Sunday, December 14, 2008
“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, Wikipedia.org, 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.’”
If any of you have met my father, there is no denying the family resemblance. It is very clear, just in looking at the two of us, that I am my father’s son. In fact, you could look at photos of us taken at the same ages, and they look remarkably similar, with the exception of different hairstyles and clothing. Whenever I would leave the house, my parents would remind me, “Remember who are, and who you’re related to.” 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. This morning, we look together at Joseph and figure out together what he might say to us. May we pray.
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. He was well aware of the difference in their ages – Mary was a young girl, 14 or 15, at best, and he was pretty old in comparison. Joseph wondered if Mary might be embarrassed to be seen with him, or ashamed of him, or utterly repulsed by him, this old 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.” Now, has anyone ever said these words to you? Have you ever said these words to someone else? 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 what someone says when they’re about to end a relationship. “We need to talk” is always a precursor of serious 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. The punishment for such an indiscretion would have been death by stoning. As an unwed, pregnant teenager, Mary would have been on one of the lowest rungs in her society
A side note here. I think society – then and now, has been particularly hard on this particular teenage indiscretion. Yes, I understand the seriousness of teenage pregnancy. I’m well aware of how this complicates and changes lives. I’m aware that teenage pregnancy isn’t really a good thing. And, I’m pretty sure we’ve figured out what causes it. But too many times, when confronted with these prickly and delicate situations, I think the church has responded poorly. Too often, we have shunned the persons involved, and been heavy on judgment and light on compassion. At times in their lives when people need the love and support of a Christian community the most, we have tended to expel them from our midst. I’d ask us to look at how Jesus treated people. Tax collectors and prostitutes – two of the worst category of sinner in Jesus’ day – were people that he hung out with and loved and toward whom he showed compassion. I guess if have to err one way or the other, I’d rather err on the side of compassion than judgment.
But back to Mary and Joseph. Mary knew how precarious her situation was, and she knew what was within Joseph’s right to have done to her. Nevertheless, she continued to outline the story. “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! This is not the first time someone has played the God card in their own favor. Throughout history, people have tried to make God responsible for all sorts of things God really had nothing to do with. Last week, my eight-year-old nephew was assigned a timeout by my brother-in-law. He said, “Ummmm, I was praying, and God told me he doesn’t like timeouts.”
I wonder if Joseph thought Mary was pulling the same kind of stunt. He 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 arguing our own point and putting down the perspective of others. Faith is not about proving ourselves right and other people wrong. Faith is not about briefed on the right talking points. 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” (Jim Harnish).
In Protestant circles, we just haven’t known what to do with Mary and particularly with Joseph. We tend to treat him as a surrogate father, a character who fades into the background and doesn’t really influence the story line. But remember this: Joseph is the man God trusted to raise Jesus. He wasn’t just “some guy” who happened to be engaged and then married to the girl who carried the Messiah in her womb.
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. Joseph was a man of extreme faith, hope, and love, 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 days 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 14th of December, the third 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.
Wednesday, December 3, 2008
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Sunday, November 30, 2008
We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.
Let me be the first to wish you a Happy New Year. According to the secular calendar, I’m about a month too early. But according to the church’s calendar, this first Sunday of Advent marks the beginning of a new year. Advent always marks, for us, a new beginning, a time for us to wait in hopeful expectation for the presence of God to be born in our midst.
In our text this morning, that’s exactly what the prophet is waiting for. He writes as part of a people in exile, a people who have been cut off and destitute, a people who have become strangers in a strange land. He writes as part of a people who have lost everything they have ever known, a people who have become increasingly fearful and uncertain about the future. He writes as part of a people who desperately need some fresh hope.
Given our need for hope in the midst of a fearful and uncertain world, it seems a timely word for us as well. In our post-9/11 world, the threat of terrorism seems ever-present, and Homeland Security reinforces that fear as the threat level moves from yellow to orange to red. Economic policies of greed have led us into the worst financial crisis of the last 70 years, and in the last year, many of you have watched your 401(k) shrink to a 201(k). Unemployment is rising, inflation is picking up speed, and we are uncertain about the future. Yes, there is a word in the prophet’s message for us, as well. May we pray.
In our text, the people of Israel had been conquered by Babylon. Their temple had been destroyed, and the proud people who had once understood their nation to be uniquely blessed by God were humiliated, defeated, despairing, and fearful. Most of the people had been dragged off into slavery to their captors, and those who remained were reduced to eating dogs and rats. It is in this world, this world so desperately in need of hope, that Advent begins.
Israel knew from experience that the journey from fear to hope begins in remembering. They recall God’s mighty deeds in the past, times when they knew God’s presence and witnessed God’s power. They remember. Now, an important note here: memory is not the same thing as nostalgia. Memory says, “1955 was a great time.” Nostalgia says, “1955 was a great time and I wish we could re-create it again.” Nostalgia is a sickness and should be numbered among the mortal sins. Longing for the “good old days,” which, by the way, were not good for everyone, might very well jeopardize the hope of the future because of our emotional attachment to the past. We can spend so much time trying to re-create significant moments and experiences of our past that we are blind to the possibilities God places into our future, and unable to act on them when we do see them.
Let me tell you my experience of the difference between memory and nostalgia this week. On Friday night, I attended my high school reunion. It was 10 years for the graduating class of 1998 from Niagara Falls High School. I was driving over to the school, thinking to myself about who might be there and what they’ve been up to. Yes, I will confess, I was wondering who got fat. I wanted to know who was now bald. Then I looked in the rear-view mirror and thought I’d wonder about something else. I wanted to know who had the most kids. I wanted to know who had become a real success, and I wanted to know who was pretty much where they had been when we graduated.
Now, I remember high school, but for a few hours on Friday night, I felt myself re-living it in some sense. I was there sitting with the same people I ate lunch with for four years, carrying on as if it hadn’t been 10 years since I had returned some of their phone calls. Someone looked across the room at a girl we all used to pick on, and said, “Oh, can you believe SHE showed up?” I was thinking, “Ummmmmm, are we still in high school?” And then someone leaned over to me and said it. “This is great, don’t you wish it was still like this? Don’t you wish we were still in high school?”
I just wanted to scream! Sure, I remember high school, but I don’t want to re-live it! I just wanted to say, “You know, we weren’t as cool as we thought we were. Look, they’re showing the senior class video and slide show right now! Look at us! We weren’t that cool then, and we’re not that cool now! Do you realize how self-centered we were? Do you remember how mean we were to some people?” Why on earth would I want to re-live that?
For some people, high school is a memory. For others, it’s a place they continue to live, holding onto golden memories that never happened. That’s the difference between memory and nostalgia.
For people of faith, memory gives us something we can hang onto in difficult times. Memory gives us a collective story that we can share with one another. Memory reminds us of difficult times during our times of abundance, and it reminds us of abundant times during our times of scarcity. Memory gives us hope when the world tells us to fear. The prophet calls on the past experiences of the people to remind them of the power and presence of God in their lives. Memory gives us a voice for our faith when it seems God is silent.
For the author of Isaiah and the people of Israel, God had been silent lately. Isaiah cries, “Tear open the heavens and come down!” Now, I don’t believe that God is ever silent or stops speaking. I do think that the noise and distractions in our lives, as well as the receptivity of our hearts, can keep us from hearing God. Just as there are radio waves constantly bouncing through this room, we can’t hear them unless we have a receiver and are tuned in to the right frequency.
From the pit of despair, from the absolute bottom of the barrel, Isaiah calls for God to come to earth. We all know that’s exactly what happened 2000 years ago. God tore open the heavens and came down in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Isaiah called for God to come down, and Jesus was the fulfillment of that request.
No doubt, we will hear the Christmas story told many times and in many ways over the next month. In many of those tellings, it will be a sugar-coated sentimental story complete with smiling animals, angelic choirs, and wisemen who racked up a whole bunch of camel caravan miles. But as we re-tell that story, let us remember what was actually taking place. Let us not forget that the baby to be born is none other than God come to earth. The baby to be born is going to bring in a brand new world order. The baby to be born is going to establish a new kingdom whose values are completely opposite the values of the world. The baby to be born is going to save the world from itself.
Jesus’ birth is not going to be an isolated event happening to a poor couple at the edge of the empire. His birth is going to turn his family into political refugees. They will flee for their lives as every existing base of power, every institution, every preserver of the status quo is threatened to its core. Sure enough, as that baby grew, he threatened every power he encountered. If you are comfortably identified with the party in power, and someone comes along and declares a new order, you’d have a lot to fear. Jesus came proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God – that rough places were to be made plain, every valley exalted, every hill made low. He bound up the broken-hearted, he healed the wounded, he offered hope to the hopeless. He proclaimed release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, and liberty to the oppressed. That’s good news if you’re one of the captives, the blind, or the oppressed, but it’s not such good news if you’re one of the captors or the oppressors. The kingdom of God comes as good news to those on the bottom, but it sometimes appears to be bad news to those on the top. His kingdom continues to threaten every power and principality of this world.
In that light, it makes it difficult for us to over-sentimentalize the events that will take place in Bethlehem. We are not preparing for the birth of one baby among many; we are preparing for the messy and intrusive introduction of God into the world. We are preparing for everything to be turned upside-down and topsy-turvy.
But a word of caution for us here. When we locate ourselves in the Christmas story, as much as we think we want to be, we’re not in Bethlehem. We’re back in Rome, back in the bosom of the empire, cozied up around the fire with the powers and principalities. As a nation, we have enjoyed economic prosperity and security while other parts of the world have known poverty and vulnerability. We’ve bought into the idea that the more we can buy and the more security we can obtain, the happier we’ll be. We feed a system that tells our happiness is intrinsically-linked to how much stuff we obtain; the more we feed it, the more it demands of us. The more it demands, the more we feed it.
But, don’t you feel a certain emptiness from that system? I know I do. Don’t you feel that system is somehow broken? I know I do, and I think the events of the past few months illustrate this. Our current economic crisis is evidence that our appetite for economic expansion was greater than could be sustained. Advertisers have promised us that happiness lies in the purchase of that new car, that new home, that new electronic gadget, and this time of year we launch into our annual yuletide tradition of overspending, overdrinking, over-getting and over-giving, just hoping that this will be the year our emptiness is filled. Yet, the cold gray of January credit card bills will come, the tinsel will fade and the lights will come down, and once again, we’ll find the promised “Peace on Earth and Goodwill toward all” never materialized, and all we have are a few more trinkets and a mountain of bills. It’s hardly the happiness we expected.
But friends, there is hope. The prophet Isaiah looks for hope in a God who comes to earth, a God who self-empties, a God who, though he is rich, yet for our sakes becomes poor. The hope to which we look forward will be born in a stable in Bethlehem, and will bring in the kingdom of God. Hope that comes not from our political system, or our new toys, or our drugs, or our weapons, or our white Christmas. When the promises for happiness made by the powers and principalities of this world are proven to fail, hope comes to each of us, to the entire world, in fact, in the way of Jesus.
Oh yes, there is hope! Hope, says the prophet, comes not in wealth, security, pride, or the dizzying spiral of self-determinism. It comes when we realize that the prosperity and protection promised are empty and hollow. It comes from repenting of all these things and believing that a new way of healing and mercy can and will be born within each of us and within our world.
Oh yes, there is hope! There is hope when the people of God do the things of God. When we love our neighbors as ourselves, when we forgive, when we welcome, when we heal, when we establish peace, the presence of God is born in our world. Of all the things Jesus did when he was on earth, he promised that his disciples, his followers, including us, would do even greater things than he did. I believe he meant just that!
Oh yes, there is hope! There is hope when the Church acts like the Church– the redemptive community ordained to make disciples for the transformation of the world. We as the Church are not here for our own interests. We are not a country club. We are not a social service agency. We are not solely a non-profit organization. We have been called and established by God to be the agents of healing and hope in the world, to be the hands and feet of Christ, to bring light into dark places, to invite people on the margins of our society right into the center of God’s community, to freely and abundantly share the love of God. We are here not for our own interests, but for the world God so loved that he sent his one and only son that whoever believed in him would have life in his name. For God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but that through him, the world would be made new.
Friends, the transformation of the world hangs in the balance, and we are the ones called to bring it about. If we’re waiting for the government to do it, keep waiting. If we’re waiting for the financial institutions to do it, keep waiting. If we’re waiting for someone else to do it, it’s just not gonna happen. The hope of advent is that the kingdom of God really will be established on the earth, and this is an active hope that begs our participation.
I ask you, do you want to sit idly by and hope that something is going to happen, or do you want to be part of transforming the world? I ask you, do you want to be part of transforming the world? Somebody tell me, do you want to be part of transforming the world? This Christmas, when we celebrate how God has & continues to tear open the heavens & come down, do you want to be part of transforming the world? You can be.
This Christmas, I challenge all of us to live a little simpler in order that others may simply live. As December 25 draws near, I challenge each of us to cut what we’re planning to spend on Christmas gifts in half. Then, give half that amount to an organization or charity of your choosing that is directly involved in bringing hope into the lives of people without hope. Or, if you choose to spend the same amount on Christmas gifts as before, I challenge you to give an equal amount to one of these organizations. There are many good organizations you can give to. Samaritan’s Purse, right here in Boone, is obviously a good one. We’ve already heard about the Shoeboxes that are sent through Operation Christmas Child. Samaritan’s Purse is also involved in the Children’s Heart project, sustainable water and agricultural projects, education, and a host of humanitarian services around the world. Several folks in our church work with Samaritan’s Purse, and I know they could tell you some of the areas of greatest need.
For myself, I will be giving half the amount I would normally spend on gifts to the United Methodist Committee on Relief for ongoing humanitarian work in the Darfur region of Western Sudan in Africa. Right now in Darfur, civil unrest, hunger, and disease have taken the lives of between 300,000 and 400,000 people since 2003. More than 2 million men, women, and children are refugees with little drinkable water, food, protection, or hope. The United Nations has identified Darfur as the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today.
The United Methodist Committee on Relief is already in Darfur, working on sustainable agriculture and clean water projects, as well as training teachers and providing education for the hundreds of thousands of displaced children. 100% of what I send will be used directly in relief as administrative overhead costs are funded through other sources. If you would also like to contribute to this cause, tell me, and I’ll make sure you get the information on how you can send your gift in. We can all make a difference in the lives of people without hope.
During this advent season, we prepare for the coming of God into the world. We remember the way God freely and radically gave himself for the salvation of the world. You and I can be part of a solution to bring hope into the places where it is needed most. We pray constantly for God to tear open the heavens and come down into our world, which, in its pain and hurt, forever needs the touch of heaven.
Sunday, November 23, 2008
An imperfect community
The eleven disciples went to Galilee.” Eleven. It’s a number that just sort of limps across the finish line. It’s an imperfect number. It’s a constant reminder of the betrayal that has taken place within Jesus’ inner circle. Jesus has already lost 8.3% of his close following. At this rate, he’ll be lucky if there’s anybody left by Thanksgiving. Eleven – it’s so incomplete, so imperfect, just begging to be rounded out. “Make me a 12! Even a 10!” it pleads. Anything is better than being an 11.
The weekend before I graduated from seminary, I traveled with ten friends, all seminary students, to see baseball games in New York, Boston, and Baltimore. We called ourselves St. Abner’s 11, named of course, for Abner Doubleday, the originator of modern baseball. Being a bunch of theology nerds, we joked that the purpose of our trip was to search for Matthias, who eventually became the 12th disciple to take Judas’ place. In other words, we were looking for our 12th, for the person who would complete our merry little band. 11 just doesn’t sit right – it seems to need something else added.
And yet, back in our text, that’s who God chose to use. He didn’t tell the disciples to get their affairs in order and then come back. He didn’t wait for them to achieve perfection and then tell them what they were supposed to be doing. He didn’t wait for all their charge conference forms to be turned in. They were an imperfect little community, yet the commission was given to them.
Jesus has to be kidding us here. His timing couldn’t be worse. His selection of people is questionable. And what of the location? Galilee? That little backwater territory, removed from the beaten path, where even well-placed signs couldn’t help someone find it?
That’s just what God does sometimes. His timing is inconvenient. He calls people who, quite frankly, are not the sort of folks we thing would be likely to be working for God. And he even shows up in odd places, backwater places, inconvenient places.
Eleven – it reminds us that this community is imperfect, and that it desperately needs something else to complete it. But what it needs is not something we can provide. Yes, it’s begging for completion, but that missing piece can only be provided by God’s grace. In fact, that missing piece is God’s grace.
And so, God calls imperfect people, places them in imperfect situations at inconvenient times and tells us to work with other imperfect people, and he gives us his perfect work to do. I take this as proof that God does not call the strong, but the weak. God does not call those who are equipped, but equips those whom he calls. I am reminded over and over just how faithful God is, and how committed he is to us.
God loves imperfect people. God’s love and grace are 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.
If my grandfather was able to keep this kind of commitment, how much more so will God keep his commitment to us? And God shows his commitment by placing a call on us. God calls us all. He calls us all to be in ministry. This is sometimes surprising to us, and God often operates in ways which we did not expect.
How good that God does not operate according to the way we would expect. God does not operate on our terms. If God operated predictably and just how we would expect, one could make the argument that we are the ones who are sovereign over God. What God is worth worshipping who can be squeezed into a delicate little box that we have constructed according to our own needs?
All that Jesus commanded
But isn’t that sometimes what we do? We construct little God-boxes, where the religious part of our live is tucked away from everything else. But in the type of discipleship Jesus commissioned the disciples to invite people into, that’s not an acceptable option. Discipleship involves obeying everything Jesus commanded. Everything. Not just what particularly resonates with us. Not only what is politically correct. Everything. Is this really the sort of discipleship we want to invite people into?
To be a disciple of Jesus Christ means letting God out of the box. The wisdom of the world has taught us that religious activities can be included in your life in the same way that Kellogg’s Corn Pops are part of a balanced breakfast. All things in moderation, they say. You can have a little bit of fun and little bit of faith. Have a little bit of fun on Saturday night, and a little bit of faith on Sunday morning. The world calls this approach reasonable. The world calls this approach moderate. The world calls this approach balanced and healthy. The sovereign God, revealed to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, calls this approach “lukewarm.”
Poker has enjoyed a real rise in popularity in recent years. Now, because the social principles of the United Methodist Church are STRONGLY opposed to gambling, I know that none of YOU plays or ever has played poker, but you may have seen a Texas-hold-em tournament or something on ESPN. When a player goes “All In,” they’re betting everything they have against what the other players are holding. It’s all or nothing. They’ve picked something to place their faith in, and they’re going to stick with it ‘til the end.
That’s the sort of discipleship Jesus calls us to. He wants us to be all in with him. He wants us to obey everything he has commanded, and not simply pick and choose those aspects his teaching that seem to be the most convenient to us. It’s not the sort of thing that happens overnight. Learning how to be a disciple of Jesus takes a lifetime to learn. When we invite people to a life of discipleship, we are inviting them to a lifetime of learning. Learning what Jesus commanded. Learning how to obey those commands. Learning how to be transformed into the likeness of Christ. That’s right – it takes a lifetime to truly learn how to live.
When we become a disciple of Jesus, we are not adding some new extracurricular activity to our already crowded resume. We are not inviting people to join some social club or civic organization. Church membership is not a substitute for Christian discipleship. There are plenty of people on the rolls of many Christian churches who are not disciples – and I’m not asking you to name names.
Perhaps here is where I may get myself in trouble, but I’m really not interested in how many members a congregation or denomination adds in a year. I’m much more interested in how we’re doing at building disciples. Hear me correctly; I want people to join the church. But I want them to join as a sign of their commitment to the ministry God is doing in that place and through that people, that they have found a home, and are growing as disciples. Increased church attendance and membership is a byproduct of faithful discipleship, but it is never its goal. I’m more concerned with how people are growing in their faith, and what we’re doing to bring people to wholeness and fullness in Jesus Christ.
Discipleship is always a process of growing. None of us ever gets to a point where we have arrived and where we have nothing more to learn about what it means to follow Jesus. His instruction to obey everything he has commanded is a tall order, and one that none of us can possibly live into on our own. But we shouldn’t discourage that. When I was a kid, my mom used to take me shoe-shopping. I remember she always used to press her thumb down onto the toe of the shoe. If there wasn’t room for her thumb between my toes and the end of the shoe, she asked for the next largest size. We always bought shoes that were just a little too big, but sure enough, I always grew into them.
A full life of Christian discipleship is just a little bit too big for us as well, but it’s also something we can grow into. Our ability is less important than our availability. What we ourselves bring is less important than what God can do within and through us. When God’s Spirit moves across and through his people, it is a celebration that God brings about real transformation in the lives of God’s people.
A promise to be with us
Right at the end of the passage are these words from Jesus: “Remember, I am with you always, until the very end of the age.” Today is Christ the King Sunday, the last day in the church’s calendar before we begin a new year next week with the beginning of Advent. On Christ the King Sunday, we celebrate the reign of Christ here on earth and look forward to the consummation of all things at the end of the age.
When we talk about the kingdom of God, we celebrate that it is something to which we look forward, but it is also something we celebrate here and now. Every Sunday, we pray for God’s kingdom to come, for God’s will to be done, on earth, as it in heaven. Jesus proclaimed that the kingdom of God is at hand, that is, it is within our reach. If we follow Jesus, if we make other disciples who also follow Jesus, if we go “all-in” with Jesus, we will find the kingdom of God made present in our midst. Going “all-in” with Jesus, following so closely that I do the things did, I might actually love my neighbor as myself, pray for my enemies, forgive not just seven times but seventy times seven, be the light of the world, not be anxious about tomorrow, be merciful as my father in heaven is merciful, that I might serve rather than be served.
Do you long for a world like that? A world in which everyone was treated with the graciousness of Christ? I know I do. And I know it’s possible. This meal we are about to receive, this Communion, is sometimes described as a meal of God’s kingdom. It connects us with a Savior who emptied himself and gave up everything so that the world would have life in his name, and is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet God has invited each of us to. My hope this morning is that, as we gather at this table, we gather so close to Christ that our hearts would break for the world God loves, and that the kingdom of God would be known in our midst.
Sunday, August 31, 2008
Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”
But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” God also said Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: This is my name forever, and this is my title for all generations.
Have you ever done something you didn’t think you had the ability to do? My grandfather grew up in coal country in West Virginia, where his father was a mine safety inspector. He used to tell the story of two miners who were walking through the mine one day when a large slab of rock fell out of the ceiling and pinned one of the men. The other instantly picked up the slab and threw it 20 feet down the corridor, and the injured man lived. A few days later, he was walking through the same spot, and came across the slab of rock. He was unable to push it across the floor, let alone pick it up and hurl it 20 feet. Sometimes, through forces yet unexplained, we all accomplish extraordinary things.
In our text this morning, we see a very important episode from the life of a man named Moses. Mosesyou did some extraordinary things, there’s no doubt about that. After we’ve rattled off the list of his accomplishments, we may invite him as a guest speaker on Biblical leadership. But if we examine his story a little closer, we may surprised. Moses has lessons to teach us, all right, but it’s nothing that you’re going to learn in a seminar at the American Management Association or the Center for Creative Leadership. May we pray.
God told Moses, “Take off your shoes, Moses, and approach the burning bush.” Moses did, and burned his feet. And God said, “Ha! Third one today!”
Moses was having a very ordinary day. Let’s recall for a moment where he has been. He was born Hebrew, but raised Egyptian, a prince in the king’s household, as a matter of fact. Moses killed an Egyptian slave-driver who was beating a Hebrew slave, but afraid of this being discovered, fled to Midian. He’s a man with a past.
Moses was now a shepherd, taking care of his father-in-law’s sheep. The text says he had taken the flock out beyond the wilderness, which, from everything I can tell, is somewhere beyond Creston. He was just minding his own business, or at least, he was minding his father-in-law’s sheep. He comes across a rise in the landscape, and off to his side, a bush is burning. Now, Moses seems to be astonishingly disinterested in this sight. After a well-thought and reasoned debate with himself and a look through his appointment book, he decides he does, in fact, have time to turn aside and investigate.
A voice calls out from the bush. “Moses. Moses.” Twice his name is called, and this is significant. When God calls us, it’s never just once. God calls over and over again, simply waiting for God’s people to respond to the call. The call from God is like an alarm clock that only has a snooze button but no off button. Sure, you can hit the snooze button and get snug back in bed, but don’t get too comfortable. In another nine minutes, that sucker’s gonna go off again. And again. And again. You can ignore the call from God all you want, but God keeps calling.
Moses responds a little bit hesitantly. “Yeah, it’s me. I’m here. Ummmm, whaddya want?”
“Moses, I have seen the suffering of my people, and it grieves me deeply. I feel their pain. I know their hurt. I’m going to do something about it.”
Moses nodded thoughtfully, indicating that he was paying attention. “Sounds good to me, God. You go for it. I support and affirm your decision to do something about it, God.”
“Good. You’re going to help. I’m going to send you.”
It seems odd that God needs help from anyone, especially someone as inept as Moses. It’s odd for God to pick Moses, and this is certainly something he recognizes. He lodges five complaints and reasons why God should probably recruit someone else. He’s not good at public speaking, or politics, or theology. He doesn’t really have any of the skills required for liberating leadership. “God, I don’t mean to be disrespectful or anything, what with you being the God of my ancestors and the creator of the universe and having the ability to smite me and all, but I think you’ve made a mistake. I’m a very bad public speaker. When I open my mouth, it sounds like I’ve got marbles in there. And words don’t come easily to me. Oh Lord, please just send someone else.”
Quite an inspiring response to a call from God, isn’t it? But it’s not that unusual. Throughout history, those whom God has called have responded with any number of reasons why God must have made a mistake. Sometimes people haven’t felt up to the task, and sometimes people just really don’t want to be bothered. Abraham said, “I’m too old.” Jeremiah said, “I’m too young.” Isaiah said, “I am a man of unclean lips.” Gideon said, “I am the least of all people.” Peter said, “I’m too opinionated.”
It’s interesting that so many of us have such strong opinions on the type of person that God can and cannot use. Quite frankly, I think it’s because our society is insecure with God’s love. Some people are insecure in the knowledge that God loves them, and others are insecure in the knowledge that God loves people other than them. Let me explain. There seems to have been a lot of teaching that God is an angry, vengeful, wrathful God. People are so scared of incurring God’s wrath that they find it difficult to trust God’s love. But our relationship with God is so often likened to that of a parent and child. Loving parents love their children no matter what. They are grieved by things we do, but they still love us just the same. The love of a parent is not contingent upon a certain set of behaviors from their children. And the love of God is not contingent upon certain behaviors that are pleasing to God.
I know that my mom loves me no matter what. No matter what I do, no matter what I say, no matter who I am, she still loves me. I am 28 years old, and my mom is still my mom. When I am 58 years old, she’ll still be my mom. She tries not to interfere, but she’s still part of my life. Whether by phone or in person, she needs to be in touch. Back in June, my parents came to visit for 10 days. 10 days. That’s right, 10 days! I love my parents dearly, but it was 10 days! But here’s the thing; she needs to be mom. Even when she’s giving me advice about things I already know and have already done, and I roll my eyes so far back that she can see them 700 miles away and sigh real loud, “Okaaaay, Mom!” she says, “I’m sorry, you know I still have to be mom.”
I also know that God still has to be God. And a big part of that means God loves me no matter what. I also know that God loves you no matter what. I happen to think this world would be a much better place if every person not only knew that God loved them, but were secure in that knowledge. God cares what happens to us. God cares about every one of God’s creatures. God didn’t make any of us and then turn to an angel and say, “Whoops, I made a mistake.” No, what God said when he made you was, “It is good! It is very good!” Even when God made the humans who would betray him. Even when God made the humans whom the other humans seemed to hate, God still said, “It is good.” Even when God made those of us who have faults and failures and brokenness and hard hearts, God said, “It is good.”
Back in our text today, God looked at Moses with all his shortcomings and said, “Yes, you’re the one I want.” Moses protested. “I can’t. I shouldn’t get involved. I couldn’t do the job. I don’t want to.” Finally, God said, “Moses, this is not about you! Did it ever occur to you that what I’m doing is bigger than you?” And friends, that’s the danger in responding to a call from God; you will find yourself caught up in something larger than yourself.
For Moses and for us, it is in very mundane, ordinary circumstances that God chooses to reveal God’s self. Throughout the Scriptures and throughout our own lives, we find God using very ordinary things to be revealed to us. God is using things close at hand, things familiar, and using them with people where they are, to reveal divine presence and will. In baptism, God uses ordinary water to reveal remarkable truths to us and to make us part of a great and wonderful story. Every time we bring another person to the baptismal font, we proclaim the very real truth that, even in the midst of a world which forgets and devalues too many people—this person, and every other person, is a child of God. We declare that God knows us before we know ourselves, and that God is committed to us despite the outcome of life yet to be lived.
Despite his protests, God knew that Moses was going to be fine, but Moses didn’t know it. God was going to give Moses everything he’d need to fulfill his mission. The challenge was in getting Moses to trust God enough to work in, through, and around his shortcomings. The challenge was in getting Moses to realize that it wasn’t all about himself. The call from God draws us to a place slightly beyond ourselves, and our own traditions, and our own politics, and our own theological perspective, and our own understanding.
It is when we insist on understanding that which is infinite that we get ourselves into trouble by blundering into the mistaken notion that we have it all figured out. Trouble that caused the crusaders to slaughter Greek Christians. Then later, trouble that caused Inquisition Christians to burn other Christians. And then trouble that caused Catholics to kill Protestants, and Protestants to kill Catholics, whomever was in power at the time. Every time, it was because each thought their own position to be absolutely right and the other to be absolutely wrong. It is when we insist on defining God’s love or God’s anger that we blunder into anti-Semitism, or join rigid sects that promise us all the easy answers.
But God did not give easy answers. God gave a call, an invitation into relationship, and a commitment and promise to be with us despite our shortcomings. God gave a call, to be swept up in something beyond ourselves, to be part of a community of mutual love, forgiveness, and support. God gave a call in which each of us realized it wasn’t all about ourselves. If your only goal in life is to get your needs met or advance your own cause or exalt yourself at the expense of others, you’ll certainly miss out on what God intends for you. The purpose of human life has always been about being a part of that which is greater and larger and more enduring than one’s self.
In fact, when God calls, something of ourselves needs to be given away – our self will, our predisposition to think more highly of ourselves than we ought, our egotistical judgments about other people’s sins. Whenever I do that, I can just hear God telling me to look at my own sins. The call from God is an invitation from self-centered living to God-centered living. The call from God is a reminder that we are part of the great story of God’s salvation of the world, and that God’s faithfulness is not dependent upon us for its beginning or its end. The call from God is an invitation to be integrated into the community of faith, a community whose heart breaks for the world God loves, a community who proclaims God’s love for every one of God’s beloved children.
Friends, that’s a big task. It’s almost an impossible one. But if God is going to call us to participate in this great work, God will also equip us. The bush burned for Moses, and he responded to God’s call, and with God’s help, accomplished some extraordinary things. The bush burns for you and me, and with God’s help, we can accomplish some extraordinary things as well. That is, if we’ll respond to the call.
Sunday, July 13, 2008
The next day John again was stranding with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi,” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).
I need to let you know this morning that this particular sermon is not going where you think it is. Sermons on this passage have tended to focus on either the beginning or the end of the story – either they focus on Jesus as the Lamb of God, or they focus on Simon Peter, who gets the nickname “rock.” While either one of these would make for a good sermon, that’s not where I want to focus today.
Today, I’d like for us to think about little brothers. Who in the room has a little brother? Take a look around, I want everyone to note this. Now, who in the room is a little brother? Those of you who raised your hand the first time, I want you to take special note of these little brothers around you! Little brothers have it tough, growing up in the shadow of their older siblings. Little brothers find themselves often wanting to be like their big brothers, but wanting to do it on their own and without any extra help. Little brothers tire of being compared to their older siblings, and often develop fiercely independent personalities.
In our text today, we also meet two brothers. We meet Simon Peter, and his little brother, Andrew. Andrew is an average Joe, an ordinary guy. We know Andrew, but we’ve overlooked him so many times. The Andrews of the world easily disappear within the shadow of the more dynamic Peters. But, as a little brother myself, I think the little brothers of the world have been overlooked for too long! As an Andrew myself, I think the Andrews of the world have been overlooked for too long! Before we’re all said and done today, hopefully you’ll see why the world could use a few more Andrews. May we pray.
Who was Andrew?
Andrew was Simon Peter’s kid brother. I picture him growing up in his big brother’s shadow. When they played a game growing up, who decided what they would play? Simon Peter. When a joke was being told, who was telling it? Simon Peter. When someone asked them a question about fishing, who jumped in with an immediate response? Simon Peter. In the background, playing second fiddle, was Andrew. People always knew he was there, but he never got quite the recognition his older brother did.
In our text, we’re told that Andrew was a disciple of John the Baptist. Remember that a disciple is simply someone who follows someone else. Andrew resonated with John the Baptist’s message and wanted to immerse himself in his teaching. In our text today, John the Baptist is standing there as Jesus walks by, sometime very shortly after Jesus’ baptism. He whispers. “Pssst. Hey Andrew. That’s him. That’s the guy. You know, the one I’ve been telling you about from the beginning. You know, the Lamb of God. The one who will take away the sin of the world, who will change the world, the one who will bring about reconciliation between all the world and God. That’s him!”
Andrew doesn’t need to hear anything else. Before John has even stopped speaking, Andrew is off. He knew John’s message was one of preparation, and his teacher has just told him that the person for whom he was preparing has arrived. Andrew doesn’t need further convincing. Andrew has been a disciple of John the Baptist, and now, he will be a disciple of Jesus. He knew that his time with John the Baptist was to prepare for an encounter with the Lamb of God, the Messiah, the Anointed One. I doubt he really knew what to expect as he followed Jesus. He simply knew that he was to follow him, and when he did, his life was forever changed.
Andrew was just an ordinary guy
I mentioned earlier that Andrew often fades into the shadow of his more gregarious brother, Simon Peter. Part of the reason is that Andrew is much more ordinary than his older brother. Simon Peter – he’s someone you meet only once in a great while. He’s the guy up front, the guy who can do all things and do them well – and he gets all the attention. He’s the one we read about in the newspapers and watch on the evening news. When you get your alumni magazine, you immediately flip to the alumni notes section to see what extraordinary things he’s been up to lately. He’s a rare species, he’s larger than life, and you remember meeting someone like him.
But Andrew is just a normal, average guy. Andrew is someone you meet everyday. He drives your bus, he sits next to you in class, he’s the vice president at your bank, he’s your next-door neighbor, and your daughters play softball together. Every few years, you read about in the alumni magazine because he got a modest promotion, or moved to a new town 70 miles away, or had another baby. Andrew is just a regular, ordinary, normal guy – someone just like you and me. And that’s what I want us to remember about Andrew – he is a regular, ordinary, normal guy – someone just like you and me.
And it is his ordinary-ness that makes him so remarkable. For every Simon Peter, there are 10,000 Andrews. For every gregarious, charismatic, talented up-front person, there are 10,000 regular, ordinary, normal people. It is Andrew’s ordinary-ness that makes it possible for God to use him like he does. Let’s look further at how God used an ordinary guy like Andrew.
God’s use of the ordinary
Andrew follows Jesus and ends up spending the better part of 24 hours with him. We don’t really know what they talked about, or what happened, or what was said. But something happened that was truly transformative, and Andrew became a disciple of Jesus Christ.
And what did he do? First thing the next morning, Andrew ran to find his larger-than-life big brother and share the wonderful news, “We have found the Messiah. The one for whom we have hoped for so long is here, he is among us. I have met him, and I want you to meet him too.”
Andrew shows us what it means to be an evangelist. A pastor in our conference was meeting with his evangelism team one night at the beginning of a new year, and the new members of the team wanted to know if they could change their name. They were uncomfortable with the word “evangelism.” For half the group, the term brought to mind people like Billy Graham, and they didn’t feel worthy to be associated in the same company. For the other half of the group, the term brought to mind a host of television preachers, including Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart, and they didn’t want to be associated in the same company.
So here is how Andrew shows us what it means to be an evangelist. Andrew was an ordinary person, who had an encounter with Jesus and felt something within himself changed. And so, he went and found his brother and brought him to Jesus. Andrew did not try to convert his brother. Andrew did not try to change his brother or convince his brother. Andrew knew that if he brought his brother into the presence of Jesus, that his brother could be transformed just the way that he had been transformed by Christ. Andrew brought his brother to Jesus, and Simon Peter gave his life to Christ.
In fact, everywhere we meet Andrew throughout the rest of the story, he brings people to Jesus. When a great crowd had gathered and was starting to get hungry, Andrew had been talking to a little boy who had a sack lunch with five loaves of bread and two fish in it. Andrew said, “I would like you to meet Jesus.” Jesus transformed that little boy, transformed his meager meal, and transformed the crowd. Then later, Andrew meets a few Greeks – a few outsiders, that is – and introduces them to Jesus and they become disciples. Everywhere you turn, he is bringing people and introducing them to Jesus, and lives are changed because of it. One doesn’t need to be flamboyant and larger than life like Peter. The world needs regular people, just like Andrew, who bring people to Jesus. And when people are brought to Jesus, lives are transformed.
Vince Antonucci tells the story of speaking at a conference for teenagers. He gave his message, and then offered an invitation for the students to come forward who wanted to give their lives to Jesus. The stream of kids slowed to a trickle, and then stopped altogether. Vince closed his eyes and prayed, “God, maybe there’s one more kid who needs to give their heart to you. No one’s coming forward now, but maybe there’s one more kid . . . “ He opened his eyes, and a boy with no arms or legs was getting pushed to the front of the room in his wheelchair by two of his friends, both with smiles beaming. He thought, “Wow, that kid must have had such a rough life. I am so glad that now he’s going to have Jesus in his life. And thank you, God, that he had friends who were willing to invite him to come along, and to hang out with him.”
Who is the Andrew in your life? Who is the person or the people who cared enough about you to introduce you to Jesus? Was it a parent? A pastor? A neighbor? A co-worker? An ordinary, average, regular little brother? But another question for you: in whose life can you be an Andrew? Who is waiting for you to introduce them to Jesus? To whom can you say, “Come and see?”
It’s as simple as an invitation. This story focuses on invitation. The text shows us that simple words of invitation are more crucial to the life of redemption than our grand and well thought-out proclamations and carefully worded doctrinal statements. The church begins with an invitation, and it spreads, person to person, house to house, nation to nation, with the simple words of a heartfelt invitation.
Jesus invites Andrew to “Come and See,” and Andrew invites Simon Peter to see what he has seen. From this point on, the way to Jesus is experienced through personal invitations. Our evangelism is simply a reflection of this truth. Andrew invites Simon Peter to come and see; Andrew welcomes because he was welcomed himself. We welcome because we were welcomed ourselves. We invite because we were invited.
Something so ordinary as an invitation, yet look at the extraordinary things God accomplishes through the ordinary. Through ordinary water, God is able to cleanse us, claim us, and commission us in baptism. Through ordinary bread and wine, God draws us into fellowship and strengthens us for a life of discipleship. Through ordinary people, people like Andrew, people like you and me, God’s love and redemption is offered to a hurting and broken world. People are invited to come and see, people are brought into the presence of Christ, people have an encounter with the living Lord, and their lives are transformed.
The world could use a few more Andrews. The world could use a few more people who bring people to Jesus.
Sunday, July 6, 2008
Joseph, being seventeen years old, was shepherding the flock with his brothers; he was a helper to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives, and Joseph brought a bad report about them to their father. Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he made him a long robe of many colors. But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.
Once Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more. He said to them, “Listen to this dream I dreamed. There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Suddenly, my sheaf rose and stood upright; then your sheaves gathered around it, and bowed down to my sheaf.” His brothers said to him, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Are you indeed to have dominion over us?” So they hated him even more because of his dreams and his words.
He had another dream, and told it to his brothers, saying, “Look, I have had another dream: the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” But when he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father rebuked him, and said to him, “What kind of dream is this that you have had? Shall we indeed come, I and your mother and your brothers, and bow to the ground before you?” So his brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.
Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem. And Israel said to Joseph, “Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them.” He answered, “Here I am.” So he said to him, “Go now, see if it is well with your brothers and with the flock; and bring word back to me.” So he sent him from the valley of Hebron.
He came to Shechem, and a man found him wandering in the fields; the man asked him, “What are you seeking?” “I am seeking my brothers, he said; tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock.” The man said, “They have gone away, for I heard them say, ‘Let us go to Dothan.’” So Joseph went after his brothers, and found them at Dothan. They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to hill him. They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what has become of his dreams.” But when Rueben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.” Rueben said to them, “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him” – that he might rescue him out of their hand and restore him to their father. So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the long robe with many colors that he wore; and they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.
Then they sat down to eat, and looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels carrying gum, balm, and resin, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers agreed. When some Midianite traders passed by, they drew Joseph up, lifting him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt.
When I am up here in front of the congregation, there is a little mental game I like to play sometimes. I like to look across the congregation at heads bowed, and ask myself, “Who’s Praying, Who’s Sleeping?”
The next time the person next to you falls asleep in church, you’ll be tempted to wake them up. Before you do, you may want to think twice. As it turns out, people used to go to the temple and intentionally fall asleep, hoping that God would speak to them through dreams. So, when I look around the congregation and see people starting to nod off, I don’t take offense; I simply assume they are participating in a great Biblical tradition.
Today is the second of three sermons you selected for me to preach. You will recall that several weeks ago I gave the congregation the opportunity to vote on their favorite Bible stories, and agreed that I would preach the three most popular choices. Last week was Noah’s Ark, July 20th will be Jonah and the great fish, and this morning, we’re looking together at Joseph’s dreams. May we pray.
I remember a recurring dream I had in the months before my graduation from Duke. The dream was always, more or less, the same. The divinity school holds its ceremony in Duke Chapel. We would be lined up in alphabetical order, marching from the hallowed halls of the divinity school across the quad and into the chapel. Of course, my parents and grandparents were inside somewhere, ready to watch me receive my degree. Just before I passed through those great oak doors into the Chapel, a member of the administration – sometimes the registrar, sometimes the dean, once the president of the university – would pull me out of line. It seemed there had been an oversight when they reviewed my academic file, and I had failed to register for one required class, but that oversight would keep me from receiving my degree that night.
When the actual night of graduation finally rolled around, I can’t tell you how nervous I was. I frantically walked across the quad, my eyes darting left and right, certain that, at any moment, Dean Jones was going to jump out from behind a bush and give me the horrible news that I was not graduating that night.
This morning, our Biblical text introduces us to Joseph, a person who was no stranger to dreams. You probably know him as the star of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hit Broadway musical, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. I’d like us to take a look at Joseph, his family, and his dreams.
Joseph comes from a long line of dreamers. He is the great-grandson of Abraham, the father of many nations. God made a covenant with Abraham. “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” This covenant will mark the people of God, and God’s people for all subsequent generations, including ours, are blessed in order to be a blessing to others.
Abraham’s son was Isaac, Joseph’s grandfather. Isaac is the son promised to Abraham and Sarah in their old age, and he is often remembered as the child who was almost sacrificed by his father.
Isaac’s son was Jacob, Joseph’s father. Jacob is a pretty crafty member of the family – he tricks his elderly father into giving him the blessing intended for his older brother. Jacob dreams of a ladder stretching into heaven, with angels descending and ascending on it, and God is revealed to Jacob through this dream. God brings Jacob into the covenant he established with his grandfather Abraham, and it is clear that the two intend to walk together, or in the concept I shared in last week’s sermon, that the two intend to dance together.
Now, Jacob the trickster gets one-upped himself when it comes to marriage. He has his eyes set on Rachel, the younger of the daughters of a guy named Laban. Laban agrees to let Jacob marry Rachel after 7 years of work. However, Laban tricks Jacob into marrying his older, less attractive daughter, Leah. So, Jacob works another 7 years in order to get Rachel, which I’m sure set up healthy family dynamics between the two sisters. Jacob ends up with a total of four wives – Leah, Rachel, and their maids – Bilhah and Zilpah.
Rachel was the favored wife; after all, she’s the only one he wanted in the first place. These wives would produce a total of 12 sons for Jacob. Rachel only had two sons, Joseph, the star of today’s story, and Benjamin, during whose birth Rachel died. Though Benjamin was the youngest, his father always associated his birth with Rachel’s death. And so, Jacob played favorites toward Joseph.
By the time we meet up with Joseph in this morning’s text, he is seventeen years old. Whatever else you know about Joseph, I want you to remember this: Joseph was an obnoxious, spoiled, egotistical brat. Only two verses into this morning’s reading, he is giving a bad report to his father about his two wives. In other words, Joseph was a tattletale.
The relationship among Joseph and his brothers was no ordinary sibling rivalry. It was outright hatred, such to the point that they never even greet him with a daily “Shalom.” They wouldn’t even give him the time of day.
And can you blame them? They were always out working in the fields and tending after the flocks, while Joseph was sleeping in ‘til noon and playing Guitar Hero all day. Joseph always got the last piece of pizza, or an extra baked potato, or a second bowl of ice cream. The other eleven brothers had to share a room, but Joseph had a room entirely to himself with its own private bathroom. And Joseph always got the fanciest designer clothes his father could get his hands on, while his brothers were left to fend for themselves.
This family seems to have taken the fun right out of dysfunctional. There is plenty of blame to go around. Jacobs favors one son over the others. Joseph is an unwise tattletale and braggart. His brothers are full of hate toward him, and even quarrel among themselves as to how they should treat him.
Now, Joseph should have known that his brothers hated him. You would think that he would have been a little more cautious about how he acted around them, but not our Joseph. He’s either foolish or brash, or perhaps a little bit of both. “Hey guys,” he says. “Let me tell you about this dream I had.” We were all out binding sheaves of corn in the field. Suddenly, all on its own, mine stood straight up, and all of yours gathered around it and bowed down before it. Isn’t that a cool dream?”
I don’t know what response Joseph expected to get from his brothers. Did he think this dream was going to impress them? Were they going to be awestruck? Dismiss it some indigestion from whatever bedtime snack he had the night before? Whatever Joseph expected, the text tells us that Joseph’s brothers hated him even more because of his dreams and his words.
Not learning his lesson the first time, Joseph shares another dream with his brothers. “The sun, moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” At this, even his doting father rebukes him. Remember, his father was no stranger to dreams. “Son, you’ve got to be careful running around talking like this. Even if you’re having these dreams and think they mean something, maybe you should just keep some things to yourself.”
The story goes on as Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery and he is taken to Egypt, where, interestingly enough, he is still dreaming. Only now, he is interpreting other people’s dreams. He meets two servants of the pharaoh in prison, and they tell him about dreams they’ve had, and he interprets their meanings. He then interprets some dreams of the pharaoh himself that predict seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. Joseph is put in charge of the affairs of the country because of this, and in an ironic twist, meets his brothers when they come to Egypt to purchase some of the excess grain that was prudently stored during the years of plenty. His brothers bow before him in humility, fulfilling what was prefigured in Joseph’s dream in today’s text, the dream for which his brothers hated him even more.
We see clearly that Joseph’s dreams meant something. The dreams of those he encountered meant something. Indeed, throughout the great Biblical tradition, dreams mean something.
My grandfather used to tell us about a recurring dream he had. He would be walking around in a strange town, utterly lost. He realized at some point that he wasn’t wearing any clothes. In conversation with other members of the family, he discovered that his brother-in-law was having a similar recurring dream. They agreed that the next time either one had the dream, they’d look for each other instead of wandering around the town by themselves.
Many of you have participated in an on-going conversation with me throughout the week on the significance of dreams. I sent out a mass email to hundreds of you and asked you to respond to two questions. 1. What recurring dreams are you having lately? and 2. Do you think dreams actually mean anything or not?
It will not surprise you to learn that the responses to these questions were as varied as each of us. However, a couple things did surprise me in your responses. One, I was surprised at the sheer number of responses. I opened my email the morning after I asked for your responses, only to find that you had literally flooded my Inbox. Two, I was surprised at the deeply personal nature of much of what you shared.
Some of you shared dreams with very little commentary as to their meaning. Others offered half-hearted guesses at what these dreams might have meant. Still others went into great detail about what some of these dreams did mean, and the profound connections these dreams made into your lives.
Here are some of the things you’re dreaming about. Moving. Making a hole-in-one. Conversations with friends and loved ones who have passed into the next life. Moments of awful pain and suffering. Trying to get the attention of someone who had died. Snakes. Brake failure. Missing or forgetting class, appointments, meetings and a whole host of other things. Visions of children and grandchildren being born. Things from our childhood that needed to be resolved. Being trapped – under water, in elevators, in long hallways without doors and windows. Appalachian football. Getting lost in hotels, churches, schools, businesses, homes, or on remote roads. A few of you even said you’d had dreams about me, but, that’s all I have to say about that.
But, what does all this mean? Are our dreams messages? And if they are, who is sending the message?
Dreams can be one of the many ways that God speaks to us. If you want to explore this subject in greater depth, Bobby Sharp recommended a book to me. It’s Dreams: God’s Forgotten Language by John Sanders. He develops the idea that rationalistic, enlightened people like ourselves have cut ourselves off from communicating with God through dreams and have chosen to ignore the spiritual and psychological elements of many of our dreams.
But it’s not just dreams through which God speaks. That’s only one channel. God speaks through worship. God speaks through music. God speaks through the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion. God speaks through studying the Scriptures. God speaks through prayer. God speaks through our generosity of our time and resources. God speaks through our life experiences. God speaks through conversation with our friends and family. The more channels of divine communication we tune into, the more likely we are to catch the message. If we will simply pay attention to some of these things, I think we’ll find God speaking all the time.
Sometimes, a dream is just a dream. It might be just some random information that found itself together while you slept. It could be anxiety working itself out. It could be a pastrami sandwich you had right before bed.
But sometimes, a dream is a little message. We find that, in our waking and in our sleeping, God continues to work. God has placed a bit of himself within each of us – a dream of what we can become as individuals, but also a dream of what we can become as a community of faith. Identify that dream, figure out what it is, and never let it go. This morning, it is easy enough for me to say, “Never lose sight of your dream,” but I want to go one better. Whatever your dream is, whatever it is that God has placed inside of you to do, or to be, or to become, may it happen in accordance with the will of God. The Lord was with Joseph, may He be with you as well.
Sunday, June 1, 2008
“So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.
Last May, one of our students graduated from ASU’s Walker College of Business. She called me a few weeks later to tell me about a job interview she had been on. She answered an ad for a small company looking for an accountant. The interview was conducted by the owner and founder of the company, a nervous, squirrelly, little man.
“I need someone with an accounting degree,” he said. “But mostly, I need someone to do my worrying for me.”
“Excuse me?” our bright, young accountant said.
“I worry about a lot of things,” the man explained. “But I don’t want to worry about money. Your job will be to take all the money worries off my back.”
“I see. And how much does the job pay?”
“I’ll start you at eighty thousand dollars.”
“Eighty thousand dollars!” she exclaimed. “How can such a small business afford such a large sum?”
“That,” the owner said, “is your first worry.”
I meet a lot of people who are worried about an awful lot of things. Worry seems to have become a national pastime. We worry about more things, and we worry about them at younger and younger ages. Because of my ministry among college students and young adults, and because of my many friends who are constantly going through major life transition, I meet a lot of people who are worried about their purpose in life. “What am I supposed to do with the rest of my life?” “What is my meaning in life?” “What has God put me on the planet to do?”
What is your life’s purpose? Pay close attention, because within the next 20 minutes, I hope God will tell us.
We are a society who loves to worry. This worrying and the accompanying planning starts earlier and earlier. If you want to get a good job, you have to get into the right graduate program, which means you first have to choose the right college and graduate with the appropriate degree. But to get into that college, you need to have good grades from the right high school and the accompanying array of extracurricular activities. But, even before that, children need to be in the right elementary schools and preschools and daycare centers, where they will learn valuable life skills, make important social contacts, and learn how to live in harmony with their fellow human beings. But before that, you had better make sure your children see the right pediatricians and psychologists, but those are dependent upon references from the right obstetrician. In short, if you plan to have children within the next 15 years and have not already made sufficient plans, you may have already ruined your children’s future. This will affect you negatively because your children will choose your retirement home.
In our text this morning, Jesus tells us not be people consumed by worry. “Consider the birds of the air,” he says. They don’t sow and reap. They don’t gather into barns. Yet, your heavenly father takes care of them. “Consider the lilies of the field.” They don’t toil or spin. Yet, your heavenly father takes care of them. The lilies, the birds do not plan and worry. Yet, your heavenly father takes care of them. So then, why do we worry? Will not our heavenly father take care of us as well?
We may be tempted to dismiss Jesus’ words here as a quaint teaching for a simpler time. Life wasn’t as competitive, we say. They weren’t faced with the same threats we are. But consider the context in which Jesus spoke this teaching. The unemployment rate of first century Palestine was probably approaching 50%. People literally did not know where their next meal was coming from. They were occupied and taxed heavily by a Roman government. Traveling from town to town or finding yourself outside the gates of the city after dark was literally taking your life in your own hands. Certainly, there were plenty of things to worry about. In the midst of that, Jesus says, “Quit worrying. Quit worrying about tomorrow. Today’s trouble is enough.”
One of the greatest philosophers and social critics of all time summarizes this teaching for us nicely. I appeal to his great wisdom as something from which we can all learn. I appeal, of course, to the noble, the venerable, the enlightened teaching of Charlie Brown. “I’ve developed a new philosophy . . . I only dread one day at a time.”
One day at a time – friends, that’s how we’re called to live!
God’s will for your life is not some path stretching off into the horizon. In fact, God’s will for your life is much more immediate. Getting your life in line with God’s will forces you to ask one very simple, direct question. What are you doing with your life right now?
Don’t worry about what to do with the rest of your life. God doesn’t want you to be worried that far ahead. I’m convinced that what Jesus calls us to do is solve this problem: How should I be living today? Is God being glorified, is Christ being shown in how I’m living today? This hour? Right here at this very moment?
Mike Yaconelli tells the story of a lay leader in his church who didn’t lead. You know, who didn’t live up to his responsibilities. There was a group of young people who conducted a monthly worship service at a local old folks’ home, and Mike finally convinced that lay leader to at least drive them every month.
He was there at the home, standing in the back with his arms crossed as the kids set up. Suddenly, there was a tug on his sleeve. He looked down at an old man in a wheelchair. He took hold of the old man’s hand, and the old man didn’t let go all through the service. This was repeated the next month, and the next month, and the next month. Then one month, the old man wasn’t there. The lay leader asked about him and was told he could find him down the hall, third door on the right. “He’s dying. He’s unconscious, but if you want to go pray over his body, that would be all right.”
The lay leader went and there were tubes and wires all over the place. He took the man’s hand, and prayed that God would receive him graciously from this life into the next. When he finished, the man squeezed his hand, and he knew his prayer had been heard. He was so moved that tears began to roll down his cheeks. He stumbled out of the room and ran into a woman. She said, “He’s been waiting for you. He said that he didn’t want to die until he had the chance to hold the hand of Jesus just one more time.”
The lay leader was amazed at this. “What do you mean?”
She said, “My father would say that once a month Jesus came to this place. ‘He would take my hand and he would hold my hand for a whole hour. I don’t want to die until I have the chance to hold the hand of Jesus one more time.’”
Friends, I don’t know what you think God’s will for your life is, but I’ll tell you it is this: God’s will for your life is to do what Jesus would do in your place. It’s to be Jesus for people who are in need. It’s to be Jesus for people who are hurt. It’s to be Jesus for people who are lonely.
If you’re going to be Jesus to people, you have to treat them like Jesus would have treated them.
First, you have to believe in people. Jesus seemed to be drawn to people the world had given up on. Many of them had long given up on God! It had been years since they believed in God. But yet, as Jesus shows us, God never stopped believing in them. While the world believes in a God who helps those who help themselves, Jesus reveals a God who helps those who cannot help themselves.
When Jesus met a tax collector, or a prostitute, or a paralytic, or someone demon-possessed, he didn’t see a tax collector, or a prostitute, or a paralytic, or someone demon-possessed. No, Jesus saw someone created in the image of God, one of God’s precious children, a person of inestimable and sacred worth.
When we meet the modern-day equivalents of these people, we are called to believe in them just as Jesus would. We are called to believe that God is not finished with them, and that every life is an arena for the glory of God to be revealed. If you’re going to be Jesus for people, you’ve got to forgive them.
Second, you have to forgive people. Chuck Colson tells a story about a prison ministry his church was involved with. After the service, they were leaving, and discovered one member of the group was missing. They found him in a cell on his knees praying with one of the prisoners. Chuck said, "I scolded the man and said, ‘You're ruining our good graces here! Please come out of there. What's going on?'" The man rose to his feet and said, "I'm Judge Brewer. This is a man that I condemned to death. We need some time to forgive each other."
Who in our lives stands in need of forgiveness? We are called to forgive them, just as Christ has forgiven us. We are called to offer the hope of new beginnings to anyone and everyone, regardless of what they may have done. If you’re going to be Jesus for people, you’ve got to believe in them.
The last thing I hold before you is this: you have to love people unconditionally. Jesus calls us to exercise unrestrained love. It is easy for us to love that which is lovely, or desirable, or pleasing to our own sensibilities. It is much more difficult to love that which, from our perspective, is ugly, or undesirable, or disturbing to our own sensibilities.
How often, when something appears outside of our own self-determined realm of acceptability, do we ignore or reject it? How often, when someone appears outside of our own self-determined realm of acceptability, do we reject them? Mother Teresa said, “If you judge people, you have no time to love them.”
It is not our job to determine who gets into God’s kingdom. It is not our job to determine who is and who is not the worthy recipient of God’s love. We are not the judge, the jury, nor the executioner. We are called to be witnesses of God’s great love in Jesus Christ. If you’re going to be Jesus for people, you’ve got to love them unconditionally.
God’s will for your life is to be Jesus for people whenever and wherever you meet them. Over the long run, if you continue to be faithful day by day, moment by moment, you will find your life to be the perfect reflection of God’s will. We are called to show people a God who loves them unconditionally, who forgives them, who believes in them.
In so doing, we will find the grace of God rich in our lives and in the lives of others. We will find ourselves gathered as one family, as brothers and sisters in Christ, as children of a heavenly Father, who invites us in our unity to a table lovingly spread with bread and wine – a place where we commune with God and with one another. Christ has already invited you that table – come, let us join there now.
Sunday, March 30, 2008
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt, but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
Christ is risen! (Wait for response). Today is Easter. It may surprise you, but today is Easter. Last week, we pulled out all the stops. The choir was full, the church was full of flowers, we had brass and strings at the 11 o’clock service, and we all went home filled with the joy of the resurrection.
Today, the choir is off, the lilies are wilting, and the preaching duty falls to your associate pastor, lowly and humble is he.
And yet, you’re still here. Why are you here? Because, today is still Easter. In fact, every day is Easter for Christians, because every day we remember that Christ died and rose on our behalf, and we remember that he has conquered the powers of sin and death. Easter isn’t just a day on a church’s calendar to be celebrated only once a year. Easter is a way of life which unlocks all doors, and most especially, the door of death. May we pray.
In our text this morning, we encounter the disciples of Jesus on the evening on the first Easter Sunday. Perhaps only 12 hours earlier, Jesus has appeared to the women in the garden, and the resurrection is now a reality rather than something hoped for. Yet, the picture we get of the disciples in our text this evening doesn’t exactly fill us with the hope of the resurrection. This text tended to focus on Thomas, and the moral of the story was that Thomas was a dull, doubting follower of Jesus whose example we shouldn’t imitate. Don’t be like Thomas! Believe! Don’t doubt!
I have to admit I always thought this treatment of Thomas was a little bit unfair. After all, we Thomases tend to stick together! Thomases are practical, down-to-earth, rational people. Thomases are concrete. Thomases are the ones you want on the team, because they usually assign lists of the work to be done to various team members, and help pull those silly daydreamers down out of the sky. Someone with the name Thomas simply wants all the available evidence placed in front of them before they make their mind up on something.
I don’t think Thomas’ request is all that unreasonable. In fact, I think it’s a shame that all we know him for is his doubt, when there’s really so much more to him. Thomases, you see, are complex people. Whenever this lesson was taught in Sunday School, the teacher would tell us not to be like Thomas because he doubted. Perhaps what was most troubling to me, however, was not the fact that we shared a name, but that I, like this other Thomas, had my doubts.
What is the relationship between doubt and faith? The point of so much popular Christian teaching gets boiled down to an oversimplified formula. Faith is good. Doubt is bad. Faith conquers all. Doubt calls too many things into question. In many places, the admission of doubt would cause others around us to question the sincerity of our spiritual commitments. Is that person really a Christian? Will they really inherit eternal life?
In the world of certain faith, where doubt is cast as an enemy, it’s difficult to proceed. We can too easily force people to deal with their doubts and questions in secret and dark places. I’ve watched people struggling alone with deep questions because they were afraid of how others might react to their doubts. Doubts and uncertainty frighten us. I think that’s why we tend to reject Thomas, because Thomas dares to bring doubt into our lives of faith.
But friends, doubt and faith are not opposites. James Fowler, in Stages of Faith, tells us that doubt often comes as a catalyst to deeper faith. The great reformer, Martin Luther, talks about working through his own doubts, and how those doubts became part of the process of faith and of being a Christian. John Wesley frequently spoke of “degrees of faith,” in which a person’s faith may be present to varying degrees. In my own life, periods of the greatest questioning and doubting have led to some of my most profound experiences of faith.
And yet, we single out Thomas. For 2000 years, we’ve known him simply as “Doubting Thomas.” But, take a look at what the other disciples were up to. The disciples of Jesus were gathered together. Remember, Thomas was absent from this gathering. Those disciples, gathered on the evening of that first Easter Sunday, are a picture of the most miserable little conglomeration of people to ever assemble and take upon themselves the name “church.” They were supposed to be out in the street, proclaiming the Easter Shout that Christ is risen, Christ is risen indeed! Yet, there they were, like frightened rabbits behind a set of locked doors.
They were hunkered down, frightened, cowering, hoping no one would discover them there. As Tom Long says, this is the church at its worst: “scarred, disheartened, defensive.” How would such a church advertise itself in the community? The church where all are welcome? Locked doors are not a sign of hospitality. This church doesn’t have a warm heart and a bold mission. All it has, from our perspective, is shaky knees and sweaty palms.
And yet, we single out Thomas. But give the man some credit. Because, when he is finally able to touch the place pierced by the nails, he comes out with the boldest assertion imaginable. He falls to his knees as Jesus’ feet, and he says “My Lord and my God.” Do you get the significance of this? Thomas is the first one to get it. Thomas makes the connection that God has been among them the whole time.
Out of doubt was born Christianity’s most profound confession to date. As Thomas has shown us, there is a place for doubt, and profound faith can be born out of it. Jesus doesn’t rebuke Thomas because of his doubt. Far from it, Jesus meets Thomas where he is.
What the church had (and has)
Thankfully, Jesus is in the habit of meeting people where they are. Amen? I know the disciples must have been thankful for this fact on the evening of that first Easter. There they were, with locked doors, defeated members, and fear. They were a church with absolutely nothing. No sanctuary, no pulpit, no choir, no adorable preacher. No plan, no mission, no conviction. Nothing going for it – except that when it gathered, the risen Christ pushed through the locked door, threw back the bolt, and stood among them. And for any of us, when that happens, that’s as close as we get to being called “Church.”
Churches sometimes will try to define themselves based on a whole host of other things. Why are insignificant things are allowed to become more important than the presence of the risen Christ? We can put up all sorts of things that will block and lock Christ out of our lives, both as individuals, but also as a congregation. Are those things perhaps simply a form of those disciples locked doors?
We all know these things. We all know churches that define themselves primarily in terms of these things, and to whom the presence of the risen Christ is noticeably absent. Some churches are built around the personality of their pastors. Now, John Fitzgerald and I both have no shortage of personality, but we’d rather not be the center of attention here. To some churches, the clothing of those leading worship is more important than Christ. For some, the architecture or the bricks and mortar of the building themselves are more important. Some churches are proud of their formality of their informality. Others place their trust in their denominational identity, or the fact that they have no denominational identity. The list goes on and on – a liberal or conservative identity, political agendas, or even what type of coffee is served. And then, of course, worship style, time of worship, type of music that are more important to some than whether or not the risen Christ is actually present.
These things do not make the church. I get frustrated when people want to make these things the most important issue a church has to deal with. They are secondary to the presence of the risen Christ. When you are focused on Christ, these things fall to the periphery. If these things are the most important thing to you, if worship is dependent on their presence or absence, or if their presence or absence really grinds your gears, there’s a word for it. It’s idolatry.
My prayer is that we’ll find those doors unlocked and the risen Christ will appear in our midst.
My prayer, when people in this community talk about us, is they not even mention these other things. My prayer is that they say, “that is a place where you can expect to meet the risen Christ. Jesus shows up there. He lives and walks among the people there.
To the church who has nothing, and the church who appears to have everything, one thing makes the difference. It is the presence of the risen Christ. He gives us everything we need. Church is a gift from God to the world, a gift from a God who refused to leave us alone. His presence makes the Church, and gives us everything we need – mission, spirit, and forgiveness.
We are church not because of where we meet. Not because the bishop authorizes us to hold divine worship in this place. Not because of the building, the music, the programs, or even the adorable preacher. We are church because to us—yes, even to us—Christ has come and given us gifts of Spirit, mission, and forgiveness, and commissioned us to give them to the whole world in his name.