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Sunday, April 19, 2009

Divine Investments - Acts 4:32-35

Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were possessors of land or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet; and the distribution was made to each as any had need.

I would like to welcome you to worship on this National Associate Pastor Appreciation Sunday, also known as the Sunday after Easter. See also Sunday after Thanksgiving, Memorial Day weekend, Fourth of July weekend, Labor Day weekend and Sunday after Christmas. All over the country, associate pastors are in the pulpit today, with the grueling schedule of Holy Week and Easter now behind us, breathing a bit easier, relaxing a bit.

But friends, today is still Easter. Easter is not a day or a season on the calendar that shows up only once and then disappears back into oblivion. Easter is a way of life in which we remember that the cemetery is empty and Christ is alive; this proclamation is the source of our hope. On this first Sunday after Easter, we are not here to coast for a week. We are here to celebrate the resurrection, and from the book of Acts, we learn of an instance in the early church in which they proclaimed the power of the resurrection, and their lives were changed because of it. May we pray.

Not long ago, I was talking with a waitress at a restaurant here in Boone. She knows what I do for a living, and one day we were talking about our jobs and what work is like for us. She said, “Can I tell you something? I hate working Sunday afternoons.” “Why’s that?” I asked. “Well, that’s when all the church people come in. As a whole, church people are notoriously bad tippers. The better dressed they are and the louder they talk about how great church was, the worse tipper they tend to be. A nice suit and a loud, long prayer usually translates into a dollar and a pamphlet.”

In the 4th Chapter of the book of Acts, Luke presents a picture of a church whose attitude about wealth, money, and property is quite different than the one portrayed by my waitress friend. The history of interpretation on this text is disappointing at best and disturbing at worst. Some have said that Luke was describing a brief and failed experiment of First Church Jerusalem. Others have said he described a sort of utopian ideal that might only happen in the New Jerusalem or a few select monastic communities. Still others have advocated following these prescriptions about property and wealth exactly as they are written; yet even the most enthusiastic supporters of interpreting all Scripture literally fudge this particular text. I find all these approaches sorely lacking; either they are so impractical as not to be followed, or they don’t do justice to the Biblical text.

A popular axiom of our day is often quoted, and many people swear it comes out of Scripture. You all know this one – finish it for me. God helps those . . . . who help themselves. It’s a cynical expression of our get-ahead society. But in today’s text, we have a witness against this. In the young church and among new Christians there was no one who owned something and kept it to him or herself. Things were distributed to anyone who had need, and no one was ashamed to accept something. Their slogan was not, “God helps those who help themselves.” Rather, because God helps everyone, they were there to help each other.

Of one heart and soul

There are a couple of things we need to point out in this text about how this community is described. The first is that they were of one heart and soul. This unity is expressed elsewhere throughout Scripture. In John 17, Jesus prays that his followers will be one. In 1 Corinthians and elsewhere, Paul describes the Church as one body with many members. We recognize our connection with one another, and realize that when one member of the body suffers, we all suffer. When one rejoices, we all rejoice.

In the church I grew up in, there was a lady in the congregation who had lived by meager means since her husband died. She was raising five daughters by herself working as a schoolbus driver when her health was good enough for her to work. There was never much money. One Christmas, one of the adult Sunday School classes took it upon themselves to give this woman a monetary gift so that her family’s Christmas would be a little merrier. It seemed a proper and Christian thing to do. To their surprise, she refused their gift.

When I heard my parents discuss this incident as an 8-year-old, I didn’t pay too much attention to it. But as I’ve thought about it in the years since, I’ve realized there is a huge gulf between two different worlds – the world of the woman on one side, and the world of the members of that Sunday School class on the other. For years, I read that story out of my own middle class worldview, the same worldview as most of the members of the Sunday School class. From that perspective, they were only trying to help. They were only trying to do the right thing – a little extra gift of charity. They recognized a need, they recognized they had some means that could address that need, and they came up with a practical solution to get the resources where they needed to be.

But from the lady’s perspective, she saw herself as the object of the class’s charity, and feared that they looked upon her in the same way. An inequality between their places was already present, but that Christmas gift made it official. She didn’t want to be beholden to anyone; she didn’t want to feel like she owed anyone anything.

Today’s text tells us that the members of the early church were of one heart and soul. I think the class Christmas gift failed because of class – not a Sunday School class, but social class. In other words, they were not of one heart and soul. At the end of the day, there would still be a group of haves and a group of have-nots. One would be the giver of charity, the other its recipient. Their worlds would remain largely separate, and the place of intersection would be marked by an incident highlighting the separation. It was a well-intentioned effort, but hardly an expression of unity of heart and soul.

But, we are meant for that unity. John Wesley described the character of a Methodist as “one in whom the love of God and neighbor is shed abroad in his [or her] heart.” We are designed for relationship with God and each other, and the goal of Christian living should be an increasingly richer relationship along both dimensions as is possible.

Christianity is not a faith that can be practiced in isolation or apart from other people. It is a community religion, the goal of which is to stretch and grow us in our relationships with God and with one another. A solitary Christian, a Christian standing outside community is an oxymoron; you can’t live and grow as a Christian apart from others. Our relationships with God and others are mutually interdependent. Recognizing ourselves as children of God will necessarily concern us with the other children in the family. We are part of one body of Christ, each bringing our own unique gifts and abilities for the betterment and upbuilding of the body.

Everything in common

In addition to being of one heart and soul, the text describes the early church as holding everything in common. This is that point in the sermon where someone just had that “Ah-hah” moment and said, “I knew it! He’s trying to get us to become communists!” But, I’m not. This is really much larger and broader than a particular economic or political system.

I’m also aware that when we talk about religious communities who hold everything in common, many of our minds make associations with some awful examples – communities at Jonestown and Waco, communities who followed Rev. Jim Jones or David Koresh and a whole host of other cults. Even at best, we may think of communities of nuns and monks, and while we might admire their discipline, I doubt any of us are ready or interested in joining that type of community.

Even so, the text says they held all things in common. We are likely thinking solely of material possessions in common, but I’d like for us to think about it in broader terms than that. I’d also like for us to think about the sort of community and relationships that must be in place before we can even think about holding things in common.

Who here has ever been set up on a blind date? My goodness, if I had a dollar for every blind date I’ve been set up on, let’s just say I wouldn’t still be working my day job. If you’re anything like me, perhaps you remember blind dates by a certain descriptor – there’s the Cracker Barrel incident (needless to say, if you ask a potential suitor where they’d like to meet and they immediately respond “Cracker Barrel,” it’s just going downhill from there), and I have more entries in the “Cougar file” than I can sufficiently remember or articulate.

But every time two innocent and unsuspecting people are set up by the perpetrator who claims to be a friend to both, the friend is hoping the two people will have something in common.

When new neighbors move in, we and they are both hoping we’ll find things in common. When we join a civic organization or social club, a tennis league, volleyball team, club softball, or sign our kids up for dance or soccer, we’re doing it with the hope of finding people with whom we have things in common. And when people come to a church, they are just hoping and praying to find things in common with the people here.

Relationships are what hold a church together. Statistics show that after visiting, people choose to remain part of a church because of the relationships they have with people there. My guess is that this is true for us. If you’re new, you’re likely looking for some common ground with the people here. If you’ve been here awhile, there are always new people coming in looking for those bonds, and we have an incredible opportunity to extend those bridges of connection, friendship, and community.

Common ground is the heart of community. Common ground is the heart of all relationships. The text describes the early church as holding all things in common. In other words, there were strong and tight relationships – bonds of commonality, if you will – holding the church together. The church is and should be a network of relationships. The healthier those relationships, the healthier the church. The more dysfunctional those relationships, the more dysfunctional the church.

The picture of the early church painted in this text from Acts is one of such strong and healthy relationships that they were said to be of one heart and soul and to hold all things in common. The goal of their community was not shared property or a unified budget. They simply wanted to share life together around the central and common source of their hope – the resurrection of Christ. They built a network of relationships centered on and grounded in the exclamation point of Easter that God inserts hope into what seems hopeless. They weren’t trying to create a shared economy or an intentional community. Rather, because their relationships were so healthy, because of the strong bond they shared with Christ and as brothers and sisters in Christ, because their community was so strong, the natural and inevitable result was the desire to hold all things in common. Their goal was a strong and healthy network of relationships rooted in their unity in Christ, and when that was achieved, they found there were other things they wanted to hold in common.

Think of it like family. The definition of family has changed and broadened in recent years, and I’m using it in that broader sense. I’m referring to that person or group of people to whom you feel closest, whom you identify as your closest allies whether you’re related by blood or not. They’re the people who are always there for you, who may know you better than you know yourself, with whom you would stick through thick and thin. If one of them needed something, you’d help them get it.

When my little brother was in college, he had a few semesters where he came up short. I was in a position to help him out, and I did. He has since graduated and is already doing quite well as a software designer, and recently offered to pay me back. I told him he didn’t need to, but I did want him to remember his big brother’s generosity in coming years when I will be asking to borrow his boat, or his house in the Caymans, or when my church needs a few large gifts in a new building campaign. I’ve reminded him that those payments during his college years weren’t a loan, but an investment in my future.

But in the early church, they weren’t giving with an eye toward one’s own interests. There was no giving now in hopes of a greater return later, or giving to receive a tax benefit, or giving as a vehicle toward publicity. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with receiving a tax break or some good PR because of a gift we’ve made, our text doesn’t describe those things as the primary motivation for generosity.

A lifestyle of sharing

In fact, the culture described moves beyond charity and giving and embraces a lifestyle of sharing. We all learned back in Kindergarten that sharing is a good thing. Here, we are presented with a community in which sharing is a way of life, and so it should be for us. The early church recognized itself to be deeply connected to Christ, and therefore, deeply connected to each other. Because they already shared so much – identity in Christ, deep relationships with one another, sharing material and monetary resources was part of their shared life together. A culture of sharing was their norm, giving was not just charity or a handout. Because life itself was shared, everything in life, including money, was fully shared.

Friends, today I encourage each of us to think less about giving and more about sharing. The difference is that giving can remain largely impersonal and detached, whereas sharing begs for relationship. This afternoon, when you go to lunch, yes, tip generously, but even more than that, remember that the person serving your food is a person with real needs and real emotions. Know that whatever you have – whether that is time, money, some particular skill on so on – that is a gift and blessing from God. Those gifts have been given to us that we bless others through them. Challenge yourself to move beyond giving toward truly sharing, take time to build relationships, find things in common.

I want this congregation to be place of strong and authentic relationships. I want each of us to be intentional about reaching out and connecting, every day of the week as we live our lives, and every Sunday morning as we gather as a community. Every day, we encounter numerous relationships just waiting to be formed, if we only stop and see each other face to face, and recognize the person behind the eyes of the stranger.

As a church, we can and should be a place where those relationships happen. We can be a place to which disconnected people throughout our community can come and be connected to God and to other people. Our motto as Christians is not that God helps those who help themselves. Rather, because God helps everyone, we can help each other.

Last week, we celebrated Easter Sunday, and today we are still celebrating Easter. For us, Easter is a lifestyle that celebrates the insertion of hope into a hopeless world, and the inbreaking of the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God brings with it a whole new set of values and assumptions that completely turn the world on its head. The kingdom of God reminds me that my time, money and energy are best invested in the things of God and not of this world.

When I think of where my time and money can best be spent, I can think of no better investment than in relationships with people who are created in God’s image, regardless of their color, social status, or any other thing; people who are of sacred and inestimable worth.

The early church was such an integrated network of relationships that they were said to hold all things in common, to be of one heart and mind, and to have no need among them. May it be so for us.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Yes, There Is Hope - John 20:1-18 (Blackburn's Chapel)

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved,, and said to them,” They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first,, also went in, and he saw and believe; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord;” and she told them that he had said these things to her.”

God does God’s best work in cemeteries. Mike Slaughter is the pastor of Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church, about 20 miles north of Dayton, Ohio. He is one of the leaders of the Young Pastors Network, a leadership academy for 50 United Methodist pastors under the age of 35 from around the country. We met at Ginghamsburg back in October, and as he got up to welcome the group he said, “I’d like to welcome you to Dayton, which was recently named by US News and World Report as the fastest dying city in America.” Mike was appointed to Ginghamsburg in 1979, when the population of Dayton was 205,000. The population is now 155,000, and a February 2009 issue of Forbes magazine ranked it as the “5th emptiest city in America.” During the same time, Ginghamsburg Church has grown from 90 worshipers to over 5000 per weekend. After explaining these statistics, Mike looked around the room and said, “God does God’s best work in cemeteries.”

It’s a lesson those earliest followers of Jesus had yet to learn. After surviving the unthinkable horror of that Friday, as they stood at the foot of a crude cross, watching their friend and teacher helpless against the onset of death, early on the first day of the week one more crushing blow was dealt. Not only was he dead, but they had taken his body away. They – whoever they are – had won. The powers of evil were too great. It felt so final.

Over the course of three years, they had come to know and love this itinerant preacher. Jesus had captivated their attention. They played follow-the-leader with him, thumbing their noses at the rules by which the world seemed to operate. Jesus dared them to imagine a different world – a world in which masters wash their disciples feet, a world in which the winner is the one who finishes last, a world in which a 5,000 plate banquet is served from a little boy’s superhero lunchbox and there’s not enough Tupperware to contain the leftovers. A world in which there is always enough, and where wolves and lambs sit side by side at the table.

But now, all that was shattered. Reality came crashing down around them in the silence of that early morning as they stared into the empty tomb. Insult piled on top of injury. The game was over, and their team had lost. The cemetery was but a stark reminder of the finality of defeat, the bondage to the powers of death and despair.

The powers of evil had thrown their worst at Jesus and sealed the presence of God behind a giant stone. They danced their victory dance and said, “Lights out. Checkmate. Game Over.” There in the cemetery, in the cool mist just before dawn, it seemed all hope was lost.

But friends, God does God’s best work in cemeteries. The powers of evil said, “Game over,” but on Easter morning, God said, “Guess again.” On Easter morning, God said, “The old rules as you understand them no longer apply.” Throughout his ministry, Jesus had been teaching about the kingdom of God in which the rules of the world were completely turned on their head. On Easter morning, God said, “My kingdom is here.” On Easter morning, God said, “Watch out world, because I am on the loose.”

Christ is just as loose today as he was on that first Easter Sunday. We are not here for a history lesson on the details of what happened that particular Sunday at the tomb. We are not here for some sort of a pleasant memory or a sweet sentimental feeling. We are here because Christ is on the loose, because Christ is free from the grave, because Christ intends to meet each of us unexpectedly along the ordinary paths of our lives.

Resurrection is not just something we observe, or hear about, or even something we celebrate. Resurrection becomes who we are; it becomes something in which we participate. As we continue to encounter the resurrected Jesus, as the living Christ finds his way deep into the fiber of our being, a transformation by the grace of God takes place. We find old destructive habits and attitudes and relationships dying, and the life-giving things of God being born in their place. The old hymn put it this way: “’Are ye able,’ said the Master, ‘to be crucified with me. ‘Yes’ the sturdy dreamers answered, ‘to the death we follow thee.’”

Every time we celebrate a baptism, we remember this. A vow is made by every newly baptized person or on their behalf that they renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject evil, and repent of their sin. In other words, every baptism celebrates a death to those things that stand between us and God. To the congregation, we say, “Remember your baptism and be thankful.” As said by Jim Harnish, pastor of Hyde Park United Methodist Church in Tampa, FL, “We’re not asking them to remember some specific event in the past, but to remember that they are marked by the sign of baptism. As a part of the body of Christ, they are a baptized people whose life together is constantly being transformed by the grace of God that invites them into the continual process of death and resurrection.” (Jim Harnish, You Only Have to Die, p. 30).

Though we are constantly invited into that process, make no mistake about it: resurrection is about God. It’s not about the new thing that we do; it’s about the new thing that God does in and through us. The resurrection is not about our own cleverness or ingenuity or change of attitude. The resurrection is about God doing a new thing, about God making a way where there seemed to be no way, about God creating and restoring life when death was not only inevitable, but already a certain fact.

God does God’s best work in cemeteries. God inserts hope into what seems hopeless. I hope that’s why you have come this morning. Not looking for a history lesson, or a pleasant memory, or a sweet sentimental feeling, or simply out of duty. I hope you have coming looking for an encounter with the resurrected and living Christ. I hope you have come looking for the power of the resurrection to bring newness into your life. I hope you have come looking for hope.

On that first Easter, a small group of disciples was waiting for the burst of a Jerusalem sunrise, but the morning held no hope. The memory of death lingered palpably in the air, and Mary stood there weeping. But in the haze before dawn, what they got was hope.

During World War II, a Navy submarine became stuck on the bottom of the harbor in New York City. There was no electricity and oxygen was running out. Rescue divers heard the sound of tapping coming from inside the submarine and recognized it as Morse code. From inside the submarine, the sailors were asking, “Is there any hope?” The rescuers tapped back, “Yes, there is hope.”

Any sociologist will tell you about the important human phenomenon called hope. Without it, life seems trivial. What God did at the resurrection was to insert hope into a world desperately in need of it. The world can be an awfully difficult and burdened place sometimes. But the resurrection of Jesus is a promise and a testimony and a downpayment of hope. It will not solve all the world’s problems. It won’t eliminate suffering or poverty. It’s not a good luck charm or a legislative principle. The world continues to have its pain and suffering, but in the resurrection of Jesus, hope forces its way through the cracks. When we are wondering if there is any hope, the resurrection is God tapping back that yes, there is hope. The resurrection is a God-given sign that the lives of all people, including you and including me, are meant for more and not for less, that no life of God’s creating is beyond God’s redeeming, that even death, as authoritative and final as it seems, is not the end.

And friends, resurrection is happening all around us. The change from death into life is happening all around us, as God works transformation in the depths of the human heart. When an alcoholic go into recovery, that’s resurrection. When unhealthy relationships are healed, that’s resurrection. When a community rallies to meet the needs of its families, that’s resurrection. When a person is changed from self-centered living to God-centered living, that’s resurrection.

And everything that has happened, is happening, and will happen here at Blackburn’s Chapel is resurrection. I remember when retired Bishop Lawrence McCleskey said, “A church can believe its best days are behind them, or they can believe their best days are ahead of them. In either case, they’ll be right.” This congregation chooses to believe that our best days are still ahead of us. God is working and moving here. The sense of God’s presence is so palpable that we have no choice but to believe that God is doing a new thing right here in our midst, that God is, in the words of Charles Wesley, changing us “from glory into glory.”

Friends, we believe that our best days as a congregation are still in front of us. That’s resurrection! Easter is not just a day or a season that shows up on the calendar and then disappears. Easter is a lifestyle. We are Easter people! We are resurrection people! Easter happens when lives are transformed, when the things of God graft themselves into the core of our being and we find ourselves alive with the newness of God’s presence. Easter is not a one-time occurrence, it is something that happens over and over again. The early Christians recognized this. They worshipped every Sunday expecting the things of the world to die, and for God to show up and transform the world. Every time we gather, I hope we gather with an expectation that God is in our midst, that God still inserts hope into what seems hopeless to us, and that God still transforms the world.

It’s what we have each shown up looking for today. We are looking for an encounter with the risen Christ, and we expect to be changed because of it. In today’s text, Jesus encounters Mary outside the tomb, and she mistakenly believes he’s the gardener. He asks why she is weeping and who she is looking for. She was looking for Jesus, but she had no idea she would meet the risen Jesus. Her tears of mourning were transformed into tears of joy, and my hopeful expectation is that will happen for each of us.

But it doesn’t stop there. The good news that Jesus is risen was good news on that first Easter Sunday, and it continues to be good news today. And while it’s certainly good news for us as individuals and as a congregation, it isn’t only for us. It was and remains good news for the entire world.

And so today, we gather, and we celebrate the good news that Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Today God takes on the broken ways of the world and says, “You shall not win. The game is not yet over, and I have been set loose.” Today we proclaim that Jesus is Lord, and not the powers and principalities of this world. The same power that rolled the stone away is ours in all the circumstances of life. Today, though we may be pressed, we are not crushed; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down but not destroyed. Though the powers of the world have literally paved over hope and tried to wipe its memory from existence, today that same hope begins to bubble its way to the surface. When we are wondering if there is hope, the resurrection is God tapping back the message that yes, there is hope.

Every day but especially on this day we remember not that Christ has risen, but that Christ is risen! Resurrection is not a one-time event, but an on-going reality. Every day but especially on this day we proclaim that the same life-giving power that raised Jesus from the dead is available to everyone – certainly at the hour of death but not only at the hour of death, certainly in the greatest trial but not only in the greatest trial. The life-giving power of God is available here and now to help us live in the face of uncertainty, suffering, guilt, and shame. But those things do not have the final word, for even death itself, by the life-giving power and grace of God, is not the end of the story. In the words of John Donne, “Death be not proud, thou hast died.”

The cemetery is empty and Christ is alive; therein lies our hope.