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Sunday, April 25, 2010

How to Become Great - Step 1 (Micah 6:6-8)

“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with then thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Today, we are beginning a 3-part series of messages on how to become great. Today, we’re looking at step one. Next week, we’ll look at step two, and can you guess what we’ll look at the week following?

This series has one question at its core: How can we be great in the kingdom of God? Now, I am making some assumptions about us today. I assume that everyone here wants to be great in the kingdom of God. I assume that because I sent out my e-pistle earlier in the week, and here’s what I said: “Please don’t come to worship for the next three weeks if you’d rather be great in your own eyes or in the eyes of the world than be great according to God’s design. You’re only going to end up getting angry, because you’ll be told to re-orient your life’s priorities around God’s desires and not your own. I’d rather avoid a mob of angry people outside my office who are comfortable with the status quo and don’t want to change in the ways God wants them to, so only come if you want to hear what God says about how you can become truly great.”

So, I assume that everyone here today is here because you truly want to be great in the kingdom of God. But, perhaps you got confused about what we’re going to do today, and you really don’t want to be transformed into a great person in the eyes of God and would rather continue to live your life your way and not God’s way. If so, feel free to leave now. I want to be clear about what today is about. It’s about being truly great in the kingdom of God. And here’s a hint: it’s not about becoming great in business. It’s not becoming great in power. It’s not about becoming great in wealth. It’s not about becoming great in bed. It’s not about becoming great in parenting. It’s not about becoming great in the church – in fact, it’s quite the opposite. So I’m giving you one last chance – feel free to get up and leave through those doors and not come back for the next two Sundays, because you won’t be interested in what we’re doing.

Today, we’re looking at the first step of becoming great in the kingdom of God, and we find that the first step is the Great Requirement, found back in the Old Testament prophet of Micah. Written 800 years before the birth of Jesus, Micah calls the people back to their roots and recovering the very identity they seem to have so readily lost and ignored. Micah, whose name literally means, “Who is like the Lord,” calls the community to remember the things that are truly important in the eyes of God, and that’s what we’re going to do for a little bit this morning. May we pray.

OK, so everyone here wants to be a great person in the kingdom of God. Are we in agreement? Is that what we’re all here for this morning? Do you think what God has to say about being great in the kingdom of God is important? Do you think it’s something worth paying attention to? Then let me invite you to do a few things. If your cell phone is currently on, turn it off – not to vibrate – completely off. The exception to this is if you take notes on your phone as I sometimes do or are planning to send text messages to other people in the congregation about things in the sermon. If you have photos you wish to share with the people around you, let me ask you to put those away until after worship. Please put away your to-do list, your shopping list, your crossword puzzles, or whatever else it is you’re working on that’s not related to what we’re doing now. Please stop talking to the people beside you or in front of you or behind you, and if the person near you is doing something that is distracting you from participating in worship, you have my permission to ask them, kindly and politely and in all the Christian love you can muster, to stop.

Now, if the phone call you are expecting is so important that you must leave your phone on, if whatever list you’re working on is so important, if that conversation is so important you feel compelled to have it now, please leave now so we won’t be a distraction to what you feel is so important. Take a look around – none of us is the only person here today! Maybe, just maybe, the person sitting next to you would like to pay attention. Maybe they have something they want to know today. We are here as part of a community, which means that our actions necessary affect those around us. And this, of course, brings us back to our text.

The people of Israel often exploited the vulnerable rather than care for them; they embraced violence and war, instead of loving their enemies; and they worshiped idols and not God alone. In short, the people have broken their covenant relationship with God, and such a fracture has devastating effects on the lives of those around them.

The people have been living lives that are far from what God wants, but what is most distressing is that they think their conduct has been exactly what God wanted. Weren’t sacrifices the way to keep a god in the ancient world happy – what more could God possibly want?

But for the people of Israel, sacrifice was not a way to magically appease God. By themselves, sacrifice did not achieve reconciliation with God; Psalm 51:15-17 makes that abundantly clear: O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

Sacrifice was not the way to earn God’s favor. Rather, it was the celebration of God’s grace – a recognition of what God had already done in the heart and disposition of a person – a sacramental act of response in which the worshiper acknowledged her relationship with God and made a recommitment to live in covenant with God – and necessarily, in covenant with everyone else.

We see that the sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart. Think of the process of breaking a wild horse. What is being broken? The horse’s wild, rebellious nature, of course. The process of breaking a horse is about training it and bringing its will under submission – about breaking its will, so to speak. Or, think of breaking in a new pair of shoes. Why do we break them in? What are we breaking in? We are trying to break the shape of the shoe that resists against the shape of our foot, and give it the opportunity to conform to our foot.

The same is true of a broken spirit before God. Our wild, rebellious wills need to be broken and brought under submission to God. The shape of our will that resists against the shape of God needs to be broken and conformed ever more into the image and likeness of God.

And here’s the crux of the issue: the people thought they were worshiping God the way God desired. They thought their praises and sacrifices were pleasing and acceptable to God, because they thought that’s all God wanted. Sacrifices and outward expressions of worship were only a small part of what God wanted, but they had so elevated their role that they forgot God truly wanted their hearts. God wanted the center of their affection and disposition to be turned toward God, and God wanted them to live that out in their relationships with those around them.

They thought that if they just showed up to church on time, put in their hour sitting in worship, dressed nicely and looking like a respectable member of the community, that was enough. But God is clear – worship is not only about sitting in church and participating in the community’s celebration, even as important as it is to do so. Worship is something God desires for us to do 24/7. It’s not just singing songs, praying prayers, hearing the Word of God, and giving an offering; every aspect of our lives should be an expression of worship. What we do on Sundays here in this place is great, but Micah reminds us that how we live our lives when we walk out of this place is even more important.

The real issue here is idolatrous worship in which the people have replaced the worship of God in living their daily lives with only lip service on Sunday. By reducing worship to a single act or a single hour, we, like the people of Micah’s day, can slip away from worshiping God while we are supposedly worshiping. If we think showing up for an hour a few times a month is all God desires, we will have substituted the process for God or the means or the institution or the church itself for God, and we will have begun worshiping something other than God.

Friends, our worship on Sunday means nothing if it has no effect on how we live on Monday. If we come and sit in these pews week after week and are not transformed through the grace of God to live lives that are pleasing to God, our worship means nothing. We of all people are most to be pitied if we sit in these pews week after week and are still the same people we were when we came in.

The sacrifice pleasing to God is a broken heart – when’s the last time you let down your guard and truly allowed God to break your heart? There are things we need to let go of – our pride, our anger, our resentments, our arrogance, our mean spirits – in order that God can break our hearts and mold them. If these are things that persist in your life, as your pastor, I’m begging you to let them go. If you insist on hanging onto them, I can’t even begin to describe the damage you’ll do to others, this church, and yourself. Please, let them go. In fact, right now, close your eyes and take a deep breath. What is that thing that keeps God from being able to break your heart? In your mind, name it. Imagine that thing wrapped like a hard shell around your heart. Now, imagine God taking a big hammer and breaking that hard shell into tiny, unrecognizable bits and sweeping away the broken pieces. Now, picture God gently, lovingly, patiently, carefully molding your heart – your attitudes, your disposition, the center of your being, your values, the things that you feel define you – imagine God molding them upward toward God, and outward toward everyone else around you.

In our text, the people ask, “What does God want?” The response comes back, “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

God, who is immortal, who is wise, who is loving, who is kind, whose ways are higher and greater and nobler than our ways, who formed paths that are yet unknown to us, has shown us what is good. What does God require? Repeat after me: Do justice (reply). Love kindness (reply). Walk humbly with God (reply).

My sisters and brothers, if you want to be great in the kingdom of God, the first step is following this Great Requirement – to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God. There’s no way around it. It’s a requirement. Life is full of requirements. Get used to it. No arguments. No fuss. Quit making a stink about it. If you want to be great in the kingdom of God, the Great Requirement is step one.

The requirements of God are not some sort of strict legal list we can check off and tally the points to see if we have earned enough to please God. The requirements are placed in the framework of a relationship with God and with others. Micah defines God’s requirements in terms of general principles rather than specific actions. While some might argue that this interpretation lessens the requirements, in actuality, for those who truly follow, in only increases the responsibility. The Great Requirement outlines for us the way of extreme commitment and discipleship – this is only for people who are serious about following God. But how do we follow it?

The first part is to do justice. No doubt you’ve heard the story of a woman who went to a photographer to have her portraits done. When she received the proofs, she complained, “These pictures don’t do me justice.” The photographer replied, “Lady, you don’t need justice; you need mercy.”

The call to do justice rings throughout the prophetic writings of the Old Testament. “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,” Amos thunders as he compares it to a raging river flowing over a parched desert of injustice (Amos 5:24).

Justice is not a legal term here. It is a relational term. It comes out of an understanding that we are all bound together in community. Part of our mission statement is that we are a Christian community, and one of the cornerstones of community is justice. It means the full inclusion of everyone in the community, it’s about restoring the marginalized to their rightful place as full participants in the community. It involves the basic needs, requirements, or even rights of people living together in community. It is, therefore, decidedly social in nature. In short, doing justice is about looking out for the others in our world.

Those who are following God wholeheartedly will do justice. We have an obligation to rectify the inequities of a society that allows some to be oppressed to the point where they are deprived of the basic needs and requirements that would allow them to function as part of the community.

Let me be very clear about the cost of doing justice. Sometimes because of our commitment to God’s truth and justice, we must stand against the tide. We may find ourselves at odds with our respectable social circles. Because of our commitment to God’s truth and justice, sometimes we are called to stand against the tide. Doing that always has consequences, but if that happens, and if we are faithful – God can speak words through us that will never be silenced.

Can you forget the powerful photograph that must have appeared in every newspaper in the world in 1989? A street in Beijing, empty except for a menacing column of tanks, and a young student unarmed and alone, blocking their way with outstretched arms. We don’t know his fate, but knowing regime, we can be sure that he suffered. We don’t even know his name, but nothing the government does can silence the ringing witness for freedom spoken by God through him on that day.

And justice is not the same thing as fairness. Perhaps you remember Jesus’ story about laborers in the vineyard. The landowner went to the marketplace early in the morning, and hired laborers to come work in his vineyard and agreed to pay them the standard daily wage. He went back several times later in the day, and kept hiring laborers to work in his vineyard. At the end of the day, he paid the workers who had come latest and done the least work first, and he paid them for an entire day’s work. Finally, at the end of the line came the workers who were hired first, and the landowner paid them exactly the same thing, and they were furious, because those who had done far less work than they had received the same reward.

Justice is not about what’s fair. The kingdom of God is not a business deal. It’s not a contract. It’s a covenant. As soon as we start looking at bottom-line and asking “What’s in it for me?” we have stepped away from doing justice and expect the kingdom of God to have the same rules of hard work and reward as the world.

How quickly we begrudge God for giving the same reward to those we perceive have done less than ourselves. Of course, I compare myself with those who have done less than I have. I never compare myself with those who have done more. How quickly I forget that I have also received more than I deserve, how quickly we forget that we have all received more than we deserve. If we’re always focused on our bottom line, we will never be able to do justice.

However, when we realize how greatly we have been rewarded in spite of the ways we have failed God, it is easier to do justice. If we are truly following God, if our hearts have been broken and we have allowed God to shape our hearts, we will do justice. The witness of the prophets is clear: a follower of the Lord does justice. Period. End of story. It’s a requirement.

The second part of this Great Requirement is to love kindness. The word translated “kindness” could also mean mercy or faithfulness. It is a word used to describe God’s love for us, even when we waver in our love and devotion to God. God calls us to love kindness in all our relationships, with strangers, with friends, with our families, and with God.

What does it mean to love kindness? God is not saying, “Have warm fuzzy feelings for everyone.” For one, that’s just impossible because so many people are just downright irritating, and they’re not going to have warm fuzzy feelings for you because you’re downright irritating, too! Being loving is about being focused on the other person instead of on myself. It’s about being externally-focused rather than internal. It’s about making a choice, a conscious effort, to place the needs of others above my own. It’s about being committed to a quality of life that is governed by principles of mutual respect, helpfulness, and loving concern, especially toward people who are different from us, with whom we may disagree, and especially those we just don’t like very much.

Do you have people you just don’t get along with? You wanna really screw with their heads? Try being nice to them all the time. Go out of your way to be kind. They’ll be so confused they won’t know whether to scratch their watch or wind their butt! But moreso, we do it because God requires us to love kindness. The witness of the prophets is clear: a follower of the Lord loves kindness. Period. End of story. It’s a requirement. Quit whining about it.

Finally, if we want to be great in the kingdom of God, we are required to walk humbly with God. Walk – don’t run, don’t rush ahead, don’t get ahead of God. At the same time, don’t drag or lollygag or throw yourself into dead weight. Have you ever tried to pick up or carry a child who has decided to resist going along and has become dead weight? Don’t be dead weight when God has invited you to walk alongside!

Walk humbly with God – not with your nose lifted high above others, but neither staring at your bellybutton in defeat.

Walking is a place where relationship happens. Think about your relationships – don’t you love to take a walk with the people who are important and matter to you? When you walk, you talk, you spend time together, you learn about each other, you learn to care about the things the other person cares about.

Walking humbly with God is a call to come and spend time living life with God in ways that leave their mark on every aspect of our lives. It is an invitation for our hearts to be broken by the things that break the heart of God, a deep desire to see the world through the eyes of God, to act in the world as God would act.

A very wise person (Ashley Pickerel) put it this way: “I think of it kind of like when we realized earth wasn't the center of the solar system; the sun was. Walking humbly means we can finally see that we are not the center and life/existence/reality is far bigger than we first imagined. Then the movement happening all around us begins to make a lot more sense! It's all about God, not just us and with that realization we can become better participants in the whole of God's story!” Or Kathy Sherrill: “It is allowing God to be the center of all one does, every decision, every word, every action. Seeking to be the vessel through which God's love is poured out into the world. Never needing others to know why you are being who you are – simply being in God's love. Living & loving like Jesus.”

There is one important word in this last sentence. Walk humbly with YOUR God. Now, God is not your possession and does not belong exclusively to you. There are a whole of people who are also in relationship with God, it turns out God is walking along with a whole lot of other people, too, but while God is not your possession, God is personal with you. God knows your name. Walk humbly with your God – your God who made you, your God who walks every step with you, your God who walks to the top of the tallest mountain with you and in the valleys of life, even the valley of the shadow of death. Your God, my God, our God, and even the God of people we don’t like very much – walking with each of us, knowing our name, inviting us into relationship. I don’t know about you, but that’s pretty special.

The witness of the prophets is clear: a follower of the Lord walks humbly with God. Period. End of story. It’s a requirement.

If you want to be great in the kingdom of God, the first step is to live out the Great Requirement. What does the Lord require of you? Repeat after me: Do justice (repeat). Love kindness (repeat). Walk humbly with your God (repeat).

“If you look at the lives of the prophets, the strength of their witness lies not only in the weight of their words. It was their willingness to suffer for what they proclaimed that allowed God to speak so powerfully through them.” (Peter Storey)

On the wall of the grubby Memphis motel where Martin Luther King, Jr. was cut down by an assassin’s bullet, there is a small memorial plaque, inscribed with the words from the old story of Joseph the dreamer in Genesis: “Here comes that dreamer. Now is our chance; let us kill him . . . Then we shall see what will come of his dreams.” (Genesis 37:20)

The fullness of King’s dream may not yet be realized, but his dying for that dream has guaranteed that it will continue to haunt the people of this country year after year.

Never underestimate the words that God can speak through your life when you walk humbly with God, when you love kindness, and when you do justice. Through such lives, the word of God speaks.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

My Next 30 Years (Luke 3:23, 4:14-21)


Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his public work.

Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his public work. So it would seem today that I am in good company. As most of you are aware by now, today is my 30th birthday. In fact, I will technically turn 30 about the time we get out of worship this morning, depending on how long-winded the preacher gets between now and then.

Several of you sent me something this week that I am compelled to share with the rest of you. These are George Carlin’s views on aging.

Do you realize that the only time in our lives when we like to get old is when we're kids? If you're less than 10 years old, you're so excited about aging that you think in fractions. 'How old are you?'
'I'm four and a half!' You're never thirty-six and a half. You're four and a half, going on five! That's the key.

You get into your teens, now they can't hold you back. You jump to the next number, or even a few ahead.

'How old are you?' 'I'm gonna be 16!' You could be 13, but hey, you're gonna be 16! And then the greatest day of your life! You
become 21. Even the words sound like a ceremony. YOU BECOME 21. YESSSS!!!

But then you
turn 30. Oooohh, what happened there? Makes you sound like bad milk! He TURNED; we had to throw him out. There's no fun now, you're just a sour-dumpling. What's wrong? What's changed?

You
BECOME 21, you TURN 30, then you're PUSHING 40. Whoa! Put on the brakes, it's all slipping away. Before you know it, you REACH 50, and your dreams are gone...

But! wait!! !
You MAKE it to 60. You didn't think you would! So you BECOME 21, TURN 30, PUSH 40, REACH 50, and make it to 60.

You've built up so much speed that you
HIT 70! After that, it's a day-by-day thing; you HIT Wednesday!

You
get into your 80's, and every day is a complete cycle; you HIT lunch; you TURN 4:30; you REACH bedtime. And it doesn't end there. Into the 90s, you start going backwards; 'I Was JUST 92.'

Then a strange thing happens. If you make it over 100, you become a little kid again. 'I'm 100 and a half!' May you all make it to a healthy 100 and a half!!

Thirty is one of those places along the road where you stop and take stock of your life. You think about what has brought you to this point – the people and experiences who have shaped you and the road that led to this place. You also think about the mark you have left, are leaving, and will leave on the world. You ask yourself questions like, “Is my life making a difference? Is my life counting for the things for which I want it to count?”

For those of us who claim to practice the Christian faith, who claim to follow the Christ, who claim that our lives are shaped by Gospel, the question is a bit more pointed. With our life, with our time, with our relationships, with all the resources God has given us – have we made our lives count for the things that are important to God? And that’s what I’d like us to consider for just a little bit this morning. May we pray.


For Jesus of Nazareth, the whole story really seems to begin at 30. Sure, we know some things about his life before this. There is a flurry of activity around his birth, complete with pregnant virgins, messenger angels, heavenly choirs, deviant kings, and adoring shepherds. We know Jesus was about two years old by the time the Wise Men from the East finally find him. Then Jesus disappears until we meet him as a boy of 12 in the temple, but he disappears again just as quickly as he appeared.

The Gospel writers tell us that Jesus was fully divine, but they also tell us that he was fully human. We can assume that he was going through the same trials of adolescence we all faced – schooling, first jobs, pimples, family dynamics. We know his father was a carpenter and he would have learned the family business in Nazareth – an insignificant agricultural town of around 500 residents. All the Gospel writers tell us is that Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man. I suppose that’s just a fancy way of saying Jesus got smarter and taller, and every birthday that came around, he was another year older.

Getting older is sort of a funny thing. My grandfather, the source of a great deal of the wisdom in family, had some things to say about aging. He told us that he was so old, he had taught baby bullfrogs how to swim. He said he was so old, they just put a railroad lantern on his cake instead of candles. He was so old, his driver license number was 7, his social security number was 12, and his first phone number was two long rings and a short.

I didn’t think my parents were ancient, but they were definitely old. I remember doing the math and figuring out that my Dad was 30 when I was born, thinking, “Wow, he was kinda old to have a kid!” And now, somehow, I find myself arriving at the same number and I’m like, “You know, 30 isn’t that old.” At the same time, it’s taken me my entire life to get here.

In Scripture, Jesus hits 30 and the Gospel writers come alive. We’re given a clue that this is the important part of the story, and indeed it is. In Jesus’ culture, age 30 implies full maturity. Levite priests couldn’t serve in the temple until age 30. It’s the age Jewish men could enter into legal disputes. In the Old Testament, Joseph began serving before Pharaoh at 30 (Genesis 41:46) and David became king of Israel at 30 (2 Samuel 5:4).

When Jesus appears to begin his ministry, he is 30. Jesus returns back to his hometown to make his inaugural sermon. This is where he’s going to give us his mission statement. This is the place he is going to tell us about his life’s purpose. This is the place he will tell us about the kingdom of God.

We are told that Jesus was filled with the power of the Spirit. I don’t know about you, but I’ve heard, met, and interacted with a whole lot of people who are filled with a whole lot of things, but not the power of the Spirit. Some people think my eyes are brown because of what I must be full of. Jesus here is not full of himself – he’s full of God! We can’t be God’s agents in the world and rely solely on ourselves. If we are going to be about God’s mission in the world, we have to be filled with the power of the Spirit. The task is too great for us to do it apart from God. We may think we’re quite clever and full of all sorts of good ideas, but none of our efforts amount to anything if they are devoid of the power of the Spirit.

We need to be people who are full of the power of the Spirit. Every day, we need to surrender and dedicate our lives to Christ. Every moment of every day, we choose to be followers of Jesus Christ. Every moment of every day we surrender our wills to God’s. Every moment of every day, we need to be willing to be the people God desires for us to be.

Every morning, when you wake up, when you’re brushing your teeth, when you’re walking the dog, or when you’re driving into work, try saying this simple prayer: “Lord, I give my life to you again today. Do with me whatever you will. I pray that you will use me to serve your people today. Help me to bring honor to your name. Grant me a humble heart.” Try doing that every day for two weeks, and see if God doesn’t honor the disposition of your heart in that and fill you with the power of the Spirit.

In my next 30 years, I am going to surrender my life daily to Christ that I may be filled with the power of the Spirit.

We are told that word was spreading about Jesus. When something good is happening, word travels quickly. I think one of the important things here is that Jesus didn’t get caught up in his own hype. Remember, he wasn’t full of himself – he’s full of the Spirit! If we are full of the Spirit of God, there is little room for our own ego to assert itself.

But, have you ever begun to believe your own hype? Have you ever let success go to your head? Have you ever thought that you were pretty special? Have you ever thought that a church, or a civic club, or your work, or some other organization would grind to a halt if you stopped doing what you’re doing?

We all like to think we’re pretty special. I fall into this trap so easily. I’ve got a healthy ego, I’m self-aware enough to know about my gifts and abilities and how they’re bearing fruit, and I can begin to believe my own hype.

On the night of my ordination, my family was posing for photos with Bishop Lawrence McCleskey. My mom looked at Bishop McCleskey and said, “Bishop, we’re just so proud of him. He’s very special, you know.” Bishop McCleskey looked at me and said, “Well A.J., I reckon my mom thinks I’m pretty special, too.”

This is a fine line for each of us. On the one hand, God has given us gifts and abilities and faculties, and God intends for each of us to use those things to their fullest to the glory and honor of God. That is our purpose – to live fully for God and to use all the resources at our disposal to God’s glory – but we need to keep the focus on God and not ourselves. Because on the other hand, we are each only a tool in the hand of our Creator. I have people who remind me of this all the time – friends from all chapters of my life tell me I’m a tool, and I’m sure this is what they mean.

As the pastor of this congregation, I have to remember that I am a tool in the hand of our Creator. Last week, when 183 people were present for worship as opposed to 82 for Easter the year before, someone looked at the crowd and then looked at me and said, “This is all because of you.” If I’m not careful, I can begin to believe that. I can let success go to my head. I can think I’m pretty special and that the resurrection we are experiencing here at St. Paul is because of me. When the bishop and district superintendent are bragging on us, when I am getting called by other pastors to consult with their congregations on how to turn themselves around, when the media shows up and I find my face plastered across the front of the Carolina Living section, it’s easy to let success go to my head. It’s easy to think I’m special. It’s easy for me to think the resurgence of new life – the resurrection happening here – is because of me. But it’s not about me, it’s about God.

Have you noticed that there are people who want to let you know what a deeply-committed Christian they are? How spiritual they are? How important they are? How close to Jesus they are? Have you watched people brag and brag and brag about the spiritual resume just to make sure that everyone around them knows what a strong Christian they are?

Have you also noticed that you’d probably never know these people were such deeply-committed Christians if they didn’t tell you? I find that the more we brag about our spiritual accomplishments or our own self-importance, the more spiritually immature and stunted we are.

I am reminded of an exchange that takes place in the 1965 classic The Sound of Music. During a formal ball, a local Austrian official who supports the Nazi regime gets into an exchange with Captain Von Trapp, who says, “If the Nazis take over Austria, I have no doubt, Herr Zeller, that you will be the entire trumpet section.” Herr Zeller responds, “You flatter me, Captain,” to which Captain Von Trapp says, “Oh how clumsy of me – I meant to accuse you.”

Part of a Christlike character is humility. God is love, and one of the things the Scriptures teach us about love is that it does not boast and isn’t easily angered. If our ego is more important to us than doing the things God wants us to do, then we will be boastful and easily-angered.

What was it we learned on Maundy Thursday about who would be the greatest in the kingdom of God? Jesus said the greatest among us would be servant of all. If you want to be great in the kingdom of God, cultivate a servant’s heart – a heart that is focused outward, a heart that thinks of everyone outside oneself before thinking of oneself.

It’s not about me, folks. It’s about God. It’s not about you. It’s about God. It’s not about the building. It’s about God. It’s not about the finances. It’s about God. It’s not about the history. It’s about God. It’s not about the future, either. It’s about God. We are all just tools in the hand of our Creator. When we are tempted to let success go to our heads, we need to remember that God could have just as easily used someone else.

I don’t know about you, but at the end of the day, I don’t want word to spread to spread about me – I want word to spread about Jesus. The more we are caught up in our own hype, the easier it is for the church to be about us.

In my next 30 years, I am going to keep it about Jesus and not about me, I am not going to get caught up in my own hype, and I am not going to let success go to my head.

Back in our text, Jesus finally gets up to read, and he reads words from the prophet Isaiah that were written 700 years before he was born. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

These are ancient words, old words, familiar words, words that have been read over and over again for the last 700 years, words the people have gotten so used to hearing that they seem to have lost all the depth of their meaning.

I wonder if we’re like that sometimes. I wonder if we’ve gotten so used to hearing the old, old story that it no longer speaks to us? I wonder if the message of Jesus has become so familiar to our ears and comfortable to our hearing that it no longer carries the same punch for us.

But these words of Jesus are challenging. They are just as challenging to us today as they were 2000 years ago. Jesus is making his first preaching debut, the text from the prophet Isaiah was carefully chosen to let people know what he was about. Jesus is good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, the oppressed being set free, and the year of the Lord’s favor – words that are challenging.

What Jesus is talking about here is change. Jesus is talking about a major change in the status quo. If you like the status quo, if you like the way things have always been, I’d suggest that you not hang out with Jesus. Jesus is reading about the complete reversal of fortune here – this is about freedom, for sure, but not the flavor of freedom to which we Americans have become accustomed.

Jesus reads the message from Isaiah and declares himself as the one who brings true release and freedom. It’s not the government, it’s not policies or legislation, it’s not some organization or agency who brings real freedom. Only Jesus brings freedom. Only Jesus, in the life-giving power of his resurrection, brings freedom.

True freedom does not consist in money and possessions and the ability to do as one pleases. It is, as Jesus will show us, release from the captivity to death, the will of others, and our own self-will.

Jesus brings change. Change in the depth of our hearts that orients us away from self-centered living to God-centered living. True freedom, Jesus will tell us, is about no longer being enslaved to the pursuit of wealth and worldly possessions and our self-will.

Jesus brings change. Change in attitudes and dispositions, change in the way we view the importance of ourselves and the importance of others. Jesus is preaching the radical change in the status quo. God never leaves people where God finds them. If you truly meet Jesus, a change in your condition always takes place. Radical change is what Jesus proclaims, and time and time again, it is exactly what Jesus performs. The radical change of which Jesus speaks is real change in the life and spirit of the person who hears the good news and whose life is never the same afterward.

And when does Jesus say the change takes place? When does Jesus say the scripture is fulfilled? Today.

Friends, we are integrally part of Jesus’ mission in the world. Jesus gets anointed for the mission, but it turns out that it is only in our hearing of it, in our internalizing of it, in our realizing of it, in our living of it, that this God-sized mission happens. Jesus says TODAY these scriptures are fulfilled. Today reminds us that when people encounter Jesus, they are changed. Today is the day of change. The change may involve attitude, or priorities, or finding comfort and hope in the midst of despair and death.

Even so, there are two other days that keep us from being the people God desires for us to be today. Those other days are “yesterday” and “someday,” and both of these are a crutch to avoid the changes of today.

Some try to continue to live in the past. “Remember the good old days.” They may remember and talk about all the things they used to do. What are they doing to make today just as glorious? Or they may look back at the rotten past and blame all their troubles on their hated history. What are they doing today to change that past?

History is important. We constantly need to look back and learn from our past. But we can’t live there. We live today.

On the other hand, we can also avoid changes of today by dreaming of someday. Someday the prisons will be empty. Someday the oppressed will be set free. Someday poverty will be ended. Someday all people will have heard the Gospel. God will do all that someday – so we don’t have to do anything now to help the oppressed out of their plight. Someday I’ll lose weight. Someday I’ll quit smoking. Someday I’ll get out of debt. Someday I’ll take that college course. And we do nothing today to help make that future come true.

Yesterday can be so glorious. Someday can look so glamorous. Today can seem so ordinary. But today is an extraordinary day, if for no other reason because God is with you today.

For my next 30 years, I am going to remember each and every day that God is with me today. I am not going to worry about 30 years stretching off into the future, each day, I am going to be the person God has called me to be on that particular day – not mired in my failings of the day before, not hanging onto yesterday in some nostalgic feeling, but not rushing to tomorrow or someday while failing to miss the opportunities and blessings of today. In my next 30 years, there are 10,950 “todays” just waiting to be lived. I am going to dedicate myself to God and God’s purposes on every today for the rest of my life – 10,950 opportunities to be the person God has created me to be – 10,950 opportunities to be a tool in the hand of my Creator – 10,950 opportunities to surrender my life daily to Christ and be filled with the power of the Spirit.

How about you? You’ve got a today or left too, you know. What are you going to do with today? What are you going to do with all the todays that you have left?

Today calls us to action now. Today shakes us out of complacency. Just as the Spirit of the Lord was upon Jesus, so that same Spirit is upon each of us. You will make some wrong decisions – God promises to forgive those – and who knows how the Spirit will use your mistakes! You will make some right decisions and you know that the Spirit will use those. You will become a better person, a better follow of Christ, and this world will be a better place for some people because you were willing to be used on every today.

Think about those idealistic and impossible God-sized dreams. Daunting, yes, but awesome, too. Jesus is saying that the impossible is happening today. The good news is this: you can start today. You can be part of those miracles today. There will be great, wonderful moments along the way, and there will always be more that needs to be done. But hear the good news: Jesus promises to be with you today.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Yes, There is Hope! (John 20:1-18)


Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” 3Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10Then the disciples returned to their homes.

11But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

It was early Sunday morning – the day after the Sabbath. Mary lay in bed, somewhere in that place between asleep and awake, relaxing out of slumber before beginning the day. Suddenly, the events of the past few days startled her into sober alertness. She remembered it all, and she remembered it so clearly it couldn’t have been some horrible dream. They had arrested her teacher, her guide, and her friend. They had trumped all sorts of false charges against him, beaten him, held his trial, sentenced him to death and carried out his execution. Now, he was dead. She couldn’t believe it. He was such a good teacher. He performed so many signs and wonders. He taught as one with authority. He had placed a glimmer of hope in the lives of so many people. But now, he was gone. May we pray.

Our Easter story from John is a familiar one. Mary goes to the tomb while it is still dark. She finds the stone rolled away and Jesus' body gone. Weeping, she looks inside the tomb and sees two angels. Elsewhere in Scripture, when angels greet people, the people are frightened. Madeline L’Engle jokes that since angels so often greet humans by saying, “Do not be afraid,” then angels must be frightful creatures. Moses, Elijah, Zechariah, Joseph, the shepherds at Jesus’ birth – over and over again the angels say, “Do not be afraid.”

Mary, however, seems to have no fear of the angels. She is weeping over Jesus, and she happens to see two angels sitting inside the tomb. "Woman, why are you weeping?" they ask. Mary marches right over to those angels and says "They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” And so help me, if you did something with him, you’d better come clean now, because I mean business.

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

Reality came crashing down around Mary in the silence of that early morning as she stared into the empty tomb. The game was over, and their team had lost. The cemetery was but a stark reminder of the finality of defeat, the bondage to the powers of death and despair.

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

Mary turned, and saw Jesus, but she didn’t recognize it was Jesus. She thought he was the gardener. He said, "Woman, why are you crying?"

"Sir," Mary said, "if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away."

"Mary," Jesus said.

And the second he says her name, Mary realizes that this stranger standing before her was the risen Christ.

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

Christ is just as loose today as he was on that first Easter Sunday. We are here because Christ is free from the grave and intends to meet each of us unexpectedly along the ordinary paths of our lives.

When I was growing up, my sister Megan liked to experiment in the kitchen. She made all sorts of experimental dishes that the rest of us were forced to eat. Lord knows she tried. Now, one thing I’ve learned since I have moved to the South is that you can say just about anything you want about someone else as long as you follow it up with “Bless their heart.”

Well, in Megan’s kitchen experiments, the thing she had the worst luck with were biscuits, bless her heart. One time, she used baking soda instead of baking powder, causing the jam to fizzle when it was placed on a biscuit. Another time, she forgot the baking powder altogether, and produced from the oven what looked to be a tray of hot toasty brown hockey pucks. I think you could have dropped them on the floor and woken the dead. Without baking powder--without that key ingredient, those biscuits became heavy and flat. So, too, life without the resurrection, life without Christ, life without hope, can be heavy and flat.

We tend to think of the Easter message as a message for the end of life. But, frankly, I think we need the Easter message right now, because as many of us know, death can come long before the end of life.

How many people do we know who are walking this earth physically alive but dead of spirit? Maybe you are one of them. How easily life can beat us down; where is resurrection then?

It's not just resurrection after death we're talking about, it is resurrection during life. Like biscuits without baking powder, life without the resurrection can be heavy and flat. But, today, I say we bring that missing ingredient back.

Mary recognized the living Christ. She recognized hope in her midst. And it's exactly the same for us. We have the risen Christ right in front of us. We have hope in our midst. And that's the missing ingredient we must reclaim.

In 2005, Death Valley had received a few more inches of rain than normal and the otherwise bleak sand dunes and rocks of the desert were covered with tiny wildflowers. Desert gold, blazing star, poppies, verbenas, and evening primrose blanketed the desert landscape. For years, those little seeds had remained dormant, hidden under rocks and sand, in cracks and crevasses, waiting, hoping, for rain--that missing ingredient--to bring them back to life. The rain came and flowers bloomed in the desert. It was such a brilliant symbol of renewal--of life from no life.

Like those little dormant seeds, there is still life in us all. We just need to find that missing ingredient to bring it back. And that ingredient is Jesus.

The best thing we can do in life is to get out of the way and let Jesus do his work. Oh, we can put up a whole lot of blocks to the spirit. Things like anger, negativity, fear, doubt, things that shut us down, weigh us down, things that keep that key ingredient of life and spirit from working in our hearts. It's like Ann Lamott says, "God can't clean the house of you with you in it."

As we continue to encounter the resurrected Jesus, as the living Christ finds his way deep into the fiber of our being, a transformation by the grace of God takes place. We find old destructive habits and attitudes and relationships dying, and the life-giving things of God being born in their place.

The resurrection is about God doing a new thing, about God making a way where there seemed to be no way, about God creating and restoring life when death was not only inevitable, but already a certain fact.

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

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

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

What God did at the resurrection was to insert hope into a world desperately in need of it. The world can be an awfully difficult and burdened place sometimes. But the resurrection of Jesus is a promise and a testimony and a downpayment of hope. It will not solve all the world’s problems. It won’t eliminate suffering or poverty. It’s not a good luck charm or a legislative principle. The world continues to have its pain and suffering, but in the resurrection of Jesus, hope forces its way through the cracks. When we are wondering if there is any hope, the resurrection is God tapping back that yes, there is hope. The resurrection is a God-given sign that the lives of all people, including you and including me, are meant for more and not for less, that no life of God’s creating is beyond God’s redeeming, that even death, as authoritative and final as it seems, is not the end.

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

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

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

It’s what we have each shown up looking for today. We are looking for an encounter with the risen Christ, and we expect to be changed because of it. In today’s text, Mary’s tears of mourning were transformed into tears of joy, and my hopeful expectation is that will happen for each of us.

And so today, we gather, and we celebrate the good news that Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Today God takes on the broken ways of the world and says, “You shall not win.” Today, though we may be pressed, we are not crushed; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down but not destroyed. Though the powers of the world have literally paved over hope and tried to wipe its memory from existence, today that same hope begins to bubble its way to the surface. When we are wondering if there is hope, the resurrection is God tapping back the message that yes, there is hope.

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

Growing up, I watched the movie Mary Poppins more times than I really care to count. One scene that really sticks out to me is when Uncle Albert laughs with such great joy that he floats up the ceiling in the bank vault. The laughter and life and passion he felt brought him a lightness that made him float. And everyone around him began to laugh and float up as well.

That scene taps a deep human truth: that we all have a spirit that yearns for joy and lightness--a spirit that yearns to soar.

And then life gets in the way--key ingredients go missing--and over time our spirits sink and become flat and heavy and bleak.

For everyone out there who feels that their dreams have been destroyed, their hopes dashed, their spirits crushed...here is the good news of Easter morning: The risen Christ can take our flat, heavy hearts and put back that key ingredient.

...so that our spirits are not stuck on the ground,

...so that our spirits are not dictated by human pain or loss or disappointment,

...so that our spirits are not mired in a tomb.

Easter brings each of us a second chance. A chance to see the life force in our midst. A chance to recognize the risen Christ right in front of us. A chance to start again. A chance to hope.

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