Sunday, July 29, 2012

Upside Down (Acts 17:1-9)

Paul and Silas journeyed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, then came to Thessalonica, where there was a Jewish synagogue. 2 As was Paul’s custom, he entered the synagogue and for three Sabbaths interacted with them on the basis of the scriptures. 3 Through his interpretation of the scriptures, he demonstrated that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead. He declared, “This Jesus whom I proclaim to you is the Christ.”  4 Some were convinced and joined Paul and Silas, including a larger number of Greek God-worshippers and quite a few prominent women.
5 But the Jews became jealous and brought along some thugs who were hanging out in the marketplace. They formed a mob and started a riot in the city. They attacked Jason’s house, intending to bring Paul and Silas before the people. 6 When they didn’t find them, they dragged Jason and some believers before the city officials. They were shouting, “These people who have been disturbing the peace throughout the empire have also come here. 7 What is more, Jason has welcomed them into his home. Every one of them does what is contrary to Caesar’s decrees by naming someone else as king: Jesus.”  8 This provoked the crowd and the city officials even more. 9 After Jason and the others posted bail, they released them.
This morning I would like to begin with a basic geography quiz.
1.    True or false: 75-80% of the Earth’s surface is covered in water. (True)
2.    How many continents are there on the Earth? (6 or 7)
3.    How many oceans border the United States, and what are they? (3 - Atlantic, Pacific, Arctic)
4.    Who discovered America?
5.    True or false: The Earth is round. (False - at least if you mean perfectly round.) It has an average diameter of 7,922 miles, but the Equatorial diameter is approximately 27 miles greater than the polar diameter, making the actual shape of the Earth an oblong spheroid - flattened slightly at the poles, and bulging slightly at the Equator.

These last three questions help make my point for today, that we sometimes hold something to be true or even common knowledge that is not entirely accurate.  I remember learning that the earth was not round in my college astronomy class and being absolutely blown away by this information.  Since, I dunno, kindergarten, I had always known that the earth was round because we had been taught the story of Christopher Columbus.  Were you taught that most people until the time of Columbus thought the earth was flat, but in 1492, when Columbus sailed the ocean blue, among other things, he proved that the earth was round?

Come to find out, by the 4th century BCE, 1800 years before Columbus’ famous voyage, it was widely-accepted that the earth was spherical.  The misconception that people at the time of Columbus believed in a flat Earth was listed by the Historical Association (of Britain) as the second most common error in history, and yet how many of us were taught something like that in our schools?

How upsetting and disorienting it can be when we firmly believe something to be true, only to find out that it’s not.  It can turn our world completely upside down.  In the scripture reading we’ve looked at for today, Paul and Silas were accused of turning the world of the religious establishment upside down, by proclaiming Jesus, crucified and risen, as Savior and Lord.  It would seem when Jesus gets loose in our lives, everything sorta goes topsy-turvy - and that’s actually the good news today. May we pray.

Today’s scripture has us join missionaries Paul and Silas in the middle of one of their journeys.  They have been traveling from city to city in present-day Turkey and Greece, sharing the good news of Jesus Christ along the way.  The message of Jesus is causing quite an uproar everywhere they go, and it seems the crux of the conflict is the age-old tension between what is time-honored, and what is brand new.  The Jewish leaders saw themselves as the guardians of the old message, and they perceived Paul’s Christian gospel to be a brand new threat to all they held dear.

For Paul, however, there should have been no conflict or rivalry between the Jewish message and the Christian message because they were part of the same message!  Rather than the Christian message super ceding the Jewish message, Paul saw the Jewish message and the Christian message like successive chapters in the same story.

We tend to think, as did the Jews in Paul’s day, that being Jewish is one religion and being Christian is another, and that asking Jews to follow Jesus would be asking them to “convert.”  This is what was upsetting to the Jewish leadership - they thought Paul was taking away their following.  In reality, he was inviting them to pick up the next chapter in the story - not to stop being Jewish, but to start following Christ as the most faithful expression of being good Jews.

Think of it this way.  Imagine a baseball player who ends up on first base.  He’s really proud of himself, and he looks around from his new perch and he really likes what he sees.  You’ve got the dugout close by, there’s your buddy the first base coach, beautiful green grass, fans in the stands just a few steps away.  He thinks “First base is awesome!  I’m just gonna camp out here - what could be better than hanging out on first base?  I’m gonna teach the world how to get to first base.  Everyone needs to get to first base, and we’ll all hang out together, and this is as perfect as it’s ever gonna get.”

Now, of course, this baseball player would have missed the point.  Yes, first base is good.  But if all you want to do is hang out there, then you’ve missed the point of the game.  The point is to advance around the bases, to get deeper and deeper involved in the game, if you will, and to eventually make it all the way around and get home.  At some point, you have to move on from first base.  First base wasn’t bad - moving on from first base to second doesn’t mean that all of a sudden you reject everything about first base in favor of second.  Getting to second base presumes everything about first base, you can’t get to second without a stop at first, but to participate most fully in the game, you need to be moving around the bases.

It actually sort of reminds me of John Wesley and the early Methodist movement.  People sometimes think - and we American Methodists are notorious for advancing this myth - that John Wesley left the Church of England to begin Methodism.  In reality, John Wesley remained a clergyman in good standing (well, sortof) his entire life; he never left the Church of England!  It was his intention all along that Methodism would serve as a renewal movement within the established church rather than become its own church.  The Methodist movement presumed everything about the Church of England - whose own tenets were rooted in Scripture and apostolic tradition - as the bedrock upon which its foundations were anchored.

Just as John Wesley was calling the people of his day (and us, too, I might add) to become better Christians, so too were Paul and Silas trying to help the Jews of their day become better Jews by giving their lives to Jesus.  The way of following Jesus was actually the fulfillment of all that had been revealed in the Hebrew Scriptures and traditions they had already come to love so deeply.

He was saying, “Hey, if you thought chapter 1 was good - and believe me, it was - just wait until you pick up chapter 2!”  He was inviting them to embrace the ministry of Jesus as resting upon everything that was already established in their Jewish faith - not something new that came out of nowhere, not something that was a threat to what already was.  Paul was pointing to Jesus, and saying “Here is what comes next.  The story of Jesus is part of your story - just have the courage to turn the page and see what comes next, rather than spending all your time rehearsing the chapter you’ve just read.  God is not static or frozen in the past and in need of preservation like some museum piece; God is a living, dynamic God who desires a relationship with each of us, and God is most fully revealed through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.”

Religious leaders received this proclamation with cool disdain.  “Take your Jesus and keep going.  Your Jesus is changing everything, and we just can’t have that around here.”

Now, just a sidetrip for a minute: hasn’t it been your experience that an encounter with Jesus DOES change everything?  In fact, if we’ve had a genuine encounter with Jesus and yet nothing has changed in our lives, doesn’t that set off a red flag in your mind?

I was in a coffee shop one time eavesdropping - I mean overhearing - I mean getting useful information for sermon illustrations (yeah, that’s it) - whatever you call it, I was listening to the conversation that was taking place at the table behind me.  Two guys were sitting there, and one was obviously sharing his faith with the other and trying to bring him into the Christian faith.  I don’t doubt the sincerity of his conviction or the intention of his heart, just his sales pitch.  He told the other guy, “You can be a Christian, you can invite Jesus into your life, and nothing else has to change.”

I wanted to turn around and butt in to the conversation - which I am known to do in coffee shops and restaurants and bars and other public places - and say, “Excuse me, but if you invite Jesus into your life, and NOTHING CHANGES, then somehow you didn’t do it right.”

When Jesus gets in your life, EVERYTHING changes.  You DO become a new person.  2 Corinthians 5:17 (CEB): “If anyone is in Christ, that person is part of the new creation.  The old things have gone away, and look! New things have arrived!”  So yes, if you get into Jesus and Jesus gets into you, expect things to change in your life - that’s how it works!

Paul and Silas were accused of turning the world upside down, and guess what - by proclaiming the message of Jesus, that’s exactly what they were doing!  Guilty as charged!  When Jesus gets loose in the human heart, things are going to be different.  They’re supposed to be.  Everything about you will change, and that is how it should be.  Everything will be turned upside down, or at least that’s how it will seem at first.  In reality, Jesus is in the process of turning everything within us right-side up.

Friends, the ministry of Jesus is about getting things within us and within the world turned right-side up.  The church exists to continue that very same ministry - we are the body of Christ, we are the very hands and feet of Jesus in the world - and as Jesus was and is about transforming lives so things are turned around the right way, so too are we in the business of helping people get their lives turned around.

Repent (from the Hebrew "shuve")
Meaning: to turn around and go another way
That’s one of the reasons we talk about “repentance” in church.  Our word “repent” comes from the Hebrew “shuve” which simply means “to turn around and go another way.”  When you’re driving in your car and you’ve got the GPS on and you miss a turn, your GPS will likely say one of two things: “Recalculating” OR “In 500 feet, make a U-turn.”  Your GPS could just as easily say “Repent,” which would be another way of saying, “Turn around.”

Repentance is a two-part process: it involves both “turning away from” sin, and a “turning toward” all the good things God offers in exchange.  Mike Mason, in Champagne for the Soul: Rediscovering God’s Gift of Joy, writes, “Repentance consists of two parts, but many people settle only for the first part.  Repentance means to turn, but many get stuck halfway . . . Indeed, it’s impossible to turn away from greed without turning toward generosity, to put aside lust without taking up love, or to escape bitterness without embracing celebration” (p. 17).

True and complete repentance always involves a change.  We exchange something that is life-draining to ourselves and others for something that is life-giving.  The Psalmist put it this way: “You changed my mourning into dancing.  You took off my funeral clothes and dressed me up in joy so that my whole being might sing praises to you and never stop” (Psalm 30:11, CEB).

The church is in the life transformation business - we are sort of like an exchange center where people can bring the tattered shreds of the life they have tried to make on their own and trade them in for new and glorious garments of joy and praise.  The ministry of Jesus and likewise the ministry of the church is about helping people get their lives turned around, whether in the time of Paul and Silas, John Wesley, or the present day.  I think the motto of the church could easily be the same as the Hokey Pokey Clinic: “A  Place to Turn Your Life Around.” And THAT’S what it’s all about!

It’s one of the reasons we should be honored and pleased that we have groups like Narcotics Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous, and Insight meeting here at our church through the week.  These groups are all aimed at helping people get their lives turned around.  That’s what we’re about too, so guess what, friends, we are in the same business!  The church is not a museum of religious artifacts; it is a life-transformation station, where those who have a genuine encounter with the life-giving God find their lives upside down and turning around.

I say “turning around” rather than “turned around” because it’s a process.  It may not look like much, but the human will is like a great big lumbering ship out on the ocean, and it can take awhile to get it turned around.  It doesn’t happen in an instant, but it’s a constant process of turning away from sin and turning toward God.  It involves making a turn toward Christ every moment of every day, because given to our own devices, we tend to drift off course.  Jesus is like our true north, and we need to reset the compass of our lives daily if we want to get our wills turned toward his.

True repentance should bring about joy and happiness, not shame and anger.  Mike Mason again: “Many people grow tired of repentance because it doesn’t seem to make them happy.  Yet full repentance is a joyful act in itself.  If we’re not joyful, we haven’t finished repenting.  The sign that we’ve repented well is happiness, as God consumes our sacrifice of sorrow and exchanges it for joy.”

“These men are turning the world upside down.”  “These men are disturbing the peace.”  So read the accusation against Paul and Silas.  So read the accusation against John Wesley.  So read the accusation against Jesus.  How wonderful it would be for the same accusation to be made against us!  I don’t know about you, but if I have a choice between a life that is stable and sorrowful, or one that seems upside down but is joyful, I’m gonna choose joy every time.  What seems upside down is actually right-side up.  Have an encounter with Jesus this week. Hand over your sorrow, and accept his joy in return.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Hometown Hero (Luke 4:21-30)

21 He began to explain to them, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it.”
22 Everyone was raving about Jesus, so impressed were they by the gracious words flowing from his lips. They said, “This is Joseph’s son, isn’t it?”
23 Then Jesus said to them, “Undoubtedly, you will quote this saying to me: ‘Doctor, heal yourself. Do here in your hometown what we’ve heard you did in Capernaum.’ ” 24 He said, “I assure you that no prophet is welcome in the prophet’s hometown. 25 And I can assure you that there were many widows in Israel during Elijah’s time, when it didn’t rain for three and a half years and there was a great food shortage in the land. 26 Yet Elijah was sent to none of them but only to a widow in the city of Zarephath in the region of Sidon. 27 There were also many persons with skin diseases in Israel during the time of the prophet Elisha, but none of them were cleansed. Instead, Naaman the Syrian was cleansed.”
28 When they heard this, everyone in the synagogue was filled with anger. 29 They rose up and ran him out of town. They led him to the crest of the hill on which their town had been built so that they could throw him off the cliff. 30 But he passed through the crowd and went on his way.
This week, as the Olympic games begin in London, at least some portion of the coverage will help us make a local connection to the athletes - pictures of family farms in the midwest, somebody’s entire town watching the games from the gym at the Lutheran Church, and there will be interviews with the people who know them - family members, friends, teachers, neighbors.  We love to make a human connection with people who are doing great and extraordinary things.

The situation was much the same for Jesus.  He was out in the world doing great and extraordinary things.  In today’s Scripture reading, Jesus has returned to his hometown of Nazareth.  Jesus - the prophet, the preacher, the healer, the miracle-worker, the teacher - has come to preach a sermon before the hometown crowd.  They are initially excited - but before the sermon was over, the hospitality committee would become an angry mob.  God’s call upon Jesus is to fulfill the kingdom of God, rather than the expectations or aspirations of his neighbors, and they offended at the distance between the two.  May we pray.

A Hometown Preacher
A few months after I finished seminary and entered full-time pastoral ministry, I was invited to preach at my home church - St. James United Methodist Church in Niagara Falls, NY.  The day arrived, and the crowds came.  I looked around and took it all in.  There was my 1st-grade teacher, a pillar member of the congregation, in her usual place on the left side, sitting on the center aisle, four rows from the front.  There were my neighbors, classmates, people whose grass I had cut, whose newspapers I had faithfully delivered.  My hometown had come out to greet one of their own.

At the risk of sounding boastful, I gave a good sermon, too.  If not a home run, at least a solid double or triple.  I remember that feeling of a job well-done as I gave the benediction, and joined the recessional down the main aisle to greet folks at the door as they departed, just waiting for the accolades to roll in.

However, I soon realized that no one had paid any attention to the content of the sermon itself.  They were more complementary about how I looked in my robe and how proud they were just to see one of their own up there, rather than any expressed sense of God having spoken through me to them.  “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown” (Luke 4:24).

The 4th Chapter of Luke’s Gospel tells us what happened the very first time Jesus preached.  The headline in the Nazareth Gazette read, “Local Rabbi Makes Good, Will Preach in Hometown.”  The day came, and a large crowd showed up, so large that the synagogue was standing room only, and they were parking donkeys up and down the road for blocks.

Jesus began to read from the 58th Chapter of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me.  He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).  The year of the Lord’s favor, announced by Jesus, and Nazareth, the home town would have a front-row seat to all the action.

Verse 21: “He began to explain to them, ‘Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it’’ (Luke 4:21).  It was really happening; Jesus says the day is now!  O glorious day for Nazareth, their native son, Jesus, and the entire town who would surely be granted some special place of honor and prestige in Jesus’ new order. Verse 22 says, “Everyone was raving about Jesus, so impressed were they about the gracious words flowing from his lips.”

Quit While You’re Ahead
There’s a saying that “You should always leave them wanting more.”  If Jesus wanted to quit while he was ahead, now is a great time for the benediction, at least if he’s trying to win friends and influence people.  Yet, Jesus’ sermon isn’t finished just yet.

Jesus recounts two stories from their past - one from 1 Kings 17 and the other from 2 Kings 5 - in which the prophet Elijah and his student Elisha were instrumental in bringing God’s healing and deliverance to Gentiles.  “You remember these stories,” Jesus seems to say in verses 24-27.  “There were lots of poor widows in Israel, but through the prophet Elijah, God chose to help a foreign widow.  You all remember that story.”  Jesus continued, “Speaking of old familiar stories, how about the one where there were lots of lepers in Israel, but through the prophet Elisha, God chose to heal an officer in the enemy’s army?  Surely, you remember that story, as well” (Luke 4:24-27).

They remembered all right, because Jesus isn’t teaching anything new here.  He’s simply reminding them of their own history and tradition and inviting them to embrace the beliefs about God they already held to be true.  Sometimes the hardest lessons to learn are the things we think we already know, and the hometown crowd didn’t appreciate the review session Jesus offered.  God was blessing Gentiles in those Bible stories Jesus told; can you believe it?  Who does God think God is, anyway?  Gentiles don’t deserve blessing - they are outsiders!  Besides, if God blesses them, how can we be sure there will be enough for us?

Comfort and Affliction
Have you ever watched a group of kids playing together, and there’s that one kid who will attempt to pick up every single toy in the play area, more toys than he could possibly play with at one time, but who has claimed them all as “Mine!” and has to be sure that no one else touches them, even if he’s not playing with all of them?  Spiritually, the people in Jesus’ hometown were like a bunch of two-year-olds, unwilling to believe that anyone other than themselves might have any of the toys to play with.  They wanted exclusive rights to God, they wanted all the toys for themselves, and they were hoping Jesus, the hometown boy, had a message to prop up this belief.

The Bible stories Jesus told, however, reminded them that God’s love, grace, and blessing was bigger than any of them.  Oddly enough, that message of a love and grace that was big enough to extend beyond them is what got them all riled up.  Verses 28 and 29: “When they heard this, everyone in the synagogue was filled with anger.  They rose up and ran him out of town. They led him to the crest of the hill on which their town had been built so that they could throw him off the cliff” (Luke 4:28-29).  Wow - how’s that for a reaction to a sermon that stepped on a few toes - the most negative reaction I ever get is people sleeping or scowling!

The people aren’t angry because he claims to be the fulfillment of Messianic prophecy.  On the contrary, they’re quite happy about it - that’s the part where they were all impressed with him and raving about him.  It is when he tells them that they should expect no special favors that they turn on him and seek to kill him.  They are ticked because Jesus has erased the line between outsider and insider, simultaneously bringing the outsider in, and revoking the preferred status of the insider.

The Blessing Cycle - Which Direction?
Jesus is telling the hometown folks that in the eyes of God, everyone is special, everyone is unique, everyone has sacred worth, everyone is gifted, graced, and loved by God.  If you have built your life on the false belief that you deserve preferential treatment over others, if someone else playing with toys is viewed as a threat to your own playtime, this is a hard pill to swallow.

The story is similar to others in Luke’s Gospel, including the parables told in Luke 15: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son.  In each case, others are invited to rejoice over the lost being found.  We don’t know the response of the neighbors in the first two parables, but we do know that in the 3rd one - the parable of the prodigal son (the lost son, the welcoming Father), the older brother refuses to rejoice with his Father when his younger brother returns home, and won’t join the party.  He would rather sit outside and pout than see the return of his less-than-deserving brother celebrated.  It wasn’t what he expected, it didn’t go down like he thought it should have, and so he chooses not to participate in the wonderful thing happening in his midst.

Likewise, the crowd at Nazareth that day chose to be angry because God didn’t see fit to act as they preferred, instead of rejoicing at the kingdom of God breaking into their midst.  They fell into the age-old trap of trying to tell God how to act, who God should bless and on what terms.  We tend to limit God’s activities to our image of what the divine should be doing, thus, seeking to create God in our own image, rather than the other way around. 

The people in Nazareth recognize and marvel at Jesus’ gracious words; but when the illustrations of God’s grace to outsiders are given, their feelings turn to rage.  They are also hearing that God does not act the way they want God to act.  God does whatever God wants to do - in this case, being gracious to whomever God pleases.  Do we really want a gracious God?  Certainly we do - for ourselves, anyway - but trust in a truly gracious God requires that we believe that the same grace is also given to those outside - outside our doors, outside our faith, outside our own self-imposed bounds of acceptability.

Friends, God’s blessing is not exclusive or exclusionary.  It’s one of the secrets of how it all works in the kingdom of God - the more generous, open, loving, and graceful we are toward others, the more we seem to have ourselves.  We sing that every week – we sing “Praise God from whom all blessings flow” – not “Praise ourselves for our own cleverness,” not “Praise God from whom some blessings flow,” not “Praise God from whom all blessings trickle” – “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.”

The implication is when we align ourselves with God and God’s kingdom, we are stepping into a flowing stream of God’s blessing that just keeps coming, washing over us and everyone else – and the flow never slows to a trickle, but just keeps coming and coming, bathing us – all of us – in the goodness of God.  When we realize that God’s call upon us is to serve rather than be served, to give rather than receive, to embrace rather than exclude, then the kingdom of God is in our midst.  The way to experience blessing in our own lives is to actively bless others in theirs.

The Gift of the Story for Us
The gift for us in this story is that we receive it away from the heat of the moment.  We have a chance to study and digest this story away from the the passion, the anger, the hurt feelings, the kneejerk reaction - we have a chance away from all of that to take its message to heart, and practice what it means to not think more highly of ourselves than we ought.

The story of Jesus’ first sermon gives us a chance to check our own motivation.  Are we looking to Jesus to get personal favors?  Or are we looking to Jesus because he is the fulfillment of God’s plan?  Are we participating in religious activities because we want to be served, or because we realize that Jesus calls us to serve?

When it comes to the religious stuff we do, are we trying to get something, or are we trying to partner with God and be part of the kingdom of God being revealed in our midst?  Are we in this for our own good and to meet our own needs, or are we in this to see the incredible good God does in many places and make ourselves available for God to meet the needs of others?  Do we believe so unwaveringly in the grace of God - a grace we sing of as amazing - that we believe in it just as firmly for those on the outside as we do for those on the inside?

There’s yet more gift in the story for us: Jesus didn’t just come for the people of Nazareth; he didn’t just come for those who were already on the inside track.  Thanks be to God, Jesus came for outsiders, too.  If he hadn’t, none of us would be here.  Jesus was run out of town because some people in his hometown didn’t want us - Gentiles, foreigners, outsiders - to be recipients of God’s grace.  Yet, Jesus made room for outsiders like us in the family.  When we put it that way, maybe we can make some room, too.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Faith Friends (Ruth 1:1-18)

In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons.  The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion; they were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah.  They went into the country of Moab and remained there.  But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons.  These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth.  When they had lived there about ten years, both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.
Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the Lord had considered his people and given them food.  So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah.  But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back each of you to your mother’s house.  May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me.  The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.”  Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud.  They said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.”  But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me?”  Do I still have sons in my womb that they become your husbands?  Turn back, my daughters, go your way for I am too old to have a husband.  Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, would you then wait until they were grown?  Would you then refrain from marrying?  No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.”  Then they wept aloud again.  Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.
So she said, “See, you sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.”  But Ruth said, “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you!  Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.  Where you die, I will die - there I will be buried.  May the Lord do thus and so to me, and even more as well, if even death parts me from you!”  When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.

One phrase in the English language will conjure up a whole host of emotional responses.  That phrase is “mother-in-law.”  Upon my simply saying that phrase, how many of you felt a chill go down your spine just now?  In our society, we have learned that the mother-in-law is someone to be both feared and revered, cause if Momma ain’t happy . . . ain’t nobody happy!

We see this understanding reinforced in popular culture.  How can you say “mother-in-law” without thinking of Marie Barone from Everybody Loves Raymond?  Rightly or wrongly, whether life imitates art or art reflects life, we have come to expect this sort of antagonism in the in-law relationship.  And yet, the story of Ruth and Naomi, which we have gotten the first taste of in our Scripture reading for today, is the story of in-laws who became friends.  Before it’s all said and done, we will see how their friendship has meaning for their faith.  May we pray.

The Story Itself
The book of Ruth begins: “In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and Elimelech, a man of Bethlehem in Judah, with his wife and two sons went to reside in the country of Moab . . . Elimelech, Naomi’s husband died, and she was left with her two sons.  They married Moabite women . . . and then the two sons also died” (Ruth 1:1-5).

The book of Ruth begins, in other words, in tragedy and loss.  Three women, three dead husbands, and perhaps Naomi feels the pain most accutely.  One funeral after another, first for her husband, then for her two sons, without any family, friends, or the familiar to lend their comfort and support.  Life is not easy.  In fact, just a few verses after we left off from today’s reading, this widow will change her name from Naomi - which means sweet - to Mara - which means bitter.  Can you blame her?

Naomi knows that the future is also bleak and potentially bitter for her two daughters-in-law as long as they stay with her.  They can fare better on their own.  In the ancient world, while a widow didn’t just go out, find a job, and start dating again, someone might still take a chance on a pretty young widow who could still have children and maybe even turn out a good day’s work in the meantime.

Knowing this, Naomi tells her daughters-in-law to turn back, return to their own country, and find new husbands for themselves from among their own people. She thanks them for their kindness toward her, but really, their social obligation to her has been met, and now it’s time for them to think about themselves and their own well-being.  After some persuasion and tears, Orpah – not to be confused with Oprah – takes her mother-in-law’s advice and heads toward home (Ruth 1:6-14).  But Ruth has hitched her star to bitter old Naomi, and she makes one of the most profound pledges in Scripture: “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16).

Ruth demonstrates what God is like.  By word and by deed, Ruth demonstrates what God means when God says, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6, cf. Hebrews 13:5).

Why is Ruth even in here?
The inclusion of the book of Ruth in the Hebrew Scriptures seems odd.  Most of us learned in Sunday School that the Old Testament - more properly called the Hebrew Scriptures - narrate the maturing relationship between God and a particular people - the Hebrew people.

Ruth, however, is a Gentile, a foreigner, an outsider, an immigrant.  Eight times in the 4 chapters of her story, we are reminded that she is a “Moabite woman,” the Biblical writers’ way of telling us that she is different, a foreigner, not one of the chosen people.  Rather than being “one of us,” she is “one of them.”  And yet, even though she is an outsider, she is named as a full participant in God’s redemption story, and a full recipient of God’s grace, and thousands of years later when St. Matthew would begin his Gospel with an account of Jesus’ family tree, Ruth would be named as one of the prominent ancestors of Jesus.  For those with ears to hear, her story has much to teach.

First, we live in a society of rules.  How often have we seen rules take priority over relationship?  The Hebrew society certainly had its rules - who was in and who was out, who was chosen and who was outcast, who was an acceptable conduit of God’s grace and who was not.  The story of Ruth breaks these rules, and serves as a word of caution in our day against thinking that we have the corner on the market when it comes to God’s revelation, or placing human rules ahead of human beings.  Ruth is not someone who should be featured in the Hebrew redemption story - she is an outsider!  Yet, God acts in her life mightily and powerfully, meaning that when God gets ready to move on your behalf, God can break rules, bend regulations, flip policies, and even change rigid human minds.

Second, the story of Ruth is included in the Hebrew scriptures to give us an important model and framework for broadening the definition of family.  For people of faith, the family is always being redefined.  The truest and most Biblical expressions of family have less to do with biology and blood than they do with a sense of unity and mutuality that is bigger than all that.  Jesus himself said that his true family were not his own relatives, but those who do the will of God (Mark 3:31-35).  The people to whom you are closest and with whom you literally share life - that’s your family.  It doesn’t matter if you share similar DNA or not, family, especially for people of faith, is about relationships.

How often have you found your own definition of family stretched and broadened?  I think the best way you can illustrate this is to understand the difference between a family reunion and a Thanksgiving dinner.  The family reunion is a fascinating sociological experiment - a time of forced interaction with people you have either never met or don’t know well at all, but who are supposed to be important to you, why?  Because you’re family, that’s why, and family is important.  Never mind that you know nothing about each other, where the other lives, how many kids they have - heck, we can’t even remember their names without nametags!  Am I the only one who keeps an index card in my flip flop with a basic family tree so we have some earthly chance of remembering how we’re actually related to these strangers?

Contrast that with what happens at Thanksgiving dinner.  Show of hands if at least some of the people who are at the table with you at Thanksgiving are not related to you either by biology or marriage?  What I want you to consider is this: the people with whom you share Thanksgiving dinner are a truer representation of your family than the strangers you meet at a family reunion.  The definition of family is broader now, and it has more to do with relationships than DNA.  Even moreso for the family of faith, one in which we are re-named and re-identified and re-claimed by God as God’s own, and told that now we relate to each other as family - brothers and sisters, even.  Family is still important, but who constitutes our family now has a much broader definition.

Third, Ruth has gone above and beyond her legal or social obligations to bitter old Naomi, and that’s the surprise of the whole story.  There is nothing compelling her to stay with Naomi, other than the authentic affection of genuine friendship.  And so Naomi, who thought she would make the rest of her journey alone, is blessed with a confidant and companion along the way - a faith friend.

“Choose your friends carefully”
I can still hear my parents’ admonition from childhood, adolescence, high school, college, and even into adulthood, to “choose your friends carefully.”  You, too, probably received numerous warnings about falling in with the wrong crowd, and being susceptible to influences that were less than noble.  I remember being mad and upset and disbelieving when, on occasion, they decided that this friend or that friend was not an appropriate playmate, and I wasn’t to hang out with them anymore.  I thought they were absolutely ruining my life, and I couldn’t believe that I had parents who were so mean!

Yet, what they knew and what I later came to understand, is that not everyone who claims to be your friend really is your friend.  Not everyone who claims to be your friend has your best interest in mind.  In the words of Annie Lennox, “some of them want to use you.”

Not everyone who claims to be your friend is your friend.  You can administer a friendship test for your relationships simply by asking yourself some very basic questions:

1.  What seeds are taking root in me because of my relationship with them?  Are they Christlike seeds of righteousness, peace, love, and joy?  Or are they seeds of anger, bitterness, resentment, hostility, and negativity?

2.  Do my interactions with this person lift my spirit, or weigh it down? Do they affect my personality to become more like a Naomi, which means “sweet,” or more like a Mara, which means “bitter?”

Try taking this inventory for yourself with all the people you talk to, think about, and interact with the most - in other words, your friends.  And here’s what I suggest: for those who help you become more righteous, peaceful, loving, and joyful, for those who lift your spirit, maximize the time you spend with them.  For those who are dragging you down to become angry, bitter, resentful, hostile, or negative, for those who weigh your spirit down, for those who want to spend their whole life riding around on the bitter bus - you can simply choose not to ride along with them.  Keep praying for them, keep loving them, keep asking God to do something truly miraculous in their heart.

Let me get a bit more specific for a minute.  When you’re around that bitter person, you need to intentionally make sure that you are the influencer, not the influencee.  When you’re in a conversation and your bitter alarm goes off, something in your head should say, “Oh, I don’t need to get sucked into this vortex.  I need to be the influencer here, not the influencee.  To the best of my ability and with God’s help, I need to influence this interaction by seasoning their bitterness with the love and joy of God, rather than allowing their bitterness to take away my joy.”  When you encounter bitterness, be intentional to be the influencer rather than the influencee.

And remember this: it is not your job or responsibility to change anyone. Only God changes hearts.  It is our responsibility to keep witnessing to the love of God in this world.  Whether or not someone is open to that love and being changed and transformed by it is a spiritual matter between that person and God, and none of us has any control over how open and receptive that person is.  There is only one person that any of us has any control over, and who is that?  Ourselves.  Our job is to faithfully, tirelessly, doggedly, keep witnessing to the love of God, regardless of the outcome or how people respond, trusting that in God’s time and in God’s hands, hard hearts will soften and lives will be transformed.

Now, if you realize that you’re the person riding the bitter bus (perhaps only realized after other people completed their friendship inventory and all-of-a-sudden are avoiding you like the plague), you have a choice in the matter: to keep riding the bitter bus, or to get off at the next stop.  If we want to be transformed, if we’re open to God’s grace working within us and through us, if we want our lives to be shaped by Christ’s love and joy and filled with the Holy Spirit, then hold onto your hat because there is no telling what wonderful things will happen in your life as a result.  And the choice is largely up to you, but you’d better believe that God has some people in mind who will help you through the transformation.

Friends, we don’t make the spiritual journey by ourselves.  Christianity is not a religion that can be practiced alone or in isolation; it is by its very definition a community religion that is practiced in a network of mutually interdependent relationships.  God gives us companions along the way who support us, who hold us accountable, who teach us, who lift us up - friends, in other words.  True friends are the ones who make your life sweeter, so stick close to the ones who do.

Genuine friendship always changes us for the better.  Faith friendships always change us more into the image of God.  And faith friendships are always a healthy and beneficial thing for all parties - both have much to learn and gain, both have much to offer and give.

In the Scriptures, God used Ruth to help change Naomi’s heart.  Like Ruth and Naomi, faith friends stick it out with each other, hold fast to the promises we make to each other, support each other, and we bring out the best in each other we possibly can.  Those are true friends, real friends, faith friends.  They are a gift from God, in whose name and by whose grace, friends become family.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Command: Love (John 13:1-17,31-34)

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart this world and go to the father.  Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.  The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him.  And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself.  Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.  He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”  Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”  Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.”  Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”  Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!”  Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean.  And you are clean, though not all of you.”  For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”
After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you?  You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am.  So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.  Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them.  If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”
When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.  If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him at once.  Little children, I am with you only a little longer.  You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’  I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

I realize school is out for summer, but I’d like to administer a pop quiz this morning.  I’m going to give you four possible answers to fill in the blank on the following sentence (and don’t answer just yet, even if you think you know it!):  _______ is Lord.  Now, before we answer the quiz, let’s define the term, “Lord.”  To call someone or something “Lord,” what are we saying about them?

Bishop Kenneth Carder expresses it well.  He says, “When we say ‘Lord,’ think ‘boss.’  Whatever is ‘Lord’ is in charge.”  OK, so using that definition, think about your life and who is ‘Lord’ - boss, in charge - of your life.  Is it A.) My teenage daughter?  B.) My cat?  C.) My spouse/partner?  D.) My in-laws?  E.) Me, Myself, and I?  OK, so who is it?  Do any of these fit, or you think we should maybe fill in the blank with something else, and if so, what would it be?

When we say ‘Jesus is Lord,’ we’re saying, ‘Jesus is the boss.’ Does that work for everyone?  OK, if a boss tells you to do something, how do you respond?  Now, if Jesus is our Lord, our boss, and Jesus tells us to do something, how do you think we should respond?  May we pray.

The text we have just read is set in the context of Jesus’ last evening with his disciples before his death, surrounding the meal we commonly refer to as The Last Supper, and he gave them a new commandment that night that was really a summary of all he taught taught them to this point - to love.  Knowing all that lay ahead of him in the coming 24 hours, Jesus used the opportunity of one last family meal with his followers and closest friends to tell them something important.

Now, let’s think about that for a minute.  Suppose you knew you were going to die within the next 24 hours, and you had your closest relationships—family, friends, whomever—around you.  Given that scenario, do you think you would say things and share things that were important or inconsequential? 

So it was for Jesus on the night before he gave himself up for us.  Knowing that he would meet with death in just a few hours, Jesus said in verse 34, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (John 13:34).  He leaves his final wishes in the form of this new command: “love one another.”

I find this to be a fascinating, ironic piece of the journey with Jesus: a command to love.  A command – not optional – to do something that by its very nature can only be done voluntarily, freely, and without compulsion – love.  Participation in the self-giving, love-filled life of Jesus is completely voluntary, and yet, once you have signed up for the life of faith, love is now mandatory.

Friends, if you remember nothing else about this sermon, indeed, if you remember nothing else about the entirety of the Gospel story, remember this: it’s about love.  It’s the only law or command you need to worry about or follow, for if our lives reflect God’s love in the same way the moon reflects the light of the sun, the rest of it - the do’s and don’t, the rights and wrongs and rules, the shoulds and coulds and ought to’s - will take care of themselves if our lives are rooted in and constantly reflecting God’s love.

It’s about love.  And to be clear about this, when Jesus says, “Love one another,” he isn’t saying “Have warm fuzzy feelings for each other.”  It’s impossible to have warm fuzzy feelings for everyone else because so many people are downright irritating!  Further, that’s not what love is.  Love is not a feeling; it’s an action, it’s a decision, it’s a choice.  And in our text, Jesus displayed his love in action.

In those days, most people travelled by foot.  Roads were dusty, and people’s feet would get very dirty as they travelled from place to place.  Upon arriving at your destination, your host would make it possible for you to clean your feet.  Typically, a pitcher of water, a basin, and a towel would be left by the door; if a person was wealthy and had servants, one or more of the servants would be on foot-washing duty at the door.

But that night, there were no servants to wash feet.  There was a pitcher and basin by the door, but the disciples realized that if they stopped to wash their own feet, they might end up washing everyone else’s feet, too.  None of them wanted to get stuck doing that –  that was the job of a servant!  It was menial!  It was degrading!  Not the type of thing that the closest friends and followers of someone as important as Jesus should do!  They were all above that!  And so the basin sat by the door.

But as the supper progressed, Jesus got up from the table, and he walked back to the door, and he picked up that pitcher, basin, and towel.  And the disciples thought to themselves, “Oh no.  Who is Jesus going to pick to wash the feet?  Was he going to scold them because they hadn’t washed their feet before dinner?  Was he going to say, “John, you’re the youngest - you do the dirty work!”?  But then, Jesus himself got on the floor, and the disciples were mortified.  The very thing they all thought they were too important to do, Jesus does himself. He washed their feet- first John, then Judas, then on around the entire table, washing each of their feet and they’re embarrassed because their Lord has assumed the role of a servant.

You see, Jesus had already taught that “The Son of Man [that’s Jesus] did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his very life” (Mark 10:45, Matthew 20:28, emphasis added).  Jesus Christ – the son of God, the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords – washed his disciples’ feet, and when he did, he was saying, “Friends, this is what love looks like.  I have taken the most degrading, humiliating job a servant can take on; I’ve taken a job nobody else wanted to do.  Go and do likewise.”

We have a constant reminder of this command to love each other here in our sanctuary – do you know where it is?  The purple banner with the pitcher of water and basin, reminding us of how Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, how he linked this to loving them, and then how he called us to love each other - and others - in the same way.  This banner is a constant reminder of Jesus’ command to love one another, and I hope that every time you look at it, you remember Jesus’ call upon your life to reflect his love.

Jesus came among us as a servant - he was here to serve rather than be served.  The same is true for those who wish to follow him.  Those who claim the name Christian - from baby Adalynn who was received into the Christian family just moments ago, to the longest tenured church-goer among us - we are called to serve.  Serving others above ourselves is how Jesus taught us to love - commanded us to love, even - and just as he washed his disciples’ feet, now he looks at each of us and calls us by name and hands the basin and towel to each of us and says, “If you love me, show it in your love for others.  Take the tools of love, and go to serve others in my name.”  Jesus is calling you by name to love and to serve - they are one-in-the-same - will you take the pitcher and basin and towel and do as he tells us to do?  Or, like it did on that night so long ago with Jesus and his disciples, will the tools of love once again sit neglected by the door in the hopes that someone else will pick them up?

One final thought.  Later that same evening, Christ would pray in the garden.  That’s what the stained glass window here in our sanctuary depicts - Jesus praying in the garden following supper in the hours before he was arrested.  I love that window, in part because of what it symbolizes and what we know about the content of Jesus’ prayer on that night.  A few chapters after the passage we’ve looked at today, John’s Gospel tells us that one of the things Jesus prayed for was that his followers – all of us, everywhere – Jesus prayed that his followers would all be one (John 17).

Think about that.  On the night before he met with death, Jesus was praying for us.  Of all the various things that were on his mind at that time, he stopped and prayed for his followers, that we would be united in our love for God, our love for each other, and our common ministry.  Every time I look at this window, I like to think of Jesus praying right now, in this moment, for the congregation here at St. Paul.  Jesus is praying for us, that we would love each other and be made one.  I don’t know about you, but I really don’t want to let Jesus down.  I want his great prayer to be answered, that we may all be one.

And here’s the cool part: if we do what Jesus commanded us to do earlier that same night - love each other - and if we make a way of life out of it such that the law of love is permanently written on our hearts and constantly reflected in our lives, then the inevitable result is that we’ll be drawn together, unified, made one.  Looks like maybe Jesus was onto something.

Love one another.  For when we do, we are the answer to Jesus’ prayer.