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Sunday, February 28, 2010

The "Real" St. Paul - Persecutor (Acts 7:54 - 8:3)

When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died. And Saul approved of their killing him.

That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria. Devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.

Throughout the season of Lent, our worship focuses on the life and times of the “real” St. Paul. This is St. Paul United Methodist Church, after all, and it seemed fitting to learn a little more about the life of the man for whom this particular congregation is named. Let me ask you – what do you know about St. Paul? Who was he? What do you think of when you hear his name? (Invite congregational feedback).

My hope is that this will not be just a history lesson on the life of an important figure from the early church, but that the scenes of his life will speak to us today, that we will find our hearts transformed by what we experience, and we will be part of bringing healing and wholeness into the world. May we pray.

I recognize some of the difficulties in talking about the life of the “real” St. Paul. After all, I certainly didn’t know him personally! To my knowledge, neither did any of the rest of us. But what we do have is a pretty comprehensive picture left to us by Paul through his own writings, the writings of his friends and associates, and historiographers of his day.

Paul's life can be divided into two almost equal parts: for thirty years he was a Pharisee, and then for thirty years, as a Christian, he was a missionary who founded communities throughout the Mediterranean basin and wrote to those churches. Today, we’re going to take a telescope look at those first 30 years of his life.

Originally named Saul, St. Paul was born in Tarsus, the capital of Cilicia in Asia Minor, a Greek-speaking region. He grew up in a strict Jewish home, where the entirety of the Law was followed in exact detail. His family was prominent and distinguished enough to have been granted Roman citizenship.

His father had high hopes for him. Fathers want their children to have the best possible. They work hard to provide for their families, they make important social contacts, they sacrifice to get them into the right schools, and they have great hopes for what their children will do in the future.

For a privileged, educated, socially-connected Jewish family, there was no greater hope for a son than that he would become a rabbi. His father arranged for him to travel to Jerusalem and study under one of the leading rabbis of the Pharisees, named Gamaliel, to get the best education possible. He studies under one of the best, and he is sent halfway across the known world to school – an opportunity that very few would have. His father sends him to study in a place where every door of opportunity and privilege will be opened to him.

As a Pharisee, this young man named Saul fell in love with the Jewish law. He loved to study the Torah day and night, and even committed all 613 commandments in the tradition to memory. He was a capable student, a gifted leader, respected for his wisdom and ability to interpret the nuance of the law, and he was quickly rising through the ranks of the religious leadership, gaining respect and authority with the passing of each day. No one was more zealous for the law. No one was a greater defender of thousands of years of religious history and heritage. No one was more interested in preserving the way things had always been.

A new strain of Judaism had risen up in just the last few years, An influential traveling rabbi from Galilee named Jesus had taught, healed, loved, and brought hope. He came proclaiming a message about the kingdom of God, which was all well and good, but apparently some of the things he said got himself in trouble with the government authorities, and he was executed as a political criminal – crucified on a crude, wooden, cross.

However, the incident never really died down. Jesus’ followers wouldn’t let it stay dead. Literally! Even right after his execution, a small group of his followers began to claim that only two days later, he was resurrected. They claimed he had come back to life, and this proved that he was, in fact, who he said he was! A new movement within the Jewish tradition was gaining steam, and the whole thing, it seemed, was devoted to worshipping Jesus and following his teachings, and claiming in their worship that Jesus had done for them only what God could do for them, and that Jesus was, therefore, God.

To the young man named Saul, this was all very troubling. Remember, he had devoted himself to studying the law. He was a Pharisee! No one loved the law more than Saul! And he knew the most fundamental commandment in the law, the thing that Jews prayed every morning and night, that there is only one God, and that God was to be worshiped and loved alone, that no other person or thing was to be worshiped.

But here were the followers of Jesus, worshipping Jesus as if he were God. Nothing could have been more blasphemous! There was no greater heresy than what these people were doing. They had been perverting and twisting and interpreting Scripture in such a way as to claim that Jesus was actually God’s Messiah.

Still, the establishment did succeed in harassing the young church. Its members were persecuted and jailed. Two of its leaders, Peter and John, were forbidden ever again to speak to anyone in the name of Jesus. However, the young Christians answered with boldness: “You yourselves judge which is right in God’s sight – to obey you or to obey God. For we cannot stop speaking of what we ourselves have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19-20). Obviously, something more had to be done to silence the boldness of the early preachers.

The situation came to a head with the effective preaching of Stephen. He was one of the first deacons, elected by the church to help care for the needy and the poor, distributing money among the widows and the impoverished. A man “full of faith and the Holy Spirit,” Stephen was opposed by a large number of orthodox Jews. Some who were from overseas synagogues debated and argued violently against him. Stephen faced a savage retribution on some trumped-up charges by people who had been bribed. “We heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will tear down the Temple and change all the customs that have come down to us from Moses!” (Acts 6:14). It was the threat of changing the customs more than anything else that caused the religious leaders to move with violence against him. Even today, when a church leader or some other person suggest changing the customs that we believe were handed down to us from Moses, watch the opposition from those who have appointed themselves as the guardians of those customs.

So the charges came, and they brought strong reaction from the Council. Not only was Stephen blaspheming against the Temple (a charge that had also been made against Jesus), he was claiming that Jesus had ascended into heaven and was standing in the place of honor and authority at God’s right hand. This was the worst of blasphemies, and the Law had a specific penalty for this: “Everyone who heard him curse shall put his hands on the man’s head to testify that he is guilty, and then the whole community shall stone him to death” (Leviticus 24:14). It was ordered that Stephen would be immediately executed by stoning.

Most Sunday School drawings of the stoning of Stephen have completely missed the point. It wasn’t a case of a man being surrounded by a mob who threw stones at him. Death by stoning was much more certain than that. The person being stoned was forced to stand naked on the city wall while the charge against him was read out. He was then thrown down from the wall – perhaps 20 or 30 feet – to the rocks below. His accusers would then carry large rocks – one at a time – to the edge of the wall and drop them down onto the victim’s body.

Those who will stone him lay their coats at Saul’s feet as Stephen is slowly, violently, and cruelly put to death. Stephen is Christianity’s first martyr – he is the first one to have been put to death because of his convictions about Jesus.

A side note here on the word “martyr.” It comes to us from the Greek, and literally it means “witness.” When you read the New Testament and you come across the word “witness,” most of the time it is actually the word from which we get the word “martyr.”

We don’t often think of the connection between these two words, but they could not be any closer! A witness is defined as “someone who has firsthand knowledge about something through their senses.” In Christian terms, we may think of a witness as someone who shares, tells, or demonstrates their faith to others. A martyr is “someone who suffers persecution and death for refusing to renounce a belief.” But early witnesses were called martyrs. The process of bearing witness was not intended to lead to the death of the witness. Yet, during the first centuries of early Christianity, the term acquired the extended meaning of a believer who is called to give testimony concerning their belief, and as a result of this testimony, is often subject to suffering or even death.

Throughout the New Testament, we are called to be Jesus’ witnesses on earth. Even his last words to the disciples before he ascends into heaven 40 days after his resurrection, he says that they – and we – will be his witnesses to the very end of the earth. Perhaps we think this means we will simply bear testimony about Jesus, or we will simply live Christlike lives, or we will tell about Jesus, or show God’s love in Jesus through our lives, or some other such thing. And yes, we will certainly be witnesses in this sense, but Jesus calls us to more. Jesus calls us to bear testimony and to let our lives proclaim him, but Jesus calls us to be so strong in our convictions that we are willing to die for what we believe. We are called to be witnesses who are willing to be martyrs. We are called to say, “Here I take my stand, in Christ alone do I glory, and my allegiance shall not be sheared away by Christ by anyone or anything.” We are called to be that strong in our witness. Stephen took that stance, and even in his death, that there was no question of the power of God in his life.

The death of Stephen finally succeeded in scattering the believers. Widespread persecution broke out and many of the faithful fled to safer towns. And it was Saul of Tarsus, the one we now know as St. Paul, who led the charge, going from house determined to destroy the church, dragging out believers, both men and women, and throwing them into jail.

What I want us to notice is who Jesus’ followers are at this point and who is persecuting them. At this point in history, Jesus’ followers are predominantly Jewish, and they are being persecuted by other Jews! Sibling rivalries, it would seem, run strong.

The perception was that the Christians were completely ignoring their history, when in reality, they saw the way of Jesus as the fulfillment of their history. We see this tension lived out over and over again. Religion is very good at establishing itself and then working double-time to promote the status quo and preserve the way things have always been.

In his ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail,’ Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote these words: “There was a time when the church was very powerful – in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society . . . Small in number, they were big in commitment. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound.”

It’s what happens when we become confused and fall more in love with our way of doing things than in the way of Jesus, when we are more concerned about our religion than our relationships, when we are preservers of the status quo instead of promoters of justice, when we think that we already God completely figured out, and that we are somehow the master of the mystery of God.

That’s what happened to Saul. He was so convinced of the correctness of his own belief and experience, of his knowledge and training, of his background and pedigree, that he felt a sense of certainty. That sense of certainty led him to feel justified in persecuting Christians, and in fact, he was actually persecuting God. He was so blinded by his own perception that he couldn’t see the new thing God was doing, and in his zeal for God, he was actually working against God.

Now, we know the rest of the story, and we’ll look at the story over the next few weeks. We know that Saul will have an encounter with Jesus along the road, that he will become a great missionary, and eventually become one of the most influential people in Christianity. But before we get there, we have to pause and remember that one of the greatest figures in Christianity started out as one of its most vocal and violent opponents.

So where is the change here? Something died. I’m not talking about Stephen or any of the others who were facing persecution. Something within Saul had to die. Something of his own will, his own certainty, his own confidence in himself and in his own abilities, his own agenda, his own pride, his own sin that kept him separated from God. Something within him had to die, in order that something of God could be born.

And friends, that is the central story of our faith. We are a people who believe that resurrection comes out of death. Too often, however, we want to move straight to resurrection without confronting death. We want the new life of God without putting the old life of our self-will to death. As David Crowder says, “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.” But when we are willing to die for the right things and allow the right things within us to die, then hope is born. Doing it our way, relying solely on our own understanding or ingenuity, always leads to a dead end. Eventually, we have to come to a place where we call on God and are willing to do it God’s way, and the result is always that hope is born.

This Lenten season, we are all called to allow things within us to die in order that things of God can be born. That’s my question for us to consider this morning both as individuals and as a church: What things within us need to die in order for the things of God to be born? Who is God calling us to be, and what needs to change as we get there? Do we think we’re working for God, but we’re actually working against God?

We can try to hang onto all sorts of things, but many of them only weigh us down and serve as a barrier between ourselves and God. Today, I hope and pray that we will let those things go, and hope will be born.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

When Christians Get It Right (1 John 4:11-21)

Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers and sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

Today, we are wrapping up our series of messages on the theme “unChristian: What a new generation really thinks of Christianity and why it matters.” Over the last several weeks, we have been looking at some research done among 16-29-year-olds about their perceptions of Christianity and the Church. We recognize that people in this generation have opted out of Church at a rate five times higher than that of people age 65 and over. What the research shows is that we Christians have an image problem in the minds of young people in our culture. They might be interested in Jesus or various aspects of Christian theology, but they’ve essentially said, “No thanks” to the church based on what they’ve seen in the lives of the Christians they’ve known.

Each week, we’ve looked at a particular negative perception that young people have about Christians and how that perception might actually be out-of-step with what Jesus has called us to be. Each week, we’ve tried to learn from those in this younger generation, and we’ve sought to grow with what we’ve learned. And it seems that’s what happened. I got an email from one of you this week that read, “Your series on un-Christian has been very insightful and thought-provoking (even if I do resemble some of it). If the shoe fits, I don’t want to wear it. Need to kick it off! Maybe with God’s help I can.” That’s my hope for all of us. May we pray.

Today, I don’t want you to think that Christians get it wrong all the time. In fact, when Christians get it right, we have the potential to drastically transform the world. And you know what? Getting it right really isn’t all that complicated. It’s about remembering the basics. So today’s message is very basic.

In Mark 12, one of the teachers of his day asked Jesus to summarize the greatest commandment in the law. Jesus said it was to love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength and a second is like it – to love your neighbor as you love yourself (Mark 12:28-34). If you’ve listened to me for any length of time, you know I agree with Jesus that these things are important. Everything we do hangs here. Over the next 20 years that I’m your pastor, you’re going to hear me remind you of this over and over again – love God, love neighbor – these two are the greatest commandment. Over the next 20 years, you’re going to get sick of hearing me say it, because it is the most basic and fundamental of Jesus’ teachings, and we’re going to highlight it a lot.

Jews of Jesus’ day would have been familiar with the first part of the teaching. During their prayers every morning and every night, Jews would recite a prayer known as the Shema. Shema is the Hebrew word for “hear,” and it comes from Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” This was foundational. It was like a summary statement, a creed of Jewish faith. So Jesus is asked what is most important, and he recites this creed. Well, sorta.

What I want you to notice is that Jesus monkeys with the creed. In addition to heart, soul, and might, Jesus adds “mind.” We are also to love God with our mind. Remember, this is a foundational creed of Jewish belief, and Jesus adds something to it! It would be like me standing up here and saying, “Today we’re going to add a few things to the Apostles’ Creed.” A few weeks ago, we looked at one of John Wesley’s key teachings about the attitude we need to have about differences within the Christian faith: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” Someone asked, “But what’s essential?” Good question. The Apostles’ Creed is what’s essential – the things that it claims about God and who we are in relation to God are essential.

And so if I wanted to change it, you’d probably be sitting there going, “Whoa, A.J. – that thing goes back to the early church, that’s a nearly universal statement of faith that is foundational to all Christians! You can’t just mess with it and add stuff to it!” And you’d be right. That’s not such a good idea. That’s not the kind of thing we do. But Jesus did it, because Jesus was the only one with the authority to do it.

But then, Jesus adds even more. He draws from Leviticus 19:18 and says we are to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Love of God and love of neighbor go hand-in-hand. You can’t have one without the other. They are like two sides of a coin. Loving God necessarily involves love of neighbor. If you love God, it will be shown in loving your neighbor. And if you can’t love your neighbor, you haven’t figured out the love of God.

The first part of this greatest commandment, to love God, tells us, first and foremost, that God is a relational God. It tells us that God desires to have a relationship with us. The reason God tells us to love God is because God already loves us. God loves us sacrificially. God created us, God knows our names, God knows all about us, God knows about our fears and desires – God knows each of us better than we know ourselves.

And so we’re all trying to figure out our purpose in life, and it starts with the basics. The first thing – your primary purpose in life, is simply to let God love you. If you want to be the person God has created you to be, let God love you. And then second, you need to reciprocate that love. To the best of your ability, with all the faculties and abilities and sensibilities you have, you need to love God back. If you’re struggling trying to figure out your purpose in life, try these two things: first, let God love you. Second, love God in return.

That’s the first part of this greatest commandment, but then Jesus starts talking about this loving our neighbor business. And when it comes to figuring out your purpose in life, this is the last piece. Let God love you, love God in return, and then show and live and share God’s love with your neighbor. This is what God made us for.

In our reading from 1 John that we looked at a few minutes ago, this is what the writer of that letter was getting at. “Since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers and sisters are liars, for they cannot love God. Those who love God must love each other also.”

Love is one of those things that grows. You all know this. You all know that you love in different ways as you grow up through life, and the ways that you show love continue to change. This probably won’t surprise many of you, but I’ve always been a bit of a ladies’ man. When I was three, I memorized the lyrics to Stevie Wonder’s I Just Called to Say I Love You and I would croon that song to the old ladies at church. In my preschool I was known as “The Kissing Bandit” because I would chase the girls around in the hopes of stealing a smooch. This was tempered when Lisa Jacobs turned the tables on me and pinned me down. In early elementary school, the way you showed a girl you like her was by torturing her, of course. I mean really, how’s a girl supposed to know you like her unless you make her life a living hell? And then a little older, it was picking flowers out of my mother’s garden and taking them by Mary Ingham’s house and sitting on the front sidewalk while she practiced the piano. Or in high school, when you showed someone you loved them by getting the car washed before you went parking at the hydro-electric intake towers or along the Parkway.

But somewhere, the way we express love shifts, because love grows and matures throughout our life. Somewhere love becomes less about me and more about the other person. Talk to people who have fallen in love, and almost universally somewhere in their story they will say something like, “I knew this was love because there was nothing I wouldn’t do for the other person.” Talk to people like Jim and Tam Thompson who are celebrating their 44th anniversary today and who, from what I can tell, have grown more in love with each other with each passing day. People like Jim and Tam will tell you that this sort of love is more than just a feeling – it’s a conscious effort with the passing of each day to place the needs of the other above your own. This is how we love – selflessly and sacrificially, always thinking of others before we think of ourselves.

John Wesley summarized this teaching as the goal of the Christian life. He taught that we should seek to be perfected in love, to grow ever more and more in our love of God and our love of neighbor. He used a theological term for this: sanctification, which means becoming holy. This is the goal of the Christian life – to grow in love – to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbor. The Holy Spirit enables us to grow in grace so that tomorrow, we are a little more loving than we were today.

If you can keep that in mind, you have summarized the entire ethical teaching of Jesus – love God, love neighbor. Consider this to be your creed – the thing that is foundational and upon which all other decisions are based. Here’s a challenge: every morning try saying, “Lord, help me accept your love today. Help me to love you. Help me to show your love to every person I meet today, in every phone call, in every e-mail, to every person who shares the road with me in traffic – everyone.” And then every night, “Lord, thank you for loving me. Forgive me for the ways I didn’t love you back, and forgive me for the ways I wasn’t loving toward other people today. And even while I sleep, mold me and make me more loving tomorrow than I was today.” If we would each do that, I wonder how our lives and the lives of people we encounter would be changed.

One of the teachers asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:25-37.) After all, if we’re supposed to love our neighbor, it would be a good idea to know who our neighbor is. This question was basically saying, “OK Jesus, tell me who my neighbor is so I know who I don’t have to love.

Jesus answered with a story – the story of the Good Samaritan. A man was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho, a trip of six hours on foot, maybe a little less if you rode a donkey. The man was attacked, robbed, beaten, and left for dead. The man is lying there, and the first two people who come down the road are deeply-religious people. Each of them sees the man on the side of the road, and makes sure to go out of their way to avoid the man. After all, they were very busy – they had important appointments to meet, they had schedules to keep, and they just couldn’t afford to stop the man and help. Maybe this was a trick! Maybe the thieves were still hiding and would rob them if they stopped to help! And it would be so much trouble. They’d have to get the man to town, and pay for food and lodging and medical care for him, and it was just too complicated! Surely God would understand. Someone else would have to help them. So here, the religious people got it wrong.

But then along comes a Samaritan. Remember, the Samaritans were not well-regarded by Jews of Jesus’ day. Their religious beliefs and practices were wrong and they were perceived to be impure. But when the Samaritan saw the man lying on the side of the road, Jesus says his heart was moved to pity. And so he loads the guy onto his donkey, carries him 16 miles into town, puts him up, calls a doctor, and leaves two days’ wages – that would be around $500-$700 for most of us – with the innkeeper to take care of him. Anything beyond it,” he says, “put it on my tab.” Jesus says, “That’s what love looks like.” It’s not a feeling. It’s intentionally caring for someone and sacrificing yourself. It’s about seeking the best for someone else, it’s about interrupting your day and caring for someone else in their time of need. This is the kind of love that God calls us to.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached on this parable the night before he was assassinated. He said there are two basic forces in the world – one is the force of love, and the other is the force of fear. Both forces are expressed in this parable. The religious people who passed by the beaten man on the side of the road responded out of fear and asked, “What will happen to me if I stop to help?” The Samaritan responded out of love and asked, “What will happen to him if I don’t stop?”

Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this: that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Love, in its truest and purest form, says “I am willing to sacrifice of myself so that you may have what you need.”

I spoke with a young father recently who did not want to be a father. Throughout his wife’s pregnancy, he was fearful. He didn’t feel qualified to raise it and care for a child, he was worried, he wasn’t sure he wanted to be bothered with having his life interrupted with this other life. But, just minutes after his newborn daughter drew her first breath and made her first cry, he held her in his arms and looked at her and thought, “I will do anything for you. I will protect you at any cost. My life has just changed forever, and I couldn’t be any happier.”

And perhaps that’s the most fundamental difference between love and fear. Fear is concerned with me and mine, love is concerned with you and yours. But Scripture teaches there is no fear in love and that perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18).

Fear is the opposite of love, and fear expresses itself in a variety of ways – anger, aggression, hostility, selfishness, resistance. We all have encounters with people who exhibit these traits, and at the root of all these is fear. Don’t return anger with anger, though, because perfect love casts out fear. I am making an effort, and it’s still something I am growing into, to confront anger with love. When people are angry or aggressive or hostile, I try to understand the fear behind their anger. And I try to love them. Now, granted, some people are just easier to love than others, but I am not going to let other people’s negativity and hostility weigh me down. I am not going to waste time on things that rob me of life and joy. I am not going to be sucked into negative patterns. To the best of my ability and the Holy Spirit’s guidance, I am going to combat fear with love.

But let me tell you what that doesn’t mean. Loving people doesn’t mean letting them have whatever they want. After all, angry and fearful people may have desires that aren’t rooted in the love of God. If someone has an appetite for things that are harmful to them and to other people, we are not called to simply acquiesce and let them have their way. Think of how a parent loves a child. A child may have desires for all sorts of things, but many of those things are harmful to the child and potentially harmful to those around the child.

Likewise, we all may develop appetites for things that are harmful to us and to others, and the most loving response here is to say “No.” Sometimes the most loving thing to do is not to allow others to poison themselves and others with toxicity. Sometimes the most loving thing to do is not to allow fear and anger and selfishness and arrogance and pride to rule the day, but to lovingly and in all sincerity say “No.”

If we want to move from being fearful to being loving, one of the best things we can each do is to take ourselves out of the equation. The bigger our ego – whether it’s healthy or unhealthy – the more we are likely to see ourselves as the center of the universe. I don’t know about you, but I want to live in a larger universe because, in reality, most things have nothing to do with us. This is a place where we could all learn from the wisdom of Alcoholics Anonymous, who teaches Rule #62 – “Don’t take yourself so [darn] seriously!”

We are told that God is love, and God abides in us when we love God. That means that we, our very lives, the very fiber of our being is the home of God’s love. You are God’s abode. You are God’s dwelling. You are God’s house. You are God’s condo. You are God’s apartment. You are God’s dorm room. You are God’s love shack. When God dwells in us, God moves in with the fullness of God’s love, which means we might need to clean up the place and move out our fear, and our anger, and our resentment, and our bigger-than-life egos because perfect love is moving in, and perfect love casts out fear.

Have you noticed that people who are loving are primarily thinking outside themselves? They are thinking about what they can do for others, they are willing to sacrifice their own luxury and comfort simply to meet the needs of others. This is the love of God – this is love of God and neighbor put into action.

Once a month, many of you volunteer at the Emergency Winter Shelter when you could be at home with a glass of wine in front of the fire. That’s the love of God and neighbor put into action. Every year, when some of you give up a weeks’ vacation and go with our youth to help people in rural Appalachia through Carolina Cross Connection, that’s love in action. When there is a need somewhere in the world, you open your wallets and respond generously, such as when you gave $4000 to humanitarian relief in Haiti – that’s love in action. And you do this because this is simply what Christians do.

People who are loving are primarily thinking outside themselves, and churches who are loving are constantly thinking outside themselves. So I have to ask you – what sort of church do you want to be? Do you want to be a fearful church? One that is self-centered, that is angry and toxic, that is focused inward and primarily concerned with its own needs? Or do you want to be a loving church? One that is generous, that is kind and big-hearted and welcoming, one that is constantly looking outside of itself to meet the needs of those outside our walls, who does these things not to get any credit or glory but simply because it’s the right thing to do? One of those churches is very compelling, and it is the most faithful witness for who God calls us to be. So what kind of church do we want to be?

We get it wrong when we’re fearful. We get it wrong when we’re angry, hostile, judgmental, arrogant, close-minded, and confrontational. We get it right when we’re lovingly-engaged with the world around us. When we don’t take ourselves too seriously, when we sacrifice ourselves to meet the needs of others, when our hearts are turned outward instead of inward.

My hope and prayer is that we will be the kind of people and the kind of church who fascinate the world with God’s love. Over the last several weeks we have looked at the ways we are perceived by young people outside the church, the clothing they see, if you will, when they look at our lives as Christians. My hope and prayer is that we will continue to grow in the love of God and neighbor, and that when people look at us, the only thing they will see is the love of God lived out in human flesh.

Now, for those of you who are Christians, in a few moments I’m going to give you an invitation to renew your commitment to God. To re-dedicate your life to Christ and to ask for a fresh wind of the Holy Spirit in your life, that you may become more loving. But, for those of you who aren’t Christians – maybe you’ve joined us during this worship series, my hope for you is that we’ve explored a vision and a version of Christianity that is actually compelling. A Christian faith that isn’t marked by judgmentalism and hypocrisy and close-mindedness and all the things that we’ve identified as unChristian. I hope you’ve seen that’s it possible to be a Christian and not be like this. My hope is that today you’re willing to say, “I want to be part of Jesus’ mission to change the world. I want Jesus to have my heart and my whole life. I am willing to accept God’s love for me and I really want to love God and love my neighbor. I want to be a follower of Jesus.” That’s my hope for all of us today.

Thank you God for loving me. Forgive my sins. Wash me clean and make me new. Jesus, I choose to follow you. I accept you as my savior. I wish to follow you as my Lord. Help me to love God with all my heart, mind, soul, and strength. Help me love my neighbor as I love myself. I offer my life to you.

Lord, bless all who have prayed this prayer today. Hold us in your love. Help us to be more authentically Christian. We ask that you would make us part of your mission – to heal the world with your love, and to show your love to everyone everywhere. Thank you for loving us. Continue to teach us how to love you, and love our neighbors. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

unChristian: Hyper-Political (Mark 12:13-17)

Then they sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said. And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?” But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me see it.” And they brought one. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Jesus said to them, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were utterly amazed at him.”

Religion and politics. Two of the three things you’re not supposed to talk about at a dinner party. Funny then, that these two things so often find themselves in bed together, isn’t it?

Today we are continuing in our series of messages on the theme unChristian: What A New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity and Why It Matters. These messages respond to some compelling research done among 16-29 year-olds about negative perceptions they have about Christianity and the Church. Today’s message responds to the fact that an overwhelming majority of young people think Christians today are too involved in politics. My hope today is that this discussion of politics and power and how we Christians relate to it will draw us closer to God, for it is only when we lack the power of God in our lives that we seek the power of the world. May we pray.

If we’re going to talk about politics, it would seem some definitions are in order. Politics is defined simply as “a process by which groups of people make collective decisions. It consists of social relations involving authority or power.” It comes to us from the Greek, and is derived from the “polis,” which roughly translates as the public arena, and is closely related to the word “policy.”

So then, policies are made to influence things in the public square. And politics refers to anything related to the dynamics of how a group makes decisions. Politics are everywhere. You can’t go anywhere and get away from politics. If there are two or more people gathered in one place, you have politics.

Did you know that there are even politics in the Church? No, really, there are! And again, that’s not necessarily a negative thing. Church leaders and members relate to each other. Authority is exercised. We determine how things are going to be done.

But, there are also negative connotations to church politics. I have witnessed church people do some of the most unChristian things to each other and to the overall good of the congregation out of their own jockeying for power and position. I have seen people throw the good of the whole congregation under the bus simply to promote their personal agenda. I have seen church leaders lie to each other. I have seen church leaders who were part of making a decision and who voted for it begin to publicly attack it as soon as the vote was taken. I have seen backbiting and backstabbing, and church leaders who are as sweet as pie to each other’s faces, but will cut each other to ribbons the moment they walk out the door. I have seen the phone lines light up the moment a worship service or a meeting is over so the gossip can be shared about who said what, why they said it, and what they were wearing. After all, we all know that three of the fastest means of communication are telephone, teletext, and tell a United Methodist woman.

Certainly, this is one example of hyper-political Christians. Too much focusing on me and my agenda, on my desires and wishes, and a willingness to sacrifice the good of the whole in order to see my own cause advanced.

Now, this is starting to sound more like American governmental politics, isn’t it? And young people perceive that Christians are too involved in promoting partisan politics. They look inside the church and they see Religious Republicans and Devoted Democrats, proselytizing politicians, right-wing recruiters, partisan pushers, devout defenders, fearful faithful, lying leftists, Christian conspiracists, and believing bullies. They see a lot of people who are drunk on their own power and promoting their own ideology and who seem to have forgotten that the church is, first and foremost, an expression and microcosm of the kingdom of God – a place where God is worshipped, and where those who worship are transformed into the image and likeness of Christ, not molded as members of a political party.

Does the name Chan Chandler mean anything to you? How about East Waynesville Baptist Church? You may recall that back in October 2004, Pastor Chandler his congregation that anyone who planned to vote for Democratic Senator John Kerry should either leave the church or repent. Then in 2005, he led an effort to kick out nine members of the congregation who had, in fact, voted for John Kerry. Chandler later resigned after the congregation imploded under the controversy.

If you want to stir up controversy, start talking politics. Here in Mecklenburg County, about 45% of voters are registered as Democrats, about 30% are registered as Republicans, and about 25% are either registered with minor parties or choose to remain unaffiliated with any political party.

I expect that every Sunday when we gather for worship, I am looking into the faces of people who represent this diversity. I expect that, among those who are looking back at me, we have Republicans and Democrats and Independents. I expect that there are liberals and conservatives, progressives and traditionalists. We have people who only trust Fox News and people who only trust MSNBC. A side note here – before you trust either Fox News or MSNBC too much – did you know that they’re owned by the same parent company? The conservative dollars that are sent to Fox News and the liberal dollars that are sent to MSNBC all end up in the same pot? Rupert Murdoch, it turns out, is a genius who has figured out how to make money off of both sides by exploiting their suspicion and fear of each other.

We all have political opinions and convictions. We all have things we feel passionate about and ideas about the things that are best for our nation and ideologies and practices and policies that we resonate with. And certainly, some of these things line up more with the platform of one political party or another, and so if you find yourself in general agreement with such a collection of ideas and policies and practices, you may choose to label yourself as a Democrat or a Republican. But where it gets sticky is when we decide that God is also a member of our particular party, and that we are somehow justified in hating, attacking, and villanizing the people and the policies of those with whom we do not agree, because, obviously, God is a member of our particular political party.

Friends, I simply have to remind you. God is not a Democrat or a Republican or a libertarian or a communist or a tory or a whig. I have no interest in being the pastor a congregation that identifies itself as a Republican church or Democratic church, a conservative church or a liberal church, a progressive church or a traditional church, an established church or a cutting edge church. I am only interested in being the pastor of a Christian church – a church whose people have built their collective identity on the person and teachings of Jesus the Christ and not any particular political party or ideology.

I remind you of one of the teachings of John Wesley we touched on last week – “In matters that do not strike at the heart of Scriptural Christianity, we are free to think and let think.” Certainly, our political views fall into this category. Our goal as Christians is to not to make everyone agree or think or act exactly the same. Says Mark Batterson, pastor of National Community Church in Washington, DC, “Our primary role as spiritual leaders isn’t making people see eye-to-eye. It’s making sure our eyes are focused on Jesus.”

Every election season, I get emails – most of them forwards – from all sorts of people about candidates. Some of these are friends and acquaintances of mine, some of them are people who, for whatever reason, happened to have my email address and included me in a list of forwards. And clearly, most of these emails are coming from people of faith, because somewhere in the email it says “Pray.” “Pray for our country.” “Pray for wisdom at the polls.” “Pray for justice and truth.” Pray, pray pray. And most of these emails are just awful – full of some of the most hate-filled and fearful rhetoric you can imagine. But what I find fascinating is that most of what is included in these emails is absolute bull. You can go to and other places and check out the facts and the claims that are being made about the candidates.

And don’t get me wrong. I want you to be involved in the political process. I want you to have ideas and things you’re passionate about, and to support the candidates who best represent those issues. But, don’t lie about people. Don’t slander people. Don’t bear false witness against people. And don’t forward emails that do the same thing.

There was an email that went around about a year ago from people who claimed to be Christian claiming that our current president was the anti-Christ, because if you took the letters of his name and translated them into numbers, and then worked them into just the right formula, the result was “666.” Now, you can do this with just about anyone’s name if you work just the right formula. For example, my name is easy to do this with as my first, middle, and last names all have 6 letters.

But, to call someone the anti-Christ is about as slanderous as it gets. In Scripture, the only ruler that was ever called the anti-Christ was the Roman Emperor Nero. In the book of Revelation, where John is referring to “the Beast,” most scholars agree that John is making a sort of veiled reference to Emperor Nero. Now, Emperor Nero was a bad guy. He had his own mother and his own children killed so he could hang onto power. He wanted to have a building campaign so he could be honored as the man who rebuilt Rome, so he had the city set on fire and then blamed the fire on the anger of the gods toward Christians. He had Peter and Paul both executed. He would bring in Christians and have them tortured and killed for entertainment at his dinner parties, often tying them to stakes throughout the garden, and having them lit on fire and burned alive after dark. That’s the spirit of the anti-Christ. When we have a president who starts doing these things, ok – go ahead and start calling them the anti-Christ. But until then, we’d better be very careful about what we say about people.

In Romans, St. Paul tells us to have respect for the civil authorities. Paul was talking about the Roman emperors who were just awful! But he says we pray for them and we show respect for them because that’s what Christians do, regardless of your political affiliation. Now listen, right now we happen to have a Democratic president and a Democratic Congress, but I’ve seen the same thing from Democrats toward Republicans in other times. It’s not just one party or the other who is guilty of this.

If we believe in the Gospel, one of the things we have to start doing is living out the Gospel, even in the political arena. We have to be driven by the power of God and not the powers of the world. In Ephesians 4, St. Paul tells us to live our lives worthy of the calling we have received. The whole chapter is about how we should live differently as followers of Jesus Christ. The backstabbing, the slander, the lies, the false witness, the fear – these things that define our political process, in other words – may be how politics are handled by the world, but these should not be how they are handled by Christians. Christians are called to live a better way in all areas of our life, including in our politics. At the end of this chapter, St. Paul says, “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths.” Today, we might say let no evil email come off your computer or no evil phone call be made. “…but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God.” Grief here is a word that means intense pain or sorrow that we inflict on the heart of God when we say words that cut other people or tear them down. That’s how we’re meant to practice politics in relation to our faith.

In the 12th Chapter of Mark, Jesus was tested. It was the last week of his life. The Pharisees and the teachers of the Law have just been dogging Jesus, trying to trip him up and catch him doing something wrong. Have you guys ever been dogged by someone like this? The Pharisees send the Herodians to ask Jesus a question. The Herodians were people of Jewish faith, but they were also loyal to the Herod family, as their name might suggest. So, as Jews, they were supposed to be completely loyal to God, but their name suggests they probably placed their identity in this political affiliation before God.

The question was designed to put Jesus in a no-win situation. They said, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?” Remember, the Jewish homeland was under occupation by the Roman government who was charged burdensome taxes on the people, and this was resented. The people hoped the Messiah would overthrow the Roman government and the taxes would stop, and more and more people believed Jesus was the Messiah, and they were following him and listening to his teachings. So if Jesus says taxes should be paid to Caesar, they hoped the people would turn away from him and his base of power would be eroded. If Jesus said no, the Romans would arrest him and put him to death for encouraging other people not to pay their taxes. It was a no-win situation.

Jesus says, “Give me one of the coins.” So they do, and he looks at the coin and says, “Whose image is on this coin?” On the coin is the image of Emperor Tiberius, so they respond that it is Caesar’s image on the coin. So Jesus says, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.”

A lot of ink has been spilled on this teaching, but what I want you to focus on is the use of the word “image.” Jesus asks whose image is on the coin. The word “image” here in the Greek, when the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek, is the same word that is used back in Genesis 1:26 and 1:27. In the story of creation, when God creates humankind, God says, “Let us make humankind in our image.” “In the image of God, they were created, male and female.” And so here, Jesus is saying there are certain things that belong to the world. There are things that belong to the powers of the world and are stamped with the world’s image – let the world have those things. And so you render those things that belong there. You get involved in the civic arena, you get involved in politics, you serve, you work for the common good.

But while the coin has the image of Caesar, your soul has the image of God. You render to God the things that belong to God. And since God’s image is on your soul, marked indelibly on your very being, you belong to God. Your heart, your soul, your being, your allegiance belongs to the one who made you, whose image you bear. So while we are involved in the civic arena, our heart belongs to God. And for many Christians, it’s hard to tell that this is the case. Many times it seems that their heart really belongs to their nation, or their political party, and God is 2nd or 3rd or perhaps somewhere even lower on the list.

But God says, “I won’t share. I won’t play second string. You’re going to be on this earth for just a short time, but you’re going to be with me for eternity.” We’re going to be on this earth with its earthly powers for just a short time, but we’re going to be in the kingdom of God for eternity, and our primary allegiance is to the kingdom of God and not to the kingdoms of the world. Each Sunday and every Sunday belongs to no one save God and the Christ. We don’t give our worship time to institutions and organizations because these shear us away from declaring our primary allegiance to God and God’s kingdom.

This church is here as a foreign embassy, if you will. We are gathered as a foreign embassy of the kingdom of God. We live as citizens of this country with all the rights and privileges thereto pertaining, and we seek to be a blessing to others as we live out our faith, but our primary allegiance is to the one who made us, and we remember that as we practice our politics, and we live like it, for this is what Scripture teaches.

Christians have gotten it wrong when we are motivated by a political agenda and seek to use our faith to promote partisan ideals. We get it right when we live as ambassadors of the kingdom of God in the midst of this time and place. The kingdom of God is not captured by a political party, and it is a dangerous moment when a temporal power is confused and equated with higher power. Instead of moving left or right, I invite us all to move deeper – deeper into the ways of the kingdom of God.