faith Plays - Deuteronomy 6:1-9: Homily for Choral Evensong

Now this is the commandment – the statutes and the ordinances – that the Lord your God charged me to teach you to observe in the land that you are about to cross into and occupy, so that you and your children and your children’s children may fear the Lord your God all the days of your life, and keep all his decrees and his commandments that I am commanding you, so that your days may be long. Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe them diligently, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may multiply greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, has promised you.
Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

I grew up as the third of four children. When my oldest sister, Christel, was about three, my mother was setting up the Christmas decorations, and my sister asked what Christmas was all about. Mom took the time to explain the entire Christmas story, complete with angels and shepherds, and culminating in the event all others pointed toward: the birth of Jesus. Putting it in terms my sister could understand, Mom told her that Christmas was a party for Jesus’ birthday. Christel clapped her hands and said, “Oh mummy, we MUST have a Happy Jesus birthday cake!”

As I grew up, our family shared a Happy Jesus birthday cake every year between the 7pm and 11pm Christmas Eve services. It is the same recipe every year, accompanied by herbal tea and egg nogg. We turn out all the lights in the dining room and living room, sit in the warmth of candlelight, and watch the snow swirl around outside as it can only do on a cold, winter evening in Buffalo. And every year, at just the right time, Mom tells the story about how this tradition of happy Jesus birthday cake was born.

Undoubtedly, your family has traditions as special to you as this one is to me and my family. They may be tied to a specific holiday, a family anniversary or birthday, or they may simply be meaningful because they remind you about who your family is. No matter how familiar they are, or how many times you celebrate them, you never tire of hearing the story, and the feeling of warmth and security within you never cools.

In our text from Deuteronomy read a short time ago, we find one of those treasures from Israel’s tradition. It was a bit of treasured Scripture, passed down from generation to generation, reminding the community who they were and who they belonged to. It possessed a rhythm all its own as repetition had worn it a place deep within the hearts of those who knew it.
In our day, repetition and ritual have gotten quite a bit of bad press. If something is too familiar, it’s actually boring, stiff, manufactured, and lacking any sense of creativity. Too often, we clamor for what is new, flashy, and trendy rather than what is old, steady, and unchanging.

But whether the community knows it or not, remembrance and ritual are important markers. They capture words said quite prayerfully intended to be woven into the very fabric of everyday life. So the prayer goes:

Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words – recite them whether you are at home or away. Repeat them when you wake up. Repeat them when you lie down. Mark your house with them; and tell them to your children and your children’s children.
If anyone in Israel knew only one prayer, this was the prayer they knew. Called the Shema for the Hebrew word for ‘hear,’ every child of Israel knew this prayer in much the same way Christians today might pray an ‘Our Father’ or a ‘Hail Mary.’ This was a prayer in which the people constantly rehearsed their faith, much as a troupe of actors constantly rehearses a play. The people knew crucial moments would arrive when they would have nothing other than their memories to lean on. No liturgies, no bulletins, no gentle guidance from the pulpit. They repeated these words to themselves because a time would arise when those familiar words were the only thing they had to cling to.

It is a clarion call. “Hear, O Israel.” “Hear, O Boone.” “Hear, O Church.” It says, “Wake up! Pay attention! This is the part of the lecture you may want to take notes on! This is going to be on the test!”

You shall love God with everything you have, and everything you are. It seems so simple, yet it is a radical departure from the ways in which we are conditioned to structure our lives. We treat our relationship with God like it’s the product on a cereal commercial – “Kellogg’s Corn Pops are part of a well-balanced breakfast.” We treat God as one product among many that may add a distinct flavor to our lives, but seem unwilling to make him the center of our existence. Really, when it comes down to it, a bowl of cereal is a bowl of cereal. You may get slightly more sugar out of one, or slightly more fiber out of another, but all cereals are essentially created equal.
And yet, there is only one God. The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. The God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob; the God of Jesus and Sts. Peter and Paul; the God of Thomas Aquinas, and Martin Luther, and John Wesley is our God. God is not one among many. We do not have to worry about whether we choose the right or the wrong God, for there is only one. In our lying down, in our rising, in our going out, in our coming in, God is still God. For reasons beyond our comprehension, it is God who has chosen us, rather than we who have chosen God.

This God – one who has chosen us, one who has no rival – has asked us to do one simple thing: love. Here, it would seem the text is stating the obvious, and it is, yet it is an obvious truth so far beyond our reach sometimes. How many times in my own faith journey have I been called to love – genuinely, wholeheartedly love – and felt clueless as to how? What do I know about love? I only know what has been shown to me by parents and grandparents, by family and friends, and by my community of faith. Yet as I remember the love shown by these, I find that I already know much about love, and that love can only be experienced in the context of relationships. I learn to love when I realize that I, too, can love in just the same manner as I myself have been loved. Like the ancient Hebrews before me, I realize that I am not the final destination of God’s good gifts and that God wishes to shine love and grace through me. Like the ancient Hebrews before us, like Peter and Paul, like Martin Luther and John Wesley, God sends unloved people into our lives so we might show them God’s love.

Will we love the stranger in our midst? Regardless of age? Gender? Ethnicity? Social Status? Disability? Are we really willing to say that there is no class of person to whom we will deny God’s love?

I think that is the test. The world’s inclination would be to control, to limit, to set boundaries. But God calls us to trust rather than control. He invites us to rehearse our faith again and again so that it becomes written indelibly on our hearts. He invites us to leave a legacy for our children, not of control, but of trust. Let us live as people who really do believe that the Lord is our God, and open ourselves up to God’s radical possibilities. God promised to go with us and bear us as we start to seek his new future. So join with God and even with the stranger in your midst as you open yourself to the risky freedom of wide spaces and the ever-new coming of God.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Welcome Home - Romans 12:1-13

I appeal to you, therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.
For by the grace given me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members of one another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

Today, we find ourselves in an interesting position as a congregation. Today is sort of a Sunday between the Sundays, the time between the times. Last week, Ron Smith preached his last sermon as our senior pastor, and next week, John Fitzgerald will preach his first sermon as our senior pastor. Today is a special Sunday, but you won’t find it on any liturgical or civic calendar. I personally refer to today as “Bridge Sunday.” Today represents the bridge between a senior pastor named Ron and one named John. Since last Sunday, many of you have come in to talk about a number of issues, and have probably been disappointed to hear me say, “We’re not going to discuss that until July 1st.” In fact, in the last week, that’s probably the phrase I’ve used most commonly.

Our text this morning reminds us that we are all members of Christ’s body, and that each of us has a role to play in that. In this interim period, my role has been to celebrate one era, but also to prime the soil for the new thing God is about to do in our midst. May we pray.

Finish this sentence for me: “Don’t talk to . . . strangers.” It’s something drilled into our heads shortly after we voice our first words. We are conditioned to think of strangers as a likely source of danger. If you don’t know someone, we’ve been told that they probably seek to do you harm. As a result, we’ve gradually come to live in increasingly private settings; after all, “public” is that place you’re likely to run into those dangerous strangers. Our society knows this rule, too! Try breaking the rule sometime. Step into a crowded elevator, face the back of the elevator, and see how uncomfortable people get. Make eye contact with people in a fast food restaurant. Try these, and you’ll know what it feels like to be a stranger.

But our text this morning tells us to show hospitality to strangers. It goes a bit against our natural inclination, but let me tell you, it’s vitally important. In the context in which the book of Romans was written, Christian missionaries and evangelists were dependent on the hospitality of the church in the towns they passed through. But in our context, it’s vitally important as well.

Two years ago, I came to you as a stranger. Other than what you heard from staff-parish, most of you did not know me. But you showed and continue to show hospitality to me. Several of you sent notes before I even arrived. When I realized that my Saturn could not be towed behind the moving truck, two members of the church drove to Durham on moving day to drive my car to Boone while I drove the truck. You brought meals to my home that first week. Since then, so many of you have invited me to meals in your home and on the town, invited me to play golf, shared special moments in your families’ lives, and let me know that I am no longer a stranger. You have extended hospitality to members of my family who have come to visit to the point that my mom refers to Boone as her “mountain residence,” and you have included them in your prayers during difficult times in their lives. Ministers often talk about the way their congregation’s ministry to them far exceeded their ministry to the congregation. Not only did you minister to me, you threw your arms wide open, and said, “Welcome Home.”

Now, I know the bishop and the district superintendent said you had to make me feel welcome. But, I also know you did it, not because you were under orders, but because hospitality in this church’s DNA. You do it, because you recognize that part of your role in being part of the body of Christ is to make other people feel welcome.

Next Sunday, a man named John will stand in this pulpit and deliver his first sermon as the senior pastor of Boone United Methodist Church. He comes to us, not as a stranger, but as another member of the body of Christ. You know how I sometimes tell you, “There are no strangers in the body of Christ – only brothers and sisters whose names we don’t know yet”? Well, we know their names, and we will greet them as extended members of the body of Christ. We don’t really know them yet, and they don’t really know us, but that doesn’t matter. We welcome one another as Christ welcomes us. As a congregation, I pray you will show the same hospitality to the Fitzgerald family – to John, his wife, Chris, and his sons Ben and Alex – that you showed to me. I hope you will throw your arms wide open, and say, “Welcome Home.”

This is what Christians do. When the body of Christ gathers, it is always aware of who its members are on any given occasion. It is aware which of its members are hurting, and which are celebrating. It is aware of who has been there for years, and it is aware of who is there, perhaps, for the first time. And, when the body of Christ gathers, it is also keenly aware of who is not present. This is what the church does. It makes itself a friend to the friendless, provides hope to the hopeless, a spiritual home to the homeless. Most churches, if you ask them, would tell you they’re a friendly church. Usually, what people mean is, “That’s where my friends go! People know me by name.” But friendliness is a factor that is usually viewed from the inside-out, and on the outside of those circles, the perception is quite different.

The analogy I draw is that most churches who claim to be friendly are, in reality, a lot like the family dog. The family dog is affectionate toward members of the family, but has a tendency to bark at strangers. When members of the family show up, the dog greets them with a happy smile, but when strangers approach, they receive a hostile welcome.

Some of this is so interesting to me because I was a Communication major as an undergraduate. I love to study the ways people interact, and the signals that are being sent through nonverbal means. It’s not only what people say that matters, it’s how they say it, in what posture that makes such huge impact. Let’s bring this back to the friendliness factor of a church.

Imagine, the conversations that typically happen in the hallways before and after church events. From the inside – there you are with two or three friends, talking about some common interest. Imagine yourself on the outside, though – you’re likely to see a circle of backs – closed off, inaccessible. On occasion, someone may glance back over their shoulder and say, “Hey, who’s the new person over there?” which, of course, refers to you. It’s not a very friendly feeling. Or, suppose worship is about to begin, and you come into the sanctuary, sit in your usual spot and strike up a conversation with your usual friends who also sit right near you. Two rows away, sitting quietly and patiently – and alone, is a new family – hoping someone might talk to them and say hello. The mother cradles an infant in her arm, and might want to know where she could find the nursery, or at least a restroom where the child could be changed, but because no one has talked to them, we miss an opportunity to make someone feel at home. Now, during this time, things are happening that reinforce our understanding of our church as a friendly place. We’re having friendly experiences with our friends, probably not even aware that we’re neglecting our guests. We think we’ve put out the welcome mat, but in reality, we’ve hung the “Do-Not-Disturb” sign.

Now, hear me carefully – I’m not saying we’ve done an overall poor job. On the contrary, this church does reasonably well in welcoming guests compared to most others. But, we could always do a little better.

The next time you’re having a conversation in the hallway, ask yourself if, from the outside, your posture appears to be “closed” or “open.” If it’s closed because of the nature of the conversation, let me suggest that you take the discussion to a more appropriate location – it’s called not airing your (or other people’s) dirty laundry in public. When you arrive in the sanctuary, take a look around for people who look like they need to be welcomed, rather than immediately gravitating toward your friends. Same thing after service – practice what I call the “three-minute rule” – for the first three minutes after worship ends, only talk to people you don’t know rather than the people you already know and are probably going to end up going out to lunch with anyway. It seems like such a little thing, but you have no idea how far it goes toward making someone feel noticed and appreciated. It is a little thing you can do to say, “Welcome Home.”

The simple fact of the matter is that, “people remain part of a Christian congregation because of the quality of love they experience in human relationships. People may join a church because of a fine youth or music program, preaching, or leadership – but people remain in a church because they have found loving friendships and loving relationships. People have found not just ideas of love and ideals of love, but genuine love in human form” (Edward Markquart).

And that’s the extreme center of the Gospel message: Jesus was God’s genuine love in human form. Jesus was the very embodiment of God’s love, we in the church are members of his body – that makes each of us bearers of God’s love to the world. We are ministers of reconciliation to each other, and to the world.

“The mystery of God, captured in a message about what God has done, is now entrusted to us. And what God has done is reconciliation. In the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, God has been revealed as one who is perpetually turning toward us to welcome us home” (Richard Lischer, The End of Words).

Friends, this morning I invite you to not only hear the Good News; I invite you to be the Good News. God has turned toward us, offering us reconciliation and a relationship with him through his Son. “Reconciliation is not a theological option, a specialized ministry, or the subject of an occasional sermon. Every congregation is a reconciling congregation” (Richard Lischer, The End of Words). God has turned toward us, offered us a wonderful gift of reconciliation to himself, but even more – he has empowered us to be reconciled to each other. So right now, everyone stand, and hold hands with someone on your left and on your right. That person on your left is a gift from God to you, the person on your right is a gift from God to you, and you are a gift to each of them. Tell each other that!!!

Look around – THIS is what the body of Christ looks like!!!! What a wonderful gift we are to each other!!!

But together, we are a gift from God to our community and our world. So together, let’s go out there, let’s spread our arms wide open, and say “Welcome home.”

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Hearts on Fire - Acts 2:1-21

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and Arabs – in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed these are not drunk as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above, and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sum shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

I was taking a class in seminary on the person and work of the Holy Spirit. The professor was a fire-anointed African-American Pentecostal pastor. As often happened, one day we were discussing the ways different denominational groups express themselves in worship, and being at a Methodist seminary, he began to pick on the Methodists. He wondered aloud, if the Methodists even had the Holy Spirit anymore. Oliver Box, a good friend of mine from Mississippi, put up his hand and said, “Dr. Turner, the Holy Spirit still shows up at the Methodist Church. He just knows to mind his manners when he’s there.”

For so long, we’ve put up with this good-natured taunting from our Pentecostal and Charismatic brothers and sisters that, perhaps we’ve started to wonder if they’re right. Is it possible, as they suggest, that the Holy Spirit missed us? Have we lost Him? These are questions I’ve wondered from time to time, and I imagine many of you have as well.

Before we proceed any further, let me share where I’m coming from on this issue. My roommate in college was a tongue-talking, pew-jumping Pentecostal. During those years, I attended two different churches many Sunday mornings. At 8:30, I went to the high, formal service at the Duke Chapel-esque United Methodist Church in downtown Rochester. At 11, I went to the non-denominational Charismatic Community Church near campus. The experiences in these two communities could not have been more opposite from each other, but I loved them both. Since then, whenever people ask about my preferred worship style, I tell them I am a “high-church-charismatic.” May we pray.

Comfortable, settled, and fat
William Buckley once said, “You may be able to bring up the subject of religion at a fancy dinner party once, but if you bring it up twice during the evening, you won’t be invited back.” Our society has no problem with religion, so long as its personal and private, decent and in good order. Don’t be too exuberant, don’t talk about it too much, lest someone accuse you of being a fanatic. Everyone knows that religious fanaticism is the worst kind of fanaticism.

The situation was not much different during that Pentecost celebration. Now, some of you are asking yourself what this strange word might mean. You suspect it might have something to do with five, as in a Pentagon, and you’d be correct. Multiply that five times ten, and the number fifty tells you something about this day. It occurred fifty days after Passover, and was the Jewish celebration to mark the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai. Beautiful liturgies and music had been written to help the people remember and celebrate.

In an upper room somewhere in Jerusalem, Jesus’ followers – probably about 120 of them – gathered. The room was decorated with flowers, because according to tradition, the desert burst into bloom when the Law was given. As good Jews,they began to proceed through the familiar prayers. Candles were lit, and someone began to pray: Barukh Ata Adonai: Blessed Are You Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has kept us in life, and enabled us to reach this season. Though the liturgy was predictable, it was also familiar and comfortable.

But suddenly, into a routine that was comfortable, predictable, safe, tied-down, neat and under control, God showed up in a surprising way. A mighty rushing wind, heads anointed with fire, the good news proclaimed in new and unfamiliar languages. God was doing a new thing, and it made people a little uncomfortable.

A friend of mine was talking about the church in which she grew up – a large, downtown, First Baptist Church in a midsize Southern city. It was a fashionable place, a stately colonial brick building on the town square – a place to see and be seen. It was a proper place, where everyone followed the rules, where decent, polite order was the name of the game. One day, the Spirit moved on a woman in the congregation, and she raised her hand quietly in her seat. My friend, around 8 at the time, asked her mother if that lady had a question for the preacher.

It made everyone uncomfortable to have the Spirit show up off script. The religious establishment has a way of being uncomfortable when the Spirit shows up like that. On that Pentecost so long ago, some of the onlookers heard the disciples speaking in strange languages, and they made fun. “They’ve been drinking – they’re filled with new wine,” they said. During his earthly life Jesus was accused by many of being a drunkard and a glutton. It would only make sense that his followers would do the same thing. After all, hadn’t Jesus himself taught that a disciple is not above his teacher (Mat 10:24)?

Outward sign of an inward grace
In Christian circles, a lot of ink has been spilled over the significance of what people saw on that day – mighty wind, tongues of fire, the sound of foreign languages. In reality, these things are signs that point to something greater. I’d like us to think of these things sacramentally – that is, I’d like us to think of them as outward signs of an inward and spiritual reality.

The reality these signs pointed to was a changed heart – hearts touched by God, hearts that were on fire with his Holy Spirit.

Somewhere along the way, we seem to have lost some of the heat out of this fire. Perhaps since the rise of Pentecostalism, those of us in the mainline have left the Holy Spirit up to them. That fits a little better with their culture and ethos. That’s their thing, and that’s okay, but let’s leave it to them, we tell ourselves. Once a year, as a sort of consolation prize, we pull out the red altar cloths and banners, the songs and prayers center around the Holy Spirit, but I wonder if our hearts are really on fire the way God intended for them to be.

Perhaps we’ve forgotten our roots. I’m not only talking about our early church roots on that day in Jerusalem, I’m also talking about our Methodist roots. John Wesley, attending a prayer meeting one evening on Aldersgate Street, records in his journal the feeling of his heart being strangely warmed. We Methodists already have language for this! John Wesley, a priest and son of one in the Anglican Church, Oxford-educated, privileged – had a run-in with the Holy Spirit that would forever leave its mark on the world. The comfortable, settled, familiar religious establishment – filled with the Spirit – it happened in Jerusalem, it happened on Aldersgate Street, and it happens today – around the corner and around the world.

What you or I might call exuberant, or unruly, or uncivilized, the rest of the world simply calls Christianity. Just take a look at Anglicans in Africa – Anglicans, you know, Episcopalians? Pallid, sallow-faced protectors of time-honored liturgy and tradition? Take a look at Anglicans in Africa, whose services typically last well into the afternoon, and whose membership is swelling by record numbers. Take a look at Presbyterians in South America – Presbyterians – you know, the frozen chosen? Watch as they dance and sway and offer themselves completely in praise and devotion. Take a look at Methodists in Korea – Methodists - you know, we who do all things in moderation? Spend four hours a day with them in prayer and see if God doesn’t start to do unexpected things on you, too.

Fire kindles fire
All this is happening, we see it everywhere, and we’ve been standing on the sidelines wondering when we’re going to get our chance. And maybe that’s just the problem. God has not called us to observe, God has called us to get in the game. We’re not standing on the promises, we’re simply sitting on the premises.

In a Letter from Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King commented on just this situation. “The contemporary church is often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound.” He says that we have become like thermometers, who merely record the temperature, rather than thermostats, who set the temperature. This switch from thermostat to thermometer happened long ago, but it was so subtle we didn’t even notice. The church continued on, thinking it’s still consumed with Holy fire, when all that’s left is a tiny little ember surrounded by cold, dead, ash.
But the ember is still there. It’s not that we never received the fire, or that it went out – we just let it grow a little cold. The fire still burns, down in the pit of your soul and mine. The wind of the Holy Spirit can still fan it back into flame.

The Holy Spirit has done it before and will do it again, if you and I will provide a little help. Let’s give the Spirit some room to work. Let’s clear away those things which are already burned up and won’t burn anymore. Let’s release our tight control over our lives and admit that we need the Holy Spirit to fall fresh on us yet again, to stir up our hearts with wind from heaven, and to consume our lives with holy fire.

Our lives will never be the same, but that’s the good news. God did not send first his Son, and then his Spirit, because he wanted us to remain unchanged. Rather than serving as defenders of the status quo – the Church has the opportunity to return to its original God-given mission to be light in the darkness, to be fire in the wilderness, to be a foretaste of the kingdom of God. What is the kingdom of God, you ask? Romans 14:17 says it’s “righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.”

Friends, that’s exactly what the world is so desperately hungry for. They don’t need a church that is cold and empty, more interested in self-preservation than in making a positive difference in people’s lives. They need a church whose heart burns with the Holy Spirit.

There is a time in this church’s history when the building itself was consumed with fire. Sure enough, the whole town came out to watch the spectacle.

Imagine how much more spectacular it would be for this church to be consumed with holy fire. What the world needs is for the Church to burn once again, not literally, of course, but with the Holy Spirit - over our boundaries, leaping over our walls, throbbing, intruding, calling forth. And when that happens, one thing is for sure: catch on fire with the Holy Spirit, and people will come from miles around to watch you burn.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Praise! Psalm 150

Praise the Lord! Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty firmament!
Praise him for his mighty deeds; praise him according to his surpassing greatness!
Praise him with trumpet sound; praise him with lute and harp!
Praise him with tambourine and dance; praise him with strings and pipe!
Praise him with clanging cymbals; praise him with loud clashing cymbals!
Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!

I grew up in one of those Methodist churches that holds services on Sunday morning, again on Sunday evening, and then on Wednesday night, while the children were in Kids Club and the teens were in youth group, a few brave adults met in the church library for prayer meeting. My dad said you could always tell how popular a church was by who showed up on Sunday morning, how popular a preacher was by who showed up on Sunday nights (Dad soon deduced he was not a very popular preacher by this standard), but you could always tell how popular God was by who showed up to Wednesday evening prayer meeting.

In the church’s calendar, this Sunday after Easter is, in many ways, the equivalent of the Wednesday evening prayer meeting. Last Sunday, there were lilies all over the front of the church, a huge choir that sang an impressive anthem with timpani, children everywhere you could see, trumpets announcing the resurrection, and a healthy crowd at both services. Today, the choir is off, the brass is gone, and the preaching duty falls into the lap of the lowly associate pastor. In many ways, this might feel like a letdown after such fanfare last week.

Then, the text for this morning is read, and we find God calling in a voice loud and clear. God is calling, inviting, each of us into a life of praise. We quickly realize that today is also Easter. Easter is technically a great 50-day celebration that will last until Pentecost, but for Christians, Easter is everyday we declare God’s victory over the powers of sin and death. Easter is every day we claim this power to transform our lives. In light of this wonderful news, we have one option: praise! May we pray.

Wired to worship
It seems that, as a pastor, people tend to bring to me their big questions. They are questions that humanity has wrestled with for centuries, and obviously failed to provide satisfactory answers to. There was a time in my life when I thought that serious Christian faith meant having a set of answers to these questions. I gradually came to realize that my faith needed to be than a set of stock answers, and I’m at a point where I am comfortable living in the midst of unanswered and seemingly unanswerable questions. In my Bible studies, classes, and other small groups, I encourage everyone to ask questions, no matter how trivial, difficult, controversial, or impossible to answer.

Several months ago, I received a letter from an ASU student who wanted an answer to one of these questions. He simply asked, “What is the meaning of life?” I sat down and began to write out a response, and six pages in, realized I hadn’t even begun to answer his question. I was still clarifying the issue, laying out the territory from which this question is typically answered, and probably muddying the waters more than this young man probably cared for.

“What is the meaning of life?” The answer to this question will depend on our perspective, our background, our education, our goals, and our dreams. The answer to this question will depend on what dominant narrative we subscribe to.

So, as Christians, what is the meaning of life? Even different churches with different theological perspectives will answer this question differently. Yet, these perspectives focus so closely on the details that they tend to lose sight of the big picture. They focus so much on method that they lose the message, and worse yet, allow the method to become the message.

So, as Christians, what is the big thing? What is our purpose? What is our meaning? What are we here to do?

Fortunately, we don’t have to answer this question alone. There is a great cloud of witnesses that has gone before us – brothers and sisters who have left us with their collective knowledge and experience, with whom we are united, and from whom we can benefit. St. Augustine wrote that “Our hearts are restless until they rest in [God].” By this he means we were created with a natural inclination to praise. We worship through our time, our talent, and where we place our treasure. We devote these resources to a variety of things, but we find the greatest peace when they are devoted to their true aim – God. Why is this? God is our creator, our designer, so to speak. Who knows the creation better than its creator? God created us with a natural magnetism back to God. The Westminster Catechism, a document used in Christian formation for centuries, sums it up nicely: “The chief end of [human]kind is to glorify God and enjoy [God] forever.”

That’s the big thing! God hardwired us to be creatures who worship, and when we have found ourselves in such rich praise, the result is continual enjoyment of God’s presence. Another word for this continual enjoyment is communion – God’s intent in creation was perpetual communion, and when we surrender ourselves in true worship, we restore that communion which God intended us to enjoy. That’s the big thing! The rest is simply details.

Not seeing the forest for the trees
But have you ever heard that the devil is in the details? I believe this to be incredibly true in the ways in which we worship. The main thing is supposed to be continually praising God, but we’ve often focused so much on the way we praise that we soon lose sight of who we’re supposed to be praising in the first place. We find ourselves talking about the right and wrong ways to worship, and end up praising a form of praise instead of God. Uh oh! That young associate pastor has left off preaching and taken to meddling. If you’ll indulge me just a little more, I need to meddle a bit more before I bring some clarity out of this issue.

Let me put it in the context of today’s text. It reads “Praise the Lord. Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him upon the earth! Praise him for his mighty deeds; praise him according to his surpassing greatness! Praise him with the trumpet sound; praise him with lute and harp! Praise him with tambourine and dance; praise him with strings and pipe! Praise him with clanging cymbals; praise him with loud clashing cymbals!” Yet, the way we often interpret this psalm reads more like this: “Praise his sanctuary. Praise his mighty deeds. Praise his surpassing greatness. Praise the trumpet. Praise the lute. Praise the harp. Praise the tambourine. Praise the dance. Praise the strings. Praise the pipe. Praise the cymbals.

Do you hear the difference? We easily move from using these things to praise God to praising the very same things. Paul encountered a similar problem in the New Testament when he confronted the disciples of various teachers, all of whom placed greater value in their particular school of thought than in the Gospel those schools were supposed to teach.

To be sure, worship is a deeply personal experience. People need to be given opportunities to praise in authentic and genuine ways, yet we must always remember that the object of our worship is greater than the manner in which we worship. Let’s not lose sight of the forest for the trees, and let’s not spend our time majoring in minors.

Some time ago, a man who had been stranded on a deserted island was finally rescued. His rescuers noticed three structures on the island, and asked the man about them. He explained that the first was his house. The third was his church. Puzzled, they asked him about the second building. He scoffed, “That’s where I used to go to church!”

Worship—true, authentic worship—is a unifying experience, not a divisive one. The text this morning gives us the powerful image of all creation being absolutely swept up in praising God. Though each provides something different, notice how well these things work together. No one is standing around asking “Are my needs being met in this worship experience?” “Will this worship gathering optimally reach our target demographic?”

Such an attitude about worship is evidence of a mature faith. It is somewhere beyond Burger King spirituality, where a bunch of self-absorbed individuals are each trying to have it their way. When we make worship about ourselves – about our likes, our preferences, our taste – we have essentially made ourselves the object of worship. When our own desires are the most important factor in the decision, we are saying that we are the most important party in the relationship. And so worship, something ultimately designed to connect us to something greater than ourselves, becomes simply another indulgent exercise of self-gratification. And when your opinions are different than mine, an argument is likely to ensue.

Rather than getting caught up in the details, of arguing over the music, over the format, over the time, or the architecture, or the color of the carpeting – instead of focusing on all these horribly minor issues, why don’t we focus primarily on a God whose name is Love, a God who is Light, a God who is Life, a God who transforms our brokenness into his wonderful wholeness. God did not send his Son into the world, allow him to die a death on a cross, and raise him to glorious new life in order for you and me to split His church over trivial issues. Some people like to rock and roll in church. Some like to meditate in silence. Some like to come to worship early. Some like to come late. Some people love to hear the organ; some people hate it. But who is wrong? Better yet, who is right? What if, instead of using that energy to tear each other down, we used that same energy to build each other up in love? What if we left the complaints, the grumbling, the arguments, the pettiness, and the divisions behind? What if we stopped trying to prove ourselves right by proving everybody else wrong? The moment we stop arguing against each other, and start worshipping with each other, I think we will see transformation happen.

And that’s the goal – to allow worship to change and transform us. May God have mercy on us if we leave here just exactly the same as when we came in. Worship is supposed to change us. Rather than asking if a worship experience was able to generate a certain emotion or response, I think we would do a lot better to ask ourselves if we are now better equipped to live as Christ’s disciples in the world.

Well – are we? Have our songs and prayers changed us? Have we been transformed a little bit more into the image of the One whom we profess? When it’s all been said and done, have our activities in an hour in this place equipped us to live as Christ’s disciples in the world? That, I believe, is the real test for good worship.

And I think you will find – as you focus more and more on Christ, as you allow yourself to be molded ever more into his image – I think you will find that transformation isn’t so bad. In fact, you will find that living as a Christian is, in the words of my good friend Bill Roy, “such a joyful thing.” I think you will find there is really no hiding the joy that wells up from deep within you when your heart rests in the One for whom you were created, when you glorify God and enjoy God forever. It is a joy that will light up your face for the rest of the world to see.

The text tells us this morning quite simply: “Praise the Lord!” Praise the Lord with everything you’ve got. Join with all creation, people from all walks of life, people from across the centuries, people greatly similar and greatly dissimilar to yourself. But there is a promise behind these instructions; God says when you praise, I will transform you. I will transform you from selfish to generous, from a solitary individual to a member of a community, from a life of despair to one filled with hope, from death into life.

And when it all comes down to it, that’s the business God is in. Though we gather here, on a “low” Sunday, the fanfare from the week before gone and all but forgotten, we find that we have much to praise God for. Yes, it is still Easter, and every encounter with a living Savior transforms hearts. And being transformed, we have all the more reason to praise!

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Biggest Loser - Philippians 3:4b-14

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
Yet whatever gains I had, these have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus as my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own, but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Jesus Christ.

Last week, my brother asked me to look over his resume. David is 20 years old, will graduate from college in May. He’s finishing a degree in Computer Science in a mere 3 years. I looked over what is an excellent resume from a fine young man who hopes to land a job in programming or network security. I realized that his starting salary will be about twice what his older brother makes, and can only hope that he’ll remember me favorably for all the support I’ve provided through the years, including tweaking the resume that will hopefully get him that job!

We have all heard the old saying: there are lies, “darn” lies, and statistics, but I wish to add one more level: resumes. Granted, at 20, David doesn’t have too much room to “embellish” his resume yet, but give him a few years. Think about what your resume is – it is one sheet upon which you inform a potential employer about all your good qualities. You’re trying to put your best foot forward and distinguish your work and experience from the other hundreds of resumes who are all trying to do the exact thing you are. A resume is your way of introducing yourself, and giving that potential employer a chance to determine if they want to get to know you any better.

Paul opens our text for this morning with his religious resume. I’ll admit: I’m impressed. Paul wins. He’s got bragging rights. If it’s ethnicity, family background, education, denominational affiliation, or accomplishments – I don’t care what criteria you wish to judge by – Paul’s got it. In other words, when it came to being a Jew, Paul was all that and a bag of Doritos. He had every right to rest in comfort, and know that he had arrived in the choicest of positions.

Yet, Paul looks over his religious resume – his bloodline, his knowledge of Hebrew, his scholarship, his enthusiasm, his adherence to every jot and tittle of the Law – he looks over all that, and says that compared to life in Jesus Christ, all of those things, are rubbish. The Biblical translators have actually softened the language here; Paul actually says that all of those things, compared to life in Jesus Christ, are human excrement. Paul looks over his religious resume, and turns it into toilet paper.

Many in Paul’s day had come to confuse their religious resume with faith in God. It all hinged on an individual’s accomplishments rather than on what God had done in, through, and for them.
I wonder how many of us have done the same thing. People ask us about our faith, and we rattle off a list of affiliations and accomplishments rather than talking about how it is between God and us. While I was in seminary, I interviewed with a church for a staff position which I did not get. During my interview with the senior pastor, he asked me to tell him about my faith. I began to explain what it was like growing up in a parsonage family, my involvement throughout high school and college, things I had done, places I had connected and served. And he just stopped me short, pounded on his desk, and said, “But tell me about your faith! What about your faith?”

We live in a society where success is based on one’s accomplishments, and the church is merely a reflection of that. This senior pastor wanted to know about the deep places of my faith journey, and I showed him accomplishments, awards, and affiliations. Instead of having a heart-to-heart discussion with him about the trials and joys of my relationship with God, I simply pulled out my religious resume.

We’re told to be productive, to make a name for ourselves, to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. We’re told to harness the power of positive thinking, to tap the secret deep inside ourselves, to be self-made people. Fundamentally, this is the bedrock upon which liberal democratic societies like ours are built. We are self-made, on our own, and completely self-sufficient. We carry the same language into our religious discourse.

The problem with one’s religious resume is where it focuses. What is a resume, if not a brag sheet that is all about me? As it turns out, “me” is one of my favorite subjects. I can talk on and on for hours and hours about me. Where I grew up, my family, my schools, my likes, my dislikes, my hobbies, my passions. At the end of the movie, The Devil’s Advocate, Al Pacino leans into the camera, grins, and says, “Vanity: my favorite sin.” I’ll confess that vanity is also my favorite sin, and if you’re looking for a favorite, may I suggest vanity. Vanity is a great one, because it focuses on my favorite subject: me. The problem with focusing on me and my accomplishments is that, after awhile, I actually begin to believe my own hype, and I begin to think that I matter a whole lot more than I do.

Then, along comes Paul in this morning’s text and reminds us of where our priorities are. You think you’re something? You think your accomplishments are something to be proud of? You think it’s all about you? Turns out it’s about being connected to Christ. It’s bigger than me. It’s about my values, and my attitudes, and my behaviors being shaped by the mind of Christ. It really has nothing to do with what people think of us, or if we’re keeping up the right religious appearances. At the end of the day, none of it matters. My accomplishments and affiliations are nothing more than rubbish, than human excrement, the text tells us.

I cannot tell you what wonderfully good news this is. I don’t have to prove myself to anyone. I don’t have to appear as the character made famous in one of Andy Harkins’ children’s messages a few months ago; I don’t have to show up as Super Christian. I can be a real person, someone with the same doubts and fears and shortcomings as anyone else in the room. I realize that everything does not rise and fall on my own personal accomplishments, because I am part of something greater than myself. I am part of Christ, I am connected to his body, and this is now the greatest and most important thing going on in my life.

Do you know what this means? It means I’m not alone. It means that the sun does not rise and set on my accomplishments alone. It means that you are vitally important to me, because we are intimately connected. It means we’re in this together.

Who among us is a self-made person, standing completely free of a web of relationships? If so, I feel very sorry for you. One, you must be very lonely. Two, it means you’ve deceived yourself for a long time. The intimacy that happens in a community is not possible in a world of isolated, self-made people. When we all believe ourselves to be self-made, every other person is a stranger, a competitor, someone who may at any time try to take my share of the pie, evict me from my land, or shine in my limelight. What a miserable way to live.

A society full of self-made people has no room for those who are dependent. There is no room for the mentally and physically handicapped, for the emotionally disturbed, or for the elderly, because such people are dependent: the rules of a self-made society would view them as “unproductive.” Perhaps what is most disturbing about this viewpoint is that it reduces all of us to cogs in a great machine of productivity. The moment one of the pieces in the equipment becomes unproductive, it becomes expendable.

This is not the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In the dark night of the soul, when we are least productive, least self-sufficient, is when we need the love and concern of others the most. As Christians, we believe that we have been charged by God to love and care for every human life, especially the most vulnerable ones. Our society is most likely to dispose of people such as these, which is precisely why they need our care the most. Our society hates them because they are truthful reminders of who we really are, and we can’t handle the truth. Independent and self-made, we fear dependency even more than death itself.

One of those dependent people would be my friend, Sarah. Born with down syndrome, Sarah would be considered, according to the laws of self-sufficiency, an “unproductive” member of society. But Sarah has impressed many virtues upon me that might have otherwise been lost. She has taught me more about unconditional love than any other person I know. The seriously incapacitated and ill have taught me about courage and patience, and shown the joy in the little things of life. And a young man born with life-threatening medical conditions has taught me about perseverance and overcoming adversity, and I can’t tell you how proud I was to look over his resume last week. We need each other – we all have much to learn and much to share. I have no desire to be a self-made man, and would gladly lose my religious resume – I would gladly be the biggest loser – in order to be closer to God, in order to bring others closer to God, and in order to be closer to the rest of Christ’s precious body.

Friends, hear the good news on this fifth Sunday in Lent: God loves you, not because of what you have accomplished, not because of how hard you have worked, not because of your stellar resume. You are valuable to God, not because you’re productive, or because it’s in God’s best interest, or for any other good reason. God cares for you, as do your brothers and sisters in the Faith, simply because that’s the way God is. God is with you in those dark times, when your own efforts and abilities have left you woefully short, and he reminds us that it is your connection to him – not your own accomplishments – that really matters. It’s called grace, so stop trying to earn it.

And when I am able to sacrifice my ego on the altar, I find that I, one who has worked, one who once bought into the notion of being a self-made Christian by beefing up my religious resume, I find that I have much to lose. And in losing, I find that I have much to gain.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Remember Satan? - Luke 4:1-12

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”
Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

I suspect that many of you drove by the church sign this week or came in this morning and looked at the sermon title in your bulletin and couldn’t believe what you were seeing. For those of you who are not worshiping with us here in the sanctuary, the title of today’s sermon is “Remember Satan?” I received an email from Brad Farrington, campus minister at the Wesley Foundation, jokingly letting me know that good United Methodist pastors don’t preach sermons about Satan. I replied back that the jury was still out as to whether or not I qualify as a “good” United Methodist pastor.

As I studied and prepared the sermon this week, I kept thinking of “Church Lady” – Dana Carvey’s character from Saturday Night Live. You all remember her response to anything she didn’t particularly agree with – “Could it be Satan?”

Think of the way Satan has come to be portrayed in our culture. He’s that little guy with a pitchfork in red pajamas who sits on your left shoulder. He always tells you the exact opposite of the character who sits on your right shoulder, the one with white pajamas and a halo. He’s the one to whom you sell your soul for fame or fortune, or power and prestige; the one who always leads us willfully into bad and evil things.

We see these caricatures, and most of us know they’re not accurate. We’re thinking, rational people, and these understandings of evil don’t line up with our experience or anyone else’s. We now have reasonable explanations for what people used to give Satan credit for. What used to be demonic possession can now be described as acute schizophrenia. What used to be sin is now unrealized potential. What used to be evil is now simply the absence of good. And because we’ve been able to deconstruct the roles that Satan used to fill, it’s easy for us to deconstruct Satan as well.

At this point, roughly half of you are rolling your eyes, thinking I can’t be serious, and am about to launch into some hyper-conservative rant that will put the fear of God into you and have you constantly looking over your shoulder to see if the devil is sneaking up on you. But, roughly another half of you are afraid I’m about to launch into some hyper-liberal rant that will completely deconstruct any notion of personified evil and tell you the devil is nothing more than a projection of our imagination, a name for our deepest fears, or perhaps a bit of undigested meat.

However, most of you who know me well know that I don’t tend to gravitate toward one pole or the other. Indeed, I find both of these extremes to miss the point, and will attempt to articulate a new way for us to look at Satan, evil, and temptation that is faithful to the text, the Christian experience, and our God-given faculties. May we pray.

Our text this morning tells us Jesus was led into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. It doesn’t say he struggled with psychological issues, deep-seeded fears, or social projections. But, nor does it say the devil was wearing red pajamas, carrying a pitch fork, and walked up to Jesus and said, “Hi, my name’s Beelzebub. I’ve scheduled a 2:30 temptation, and if it’s all right, I’d like to proceed with that now.”

Granted, it would certainly be easier if temptation were readily identifiable. If the guy in red pajamas and the pitchfork shows up, we could simply say, “Oh, that’s Satan, and I’d better not listen to him.” If temptation always came wrapped in tape that said, “WARNING – TEMPTATION INSIDE” we’d know not to follow it.

However, as none of us has ever seen such a character or opened such a package, we can too easily begin to believe that there is no Satan. But I believe one of the greatest lies the devil ever told us was that he doesn’t exist. The idea of personified evil was really nothing more than psychological projection, we convince ourselves. The modern world has a long history of reducing religious faith to nothing more than psychological or social projection, and we in the church have done just that. If Satan is only a projection of our evil tendencies then why is not God only a projection of our good tendencies?

Here’s the thing: Satan, the devil, evil – whatever name you use – doesn’t look like we expect it to. We’d like to see the world in completely black and white terms, but there are more shades of gray than I care to count. Evil is so hard to identify because it looks an awful lot like the good it’s mixed in with. The Bible says that Satan often “masquerades as an angel of light.” Evil likes to hide itself in with the good. So Scott Peck, in his book about evil (People of the Lie) says that one good place to look for evil is at church, not because church is inherently evil, it’s just that church is where evil attempts to hide itself among the good.

Not too long ago, there was a woman who did not care for the pastor who had been appointed to her church. She ran into him in the grocery store, and after idle chit-chat about the weather, he mentioned that he’d missed seeing her in worship lately. She said she just hadn’t really felt like going lately. The pastor simply said, “That’s the devil getting to you.” The woman looked up, and said, “You know, you’re right. And he walks down the center aisle of that church every Sunday morning in a black robe.”

I know she meant this comment as an insult, and I know her pastor took it as one, but I believe this woman has also unknowingly articulated a profound understanding of evil. Evil is most at home when it hides among the good. It is easy for us to say that evil has no face, has no name, has no personality if we have never been able to see it. But the truth is, we probably come face-to-face with it every day, and are so accustomed to it we don’t even see it.

It is easy for most of us – people who have never encountered real injustice or cruelty, people who are reasonably well-fed, and in good health and comfortable – to dismiss the idea of Satan as outmoded, na├»ve and unnecessary.

But I am unwilling to completely deconstruct Satan, or the devil, or evil, or whatever name you choose to use. It is no kindness, to tell someone who has been encountered by real evil, that evil is only some warped projection of our human psyche, a result of improper education or poor childrearing practices. The pain and anguish suffered by the victims of injustice, sin, and evil are real, but we only add to that pain when we tell those victims to buck up, snap out of it, or take their medication. When we treat the problem of evil as some sort of internal, personal problem, we’re telling people that whatever suffering they endure is their own fault.

Here’s the thing: if Satan is nothing more than a projection of the evil within us, then God is nothing more than a projection of the good within us. The reason this breaks down is because we have all experienced forces outside of ourselves and outside of our control. If evil and good are nothing more than psychological projections, then how on earth does a projection of our imaginations have such power over us?

When Luke says that Jesus was tempted by Satan in the wilderness, he wants us to know that evil, even when it encounters the Son of God, has a face, a personality. It is organized, it is subtle, and it even quotes Scripture just as well as Jesus does. In resisting temptation, Jesus refuses to grant evil sovereignty over the will of God. Satan knew who Jesus was, and he knew what God was capable of doing. But he was interested in turning the power of God into a sideshow that he could turn on and off at whim. He wanted God to display power simply for his own entertainment, and at his command. And the moment that were to happen, God is no longer God. He becomes a charlatan and a magician performing party tricks, and Satan is the one who calls the shots as to when those tricks happen.

That’s the temptation many of us face, as well. The devil doesn’t tempt us to abandon our belief in God – that’s too easy – we’re not going to fall for that. The word for devil in Greek – diabolos – literally means “one who throws things around,” or “stirs things up,” of confuses things.” He doesn’t want us to abandon our belief in God, he just wants us to believe the wrong things about God. He tempts us to believe that God is a magician who performs at our party, or a genie who pops out of our bottle, and who does any number of tricks at the time we designate. One of the greatest temptations in life is to want God to prove himself to us on our command. But, according to Will Willimon in a lecture he delivered on Monday, “God seldom behaves according to our desires, our wishes, our wants.” Try as we do to squeeze God into a box of our own making, God is not an errand boy to be summoned at our whim.

But even more, as Jesus resisted temptation, he overcame a genuine threat. He was not overcoming his own natural inclinations; Jesus was confronting and defeating the principalities and powers: the evil not just within the human heart, but the evil within the whole universe, an evil that is even greater than our own creation.

We all come today, facing a variety of temptations, and perhaps find ourselves stuck in patterns of sin we’d rather not face. Many of us are struggling with these things alone, having bought into the lie that there is no devil, and so the source of our difficulty must be down somewhere within us. What is that thing? What is it that weighs you down so heavily? What prevents you from experiencing the new life and freedom promised in Jesus Christ? What baggage are you carrying around with you – that thing that has plagued you for years, that thing you’d be ashamed if anyone ever found out about. You don’t have to carry it anymore, for as Jesus stood against his own temptations, he also wishes to stand against your temptation and lift your burden. As big as evil can be, Jesus is still bigger and more powerful.

Hear the good news this first Sunday in Lent: whatever you’re up against, you don’t have to stand against it alone. This community of faith – this extension of the body of Christ – stands with you. Whatever you face, whatever wilderness you find yourself in this morning. Jesus, who knows what its like to look evil squarely in the eye, stands with you. Though temptation is real, Satan does not have the last word, and through Jesus Christ, we are more than conquerors, thanks be to God.