Sunday, May 27, 2012

Holy, Holy, Holy (Isaiah 6:1-8)

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple.  Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew.  And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.”
The pivots of the threshold shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke.  And I said, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs.  The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.”  Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”  And I said, “Here am I; send me!”

I discovered something disturbing about myself this week:  I overuse the word “awesome.”

I went back through my emails, facebook messages, and text messages, and discovered that when people shared something with me, I responded no fewer than 27 times in the last week alone that the news in question was, in fact, “awesome.”  Here are just some of the things I said were “awesome” in the past week: someone finding a lost book, weight loss, a new shirt, an omelette, a new job, a kitchen remodel, an oil change, a golf shot, and the grocery store having a particular item in stock.  All this evidence leads me to believe that I may, in fact, overuse the word “awesome” just slightly.

What does the word really mean?  Overused in the vernacular to designate that which is good, great, wonderful, fantastic; or an alternate tongue-in-cheek sarcastic usage that roughly means “lame” such as “This pizza is awesome” when the pizza in question comes from the airport food court.  If you haven’t noticed lately, according to us, anyway, everything is awesome!

How far this common usage strays from the most appropriate use of the word “awesome.”  The most appropriate place for the word “awesome” is at the top of the heap, on the pinnacle of pinnacles, the superlatives of superlatives - a word we should perhaps hold in reserve for the One who sits upon the throne of thrones who is the King of kings and the Lord of lords.  May we pray.

Language matters
I love words.  I have always loved words and what they can do.  As speakers of the English language, we have an ever-growing number of words at our disposal.  Does anyone have any idea how many words there are in the English language?  The Global Language Monitor estimates that as of January 1 of this year, the English language had 1,013,913 words, compared with about 500,000 just 60 years ago.  English is a fluid, flexible language where new words are introduced all the time, and not just by politicians!  If you hunt hard enough, you should be able to find just the right word for the occasion, and if you can’t, make one up.

Even so, with so many linguistic options just waiting to be exercised, how often do our words come up short?  Nowhere is this more evident than in our attempts to describe and define God.  Indeed, how can the infinite mysteries of God be described by something so finite as language?  Nevertheless, we have one word that stands out from the others as an excellent starting place, and that word is “holy.”

In today’s text, it is the word used by the six-winged seraphs who are flying around the throne of God, who are calling to each other with these words in verse 3: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts.  The whole earth is full of his glory.”

“Holy” is a word that means “having divine origin or character,” but what you may not know is that simply the number of times the word is used means something.  The repetition of words was a way of denoting the intensity of the thing is ratcheted up.  Saying it twice, “Holy, holy,” is like “holier,” and “Holy, holy, holy” is like “holiest.”  In essence, it means God is the ultimate in holy, that nothing or no one is holier than God, that holiness is just exploding out of God, that when it comes to holiness, God is it.  “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty.”

There’s another clue in the text about just how holy God is.  When God is seated on the throne, verse 1 says, “the hem of his robe filled the temple.”  The temple was a large, grand, impressive building.  It represented the pinnacle of human engineering ability.  And, in this grandeur, just the hem of God’s robe completely filled the space, meaning that the bigness and holiness of God completely dwarfs any of our human accomplishments.

Called into ministry
The whole of today’s text from the 6th Chapter of Isaiah is commonly referred to as “the call of Isaiah,” because he comes face-to-face with the glory, the splendor, the awesomeness, the holiness of God, and the direction of his life is forever changed.  So it was with Isaiah, and so it is with us.  God is counting on you to represent God’s healing, holiness, and love to a broken, hurting, and hate-filled world.  In verse 8, God asks, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” and Isaiah responds, “Here am I; send me.”  What we need to know is God is still asking the same question - “Whom shall I send?” and the answer given by faithful people who have had an encounter with the holiness of God is still the same: “Here am I; send me.”

It begs the question of each of us – where have we encountered the holiness of God?  And what I posit for your consideration this morning is this: there is a difference between the sacred and the holy.  Encounters with the sacred are fairly common, but encounters with the holy are much rarer.

Now, perhaps you’re a bit confused right now, thinking, “What is he talking about – the difference between ‘sacred’ and ‘holy?’  I always thought they were the same thing!”  We use the terms ‘sacred’ and ‘holy’ interchangeably, and even their dictionary definitions are almost identical, so what am I talking about when I say that ‘sacred’ and ‘holy’ are not quite the same thing?  The difference is subtle, but that subtle difference has a world of meaning, and it is this: God determines what is holy; humans determine what is sacred.  God creates holy; humans create sacred.  Holy comes from the hand of God; sacred comes from the hand of humans.  Sacred is linked to the creation; holy is linked to the Creator.

We are infinitely more comfortable talking about and dealing with sacred things than we are with encountering holy things because we fashion and determine what is sacred, and we have no say in what is holy.

Think of the things that are referred to as sacred in the life of the Church: sacred music, sacred art, sacred literature, sacred architecture, sacred buildings, sacred customs, sacred traditions, sacred symbols.  Every one of these – things of our own making.  Then, think of what is holy: Holy Savior, Holy Spirit, Holy Father, Holy Redeemer, Holy God, Holy relationships.  All of these things – outside our own control or making.

To carry the contrast further, it may observed that contact with the sacred and the holy evoke quite different human reactions.  Contact with the sacred may provoke such varied feelings as reverence, veneration, superstition, boredom, or even revulsion.  How different this is from what happens with contact with the holy: bewilderment, unbelief, inner turmoil, a sense of unworthiness.

The things which are sacred are intended as a gateway to the holy.  This 6th Chapter of Isaiah is set in the temple – a sacred space – where Isaiah had a vision of the holy God.  That which is sacred is never intended as a means unto itself, and yet how often we people of faith become so focused on the things that are sacred to us, we forget to look past them to glimpse the holy beyond.

The people in Isaiah’s day and indeed in ours can sometimes have such a reverential and possesive protection for that which is sacred – our building, our music, our customs, our traditions – that we don’t even bother to look for or discern the holy.  Many times our reverence for the sacred keeps us from experiencing the holy.

For people of Christian faith, that which is holy always takes priority over that which is sacred.  I wonder what would happen if we would focus the time and energy toward experiencing the holy that we often spend trying to protect and preserve the sacred?  Who knows, we might end up slaughtering some sacred cows and making some mighty tasty burgers in the process!

And here’s a secret – God’s not that interested in the sacred.  Even the sacred space of the temple where Isaiah had his vision – did you know that God never really wanted that temple?  Recall the story back in 1 Chronicles 17, where King David has built his palace and realizes that he is set up in a nicer pad than God, and decides to build God a suitable temple.  And through the prophet Nathan, God responds and says, “Did I ask you to build me a temple?  I don’t want a temple!  I prefer to be on the move with the people.”  Indeed, David never did build the temple, though his son later did.

The holiness of God dwells with the people.  Always has, always will.  God prefers it that way, in fact.  If you are looking for the holiness of God, you’ll find that the human heart is the temple of the Holy Spirit.  You’ll find that the fullness of God’s holiness was pleased to leave the splendor of heaven, to be born in human form, and live among us in the person of Jesus.  You’ll find that we are created in the image of a holy God, and God is restoring that holiness as we grow day-by-day in grace, through the redemption of Jesus and in the power of the Holy Spirit.  The holiness of God dwells with the people, such that Church Father St. Irenaeus said, “Man fully alive is the glory of God.”  God’s holiness is most fully revealed and experienced in, and through, and with the people.  Always has, always will.

A pattern for worship
The 6th chapter of Isaiah is the paradigm for a centuries-old pattern of worship which includes Praise (vv. 1-3), Confession (v. 5), Pardon (vv. 6-7), and Response (v. 8).  Churches the world over follow this basic pattern in their worship gatherings, and if you look at our bulletin, you can see this shape echoed as we sing all sorts of songs of praise, confess our sin and are assured of God’s forgiveness, and respond to God’s goodness in a variety of ways, including an offering of monetary gifts, a sermon, and being sent forth into the world with our lives centered on Christ and magnifying God’s joy.  This text provides a pattern for worship for all those who have encountered the holiness of God.

The hymn we sang earlier today - Holy, Holy, Holy – could have been lifted right out of this text and it is one of my favorites: the congregation sang it at my mom’s funeral, the congregation sang it at mine and Ashley’s wedding.  If you don’t sing it at my funeral, I WILL come back and haunt you!  On our wedding DVD, I go back and watch the congregation sing that hymn two, sometimes three times before moving on to watch the rest of the worship service because it’s so beautiful.

When voices are joined together in songs of praise to God, something beautiful and holy takes place.  As I have shared with you before, St. Augustine said, “The one who sings once prays twice.”  Music has that way of lifting us from the here-and-now and transporting us - much like Isaiah having his temple vision - into the nearer presence of God, where our voices are tuned as the instruments in a symphony of constant praise to God.  And as wonderful and glorious and marvelous as worship can be in this life, what we experience is but the tiniest foretaste of what awaits us in worship in the life to come.

Even so, worship in this life is best offered when we put our best into it.  When we put our heart and soul into worship, it’s amazing the way that God transforms our hearts and souls in the process.  And here’s what I know - what we get out of worship is directly related to what we put into worship.  I cannot help but think of John Wesley’s directions for singing published in the Methodist hymnbook in 1761, and reprinted to this day in the front of our hymnal.  In particular, I love rule #4: “Sing lustily and with a good courage.  Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength.  Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of its being heard, than when you sung the songs of Satan.”

I think Mr. Wesley was onto something, and I want to encourage you to take his words to heart.  When the congregation sings together - whether it is a time-honored hymn or a newer song of praise - you sing your little heart out like your salvation depends on it.  Don’t worry about whether or not you know the tune, don’t worry about whether or not you “like” the song, don’t worry about what your voice sounds like.  Sing along, and sing as loud as you possibly can - put everything you’ve got into worshipping the Lord God Almighty, and I guarantee you that if you’ll pour your heart into worship, God will give your heart back to you in better shape than it was to begin with.  Indeed, an encounter with the Holy One always changes us.

God cares less about our reverence for the sacred than our encounters with the holy.  And so I ask again what I asked earlier – where have you encountered what is holy?  Not what is sacred, but what is truly holy?  If you encounter the Holy One, you’ll never be the same.  Thanks be to God!

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Your Life Speaks (1 John 5:9-13)

If we receive human testimony, the testimony of God is greater; for this is the testimony of God that he testified to his Son.
Those who believe in the Son of God have the testimony in their hearts.  Those who do not believe in God have made him a liar by not believing in the testimony that God has given concerning his Son.  And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.  Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.  I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.

The joke is an oldie but goodie, and it goes something like this: two men were on trial for the armed robbery of a liquor store.  The store clerk was on the witness stand, offering his testimony about the events that had taken place the evening of the robbery.  Following the prepared script she had rehearsed with the clerk, the prosecuting attorney went through her questions and finally asked, “And the two men who robbed you on that fateful evening, are they present in this courtroom?”  Before the witness could answer, both defendants raised their hands.

Most of what we know about the legal proceedings in a court are from literature, television, and movies, and who doesn’t love a good courtroom drama?

I’m told by friends of mine who know more about these types of things than I do that most of these shows and movies are just a teensy little bit overdramatized, making the courtroom seem like a much more exciting and theatrical place than it actually is.  But c’mon, how can you not love the iconic scene from A Few Good Men in which Lieutenant Kaffee is examining Colonel Jessup on the witness stand.  Colonel Jessup is taunting Lieutenant Kaffee and inquires, “You want answers?” and Lieutenant Kaffee says, “I want the truth,” and Colonel Jessup replies, “You can’t handle the truth!!”

Interesting, isn’t it, considering that a witness has one primary job: to tell the truth.  And your life and my life are witnesses to what is at work within us.  Whatever is written on our heart will find a way to express itself in thought, word, and deed.  What is your life saying?  May we pray.

A witness has one primary job: to tell the truth.  And in today’s Scripture reading from the 5th Chapter of 1st John, there seems to be some question that centers around truth.  At stake is the community’s understanding of a question that is pretty central to the Christian faith, that is, “Who is Jesus?”  Different theories and explanations have been advanced as an attempt to answer this question; different witnesses, if you will, have been called upon to share their view of things, and the result was quarreling and divisions within the young church, as different folks with varying understanding of just who Jesus is compete with each other for influence and control.

Can you imagine that - people in a church quarrelling for influence and control?  I can’t help but keep in mind John Wesley’s admonition to the people called Methodists back in the 1700s.  These are not new concepts.  Pick the quote here that resonates with you best: “In matters that do not strike at the heart of Scriptural Christianity, we are free to think and let think.”  “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things; charity.”  “Though we may not all think alike, let us all love alike.”

These words from John Wesley should remind us, dear church, of a few things.  First, the unity that we share in Christ’s love trumps everything else.  We may disagree on things from time-to-time and we will - be assured that where two or three are gathered in his name, there’s at least as many opinions in the room - but if those differences are allowed to upstage the love and unity we share in Christ, then we’ve missed the whole point.  Second, most of the things that we church folk can bicker over and quarrel about just really aren’t worth it.

Today’s text seems well-aware that differences of opinion will exist.  We live in a democratic society where we are taught that all opinions matter, that all perspectives are equally valid, and yet our text gives us the sobering news that this is simply not the case.  Verse 9 says, “If we receive human testimony, the testimony of God is greater.”  My opinion is just that: my opinion.  And really, in light of what God thinks, what I think or what you think doesn’t really matter!  Not all opinions are created equal in terms of their authority or credibility.  Just watch cable news or read some internet blogs - there are lots of opinions out there, but that doesn’t mean that any of these people actually know what they’re talking about!

In the church, it matters less what any of us think about something than it matters what God thinks.  Our testimony, our perspective, our opinion, our view pales in importance when it is considered alongside God’s perspective.  We all may have our own particular views, but the real crux of the matter is whether or not we are viewing the world not through our own eyes, but through God’s eyes.

For those who have opened themselves up to the life-giving, life-transforming, sacrificial love of Christ, verse 10 says that God will write the testimony on their hearts allowing us to see the world as God sees it.

When Biblical writers speak of “the heart,” they are less often referring to the blood-pumping organ in our chest than they are referring to the center of our desires, affections, and passions.  “The heart” refers to that deep place at the center of your being that truly defines who you are - where your values and convictions live.

In our day, whereas the Biblical writers described this place as “the heart,” we might be inclined to refer to it as “our gut.”  We tell people to trust their gut, we all have gut feelings about this or that, if someone does something bold out of conviction, we say it took a lot of guts to do or say what they did.  We use the term “gut” pretty much interchangeably with how the Biblical writers would have used “heart,” so much so, in fact, that if the author of 1 John had written to us, he might have said that God writes the testimony not on our heart, but in our gut, so that whatever is in our gut will show itself in the way we live each and every day.

It’s like part two of what we talked about last week, when we were talking about Jesus’ teaching on bearing fruit in our lives.  Remember the connection we talked about?  Root determines fruit.  Say that with me: root determines fruit.  And if the root is love, then the fruit is love.

My wife has a friend who teaches kindergarten Sunday School in her church.  By the way, we need Sunday School teachers and nursery volunteers and children’s church volunteers.  There is a new generation among us who needs to hear the story of faith, and we have a responsibility to teach it to them, and it’s one of the most rewarding things you can do in this church - and the story I’m about to tell should tell you why.

Nicole has just started the Sunday School lesson and is reading the Bible story.  And you know, there’s always that kid that like 30 seconds into the story raises his hand.  You know, it’s the kid who already knows everything.  You sorta shush him, like, “C’mon, I’ve got more of the story to tell.”  Another minute in, and his hand shoots up again, and you shush him again, and say, “Not yet.”  About the third time he puts his hand up, he’s just beside himself and he’s gonna explode if you don’t call on him.  And so you finally go, “What, Tyler?”  “Uh, Miss Nicole - you’ve already told us this story.”  “Well Tyler, come up here.  Do you know why Miss Nicole tells you this story again and again?” to which Tyler at this point is going, “Mmmm-mmmm.”  “Because, I want it to get from your ears to your head.  And do you know what happens after that, Tyler?”  “Mmmm-mmmm.”  “Cause if it gets to your head, then it can travel to your heart.  And do you know what happens after that, after it gets to your heart?”  “Mmmm-mmmm.”  “Once it gets to your heart, it can move into your gut, and you know what your gut is, Tyler?”  “Mmmm-mmmm.”  “Your gut is your soul, and you know what happens after it travels from your ears to your head to your heart to your soul?  It’ll start shootin’ out your fingers!  And you’ll live the story, not just hear it!  You got that?”  “Mmmm-hmmm.”  “And THAT’s why Miss Nicole tells you the same stories over and over and over again - so it’ll move from your ears to your head to your heart to your gut and start shooting out your fingers, and you’ll live the story and not just hear it.”

Maybe I’m sort of like Miss Nicole - I hope that by telling you again and again about God’s love that it will get in your ears, and into your head, and into your heart, and into your gut, and start shooting out your fingers.  Or, maybe I’m sort of like Tyler - I hope that by hearing it again and again myself, it will get in my ears, and into my head, and into my heart, and into my gut, and start shooting out my fingers.

I heard a complaint from someone who hates my preaching who said, “Every time I come to church, you’re up there just going on and on about God’s love.  It’s always about love!  When are you going to talk about right-and-wrong, about doing good and avoiding evil, about following what the Bible says?  Why is it always about love?”

Because - and here’s the madness to my Methodism - it IS always about love.  Jesus said the greatest command was to love God and love neighbor in everything we do.  I don’t know about you but I’m still trying to get that one down.  And once we’ve got that one down, we’ll move onto something else.  Let’s be honest, we’ll spend a lifetime just working on that one.  And if the law of our lives is to love - in thought, word, and deed, at all times, in all places, to all people - don’t you think that law of love will guide us far better than any list of do’s and don’ts I could give you?  Don’t you think the law of love, followed and applied seriously and completely, is going to be far more comprehensive than simply telling you, “Do this; don’t do that?”  I don’t want you to be list-followers.  I want you to be people who have the law of God’s love written on your hearts, and I want your life to speak truthfully about God’s life-giving, life-transforming love that lives deep inside you, and has no choice but to come out at every available opportunity.

There was a time, not that long ago, when testimony was a central part of worship for the people called Methodists.  In some traditions today it still continues with great vibrancy.  Testimony is powerful - a chance for those in the gathered congregation to openly, honestly, publicly share where God is working in our lives, how Jesus is changing our hearts, how the Holy Spirit is empowering us for Christlike living and transforming us from the inside out.  It was a chance for individuals within the community to share this good news, for the community to celebrate it, and for everyone to be encouraged in the real-life examples of what God was doing to, and in, and through the lives of regular ordinary people.

Somewhere along the way, we lost that.  I know of very few Methodists anymore where testimony is a vitally important part of worship.  Perhaps it happened when we became more formal and respectable, perhaps it happened when we moved toward dignity and reverence, perhaps we thought testimony was too exuberant or unruly or embarrassing.  Whatever the reason, we stopped telling each other and encouraging each other with stories of how God was at work in our lives, and I can’t help but think that we’ve lost something, least of all the expectation that God changes human hearts, and that those changes have no choice but to make themselves known.

Whatever is written on your heart, in your gut, in your soul - that’s gonna come shooting out your fingers in the things you do.  It’s gonna come shooting out your mouth in the things you say.  It’s gonna come shooting out your mind in the things you think and the attitudes you have.  Whatever comes shooting out is going to be a reflection of whatever is written on your heart, in your gut, in your soul.  Our lives are a living testimony; whatever is written deep inside of us will find a way to express itself in thought, word, and deed.  What is your life saying?  Are you happy with the message your life is speaking about what’s in your gut?  More importantly, is God pleased with it?  When you think about what’s shooting out your fingers, does it bear witness to the love of God in this world?

Friends, we don’t have any new stories.  Just the old, old story of a God who loved us enough to give us eternal life.  We don’t need a new story, because that’s still a good one.  I don’t know about you, but I love to tell that story over and over, again and again, because I hope that in telling that story, the story of Jesus and his love, the story will write itself on my heart and in my gut.

Right now, your life is speaking.  It’s telling the story about what’s written on your heart.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Fresh Fruit (John 15:9-17)

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

You know that feeling when you walk into a movie that has already started, when you tune into an episode of your favorite show that began five minutes ago, or when you walk up on a conversation already in progress and you’re just trying to catch up?  Do you know that feeling?  That is sort of the feeling we get from how the lectionary has divided this morning’s Scripture reading.

Today’s text starts at the halfway point of one of Jesus’ teachings.  This afternoon, after you have taken your Mom out for lunch, of course, go back and look at verses 1-8 of the 15th Chapter of John’s Gospel to refresh yourself on what Jesus had to say about him being the vine, us being the branches, and how God prunes the branches so they will bear fruit.  In short, God is glorified when our lives bear fruit, and the branches that don’t bear fruit, well, read your Bibles this afternoon and see what happens to them.  As we will see in today’s reading, we should expect the faithful who abide in Christ to always produce a harvest of God’s fruit, fruit that will last.  May we pray.

As many of you know, my father is a retired Methodist minister, which meant our family moved from time to time.  What you may not know is that my mother grew up on a farm in Western Pennsylvania.  And so, in the backyard of every parsonage we lived in, Mom typically had a small vegetable garden and also planted a few fruit trees.  It became a running joke in our family that if Mom planted fruit trees or blueberry bushes or raspberry bushes - we were sure to move the following year.  In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if there wasn’t one or two churches where Dad said to my Mom, “Julie, plant some fruit trees in the backyard so next year we can get outta here!”

Have you seen that television commercial where kids are running around on the soccer field, and the one kid is dressed like a carton of french fries and another looks like a donut with arms and legs?  It’s an ad for some nutrition supplement for kids, and the know-it-all soccer mom whose kid is running up and down the field and scoring all the goals leans over to the mom of french-fry boy and sorta condescendingly says, “Well you know, kids are what they eat!”

We are what we eat, as are plants, to continue using the analogy of Jesus in this text.  Whatever a plant consumes has a direct impact on the fruit it produces.

I spent a summer in college making wine.  One of the things I learned was that not all grapes are equal.  For instance, take two Niagara grapes - the most popular white grape grown in America.  Because they are both Niagara grapes, you’d think they taste the same, right?  As it turns out, they could taste completely different depending on a variety of factors, including how much sun and rain they got, whether they were on an east-facing or west-facing slope, and the particular characteristics of the soil in which their vines were planted.  You are what you eat - what goes in determines what comes out.  Root determines fruit. Say that with me: Root determines fruit.

Or, I think of the flowers Ashley and I have planted.  Here are two photos I took yesterday morning of some of the petunias in front of our house - some of which are in a pot, and the others of which are in the ground.  All of these flowers were initially the same size, bought and planted on the same day, are 20 feet apart from each other, and receive essentially identical amounts of sun and water, and are subject to the same temperature.  And yet, one group is rooted in good, expensive, nutrient-rich soil from the garden center, and the other in bad clay - and look at the difference it makes.  What goes in determines what comes out; we are what we eat.  Root determines fruit.  Say that with me: Root determines fruit.

The same can be said for our lives.  Take two people who are otherwise identical, yet one whose life is rooted - I mean rooted - in the love, forgiveness, and grace of God and the other whose life is rooted in anything else; I guarantee you will be looking at two people whose lives are producing vastly different kinds of fruit.  Whatever you have rooted your life in will directly determine the fruit you produce.  If the root is love, then the fruit is love.  Say that with me: If the root is love, then the fruit is love.

In the stories of Jesus and particularly in today’s text, a strong correlation is made between faithfulness and fruitfulness, yet for whatever reason, we have perhaps been overly contended to be faithful, and not terribly concerned with being fruitful.

Fruitful is never optional for the faithful, as Jesus describes faithful people in this way - those who “abide in his love” (v. 9).  Abide simply means “to wait,” “to endure,” “to remain stable,” or, and here’s the one to pay attention to, “to dwell in or live with.”  And so those who abide in Christ’s love “live” in his love.  Think of it this way - if you’re an American, where do you live?  America.  How about if you’re a Canadian?  You live in Canada.  How about if you’re a Brazilian?  You live in Brazil.  Now, how about if you’re a Christian - where do you live, then?  The same principle applies.  If an American is someone who lives in America and a Brazilian is someone who lives in Brazil, then a Christian is someone who lives -- you got it -- in Christ.

And so, if we live in Christ, if we are literally rooted in his love, a bumper crop of the fruit of Christlike love is the inevitable result.  The faithful life is always a fruitful life.  If the root is love, then the fruit is love.  Say that with me: If the root is love, then the fruit is love.

In verse 12, Jesus says, This is my command; that you love one another just as I have loved you.”   The fruit of his life is unconditional love toward us, and the fruit of our life is to be unconditional love back toward him and toward each other.  Now, as we talk about love, put away all of those images of love that make it sound like a puppy-dog wrapped in rainbows covered in hugs dipped in chocolate sauce. Love is not a feeling or an emotion; love is an action, love is a choice.

Jesus wants us to know that love is an action.  He says, “Greater love has no one than this: than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (v. 13).  Perhaps one thing we need to do here is understand the term “friend” as Jesus uses it.  He says in verse 14 that those who do his command (read that as those who love as he loves) are his friends.  To Jesus and indeed to his entire culture, to call someone a “friend” meant something much deeper than the casual way we use the term.  For instance, I have almost 1500 facebook friends; how meaningful a personal relationship with them do you think I honestly have?  I have facebook friends who I don’t have a clue who they are, let alone why I ever accepted their friend request in the first place.  Honestly, I have facebook friends who are people I don’t even like all that much!  How casually we use the word, “friend!”  We meet someone who finds out we have a mutual acquaintance, perhaps someone we went to high school with but haven’t even spoken to in 15 years, and we say, “Oh yeah, I know so-and-so, he’s a friend of mine!”  Maybe this is just me, but if I haven’t talked to someone in 15 years, I question whether we have cheapened the word “friend.”

Aristotle said that a friend is somebody who helps you to be wise or good; and Kierkegaard said that to love another person is to help them love God, and to be loved is to be helped in loving God.  Sounds like what Jesus was talking about.

Did you ever think of the people Jesus chose in the first place?  Fishermen, tax collectors, low-lives, brawlers - outcasts and social rejects, really.  It’s almost as if anybody can be a friend of Jesus, even the most unlikely sorts of folks, perhaps even people like you and me.

When Jesus calls us friends, he is saying that we are deeply, profoundly, intimately connected to him.  He is saying that he has given us a bond to him that cannot be broken or severed.  Being a friend was a position of honor, it was akin to being named family with all the responsibilities that go along with that.  In fact, when Jesus says friend, just think to yourself “family.”

Like family, Jesus didn’t give us a choice in the matter.  He never asked if we wanted to be his friends.  What’s more scandalous, he never asked if I wanted to be friends with his friends.  Have you ever hung out with someone who brings another friend along - the friend-of-a-friend, and they are the most obnoxious person on the planet and there’s no way you ever want to see them or hang out with them again?  It causes you to question your friendship with your mutual friend, and you may find yourself avoiding that friend just so you don’t have to interact with their other friend.

But Jesus doesn’t give us a choice.  He chooses us to be his friends, and he chooses everyone else to be his friends, and he says “You are ALL my friends, whether you like each other or not!”  Remember, when Jesus calls us friends, he’s really sort of called us “family.”

You don’t choose your family.  I have weird cousins.  So do you, probably.  Not only that, but I’m sure I am somebody’s weird cousin, and I’m sure you’re somebody’s weird cousin, and guess what, we’re all stuck with each other whether we like it or not.  Jesus chooses his friends and bestows such a tight-knit relationship on us that we become like family.

We are friends, you and I, family, if you will, because we are connected, made one, united in Christ. And so, as Jesus has loved us, so too are we to love each other.  Remember, love is an action, and Jesus said the greatest love is one that is willing to lay down its life for another.  He doesn’t say we have to like each other, but he does call us to love each other.  As we look around church on any given Sunday, we may see people we know and like, know and don’t like, or don’t know at all.  Whatever.  It doesn’t really matter.  Whether we like each other or not, Jesus commands us to look out for each other’s good - even to the point of giving our life.

Giving our life will certainly mean something different to each of us.  It might mean surrendering your ego, or your will, or your need to be right or in control.  It means giving up whatever you prize most for the love of God.  It could involve making a sacrifice of time, talent, or treasure, but one thing is for certain: when you love, it can no longer be all about you.  The one who loves Jesus will do his commands, to love others as he has loved us - freely, abundantly, sacrificially.  Somewhere along the way, we realize the impossibility of trying to love God and live for ourselves at the same time, and that’s the point where we surrender, we give our lives, if you will, not just part of our lives, but our whole lives over to God.

There’s that old hymn we sing sometimes that says, “I surrender all.”  It doesn’t say “I surrender half” or  “I surrender part” or “I surrender some.”  It says “I surrender all.”   Doing that is a way of laying down our life at the feet of Jesus and saying, “This belongs to you now.  Do what you want in me and with me.  I want to abide in your love and live in your grace; I want your joy to be in me and my joy to be made complete.  I hold no part of myself back, but I freely give all of me.”

But then what?  Jesus’ instruction is simple: “Go and bear fruit, fruit that will last (v. 16).  Jesus hints that are two kinds of fruit we can cultivate - fruit that lasts or fruit that rots.  Which one we produce is determined by the soil in which we are planted.  We are what we eat, and what goes in determines what is produced.

Remember, root determines fruit.  Say that with me. Root determines fruit.

If the root is love, then the fruit is love – say that with me: if the root is love, then the fruit is love, and friends, that is always the fruit that lasts.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

"I Will Weep When You Are Weeping . . ."

Yesterday's vote was hurtful to some people, many of whom I love dearly. The Bible enjoins members of the body of Christ to grieve with those who grieve (Romans 12:15), without any comment on whether or not we "like" them, "agree" with them, or can comprehend why they are upset.

And then gloating - again, Scripture enjoins us not to rejoice in the hurt or pain of another (Proverbs 24:17). There has been a great deal of gloating in the wake of the vote, and Tammy Fitzgerald's victory party in Raleigh last night complete with a 7-tier wedding cake was a bit over the top and added insult to injury for those who were hurt. Gloating in someone else's misery is conduct very unbecoming to people of Christian faith. I still take no issue with the person who voted their conscience after honest research, deep conviction, and open heart-searching. Not every person who voted "yes" yesterday was gloating when the numbers came in. I do take issue with those who used the thing that caused suffering to another as the reason to celebrate and party.

Clearly, we are a fractured, broken, and divided people in desperate need of healing and reconciliation; my prayer from last night remains unchanged: "Forgive us, O Lord. Give us grace to put away all hurtful things."

Read more here:

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Prayers after the Election

I pray tonight for those who gloat and those who grieve:

Almighty and most merciful God, we know that we have sinned against you and done evil in your sight. Forgive us, O Lord. Give us grace to put away all hurtful things.

Almighty God, shield of the oppressed, give peace to those who suffer, let your love surround them, and your grace be their comfort, in the name of Galilee's healer, Amen.

Monday, May 7, 2012

On the Eve of Election

Tomorrow, North Carolinians will go to the polls and weigh in on "Amendment One."  I understand there also some primary races for some people running for some offices, and that's all well and good, too.

This is being called the Marriage Amendment.  You can google the full text of the Amendment if you're not from North Carolina or if you are and really don't know anything about the thing.  I am voting against it, though the latest polls indicate that my vote will represent the minority of those who vote tomorrow.

I have been openly attacked and had my eternal standing with God called into question because of my views on this particular issue.  I have been accused of distorting the truth, of creating gray out of a black-and-white issue, and giving in to "cultural accommodation," "conforming to the world," etc. etc. etc.

What you are about to read will not be much of a surprise to those who have followed my thoughts on the matter for the last several weeks.  Nevertheless, I have tried to outline my feelings about this particular Amendment as a Christian, an American, a North Carolinian, and a student of history.

Rather than cherry-picking particular Scriptural passages, my thoughts on this are guided by the overarching themes that are found throughout the Bible, as God directs us how to interact with and treat each other.  The Bible has always enjoined people of faith to show particular kindness and care to orphans, widows, strangers, "aliens," and all manner of vulnerable people, remembering that we were once strangers in a strange land.  The Bible in general and Jesus in particular always shows preferential treatment for those on the margins of society.

So, who would be on the margins of our society?  Lesbians and gays, certainly.  Unmarried heterosexual couples.  The elderly and infirmed.  Children.  Victims of domestic violence and their children.  In one way or another, Amendment One has the potential to harm all of these groups.  Whether or not one supports gay marriage is actually a tangential issue; the real question is whether the risks to all these vulnerable and marginalized groups is worth it to codify something into our state constitution which is already on the books?  To me, it's not.

That being said, I actually think Amendment One is a very un-Christian piece of legislation, because of the hostility it codifies into our Constitution.  Amendment One reinforces laws that are already on the books (that proponents of the Amendment are worried about being turned over by "activist" judges, which is a bunch of hooey, if you ask me, ESPECIALLY because of the vague legal wording of the Amendment that will subject its interpretation and application to years of protracted battles in the court, opening it up to judges who are activist or not), but I believe the real point is to send a message to gays and lesbians.  That message is "By the way, we still don't like you, and we still don't think you're okay.  Nothing's really changed, we just want to make sure you know that we still don't like you."  Amendment One turns our state's constitution into a middle school cafeteria.

I also believe that marriage is a particular and sacred institution, but it is a religious matter, not a political one.  That the government is even involved in defining "marriage" is ludicrous to students of history.  Historically, the covenant of marriage as we understand it was recognized and blessed by the Church ONLY and the legal, contractual aspects are recognized by the state.  In a sense, every Christian marriage is both an affair of the Church (the marriage) and the government (more or less a civil union).  For instance, with every couple whose wedding I perform, I am always operating as an agent of the state (the legal part).  As you have seen, not every couple has a Christian wedding, and that's perfectly fine.  For Christian couples or those choosing a Christian wedding, I also act as an agent of the Church in solemnizing and consecrating the "marriage."

For my two cents, I think the government should only be involved in the civil union part.  Marriage is a unique and particular relationship that is just as much spiritual as temporal, and the government has no role in legislating matters of the Spirit.

In broad strokes, that's why I oppose the Amendment as a Christian.  I also oppose it as an American.  The preamble to our Constitution states "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" (it's close - I did get an "A" in 11th grade Social Studies).  I see Amendment One tearing at life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for thousands of North Carolinians.

Further, I am a believer in small government and that the government is there to do for people only what they cannot do for themselves.  This is where I lose my liberal friends (who thought I was one of them) and confuse my conservative friends (who KNOW I'm not one of them!).  My belief on a document like a Constitution is that it should, in the broadest sense possible, solidify the relationship between government and people to give as much freedom to the individual as possible, without infringing on the rights of others.  I understand that the idea of non-heterosexual couples makes people uncomfortable, but nowhere are we guaranteed "the right to never be made uncomfortable."  Amendment One goes further in defining the relationship between a government and its people than should ever be enshrined in a state constitution.

From the foundation of what we would consider American society, religious freedom has always been at the center.  Indeed, many of the early colonists were fleeing religious tyranny and persecution in Europe; they were directly suffering because their beliefs and practices were not those of the majority and those in positions of power.  Principal in the founding documents of most American colonies was the protection of religious liberty for persons of all faith and non-faith.  There is something elegant and theologically true about our religious expressions being freely chosen rather than coerced.  The Christian faith insists that it all hinges on love of God and neighbor, and love must always be freely chosen and can never be coerced; otherwise, it is ingenuine.  And so, Christians help create the space where people can freely chose God; Amendment One is an attempt to impose a majority view of God on all, and it tears against the very fabric of religious liberty which was among our founding cornerstones.

There is a quote attributed to many people that says, more or less, that "the greatness of a Democratic society is shown in the care it shows its weakest and most vulnerable members."  I'm a bit embarrassed at our society if this is the care we will show our weakest and most vulnerable members.  Founding Father John Adams warned the fledging American democracy of the dangers of the "tyranny of the majority," in which he envisioned a scenario in which decisions made by a majority place its interests so far above those of an individual or minority group as to constitute active oppression, comparable to that of tyrants and despots.  Amendment One represents just such a tyranny, in my view.

One last point.  Religion and politics make strange bedfellows; perhaps that's why you're not supposed to talk about religion, politics, or sex at cocktail parties.  "When religious groups crawl into bed with the government and subject matters of faith to majority vote, they are putting their religion in peril. And, in the long run, they stand to lose much more than they gain.  The more we use government to arbitrate religious/social issues, the more likely we are to get burned.  In other words, relying on being in the majority to impose your social/religious views on others is a dangerous game. Sooner or later, you will no longer be in the majority" (Skip Foster, Publisher of the Shelby Star).  My Christian faith is too important to me to allow it to be subject to the whims of the masses, which might be on my side today, and against me tomorrow.

If you're still reading, those are my thoughts on why I am personally against the Amendment as an American, a student of history, as a North Carolinian, as a believer in limited government, and most importantly, as a Christian.  Tomorrow, I will go to the poll and vote AGAINST Amendment One.