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Sunday, July 26, 2009

Your New Name - Luke 13:10-17


Now Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus has cured on the Sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day.” But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?” When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame, and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

Nicknames in my family have a long and treasured tradition. My father goes by “Rusty.” His name is actually Harold Richmond Thomas, Jr., and he’s not a redhead, so perhaps you think there’s a story behind this name. The story is this: my grandparents were married in 1939, but my father – their only child – was not born until 1950. My dad’s uncle, the official nickname giver in the family, surmised, “Surely, they must be a little rusty.”

Shakespeare wrote, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” True enough, but I wonder if the floral industry would sell so many if it were called “stink blossom.” Whatever label we attach to something has a way of coloring our perception of that thing. Even moreso, whatever label we attach to a person has a way of coloring our perception of them. May we pray.

Most of you have wisely discerned that “A.J.” is not the name my parents chose for me. People have often tried to guess what my initials stand for. In the Italian-Roman Catholic community where I grew up, the most common guess was that it stood for Anthony Joseph. Since I moved south of the Mason-Dixon, the most common guess has been for Andrew Jackson.

I blame my parents for the confusion. At my birth, they agreed that my name would be Andrew Jeremy Thomas, but a disagreement soon ensued as to what I should be called. Mom wanted to call me Andrew, and Dad wanted to call me Andy. After a few days, they agreed to call me Jeremy, and my family still calls me by my middle name. So where did I pick up A.J.?

I began kindergarten at Hyde Park School, and this may surprise you, but I was somewhat shy and retiring as I began my education. The official name on the roster was “Andrew,” and I didn’t speak up and tell them they called me “Jeremy” at home. By first grade, I had learned to speak up for myself and told them I went by Jeremy. When 2nd grade arrived, the school’s gym teacher said, “Well first it was Andrew, then it was Jeremy; what’s it gonna be this year – A.J.?”

When you listen to this story, I want you to realize that I currently have three names I have to answer to. By now, most of the world knows me as A.J. However, if I am sending correspondence to anyone in my family, I have to remember to sign it with my middle name. And of course, for anything official or legal, I have to be Andrew. There is one distinct advantage to this, however. I can easily identify telemarketers when they call because they always ask for Andrew. And I can answer, honestly, that there is no one who goes by that name at this number.

All of these are actual names. But, we also have other aspects of our identity we’re known by. Sometimes we are known by our occupation. Sometimes by where we live, or an affiliation with a sports team. Some of us are known by our relationship with another member of our family, or by some ability or disability we possess.

In our text this morning, with Jesus we meet a woman who was known as the “bent woman.” Some translations may call her “the crooked woman,” “the crippled woman,” “the broken woman.” Notice: she has no name. Even on the sacred page of Scripture, she is only known by her disability.

Imagine, with me, what life must have like for this woman. Years of pain have dragged her downward. Now when she walked, she only saw feet and dirt. How long had it been since she had seen anyone’s face? Better yet, how long had it been since anyone had looked her in the face?

She was bent over – had been bent over – for years, staring at the ground, her back terribly contorted, and dragged downward by all those years of pain. But once she was down, a new sort of pain began to develop. The world became increasingly smaller around her. One by one, friends and family members faded out of the background. Somewhere, her name was lost and she never bothered to stick up for herself and reclaim her identity – because the pain had already defeated her. The pain wasn’t just physical. It cut to every other area of her life, as well. She was dealing with the pain of social isolation. She was dealing with the pain of lost relationships. She was dealing with the pain of having to put up with an identity she never wanted in the first place, an identity the world readily slapped on her aching back.

Can you feel that pain? Do you know that pain, the pain of a name that hurts, traps, confines, cuts to the heart? Do you know the pain of having to live with a label someone else chose to put on you? Do you know the pain of a name, a label, an identity you didn’t choose, but because of it, some in the world have felt justified in treating you poorly? Or, because of the label that got attached to someone else, have you felt justified in treating someone else poorly?

As kids we used to sing, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” So as we grew up, I think we used that as an excuse to call people by all sorts of awful names. Names that won’t be repeated here. We all know these names. Many of us have spent a lifetime trying to run from names and labels like these. Despite what we told ourselves as kids about these names, they really do hurt.

It’s bad enough when the world attaches these hurtful labels to people. It’s even worse when the church does it.

Often, we feel we can say just about anything we want about someone so long as we follow it up with, “Bless their heart,” “Lord love them,” or “Poor thing.” “Did you see what Mary wore to church? Bless her heart.” “Let me tell you about my idiot neighbor, Lord love him.” It’s even worse when gossip is couched as a prayer request. “Please pray for my daughter’s husband, because he did so-and-so.”

Twentieth-century rhetorician and social critic Kenneth Burke described naming as the process of trying to gain control over something. That is, if we can name something and translate it into recognizable symbols, we can understand it. Burke was mostly referring to a situation in which we might find ourselves, but the same concept can be applied to our relationship with other people as well.

For example, when I was growing up, a few streets away lived a woman everyone called “Crazy Cat Lady.” Few people ever saw her. There were cats all over her porch and yard. The house itself stood out because it desperately needed a new coat of paint, and the yard only got mowed about every six weeks, and you could smell dirty litter box from the street. Let me tell you – on Michigan Avenue on those three blocks between the Boulevard and the park – this was not acceptable.

I became the paperboy that served these blocks, which meant I became Crazy Cat Lady’s paperboy. I found out she had once had a good job, but lost it when she developed severe psychological problems. She was now living on permanent disability, which bought groceries and paid the light bill, but did little else. She hadn’t heard from her daughters in years. And everytime she came outside to attempt to engage the outside world, her neighbors turned their backs and went back inside their own houses. After you get rejected so many times, eventually you just stop trying.

I wish I could say I made extra efforts to be nice to her, but I didn’t.

For the woman in our passage today, I doubt anyone really made extra efforts to be nice to her, either. As she hobbled down the streets each day, no one saw her. As she came into the synagogue a few minutes late, no one noticed her. No one was saving a seat for her. No one looked up and said, “Here comes Elizabeth, or Mary, or Rachel, or Ruth,” or whatever her long-forgotten name actually was.

Yet, Jesus saw her. Invited to teach as a guest rabbi in the town’s synagogue, Jesus was somewhere between points two and three in his sermon when she made her humble entrance and tried to blend into the woodwork in the back of the room. But Jesus saw her. The sermon stopped, Jesus stood up from where he taught, and he motioned to the woman to come forward from the back of the room. He sees her, he places his hand on her, and he heals her.

Notice how Jesus treats her. He does not call her disabled, or hindered, or a victim of life’s unfairness. Jesus has no interest in making her a professional victim, or in highlighting the thing about her that makes her different from the majority of the population. Jesus has no interest in making her disability the thing that defines her whole life.

The healing is the obvious miracle. Yet, there is another miracle happening here, one that often gets missed, but one that has just as much significance as her back being straightened.

Jesus calls her “Daughter of Abraham.” One who for 18 years has been known as the crooked woman is now given a new name: “Daughter of Abraham.” “Child of God.” “Beloved.” She is an heir to the abundant blessings of God. Moreover, she is called to be a blessing to the whole world. She is meant for more than a cruel, debilitating label. She – bent and crooked and crippled – is part of God’s great salvation of the whole world. Even if everyone else in the room missed it, even if it was missed by generations of theologians and preachers, one person understood the significance of that new name.

She stands up straight. Even if her back had not been healed by Jesus, I am convinced she would have stood up straight. Her life takes its right and proper place in God’s promises to the world. Her life has been renamed as part of the great drama of God’s redemption. We remember her not as a sad and unfortunate victim, not as the woman with the bad back, but as a daughter of Abraham.

Jesus healed her. He straightened her back, and she received physical healing. He gave her a new name, and she received spiritual and emotional and social healing.

Friends, Jesus has a new name for you as well. You have been called to something greater and higher than the labels the world wants to place on you. You are daughters and sons of Abraham. You are children of God. You are a royal priesthood, holy and beloved. Your life is meant to count for something, because you have been given a part in God’s great redemptive story.

Therefore, when a child is baptized, we ask what name has been given to the child. The parents have already named the child, but in baptism, we celebrate a new name for us all. We celebrate a name given through the power of the Holy Spirit and sealed with water. In baptism, we lay on a more determinative, more revealing name – “Christian.” God promises to enable us to live a Christian life, and we promise to live one. In the case of a child, we predict that the child’s life will be a long story of growing into that name and claiming the benefits of their new family. In the case of adults, we celebrate a new identity rooted in Christ in which one’s previous labels no longer control and define. As Austin Miles’ old gospel hymn put it: “there’s a new name written down in glory, and it’s mine.”

Other names may come and go, but the name Jesus gives us endures. Other names may shake our foundations, but the name Jesus gives us is a rock to which we can anchor. Other names may hurt us, but the name Jesus gives us provides wholeness. Other names may be intended to harm, but the name Jesus gives us offers hope and healing for the world.

Friends, I don’t know what names you have had to suffer under. I do know how painful those names may have been to you. But those names do not define you, because Jesus has a new name for you. Those names are not your identity, because Jesus gives you a new name. He calls you “Child of God.” He calls you “Beloved.” Your name, whatever else we may call you, is “child of God.” I hope you feel the hands of Jesus reaching out toward you. I hope you feel his healing touch, as he calls you by your true and proper name.

This morning, as we’ve looked at this passage of healing, as we’ve seen how God desires wholeness for each of us, it seemed proper to not only hear the word, but to do the Word. Today, our time of worship is going to conclude with a healing service.

James 5:14-16 reads, “Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.”

This may be a new thing for some of you. What I realize is that we all stand in need of healing. At different times in our lives, we may need healing in our body, in our mind, in our spirit, or in our relationships. At times, we feel broken and incomplete. We all need healing.

God’s desire for all of us is wholeness. God’s desire is that whatever feels broken in our lives would be restored. All healing is of God, and the Church’s healing ministry is simply one more among our total resources for healing and wholeness.

In a few moments, everyone who wishes to come forward for healing prayer is invited to do so. Here’s what will happen. I will be down front, along with Hamp Hinkle. If you come forward, I will anoint your forehead with olive oil in the sign of the cross. Hamp and I will lay our hands on your head and pray for the Holy Spirit to work within you to bring healing and wholeness to all areas of your life. Friends and family are welcome to join anyone who comes forward for healing. You may linger at the altar for prayer as long as you wish. We’re in no rush this morning. We’re on God’s time, and this is God’s ministry of healing.

I have no expectation of what will happen. No one may come forward or everyone may come, and that’s fine. But if you desire wholeness in your entire being, after our brief prayer, I invite you to come forward. I extend that invitation on behalf of Christ, who reaches out to touch each of us with his healing hands, and in whose name all healing takes place.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Wee Little Man - Luke 19:1-10


He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, "Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today." So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, "He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner." Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, "Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much." Then Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the son of man came to seek out and save the lost."

I love going to family reunions on my Dad's side of the family. Sure, it's nice to see family, the food is always great, but I will confess that I have an ulterior motive for attending: for the span of that afternoon, I am the tallest person in the room. By and large – perhaps I should say by and small – Thomases are short people. I have aunts and cousins who never made it to five feet, and as I move about through the room, I feel like Gulliver among the Lilliputians. However, I know better than to comment on their stature, because in the Thomas family, there seems to be an inverse relationship between a person's height and their toughness.

That brings us to Zacchaeus, the star of today's text. This was one of my favorite Bible stories growing up. I loved the little activity sheets that portrayed Zacchaeus as a goofy little cartoon character. I even loved the silly little song we'd sing about him, complete with hand motions. It’s a goofy, corny, cheesy little song, and yet lo, these many years later, I still remember it. Brenda and I sang the song together in my office earlier this week, but I’ll spare you the pain of having to re-live that.

However, we do this text a great disservice if we think it is only a children's story. I invite all us to put aside what we think we already know about this story, and allow it to speak to us fresh and new. May we pray.

Some background
Let me set up some background information that will help us understand the implications of what's happening in this text. The story takes place in Jericho – a thriving, prosperous border city known for its exports of dates and figs. There were two major highways in Israel, and one of them went right through Jericho. The Jews from Galilee would travel to Jericho and beyond on their way to Jerusalem. The main highway between Galilee and Jericho ran right through Samaria – which was a hostile place in those days for Jewish travelers. So instead of taking the main road, most travelers would bypass Samaria, take the back roads through the territory to the East, and then re-enter Roman-controlled territory through Jericho.

Jericho was the customs control station. If you have done any international travel, you know all about coming through customs. My parents’ home was three miles from the US-Canada border in Niagara Falls, and it was not uncommon for us to go to Canada to sightsee with out-of-town guests, or for dinner (there were some great Chinese restaurants across the border), or to visit my aunt and uncle, or even to shop when the dollar was stronger and the exchange rates were more favorable. Back during the height of the Cuban missile crisis, a friend’s grandmother was coming back into the US from Canada. As the car stopped for inspection at customs and immigration, they asked where she was from, and she gave the name of the small town in Western New York where she lived: Cuba. It turned out that was a very effective way to have an extended visit with officials at the border.
There were and still are very stringent regulations about the types of goods and merchandise you can bring back into the country, their value, and so forth, and this is all checked out at the customs station. And, for the value of the goods you bring back into the country, you may be subject to paying a tax.

Very similar things were happening in Jericho. Everyone coming into Jericho had to pay a tax on their entrance back into Roman-controlled territory. They also had to pay a tax on whatever livestock, merchandise, or goods they were transporting. For example, if you had a cart full of olives pulled by an ox, the authorities could stop you and tax you for each wheel on the cart, for the cart itself, for the ox that pulled the cart, and for the olives in the cart.

I don't know of anyone who particularly enjoys paying taxes, but we all pay them. For one thing, we have to. But in addition, we are in favor of many of the things our taxes support – things like good roads, public schools, and fire and police protection. That being said, I want us to realize what those taxes being collected day in and day out in Jericho were paying for. Remember, the Romans were the occupying force in Israel at this time, so the taxes went to them. The Roman army was a huge force that needed extraordinary amounts of money to keep going. So essentially, the people in Jericho were paying taxes to an outside government in order to fund the army that kept them under control.

And there, making sure the taxes were collected and paid to the Roman government, was Zacchaeus. He was not only a tax collector, he was the chief tax collector, which easily would have made him the most hated man in town. As if that weren't bad enough, the Roman tax system was ripe for abuse. They only told each province how much they needed to turn into the central government, and as long as they did, that's all Rome cared about. Tax collectors were free to collect in excess of this amount and pocket the difference, which they did.

A very small man
Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and I’m sure he made up for these feelings of inadequacy in other ways. I’m sure he owned the largest villa in all of Jericho. I’m sure he drove the most expensive chariot he could find, and always parked it conspicuously in his driveway so that all who passed by would know that an important person lived there. But he was a small man in many senses of the word, not only in relation to his height. When it came to character, Zacchaeus came up short. Those whom he met were not seen as people; they were seen as someone he could exploit. He was a cocky little crook, a thief, and a con man. Yet, he was protected by the Roman government, so there wasn't a thing anyone could do about it.

Now, Passover was approaching, which meant an annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem for many Jews. That also meant many people would be passing through Jericho and paying their duty taxes there, and Zacchaeus was having a very good month. Jesus and his disciples were among those making the pilgrimage toward Jerusalem for the Passover. This was Jesus’ march toward Jerusalem and the events that would play out during Holy Week. The crowds soon discovered that Jesus would be passing through town, and everyone wanted to see him. Word was spreading through the region about this rabbi from Nazareth. Everyone was amazed at his teaching. He had been performing miracles of healing left and right. Zacchaeus even heard that he had told a story in which a Pharisee was the foil, and a tax collector the hero.

A large following had accumulated around Jesus. Have you seen the movie Forrest Gump? Do you remember toward the end of the movie Forrest decides to start running back and forth across the country, and this inspires people, and a group of people just naturally begin to follow him? Jesus was headed through Jericho with the same sort of army of supporters.

For some reason, Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus. We’re not really sure why. Maybe he thought there was some money to be made by following him around. Surely Jesus would need someone to handle his publicity, or charge an appropriately modest fee to get into the venues where Jesus would be speaking. If people will pay good money to get into the funeral of a pop culture icon, just imagine how much they’ll pay to get in to see the son of God! Maybe he’d play the faith angle, telling people that God wanted them to pony up some money as a sign of their faith so that God could then bless them, knowing he himself was the only one who was likely to get rich from such a scheme. Zacchaeus, knowing he was too short to see Jesus, does something incredibly crafty – he races ahead and climbs into the shady branches of a sycamore tree, pulls out his bag of pomegranates and Mountain Dew, and waits.

Along comes Jesus, with the army that has gathered around him, and the crowds who have pressed in just hoping to catch a glimpse. Jesus is in the middle of the crowd making its trip to Jerusalem for the Passover. But Jesus draws a particularly intense crowd right around him. All around him are believers and skeptics, curiousity-seekers and onlookers, and merchants selling buttons, hats, t-shirts, chariot stickers, and giant foam fingers, all trying to make a fast shekel.

Zacchaeus has a front-row seat to the action, but he has no idea he is about to be the center of the action. Jesus stops right under that sycamore tree, and he says the line on which the whole plot turns: "Zacchaeus, come down from there. I must stay at your house today." This pleased Zacchaeus greatly, but it sure ticked off the crowd. "Yes, Jesus, come to my house. The prettiest villa in all Jericho, down there, overlooking the river, nestled in a grove of date palms." Strutting like a peacock with a very healthy ego, Zacchaeus led Jesus down to his house, the hateful stares of the crowd boring into the back of his head the entire way.

You can just hear the murmur running through the crowd. “There goes Zacchaeus, all high and mighty again. Look at him. He thinks he’s special because Jesus is going to his house. As if he wasn’t already full enough of himself, now he’s going to be even worse. He’s probably got some crooked business deal he wants to talk to Jesus about. I wonder why Jesus wants to spend time with him?”

It’s a good question. Why would Jesus want to spend time with Zacchaeus? He wasn’t a shining example of moral fortitude. He was a con man and a thief. He wasn’t the kind of person that any good, self-respecting, upstanding church-goer would ever spend time with, let alone be caught in their house. Why would Jesus want to spend time with Zacchaeus?

Why would Jesus want to spend time with any of us, for that matter? Certainly not because we’ve proved ourselves worthy. Certainly because of none of us is quite as special as we’d like to think we are. For some strange reason, Jesus continues to seek us out, as well.

Jesus gets in and changes things
In reality, Jesus made his intention quite clear, but I think Zacchaeus didn't catch the implication of what Jesus said. Neither did anyone else in the crowd.. Jesus said, "Come down." Jesus said, “Come down” not only to Zacchaeus; Jesus says come down to each of us as well. Come down, not only from the tree, but come down off your high horse. Come down from thinking more highly of yourself than you ought. Come down from thinking you’ve got it all together even as you wag your finger as people you perceive to be inferior to yourself. Come down from seeing other people as the objects of your exploitation. Come down from your own agenda, come down from saying, “It’s my way or the highway.” Come down from thinking of yourself as the center of the universe and recognize that there are people all around you – real people – whose lives your actions have a direct impact on. "Come down, for I am going to your house today." I am going where you live. Into your personal space. Into what is valuable to you. Into your private domain and the place you keep entirely to yourself.

And by the end of the story, we realize that's exactly what Jesus has done. He has gotten into the personal spaces in Zacchaeus' life, and completely transformed them. He has been changed. Something happened over lunch – something happened when this man joined the Lord at the table that changed his heart. He was changed from a taker to a giver, and all of a sudden is passing out checks like he's the United Way of Jericho. This is the overnight change from Mr. Scrooge to Uncle Ebenezer, from the Grinch who stole Christmas to the Grinch who saved Christmas. Personally, I would like to know what Jesus said to Zacchaeus over lunch. If we knew the words he used, I would say similar words to you on Stewardship Sunday in the hopes that you will also become even more generous than you already are.

But the text simply doesn't give us those details. Luke wants us to know that Zacchaeus had a real encounter with Jesus, and his life was changed because of it. And I think that's the point: when Jesus calls us by name, when he gets into our personal space, when we share a meal with him, our lives are transformed. Zacchaeus looks around, and rather than seeing people he needs to exploit, he sees people with real needs who could use his help. And so it happens that Zacchaeus, the biggest dirty rotten scoundrel in town, whose name means "the pure and righteous one," finally lives up to his name.

Let me tell you what happened over lunch. As Jesus and Zacchaeus ate and spent the afternoon together, Zacchaeus felt something he had not felt in a long time – love. Jesus was the first person he encountered who did not treat him poorly or malign him or withhold love because of the way he had treated others. And the love got to him. And as they reclined at the table together, he looked into the eyes of Jesus, and he saw reflected there the Zacchaeus he was created to be.

Zacchaeus had an encounter with Jesus, and he became the person God created him to be in the first place. This is how it works for each of us. The way we have tended to present the Gospel – the good news of what God continues to do in our lives through the grace and power of Jesus Christ – has often overlooked this truth. Too often, our focus on a need for Jesus is focused solely out of the book of Romans, as we are reminded that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. This is certainly true, we have all sinned, we have all been distant from God, things in all our lives stand between us and God. But that’s not the whole story.

Before we sinned, we were created in the likeness of God. Creation, as it leaves the hand of God, is good. God’s image was stamped indelibly on the heart of every man, woman, and child who ever has and ever will live. That image may be marred, it may be faded, it may be hidden, it may be incredibly difficult to see.

But everyone who bears the image of God was created to reflect that image, and no one was created who does not bear that image. Every person was created with the hard-wiring to be reflectors of God. And when we encounter Jesus and Jesus comes in and changes our heart and restores the image of God within us, no matter how marred or faded that image may be, we live into our God-given potential. Like Zacchaeus, we become the person God has created us to be. There is no distinction here between saints and sinners. We’re all sinners, those whose hearts are being transformed by the grace of Jesus are simply redeemed sinners. And we’re all saints, those who have yet to meet Jesus are simply waiting for the image of God to be restored within them.

As a church, our task is to recognize and celebrate the image of God in those we encounter, to believe that no life of God’s creating is beyond God’s redeeming, to believe that each and every life is an arena for the glory of God to be revealed. Our task is to help people encounter Jesus, knowing that Jesus will get in and transform each and every heart he touches.

Jesus not only got into Zacchaeus' house that day. More importantly, Jesus got into his heart. In the end, he declares that salvation has come to Zacchaeus, that he, too, is a son of Abraham. He was just lost. He had gotten confused about why he was here, and whom he was to serve. Like you and me, thank God Jesus comes looking for each of us and invites us into a new and transformed life.

Friends, this is far more than a nursery room tale. It is a vivid reminder of the love of God at work in the human heart. Even when we are at our worst, even when the world has turned its back on us, Jesus continues to call us by name and invites us to the table. And sure enough, we find ourselves transformed.

This story begins with the littlest man in town. It ends with the biggest heart Jesus encounters in all Israel.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Petty Differences - John 17:11b-19


Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. 12While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. 13But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. 14I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 15I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. 16They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.
17Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. 18As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.


I love going to dinner parties. I love to mix and mingle with the other friends of my host, and find it fascinating to meet the other people whom my host knows from other aspects of their life. Imagine you are the one who has thrown a dinner party, with a rich variety of people there. You invite your neighbors, a few people from work, a few people from church, and a few relatives. These people are all important in your life and you’re deeply connected to each of them. The only thing is, they have no connection to each other. Imagine your surprise, when coming back through the dining room with a fresh batch of spinach artichoke dip, you walk into an argument taking place between your neighbor and your cubicle-mate over a recent sporting event. Your kids’ soccer coach is arguing with your sister over politics, and it seems your beloved pastor has just dumped the punchbowl over the head of your homeowner’s association.

To your party, you invited the people nearest and dearest to you, people who are important to you, people whom you love. Somehow, you assumed that because they loved you, they would also love each other. Not necessarily.

In the 17th Chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus offers a simple, yet transformative prayer. He prays that all his followers will be one. Our text this morning is often referred to as the real Lord’s Prayer. What we commonly refer to as the Lord’s Prayer might better be called the Disciples’ Prayer, for it is how our Lord taught us to pray as his followers. But when our Lord paused to pray for us, after supper on that last evening but just shortly before the disciples fell asleep in the garden, he made one simple plea: make them one. May we pray.

There are differences among us – nothing all that earth-shattering in that statement. In Boone, we had a combined children’s choir with the First Presbyterian Church. On the Sundays when the choir sang at our church, the director would remind the kids that when we prayed, they needed to say “trespasses” and not “debts.” Presbyterians are hung up on who owes who, Methodists are hung up on who’s been on our property. It’s important to be clear about sin, and sin is tough enough without disagreeing over the words by which we wish to call it. Whether you ask forgiveness for your sins, debts, or trespasses, I think the sentiment is pretty clear – we’ve mucked up pretty good no matter name it goes by.

The differences among many Christian denominations are evident to many of us. Many of these differences have landed the starring roles in jokes and stories. No doubt, you’ve heard about the fundamentalist who asked his Methodist friend, “Can Methodists dance?” His friend responded, “Well, some can, and some can’t, but that doesn’t stop them from trying.”

Or, you’ve certainly heard about the difference between Methodists and Baptists, being that Methodists will actually say, “Hello!” to you when they see you in the liquor store.

Two little boys grew up side by side. One was Methodist, and the other was Catholic. One day, they decided to learn about each other’s church. The first week, they went together to Catholic mass. The little Methodist was mesmerized by what he saw, and he pointed and asked questions throughout the service. He looked at the beautiful windows and statues, and asked, “What do those mean?” His Catholic friend said those were images of the saints, and they reminded us all of the great people of the faith who have passed on before us so that we can follow their example. He saw candles in little red glasses burning in the entrance, and his friend told him that people lit those when they would pray, as a way of symbolically lifting their prayer to God. They had a good time together, and it was worth the experience.

The next week, they went to the Methodist service. During the passing of the peace, the little Catholic boy felt warmly welcomed, even if people were a little more exuberant than he was used to. Right before the sermon, the pastor stood in the pulpit and took off his watch. The Catholic boy asked, “What does that mean?” The Methodist just shook his head and said “Absolutely nothing.”

Or, perhaps you’ve heard about the Jehovah’s Witness who married the atheist. It’s sad, really, their kids run around knocking on doors for no apparent reason.

We recognize the differences and the distinctions between various members of the Christian family, and many of these differences give us a good laugh and nothing more. Yet, we must also recognize that there are genuine divisions in the family, many of them hostile and harmful. What’s worse, there are not only divisions among different Christian groups – many times the sharpest divisions can be found right within the same church.

When he prayed by flickering candlelight that night, after the dishes from the Passover meal had been cleared in the quiet calm before the calamity of Good Friday, Jesus prayed. Jesus prayed for us. Protect them. Make them one. Make their joy complete in themselves. Keep them set apart from the world. Sanctify them.

On the night before he met with death, Jesus prayed for us. Knowing these were his last hours, Jesus calls out to God, “I am no longer in the world, but these followers are mine are.” Leaving us behind, leaving us still in the world, Jesus pled on our behalf. Knowing the powers of the world – the powers of fear, hate, bigotry, pride – knowing their evil and destructive power, Jesus prayed for us. He prayed that we would not be torn apart by our own agendas, our fear of strangers, and our distrust for people not exactly like ourselves. He prayed that we would be one.

And yet, how we Christians continue to struggle. We struggle because evil is still in the world and it calls to us with its seductive song, luring us away from the journey toward sanctification and back into the doldrums of business as usual. Even in our well-intentioned attempts to resist evil, we blindly sin all the more as our zealousness in fighting sin lead us to name and squash the evil among us better than the Christian group down the street, calling it out and gouging the speck from one another’s eye before even addressing the plank in our own.

Those on the right condemn the left as “soft on doctrine and order.” Those on the left condemn the right for narrow-mindedness and judgmentalism. They both condemn the middle for going, either, too far or not far enough, but the middle condemns them both for being extremist and fanatical.

But Jesus’ prayer for us was that we would be one. Despite the strength of my argument and the passion of my conviction, too often I forget that at the other end of my opinion is a brother or sister with an equally strong opinion – a brother or sister for whom Jesus prayed when he prayed for me, a brother or sister for whom Jesus was willing to die, a son or daughter of God whom Jesus loves very much, a precious child created in the image and likeness of God, a person of inestimable and sacred worth.

Yes, there are differences among us, sometimes significant differences, and I don’t want to downplay those. But Jesus’ prayer for us was not that we would all be the same; his prayer for us was that we would be one. His prayer was that, despite the difference of our convictions, of our opinions, of our beliefs, of our theology, of our experiences with God and each other, that despite all these differences, we would be one. His prayer was not for uniformity; it was for unity. Jesus didn’t ask us to surrender the ways in which are fearfully and wonderfully and differently made by our Creator. No, Jesus invites us each to the table, with all those differences and distinctions fully in hand, and says, “Look around at my wonderful mixed-up family.”

Really, think about your own family, and the odd sociological experiment known as “The Family Reunion.” Does anyone here have a crazy aunt? How about weird cousins? Keep in mind that each of you are also someone’s cousin! When the whole family gathers, it’s a big table, and as you look around, you’re thinking, “I have GOT to be adopted!” As you look around the table, there are people with whom you disagree, there are people who you don’t even like, and yet, you’re still family.

Jesus reminds us in this prayer that we are in the world, but not of it. The powers of the world would want to use the differences of our opinions, convictions to drive a wedge through the heart of the Christian community. The powers of the world are very good at making comparisons, at sorting things out, and telling us which sort of things (or people!) ought not to be placed with other sorts of things (or people!). But Jesus prayed that we would be one. The world will tell us to divide and split along our differences, and we Christians have historically done a very good job of doing just that through the centuries.

However, Jesus prayed something different for us. Jesus prayed that our union with each other as members of God’s family would outweigh the differences among us. Jesus prayed that we would be one. Divisions are strong and they threaten to undo us, but the name of the one who prays for our unity is more powerful than the powers of the world. Though the powers of the world continue to threaten Christian unity, we do not belong to this world. We belong to God, each of us, and are knit together as brothers and sisters in the name of the one who prayed for us.

“I am no longer in the world, but they are,” he admitted. But friends, unlike Elvis, Jesus has not left the building. Jesus’ body is no longer here, but Jesus’ body is still very much here. This is one of the great mysteries of our faith. I want everyone to place your hands in your lap, palm-side-up. Take a good look at them. Study them carefully. Study the hands of the people sitting on either side of you, too. Now, take a good look at your shoes. Make sure you notice your neighbor’s shoes, also. Those hands you’ve studied are the hands of Jesus. Those feet are the feet of Jesus.

Wow. Seems like Jesus could have left his future presence in better hands than ours, doesn’t it? People with faults and failures and issues like ourselves, people who are constantly drawn back into the ways of the world, people who are prone to bickering and gossiping, people who are prone to divisions and strife, people who are prone to judgmentalism and fear – and yet, we’re exactly the ones he chooses.

In fact, it is because of our issues that Jesus chooses us. God doesn’t love us because we’re lovable, we’re lovable because God loves us. Jesus doesn’t choose us because we’re holy; Jesus chooses us to make us holy. Those hands and feet you have just studied are part of God’s plan of salvation for the world. As diverse and wonderfully made as those hands are, they still belong to Jesus. Those hands are not intended for division, they are not intended for harm, they are not intended for pain. Those hands are intended for healing and wholeness, those hands are intended to be joined with all other hands that belong to Jesus. The challenge is not to recognize our own hands as the hands of Jesus; the challenge is to recognize all those other hands as belonging to him as well.

Back in May, I was in Atlanta with about 2000 of my closest friends to hear Desmond Tutu preach. You’ll recall that he was the Anglican Archbishop in South Africa, and before, during, and after his tenure as Archbishop, he was a champion for human rights, earning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for his work against apartheid. Here’s what he told our group: “Tell people who are used to being treated like rubbish that they are God-carriers.” It’s impossible to treat someone like rubbish when you first see them as a child of God, as someone who was created in God’s image. “If we took this seriously, every Sunday when we pass the peace, we wouldn’t quickly and politely shake a few hands and then sit down. We would bow graciously in front of each other, recognizing the presence of the divine in the person in front of us, allowing the God in me to greet the God in you.”

Friends, my hope this morning is that the God in each of us will recognize and greet the God in the other. That we will not treat people made in God’s image – fellow God-carriers, like rubbish. My hope this morning is that we Christians will not use our hands for harm or division, but for healing and wholeness. My hope this morning is that we will not shout at each other about whose feeble attempt to live out our Christlike-calling is most correct or that we cut ourselves off from other members of the Christian family. My hope is that we find the table set for each of us, and that we each take our place at it, and that our unity in Christ is strengthened as our divisions fade from memory.

My hope and my prayer this morning is this: that we be one, in the name of the One who continues to pray for us.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Purpose - John 15:9-17


As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

Back in elementary school, I remember participating in an odd sociological study. The study was conducted once a week in our physical education class, and it went by the name, “choosing teams.” The gym teacher would select two of the natural athletes in the class to be the captains of two teams – one of whom would wear red mesh jerseys over their normal gym clothes. Whether it was soccer, volleyball, dodgeball, floor hockey, or kickball, the study was always conducted the same way. The entire class would line up along the baseline, and one by one, my classmates were chosen as members of team A and team B. I was always somewhere in the respectable middle of the pack – the serious athletes and competitors going ahead of me, and the asthmatics and pocket protectors being left to last. I’m sure it did wonders for those kids’ self-esteem. However, there was no sense complaining about it. Both captains chose the teams that they believed would best enable them to win.

If Jesus was choosing his team to win, he chose poorly. If he was trying to win the religious game, he should have chosen the Pharisees. They were the religious experts, the ones who were just a little bit holier than everyone else. They always brought their Bibles to worship. They fasted. They prayed at least three times a day. They tithed. They followed all the rules, even the ones that contradicted the other ones.

But they’re not who Jesus chose. Jesus chose fishermen – known to be foul-mouthed and crude, impatient and hot-headed. He chose a tax collector – about the most corrupt and morally unscrupulous person around. He chose a zealot – a radical, fanatical revolutionary. Jesus chose sinners – known sinners – known to be somewhat less than perfect, known to have all kinds of problems in their lives. In short, Jesus chose people very much like us. May we pray.

The church is the physical presence of Jesus in the world. Nothing all that radical or earth-shattering, I would guess. In our text this morning, Jesus outlines his idea of how the church will be his presence in the world. It’s really a simple formula. I hear an awful lot of people who are worried about their purpose in life, and I hear an awful lot of congregations who are trying to figure out their purpose. But really, Jesus makes it pretty simple here. He commands the disciples to be a community of love and to bear fruit. Easier said than done.

No doubt, many of you have seen the advertisements run by the United Methodist Church as part of the “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors” campaign. It’s an attempt to reach out to people who are not currently part of our church and invite them in. The ads welcome unchurched people to come worship with us, and promises them an experience of hospitality, non-judgmentalism, and welcome. This week, I was looking at some research as a follow-up to the campaign. About 3% of respondents said that they visited a United Methodist Church as a result of the campaign and made a positive connection with the congregation. However, about 18% said they had visited a United Methodist Church as a result of the campaign and their experience had been negative. Nevermind that 79% of the respondents did nothing in response to the ads, but for every person who had a positive experience in the United Methodist Church, 6 had a negative one! In short, the ads promised one thing, but when people visited a local church, their experience failed to measure up to what was promised.

Said one woman, a 20-something Cuban American: “I needed to clean up my life. I took my kids to the church with the banner. It was clear that nobody wanted us there. My kids are a little loud. People couldn’t wait for us to leave, that’s how ‘open’ they were.”

Or, from a homeless man in Tennessee: “All I wanted was a place to go, you know? All I wanted was a place to be accepted. There’s a church in town that put a sign out –‘open hearts and doors’ so I went in. People wouldn’t talk to me, except a man who said I shouldn’t hang out in the church because I was making people uncomfortable.”

The church is supposed to be the physical presence of Jesus in the world, and we all know that. Jesus commanded us to love, and we know we’re supposed to do that. We’ve put it on our websites, in our newsletters, and have even run television spots promising the world that we are a community of love. Jesus commanded us to love one another and to be known by the fruit we produce. More often than not, when the world has come in and tasted our fruit, it leaves a bitter taste in their mouth. But it doesn’t have to be so.

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, and it was wonderful. 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 purpose for your life is, but I’ll tell you it is this: God’s purpose for your life is to be Jesus for people. 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. And 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.

In spite of our imperfections and our shortcomings and our flaws, Jesus chooses us. In spite of our inability to keep our promises, Jesus chooses us. In spite of our brokenness and our deep hurts, Jesus chooses us.

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, that no life of God’s creating is beyond God’s redeeming, 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 believe in them.

Second, you have to forgive people. A few years ago, while I was still in seminary, I was driving back to Durham from New York late on a Sunday night. OK, it was a little after midnight, so it was technically Monday morning. I was eager to get home, and as I passed a Maryland state trooper on Highway 301, he signaled to let me know that he noticed and appreciated the apparent urgency of my trip.

The Rev. John Owen, a good friend of our family, was working with the DC metro police department as a crisis chaplain at the time, and when I went to appear in traffic court, he agreed to come with me for moral support. John stands about 6’5” and weighs over 300 pounds and has the physical build of a refrigerator. He always wears a clerical collar in public. The judge was moving through the docket, and eventually called my name. As I went to stand in front of him, the Rev. John Owen came to stand with me. The judge looked down over his glasses and said, “Young man, is this your counsel?” Before I could answer, the Rev. John Owen, in his most booming preacher voice, said, “Your honor, I am here to provide spiritual support and guidance to this young man at this time. But I also remind the court that one day, we will all stand before the righteous judgment of God, and beg that in his infinite mercy, he will not hold us accountable for all our grievous transgressions against him.” The judge simply said, “Thank you, Father. I try to remember that on a daily basis.” Fortunately for me, the judge was interested in practicing forgiveness that day.

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 forgive 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.

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. Good parents love their children no matter what.

I also know that God is good. And because God is good, God loves each of us no matter what. God loves me. God loves you. God loves the people I find most difficult to love. God loves the people you find difficult to love. I happen to think this world would be a much better place if every person knew that God loved them. 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.”

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.

We are called to show people a God who loves them unconditionally, who forgives them, who believes in them. We are called to be Jesus to the world, but the world begins right here.

As Church, we are called to be the body of Christ here on earth. We are called to be the hands and feet of Jesus to a world in need of God’s love. Jesus gave us a command to love one another, just as he has loved us. We are not here to promote judgmentalism, or hate speech, or legalism, or pride, or colonialism. We are not here to pick and choose among all those who are dying to be invited into the loving presence of God. We don’t have the freedom or the right to decide who gets to be loved and accepted and called by God.

Brothers and sisters, the time for picking and choosing is over. Now is the time for inviting everyone we find – the good and the bad, those who smell good and those who smell bad, rich & poor, those whom we like and those whom we don’t, Republicans and Democrats and Independents, liberals and conservatives, Carolina fans and Duke fans and Wake Forest fans and State fans and even Florida and Boston College fans, those who are popular and those who are unloved, the educated and the simple, the cultured and the unrefined, people of all colors and backgrounds and lifestyles —everyone—we are called to invite everyone into God’s presence and love them with the same love with which God loves us – that is our calling. That is what it means to be the presence of Jesus in the world.

Let me share some things with you about the future to which God is calling this church. I firmly believe that God has called us to be Jesus to the people right around us. Within a mile and a half of this building, there are currently 23,000 people. You’re going to hear those numbers a lot from me in the months and years ahead. God has called us to be the presence of Jesus to those people. If you’re looking for a purpose by which this church ought to be driven, it is nothing more and nothing less than to do everything in our power to bring the love of Jesus to our part of the world. Every decision we make as a church should be driven by this one singular purpose of being the hands and feet of Jesus to the people right around us – the people who live nearby, as well as your friends, families, and neighbors. What would it mean for every decision about the building, about our programming, about the budget, about worship, about mission, about staff, about outreach, about fellowship – what would it mean for every decision to be evaluated solely on the basis of whether this supports our aim to be the hands and feet of Jesus to people who don’t know him yet?

A church can believe its best days are behind it, or a church can believe its best days are ahead of it; in either case, it will be right. If we will operate out of Jesus’ command for us, to love one another as he has loved us, then I am convinced our best days are still ahead of us. If we will operate with this one aim in mind, there is no limit to what God will do among God’s people in this place.

My prayer for St. Paul is that we will operate with one aim in mind: to be a Christian community where all people are valued and become deeply committed followers of Jesus Christ.

Friends, that may mean we need to change a bit. To become something we have not been before. We cannot preserve the old institution and dress it up in trendier clothes and pass it off as something different and innovative. If we have forgotten our calling to be the presence of Jesus in the world, then we need to challenge the status quo and tackle the hard questions. My hope is that we will be open to the love of God working in and among us, and that the love of God will transform our hearts and lead us to transform this heartless world.