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Sunday, May 30, 2010

Grace, Forgiveness, and Hope (Romans 5:1-8)

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.

Three ministers and their wives arrived at the gates of heaven, and they each approached St. Peter for entry. St. Peter looked over his notes, and said to the first minister, “It says here you’ve been a good minister, you’ve led a lot of people to the Lord, and you’ve lived a good life. But, hmmmmmm, it says here you love food too much. You love food so much you married a woman named Candy.” So, St. Peter pulled the lever and down they went. To the second minister, it was a similar list: “You’ve been a good minister, you’ve lived a good life, and you’ve built some impressive churches. But, it says here you loved money too much. You love money so much you married a woman named Penny.” So, he pulled the lever and down they went. The third minister looked at his wife and whispered, “It doesn’t look good for us, Fannie.”

Have you ever had a teacher say, “If you remember nothing else I say today, remember this?” My ears always perked up – partially because I knew it was important, partially because I knew it would be on the final exam. If you don’t remember anything else about the kingdom of God, remember this: grace. May we pray.

As I am working on a Microsoft Word document, at the top of my screen there is a little button that looks like a square made of horizontal parallel lines. This is the “Justify” button, and I click it if I want to have even, smooth margins down both the left and right side of the page. This creates a clean look along both the left and right sides of the page. It makes the margins aligned perfectly in vertical.

In our text today, we are told that we are justified by faith. In other words, we are aligned with the will of God by faith. Just as hitting the “Justify” button on my computer sets my margins straight, so too does being justified with God set us straight with God. It restores us to right fellowship God, that we may fulfill our chief end: namely, to glorify God and enjoy God forever.

John Wesley taught that justification is indeed making our relationship with God right through Jesus Christ. God’s mercy and grace, shown in the suffering and death of Jesus on our behalf, pardons our sins and restores our capacity for love of God and neighbor. When we exercise faith, which is itself a gift from God, we actively trust in Jesus and receive God’s pardon and acceptance.

If you’ve hung around church for any length of time, no doubt you’ll hear one person ask another, “When did you accept Christ?” But before we can answer that question, there is another: “When did Christ accept me?” The answer is the same for each of us: Christ accepted you and Christ accepted me when he stretched out his arms in love on the hard wood of a cross, willingly entering into suffering on our behalf, in order that our relationship with God could be restored. Long before any of us reached toward God, God reached toward us.

God loves us before we ever even thought about loving God. Not because we’re special, not because we’re deserving, not because we’ve earned it, not because we’ve done anything – God loves us simply because God is love. We call this grace – the reaching of God toward us when we have done nothing to merit or earn God’s love. Specifically, we Methodists call this prevenient grace, from the Latin pre venie, meaning, “to go before.” Prevenient grace goes before us – before we ever reach toward God, God is already reaching toward us.

God has reached out in love toward each of us, but then God invites our response. And while our response is important, we deceive ourselves if we think that we make a decision for Christ only once in our lives.

Now, I don’t want to discount that moment if that’s part of your faith story. I know that for many of us, we can mark an important occasion in our past in which we responded to God’s grace, a day that marked a turn from self-centered living toward God-centered living. But I also know that for many of us, the move in our lives toward God has been a bit more gradual than that, and perhaps there is not one moment but a series of moments in which we actively pursued God.

Inevitably, someone hearing this sermon or reading it is thinking to themselves, “See, he doesn’t believe in salvation.” In actuality, I care about salvation so deeply that I refuse to reduce it to a single moment.

Thinking that we’re “saved” simply because we prayed a prayer or knelt at an altar 30 years ago is a dangerous position called complacency. Thinking we’re good enough, or that we’ve arrived is just deadly to our walk with God, because a walk doesn’t happen in one moment, but is a journey that unfolds over time.

We never know how and when God will transform and shape us. One little boy was overheard praying at bedtime: “Dear God, help me to be a good little boy. But if you don’t have time, don’t worry about it, because I’m having a real good time just like I am.”

Having prayed the sinner’s prayer when you found that urine-stained tract on the floor of the men’s room, responding to the altar call the preacher made in the church you grew up in, or having felt something move within you at Big Brash Brother Billy’s Backyard Bible Jamboree is fine and all, but God probes the question: What difference is it making in your life NOW? In other words, how have you responded to God’s grace in your life, lately? Is the grace in your life fresh, or has it gotten a bit stale?

Last week, we gathered around this altar and prayed for the Holy Spirit to be poured into our lives in fresh and new ways. We prayed for the Holy Spirit to sweep through our church not like a controlled burn, but as wildfire. Wildfire controls and consumes us. The reason we don’t want to pray for a controlled burn of the Holy Spirit is because any movement of the Spirit that we control or that we think we control is no movement of the Spirit at all. No, we pray for wildfire because we want the things that happen through this church to be so colossal that we will have no choice but to recognize it as a genuine movement of the Spirit. If we are able to boast in anything, it won’t be in our own abilities but only in what God is doing in us and through us.

In today’s text, that’s a theme that comes through clearly. We boast in what God does. Elsewhere in Romans, Paul has roundly condemned boasting, but here, he says it’s okay, provided the thing we’re boasting of is our hope of sharing the glory of God. In other words, don’t be puffed up with your own self-importance, but by all means, boast about what God is doing for you, in you, and through you. This is sure to give the glory and honor to God and not ourselves.

The failures I have seen in many congregations are too much of a reliance on our own abilities and not enough reliance on God. Let’s set a rule this morning: no boasting, unless we are boasting about what God is doing. Imagine the possibility of what God can do through a church that is a boast-free zone: all those conflicts that are territory-based and ego-driven all suddenly disappear! Not boasting allows each of us to take the attention off ourselves and put it on God. Not boasting opens us up to the movement of God in new and powerful ways and keeps any of us from thinking that the church belongs to us. Not boasting opens us up beyond visions that are simply human-size and allows us to have visions and dreams that are truly God-sized.

In addition to boasting about what God is doing rather than what we are doing, Paul allows us to boast in our suffering. Why? Because suffering produces endurance, which produces character, which produces hope.

I know when I was growing up, when I complained about any unpleasant chore like mowing the lawn, cleaning the garage, or emptying the gutters, before I was even done, my dad would respond, “It builds character.” Let me tell you, I got pretty sick of building character. When Ben Wallace, guard for the Detroit Pistons was asked about winning and losing, he said, “They say losing builds character. I say it sucks.”

That’s the thing about the kingdom of God. Everything we think we know is turned upside-down. The kingdom of God doesn’t run how we would have run it. True greatness is actually marked by servanthood.

Paul tells us what the life looks like that is grounded in grace. It is not usually marked by earthly success and most certainly not blessed by earthly prosperity. Far more often it is marked by suffering. It is, after all, a Christ-shaped life that lives in grace. Grace is our dwelling place, and grace gives freely of itself for the good of others. If Christ suffered on our behalf, what would make us think that we’re exempt from suffering on behalf of others? But here’s the thing – suffering produces fruit, or better, grace bears fruit through suffering. The litany of the gifts of grace is a kind of sketch of moral and spiritual development for the person grounded in the grace of God. Start with suffering and move to endurance; from endurance comes character, and character produces hope. And hope doesn’t disappoint, because true hope is rooted in God’s love, lives the cross-shaped life, and is poured out through the Holy Spirit.

If you are looking to put your hope into something, this world in which we live offers us lots of choices, but I can promise you that putting your hope in anything other than God will eventually lead to disappointment. If you put your hope in yourself, in your family, in your church, in your nation, in your wealth, or in any number of human institutions, eventually a time will come when you are let down. True hope is rooted in the grace of God, and it never disappoints.

And then, Paul goes on to tell us something that, if the church would just get this point and start acting like it, I think you would see so many barriers to the church’s outreach in the world instantly broken down.

Paul tells us that at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly. I’m gonna let you in on a secret here. The term ‘ungodly’ refers to all of us. It’s not that we inside the church are the godly folks and those outside are the ungodly. For Paul, everyone is ungodly. And brothers and sisters, this is a statement of Paul’s radical understanding of God’s grace – that it is not something reserved only for a select few, for the self-proclaimed saints and not the sinners, not only for the holy, not only for the believers, not only for the righteous and self-righteous – God’s grace is for everyone, insider as well as outsider. God’s grace erases the distinction between insider and outsider.

Think about that. We are all, according to God, outsiders. The church needs to realize that. We church folk have no right to act like we’re better than others to look down our noses at others, or that we are insiders and everyone else is an outsider. If we would all think of ourselves as outsiders, just imagine how that would change our witness in the world. We would not evangelize in order to get people to come to church or have them convert to our way of thinking or seeing the world. We would evangelize, we would share the good news of Jesus Christ because at one time we were all outsiders too, but the grace of God has made a difference in our lives, and we simply want others – even those whose behaviors, and lifestyles, and opinions seem strange to us – to experience the grace of God. Evangelism is not about growing the church. I know I talk a lot about numbers and growth, but numbers are never the goal for any church. Numbers are a by-product of the church being faithful to what it is called and commissioned to do, and when the church is faithful, yes, numerical growth is probably going to happen. But numbers are not a goal in and of themselves. I don’t want us to evangelize in order to grow the church, or to get more people in the world to come in and be “like us.” I want us to engage in evangelism because we recognize ourselves as outsiders, as unworthy, as beggars – and I simply want us to be willing to tell other beggars where to find food.

At just the right time, Christ died for the ungodly. Christ made the ultimate sacrifice, Christ showed extraordinary love, Christ lavished grace and forgiveness and hope on ungodly people like ourselves. He didn’t do that so we would look down our noses at those we perceive to be ungodly. We are no better than anyone else. We are still sinners – sinners redeemed by grace, perhaps, but sinners nonetheless. But Christ loves, sacrifices for, and even loves outsiders, enemies, the wicked, pagans, worldly people, sinners – and not only does Christ do this for us, as his followers, as his very body on earth, as the temple of the Holy Spirit, calls us to do the same. Once we were all outsiders, but through the sacrifice of Christ, we are given the opportunity become insiders. Once we were all enemies, but through the love of Christ, we are all treated like family. Once we were beggars scavenging for any morsel of something to eat we could find; but because of God’s grace and forgiveness, we are all invited to take a seat at the banquet.

This is the life of grace: since we are ALL ungodly (even and perhaps especially those of us who think we aren’t), Christ died for us. This is prevenient, abundant, selfless, sacrificial, reckless, non-discriminatory grace. If Christ was willing to include outsiders – ungodly people – like us, who are we to exclude others from experiencing God’s marvelous, infinite, matchless grace? Who are we to withhold forgiveness from anyone just because we don’t like something about who they are or what they do?

And just to drive the point home, Paul says it again: “God proves his love toward us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” While we were still sinners – while we were still outsiders, enemies, rebellious, ungodly people – Christ died for us. Before we changed our behavior, before we repented of our sin, before we experienced the Holy Spirit within us, before we were nice or lovable, Christ died for us. A godly Messiah dies for ungodly people. There is no clearer expression of the grace of God. There is no stronger expression of forgiveness. There is nothing else that should give us such hope.

But having been given these gifts of grace, forgiveness, and hope, it would be wrong for me to hoard them and try to hang onto them. After all, they don’t belong to me in the first place. Each of us are called to offer the gifts of grace, forgiveness, and hope to the world, in the name of the One who first gave them to us.

Did you hear about the man who stood at the Pearly Gates, seeking admission to heaven? St. Peter asked, “Why should I let you in?” “Well,” the man responded, “I have attended church all my life and once went 12 years without missing a Sunday.” “Very good,” said St. Peter. “That is worth one point.” “I have also been very kind to children, given large sums of money to help the needy, and gone out of my way to help old people cross the street.” “Okay, that’s worth another point.” “Good grief!” the man complained. “At this rate, I’ll only get in by the grace of God!” “Bingo!” said St. Peter. “Welcome to heaven.”

While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. That proves God’s love toward us.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Tongues of Fire (Acts 2:1-21)

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and Arabs – in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed these are not drunk as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above, and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sum shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

Today is Pentecost. Today is the third-greatest festival in the church’s calendar. Today is a day to celebrate, because on this day, God poured out the Holy Spirit on the followers of Jesus. All over the world today, Christians are celebrating in various ways – some are having grand processions with trumpets and drums that mimic the sound of a mighty wind, others are serving cake and ice cream to commemorate the birthday of the Church, and I know of one crazy church that is having a chili cookoff following worship so that everyone will leave church today with “tongues of fire.” I encourage everyone to stay after worship today – we’ve got lots of chili, cornbread, and mac-n-cheese for everyone. I don’t even care if you made anything, just stay and have a good time!

Today, we celebrate the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the first followers of Jesus and the variety of gifts the Holy Spirit bestows upon us. But, I don’t want any of us to think that today we are simply commemorating a historical event that occurred once upon a time. Today, we are praying for the Holy Spirit to be poured out not only on St. Paul United Methodist Church, but upon every church, of every denomination, around the world. May we pray.

Just before this passage, Jesus has commissioned his disciples to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, and in Judea, and in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. The disciples return to Jerusalem, and they wait for the Holy Spirit Jesus has promised them. While they are waiting, they select Matthias to replace Judas as one the apostles. In Jewish tradition, the number “12” represented an authentic gathering of God’s people. According to Luke’s Gospel, the 12 would judge over the tribes of Israel (Luke 22:29-30). When they were selecting this “new” apostle, there were very special and explicit criteria for which they were looking. This new apostle, this new leader, would have to have been a witness to the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and this new leader would need to embrace Jesus’ commission to be his witnesses in the world. Likewise, when the church is selecting leadership today, we need to be just as choosy. We don’t choose people for leadership because they work hard, because they give a lot of money, or they think they’re important. The most defining criterion for leadership in this church is embracing Jesus’ commission to be his witnesses in the world.

Pentecost – sort of a funny name isn’t it? Let’s break the word down. Pente – does that sound familiar? Like Pentagon? So, the number 5 has something to do with the name. Multiply 5 times 10 to get 50, and you’re at your answer. The Greek word Πεντηκοστή (pentecoste) literally means “50 Days.” It was sometimes referred to as the Festival of Weeks, starting after seven weeks of Passover and was the Jewish celebration to mark the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai. It was a festival for which pilgrims from all over the known world would have travelled to Jerusalem – the city would have been packed with people from different cultures and speaking different languages, which helps us understand the scene in which this story takes place.

In an upper room somewhere in Jerusalem, Jesus’ followers – probably about 120 of them – gathered. The room was decorated with flowers, because according to tradition, the desert burst into bloom when the Law was given. As good Jews,they began to proceed through the familiar prayers. Candles were lit, and someone began to pray: Barukh Ata Adonai: Blessed Are You Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has kept us in life, and enabled us to reach this season. Though the liturgy was predictable, it was also familiar and comfortable.

But suddenly, into a routine that was comfortable, predictable, safe, tied-down, neat and under control, God showed up in a surprising way. A mighty rushing wind, heads anointed with fire, the good news proclaimed in new and unfamiliar languages. God was doing a new thing, and it made people more than a little bit uncomfortable.

A friend of mine was talking about the church in which she grew up – a large, downtown, First Church in a midsize Southern city. It was a fashionable place, a stately colonial brick building on the town square – a place to see and be seen. It was a proper place, where everyone followed the rules, where decent, polite order was the name of the game. One day, the Spirit moved on a woman in the congregation, and she raised her hand quietly in her seat. My friend, around 8 at the time, asked her mother if that lady had a question for the preacher.

In seminary, I took a class on the person and work of the Holy Spirit, taught by Dr. William Turner, an ordained pastor in the United Pentecostal Holiness denomination. One day, he was talking about the ways that various denominations respond to the work of the Holy Spirit, and being at a Methodist seminary, of course he started to give us a hard time, wondering aloud the last time the Holy Spirit had even shown up at a Methodist church. My friend, Oliver Box, a high-church Methodist from Aberdeen, Mississippi, said, “Excuse me, Dr. Turner – The Holy Spirit does, indeed, show up at the Methodist church. He just knows to mind his manners when he’s there.”

Take a look at our denominational logo, our trademark “cross and flame.” That red thing beside the cross is supposed to represent the fire of the Holy Spirit. Even on our logo, it looks like a pretty controlled burn, doesn’t it? Not getting out of control, burning quietly, never really flaring up to much – always there, steady, controlled – sort of like the pilot light on your water heater. But friends, that is only partially accurate. Yes, sometimes the Holy Spirit shows up as a controlled burn – decent, orderly, respectable. But more often than not, the Holy Spirit shows up as wildfire. I wonder if we’re willing to open ourselves up to the Holy Spirit sweeping through this church not as a controlled, respectable burn, but as wildfire?

In our polite, respectable, controlled society, it makes people uncomfortable when the Holy Spirit shows up like wildfire. The religious establishment, in particular, has a way of being uncomfortable when the Spirit shows up like that. On that Pentecost so long ago, some of the onlookers heard the disciples speaking in strange languages, and they made fun. During his earthly life, Jesus had been accused of being a drunkard and a glutton, and critics made the same accusation against his disciples: “They’ve been drinking – they’re filled with new wine,” they said.

It’s a common attack we make when God shows up off script, or when we realize that God is doing something we are not in control of. “Well, those people are drunk. Well, those people are crazy. Well, that church must be a cult. When God starts to do something and God has the audacity to do it God’s way and not our way, we can offer all sorts of excuses, explanations, and attacks as to why it’s not right because it’s not the way we would have done it. The only problem with that is that God doesn’t care about what we think is proper – the Spirit shows up as the Spirit wants to, the wind blows where it wants, fire burns where and what it will, and we can sit around and mope that God didn’t seek our permission to do things God’s way, or we can join the celebration, get caught up in the windstorm, and let the fire burn within us, even when we don’t understand where God is going to take us.

When Peter preaches about the miracle that people have observed (trying to defend his friends against the accusation that they have been drinking too much) what he talks about is not the splendor of the congregation but the majesty of God. It is God’s Spirit that makes this day possible. The day is not the church’s day; it is, as Peter quotes from the prophet Joel, “the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.” The purpose of the day is not to congratulate each other, not to pat ourselves on the back for a job well-done, not to brag about how our work made this all possible, it’s a day to repent and believe, because this is God’s great and glorious day.

Fire, wind, and humble uneducated Galileans speaking persuasively in many tongues were dramatic signs that God was doing a new thing that would transform the lives of all those present, and far beyond, in time and place. These humble Galileans, now speaking with power and authority in different languages, let us not forget that these are the same people who back on Good Friday, when Jesus was just hanging around, scattered in fear. It’s such a dramatic reversal that can only be explained by the movement of God’s Holy Spirit as wildfire, but even so, the critics wanted to explain it away by complaining, making fun, and blaming the whole thing on too much wine. A controlled burn we can understand. But the Holy Spirit sweeping through a community like wildfire? That’s a little much for too many of us. But if we are praying for the Holy Spirit to be poured out on us just as it was on the first disciples, that’s exactly what we’re praying for.

Many of you have asked why my haircut suddenly became much shorter a week and a half ago. I was preparing to cook steaks on the grill, and in my condo community, we can’t have individuals grills on our balconies, so we have several community grills at the pool area. These are big, grand-daddy industrial grills. I turned on the gas to the burners and hit the electric starter, and the gas didn’t light. A second push, and nothing, a third push, and still nothing. I reached into my pocket and pulled out the matches. The first one didn’t light. The second one didn’t light. The third one didn’t light. The gas is still running from when I first turned it on. I lit the fourth match, held it upside down for a few seconds so it could really catch, and threw it into the grill, and who knows how many cubic feet of propane lying in the bottom of the grill lit a fireball that burned off my eyelashes, the hair on the back of my knuckles, and half the hair on top of my head.

Yes, I realize I’m fortunate that I wasn’t burned any more severely, but that’s really not the point of the story. When we think about Pentecost, I’ve seen images that have a little, controlled, candle-flame dancing on top of the heads of the believers. But I have to think it was more severe than that. No little candle flame would have pushed them out into the world to proclaim God’s goods with boldness and power. It had to be a full-blown, out-of-control, scary, frightening, fireball of the Holy Spirit – the sort of burn that we don’t control, but that controls us.

There have been manifestations, remarkable displays of God’s Spirit in the Bible before, of course, with sound and light and fire and amazing special effects. But those events were reserved for only a few witnesses, the most inside of insiders. Not so on Pentecost. Here, at the dawn of a new era, on the birthday of a church called to spread like wildfire to the ends of the earth, the display is for all. Not just the disciples, gathered in the upper room, getting themselves organized again. Not just the holiest, or the most faithful of the most learned, not just the believers, not just those who were with Jesus on the road of witnesses to his resurrection. No, in this case, at this moment, all flesh, male and female, old and young, slave and free, insider and outsider, are invited and included.

And just to drive that point home, the formidable obstacle of a multitude of languages is overcome by a sweeping wind and an uplifting Spirit that drives those disciples out, out into the world beyond their walls, beyond the theoretical but fragile safety those walls provide.

Pentecost signals a breakdown in the divides we humans like to construct between ourselves. The miracle of Pentecost is that even though there are still many languages and diverse words people are able to understand each other. The apostles speak a variety of languages so a variety of people can hear. It is a mistake to read this text as God binding us together in unity despite our diversity. God’s promise for the church is that in our diversity, through our diversity, celebrating our diversity, the Holy Spirit still leads us forward in understanding.

Pentecost is not about what we can do by our cleverness and ingenuity. The Holy Spirit is not a strategy, The Holy Spirit isn’t something we discuss and vote on and enter into the minutes of the meeting. Pentecost reminds us that it’s about what God can do in and through us. It’s about what happens when God pours the Holy Spirit into our lives - God working a complete reversal of the pain & suffering we humans are so quick to inflict upon each other.

Though humans crucify, God resurrects. Though humans divide and dominate, God unites. God has the last word, and the word is wild. It changes everything. It rebuilds broken community. It breaks boundaries and enlarges the house. It makes possible understanding where before there was not understanding.

The fire of the Holy Spirit comes and burns all that pain and suffering away so that the process of transformation can begin within each of us. Those things have to be burned away for the new things of God to be born.

Perhaps that’s why Pentecost is often referred to as the birthday of the church. The wildfire of the Holy Spirit burning away negative attitudes and too much self-reliance on our own human abilities in order that something that is truly of God can be born. But remember, births are rarely neat, tidy, or quiet, even when something beautiful and of God is struggling to be born. In this case, fire and wind do not bring destruction, but new life. As with birth, it may not be quiet or peaceful, but it is exhilarating and good.

With rushing wind and tongues of fire, the apostles experienced the presence of God. In power and in intimacy, they were filled with the Holy Spirit and sent forth to proclaim the good news of God in Christ, to heal aching souls, to bear witness to divine, incomparable love. People responded – thousands of people responded. In one day, the church grew from a group of about 120 believers to a mega-church of over 3000.

As the prophet Joel foretold, old men began to dream dreams, and young men begin to see visions. Justice prevails, the mountains drip sweet wine, and the hills shall flow with milk. It is the “glorious day of the Lord” and it fills the disciples with euphoric hope. They go on to live out what the Spirit has revealed within them – they break bread from house to house, they share their goods and possessions, they hold all things in common, the display signs and wonders, and new members were added to their number daily.

The Holy Spirit had come in power. The fearful had found power. A new community was born. It was a good beginning. It was a realization of the prayer we continue to pray: “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is heaven.”

But you know what? Pentecost didn’t happen just once. It wasn’t just a day on the church’s calendar. We don’t remember the outpouring of the Holy Spirit with nostalgic hearts and say, “Wasn’t that nice.” The good news of Pentecost is that it still happens – it still can, and it still does – among us today.

Like those early disciples of Jesus, we can come together in one place – surrendering our individual wills, our egos, our pride, our need for control, our self-importance, our agendas – laying all these things aside, coming together in one place called the will of God and praying for the Holy Spirit to be poured out on us for the sole purpose of being the witnesses of Jesus in the world. And that’s what happens – catch on fire with the Holy Spirit, and people will come from miles around to watch you burn.

My hope is that we will each experience Pentecost fresh and new today – that something of the Holy Spirit will be born within each of us – perhaps not neat and tidy, but exhilarating and good, all the same. May fresh wind and fresh fire fall in this place, and may we be utterly consumed by the glory of it all.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

How to Become Great - Step 3 (Matthew 28:16-20)

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

God is on a mission – and you’re invited to be part of it.

Today we are concluding a three-part series of messages on how to be great in the kingdom of God. We have wrestled with the idea of striving to be great in the kingdom of God in the first place. Jesus got after his disciples when they argued about who would be great in his kingdom, about who would sit at his right hand and at his left. We have learned that the true path to greatness in the kingdom of God is the path of service. Being truly great is not about being exalted, it’s not about receiving the places of honor, it’s not about having people bow in deference to you when you walk in the room. The greatest in the kingdom of God will be the biggest servant. Those who exalt themselves will be brought low, and those who humble themselves will be elevated in God’s kingdom. The way to true greatness in the kingdom of God is the way of service, and so as we spend these weeks talking about being great in the kingdom of God, my hope is that you will want to cultivate the heart of a servant, and brothers and sisters, that is the true mark of greatness in the kingdom of God.

We looked at three steps to being great – to being a servant, in other words – in the kingdom of God. The first step was the teaching known as the Great Requirement found in the prophet Micah. We asked, “What does the Lord require of us?” and Micah articulated the answer: “to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.” The second step was the teaching known as the Great Commandment, to love God, and to love neighbor. Today, we look at the Third Step: The Great Commission.

God is on a mission – and you’re invited to be part of it.

Today, we’re kicking off missions awareness month, but friends, I don’t want any of us to think that missions is something the church has to worry about only one month out of the year. The very existence of the church is missional. This church exists as a mission outpost of the kingdom of God. Missions is not something the church does – missions is who the church is. Mission is to church as combustion is to fire or wet is to water – take away mission, and we can no longer call ourselves church. It all comes back to what we are called to do in this teaching from St. Matthew’s Gospel – we are called to live out the Great Commission.

Everything we do comes down to this. Everything we do as a church is about being participants in the mission of God in the world. Our task is to be the presence of God in the world, to share the love of God in the world, to be the ongoing humanity of Jesus in the world, to be the very hands of feet of Jesus in the world. Our call is to continue to message and ministry of Jesus – to tell the world about the God who created us, the God who created us in God’s image, the God who is love, the God who loves the world so much that he gave – freely, abundantly, selflessly, sacrificially – his only Son for the salvation of the world, the God who invites all nations to enter into relationship with God that we may fulfill the chief end of humankind – to glorify God and enjoy God forever.

God is on a mission – and you’re invited to be part of it.

It’s not because any of us is perfect, that’s for sure. The disciples in this passage are evidence enough of that – “the eleven disciples went to Galilee.” Why eleven? Because Judas is no longer among the followers. The number eleven is a constant reminder of the betrayal that has taken place, the number eleven is a constant reminder that this small community of followers is far from perfect, the number eleven is a reminder that those first disciples of Jesus didn’t have all their stuff together, and friends, neither do we. But here’s the kicker – God knows we’re not perfect. God knows we have our failings and shortcomings and flaws, and God still invites us to be part of God’s mission. This is proof to me that God loves imperfect people, and not only does God love imperfect people, God is even willing to give imperfect people like us God’s perfect work to do in the world. The third step in being great in the kingdom of God is following the Great Commission – serving the world by recognizing that God has asked imperfect people like you and me, imperfect communities of faith like St. Paul United Methodist Church, to be part of God’s mission in the world.

God is on a mission – and you’re part of it.

There are a couple of things that stand out in this Great Commission. First, Jesus tells the disciples to “Go.”

Learning to drive in New York, as I did, involves the proper use of one’s horn as a service to other motorists and pedestrians with whom one shares the road. For instance, if you’re second in line at a traffic light, the light turns green and the car in front of you fails to claim the intersection, a long sustained blast of the horn can be a friendly gesture of encouragement to proceed into the intersection. This can even be done with words of encouragement: “For the love of God, GO!”

But think about that. For the love of God, with the love of God, sustained by the love of God, sharing the love of God, “Go.” There is a world out there desperately waiting for someone to share the love of God with them, and that is what Jesus has commissioned us to do. If Jesus told us to do it, I think it’s important enough that we should. And here’s the thing – not every person is equipped by the Holy Spirit with the gifts required for that “going” – to be an evangelist, to be involved hands-on in mission, to be the pioneer. In the body of Christ, we all have a role to play – perhaps you’ll support the church’s mission through prayer, or financial support, or encouragement, or hospitality or teaching or any other things. Our task is to be the presence of God in the world – for some of us, that will involve going places. For others of us, that will mean blooming where we are planted, and living as Christlike people in the world. Not everyone has to “go.” But, we all support those who do, and especially, we make sure that we are not the blocks that keep others from being able to go. If there is a line of traffic behind us chomping at the bit to go, I’d hate for any of us to be driving the car that refuses to move and allow others to go.

Jesus commissioned us to baptize. Baptism is the beginning of a spiritual journey with God. It is a channel through which we open ourselves up to the working of God’s grace in our lives. We baptize infants and children and adults, we baptize people of all levels of education and understanding, because all people are the worthy recipients of God’s grace. We place primary emphasis on the grace of God at work in our lives, even when we may not fully understand God’s grace and love for us, and honestly, who among us can fathom the great depth and complexity of God’s grace and love? Baptism is not a summation of the entire journey, but an important first step in which the grace of God is poured into our lives.

And if baptism is the first step, a life as a disciple of Jesus is the journey itself. Jesus commissioned us to make disciples. Now, a disciple is simply one who follows. And before we can make disciples, we have to be disciples. Discipleship is a radical lifestyle commitment to living as Jesus would have us live and being the presence of God in the world. Being a disciple is about being sold-out and dedicating our lives as students of the life of Jesus. It is a major turning point in our lives if we ask ourselves, seriously, if we really intend to follow Jesus that closely. We are not Christians because of what we believe, because of our political party, because of our national citizenship, or because of how we behave. We are Christians because Jesus has commissioned us to be his disciples. Being a disciple of Jesus is something we have to commit to over a lifetime.

We are not commissioned just to baptize, just to make church-goers, just to add new members, just to make polite people who will add church to a resume of socially-respectable activities. We are called to be and to make disciples – people who will wholeheartedly and completely follow Jesus as Lord.

Jesus is Lord. It’s a wonderful little word, Lord, that is a term of respect and submission. Jesus is Lord – Jesus is the boss, Jesus is in charge of things. If we follow Jesus as Lord and really believe he’s the boss, our lives will be shaped and formed by the things that matter to Jesus.

Since we are disciples of Jesus, we will want to obey everything Jesus has commanded us to do, and that’s what this series of messages has been aimed to do. Being great in the kingdom of God is really about being a servant. It’s really about submitting our wills to the things God desires for us to do, and we have found those things summed up in three simple steps. Brothers and sisters, we are called and commissioned to follow these things in order that our lives may be the very presence of God in the world. Step One is the Great Requirement – to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God. Step Two is the Great Commandment – to love God, and to love neighbor. Step Three is the Great Commission – to make disciples of Jesus of all nations. Doing these very things shapes our hearts to care about the things God cares about and we will be led to serve the world in God’s name, to share God’s love, and to be the presence of God at work in the world. Brothers and sisters, that is our task, and that is the mark of true greatness in the kingdom of God.

God is on a mission – and you’re part of it. God invites you to be God’s presence in the world.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, will make you part of God’s plan to change the world. God invites you to care about the things God cares about, and to be God’s presence in the world. Your mission is to allow the Holy Spirit to shape your heart and mold your actions so that you will never turn down an opportunity to do justice, so that you will never turn down an opportunity to love kindness, so that you will always walk humbly with God. Your mission is to always be filled with love of God and neighbor. Your mission is to be the kind of disciple who follows Jesus so closely that your life really is a reflection of the kingdom of God.

The path to greatness in the kingdom of God is the path of service. May it be so for each of us.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

How to Become Great - Step 2 (Mark 12:28-34)

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’: and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ – this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that, no one dared to ask him any question.

Today’s message is the second in a three-part series about how to become great in the kingdom of God. Last week, we looked at Step One, which came to us from the prophet Micah in the teaching that is known as the Great Requirement. We asked the question, “What does the Lord require of us?” and Micah helped us articulate the answer: “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.” Next week, we’ll be in the last chapter of the Gospel according to St. Matthew to take a look at the Great Commission, but before we get there, today it’s the Gospel according to St. Mark as we examine the Great Commandment. Step one in being great in the kingdom of God was following the Great Requirement. Step two is following the Great Commandment. May we pray.

After seminary, my roommate, Logan, went to work as the Associate Pastor of the American Church in London. In several instances he ended up in gatherings where the Queen was present. She was speaking on one occasion, and someone’s cell phone went off. She folded her hands on the podium, looked at the offender, and said, “You’d better take that – it could be someone important!”

If you believe that doing what Jesus wants you to do is important, please put away your to-do list, your shopping list, your crossword puzzle, your Sudoku puzzle, or whatever else you’re working on that’s not related to worship. Stop the chit-chat with the people behind you, beside you, or in front of you. If someone near you is doing something distracting that is keeping you from participating in worship, you have my permission to ask them kindly, lovingly, in all the Christian charity you can muster, to stop. If you have come to worship God but are planning to work on something else, please feel free to leave now because, to paraphrase the queen, “It must be something important.”

Jesus is about to speak, and he’s going to say something important.

By the 12th Chapter of Mark, Jesus finds himself in the middle of a theological cross-examination free-for-all. Priests, scribes, elders and other defenders of the letter of the law are swarming over him in a frenzy of entrapment.

They have all sorts of questions for Jesus. “By what authority are you doing these things?” In other words – when did the church council approve THIS particular project? Then there’s a question about paying taxes to test his loyalties. And finally, a brainteaser from some out-of-print religious textbooks about seven brothers who each do their brotherly duty by marrying each other’s childless widow, only to find themselves in heaven without a clue as to who gets to claim her as the piece of property known as “wife.” Jesus just rubs his head and says, “Dude, you just don’t get it.”

That’s when this nameless scribe, who has been hanging out on the fringe of crowd, asks the question. He asks the down-to-business, cut-through-the-crap, brass-tacks question. The crowd falls silent as he asks, “Which commandment is the first of all?”

This is a great question. I have a friend who is a college professor, and she talks about the kinds of questions that students ask. There are the questions they ask in class which are utilitarian in nature: “How many absences are we allowed in here?” or “What percentage of our grade is this paper worth?” But then, there are the questions they ask after class, which are invariably philosophical in nature: “So what is your position on the death penalty, anyway?” or “So come on, like, were you a hippie when you were in college?”

On the first day of Early and Medieval Church History at Duke Divinity School – a class every incoming student takes their first semester and is regarded as the unofficial “weed-out” course of the seminary catalogue, Dr. Warren Smith said, “I know you are all intelligent people. I know this because you have all been accepted to a graduate program at Duke University. Early in your education, you were all told something like, ‘There’s no such thing as a stupid question.’ But, you all know that there are stupid questions, and you can probably recognize one when you see it. Questions are always welcome in this class. Stupid questions, however, will be responded to appropriately.”

We all know a stupid question when we hear one. But we can also recognize that the question asked of Jesus by the scribe is, by no means, a stupid question. It’s a genuine, heartfelt question. The scribe is genuinely seeking. Seekers of Jesus come from all walks of life, and sometimes, even religious people seek after Jesus!

The scribe asks Jesus a question that was commonly debated among the rabbis. Which commandment is first? Which commandment is the most important? Which commandment is the greatest? In the tradition, the Law of God had been interpreted into 613 individual laws – commands and regulations that governed every aspect of a Jewish person’s life. There was a law for everything! Obviously, some of those laws were elevated and lowered, and a sort of ranking developed in the interpretation of those laws – certainly some laws were more or less important than others! So, the question on everyone’s mind was this: “Which commandment is the greatest?”

Jesus quotes the scripture in his response. He quotes a verse from Deuteronomy 6:4-5 that would have been well-known to the people of his day. He quotes a prayer that those in his audience would have said three times a day. The prayer was known as the Sh’ma, the Hebrew word for “Hear” because the prayer begins, “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone.”

Jesus says the first command is to love God with everything we’ve got. All of ourselves, everything we are, completely, wholeheartedly, recklessly. It’s not “Love God a little bit.” It’s not “Love God if you have the time.” It’s not “Love God every now and then.” Jesus is asked about the greatest command, and he commands us to love God with all. Love God with all your heart – with the center of your desires, with your emotions, with your values. Love God with all your soul – with every bit of your spirit and personality. Love God with all your mind – with all the intellectual capacities God has given you, not afraid of new learning and questioning and curiosities, but with their awesome inquisitive fullness, for a shallow mind is a sin against God. Love God with all your strength – with your entire physical being, with your very best. Love God with everything.

But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He links it with the command to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, a quotation of Leviticus 18:19 in which God commands the people not to hold a grudge against another or take out vengeance on them. Jesus links these two together in a powerful summary statement of the entirety of God’s law and gives us the teaching we know today as the Great Commandment – to love God and to love neighbor. If you want to be great in the kingdom of God, you will follow this Great Commandment. You will love God, and you will love your neighbor. My friend Betty Jo Hardy summed it up this way: “love of God and neighbor is being able to look in the face of your enemy and see God.”

Let me insert the disclaimer here. Several of you have phoned, emailed, and visited with me this week to ask about the premise of being great. You have rightly wondered, “Is being great something to which we should aspire?” “Didn’t Jesus say that the greatest among us would be servant of all? Didn’t Jesus get after his disciples when they were arguing about who would be greatest in his kingdom and sit at his right hand and at his left? OK, so you caught me. Over and over again, Jesus teaches us that the path to greatness in his kingdom is the path of servanthood. Being truly great is not about being exalted, it’s not about receiving the places of honor, it’s not about having people bow in deference to you when you walk in the room. The greatest in the kingdom of God will be the biggest servant. Those who exalt themselves will be brought low, and those who humble themselves will be elevated in God’s kingdom. The way to true greatness is the kingdom of God is the way of service, and so as we spend these weeks talking about being great in the kingdom of God, I am trying to help you all cultivate the heart of a servant. I am hoping you will all want to live selflessly and sacrificially, and brothers and sisters, that is the true mark of greatness in the kingdom of God.

You already know this truth – that we are created to love God and love our neighbor, because God first loved us. The scriptures tell us and we will hear again in our celebration of Communion that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us, and that proves God’s love toward us. What then, is love? Love is being focused outward instead of inward. Love is about bowing our own wills and desires, it is about lowering and humbling ourselves. "Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres" (1 Corinthians 13:4-7).

Jesus commands a total commitment in our lives to God, which means that we have no choice but to love those who are created in God’s image. And brothers and sisters, who among the entire precious human family is NOT created in the image of God? The truth is this: all people are created by God, in the image of God, for relationship with God. It is not our job to determine who does and does not get a seat at the banquet, we are called to spread the call far and wide, to love all people unconditionally just as Jesus would love and, indeed, does love them. That is our task. We are commanded to love all people. Before you start rolling your eyes and thinking, “Here he goes again,” I’m just telling you what Jesus said. I’m just the messenger here! If you don’t like it, take it up with Jesus!

In the Gospel of Mark, scribes typically opposed Jesus. In the stories that Mark has placed immediately after this particular text, Jesus is harsh on the scribes, even calling into question the validity of their learning and scholarship. Then, he goes further and warns the people to beware of the scribes, because they do all these outward things so that people will honor them and respect them and defer to them and think they are important, and religious, and holy. But Jesus warns that their hearts are far from what God desires, yet because they have put on such airs of religious self-importance, they will be greatly condemned for putting up a false front when they do not love.

The scribes were sort of like the fig tree Jesus cursed only a few chapters back. The fig tree was leafy but had no fruit. Religious people can sometimes talk a good religious talk, but fail to put their words into action in their daily lives. The tree symbolized people who appeared to be deeply-religious, who appeared to be healthy and leafy, but whose lives did not produce the fruit of love.

Today, the apparently healthy fig tree without fruit symbolizes an apparently healthy Christian life that does not produce the love God wants from us. The tree looks healthy but it is not. A religious life looks healthy but it is not.

So it was with the religious leaders of Jesus’ day. We remember that they loved their religious traditions more than they loved God and neighbor. They loved their interpretations of Scripture more than they loved God and neighbor. They loved their money more than they loved God and neighbor. They loved their power more than they loved God and neighbor. They talked a good line, but didn’t live it. They were blind to God, God’s love, God’s Word, God’s truth, and God’s son. Let us not forget that Jesus’ conflict was with the religious people. They were experts in the Scriptures, but they had missed the central truth of the Word of God. And friends, the same can happen to us.

Simply put, empty religion can cause us to miss the very purpose of the Word and our purpose as the people of God.

We can go to church, memorize Scripture, study the Bible, quote Scripture, know a lot about theology, use the right buzzwords, serve on committees, know all about church etiquette and church manners and church programs, and yet we can hold our hearts far away from any real relationship or commitment to God. Our ears may burn when someone utters profanity around us, yet we readily marginalize and degrade other people who are created in the image of God and whom we are commanded to love. It can happen that we are so caught up in doing all the right church things that the real themes of the Gospel completely pass us by. We can love the church more than we love God, and our religion can be nothing more than a lie if the love we claim to have for God is not matched by hearts turned outward.

Now, I want you to love the church. I want you to serve here, I want you to grow here, I want you to belong here. But if any of us here starts to love the church more than we love God, then we’re in major trouble. If we love the church more than we love God, that’s called idolatry! The church is not the same thing as God! Please, I’m begging you – don’t serve the church; serve God! I never want to hear that someone serves the church. Serve through the church, yes, but serve God, not the church! Serving the church is one of the deadliest things any of us can do, for we will serve and worship and love the church itself instead of serving and worshiping and loving God. May it never be said of any of us that we serve the church, for if it is, we are like the religious leaders of Jesus’ day who loved their institutions more than they loved God, and like them, we will have missed the point completely.

Have you ever thought about why so many churches call our worship gatherings a “service?” The etymology of this usage fascinates me. In too many places, I think that the word “service” is interpreted as some sort of benefit of membership – as if the church is some sort of religious Costco or Sam’s Club. In this light, the “service” becomes something primarily to keep the existing members comfortable.

But that’s not how the word “service” is intended. The worship service is for people who are already part of the church, but it is not exclusively for us! First, it is for God. We serve God through worship – we adore God because God is worthy of our praise, we confess our failures to be the people God desires for us to be, we give God thanks simply because of who God is, and we ask God to continue to mold us more and more into God’s image. So yes, to the extent that worship makes us more Christlike people, worship is for us. But then, the worship service becomes about loving our neighbor – we are equipped to live as disciples as we offer our praises to God, and then we take our commitments out to love and serve our neighbor. What we do in worship equips us and empowers us for service in the world outside these walls in the name of Jesus. And so we call it a worship service – not because it is some privilege we earned when we joined, but because our worship of God in this place enables our service in the world. Think of it – worship service. Worship – love God. Service – love neighbor.

Love God, love neighbor. These are not two distinct commandments, but two sides of the same coin. Your personal relationship with Jesus Christ doesn’t mean jack if you are not loving toward every other human being with whom you share this planet. Your relationship with Jesus may be personal, but it is not private. If we love God, we are commanded to love all those who are created in the image of God. Lip service and all the churchy things are only hollow worship if they have no bearing on our relationships with others.

The Scripture is clear. If you want to be great in the kingdom of God, you will love God, and you will love your neighbor. It’s a command, it’s the Great Commandment. Step One is following the Great Requirement we studied last week, to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God. Step Two is the Great Commandment – to love God, and to love our neighbor. In this we see that the path to true greatness in God’s kingdom is the path of service.

I was a junior in high school and we ended up with Mrs. Belkota as our social studies teacher. We were the smart class, we were bored, and we didn’t like her, and by October we were very successful in making her life a living hell. We even caused her to have a nervous breakdown, complete with tears and everything, in the classroom.

In the teacher’s lounge, one of the other teachers noticed she was down, and asked her what was wrong. She started to cry all over again, told her which class was the problem, and even named myself and a few others in that class. That was bad enough, but the teacher who asked her what was wrong just happened to be the faculty adviser to a weekly afterschool Bible study that I was part of. She came to get me out of class the next day to ask if what she had heard was true, and of course, it was. It was about the smallest I’ve ever felt.

Jesus gives us the Great Commandment: to love God and our neighbor, and the depth to which we love God will be demonstrated in our relationships with all other people. The world is watching; what do they see?