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Sunday, April 21, 2013

New Creation!! (2 Corinthians 5:14-20)

The love of God controls us, because we have concluded this: one died for the sake of all; therefore, all died.  He died for the sake of all so that those who are alive should live not for themselves but for the one who died for them and was raised.

So then, from this point on we won’t recognize people by human standards.  Even though we used to know Christ by human standards, that isn’t how we know him now.  So then, 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!

All of these new things are from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and who gave us the ministry of reconciliation.  In other words, God was reconciling the world to himself through Christ, by not counting people’s sins against them.  He has trusted us with this ministry of reconciliation.

So we are ambassadors who represent Christ.  God is negotiating with you through us.  We beg you as Christ’s representatives, “Be reconciled to God!”


Many of you have met my sister, Christel, who lives in Newton with her husband and their two boys.  Mike and Christel love an old house they can buy and fix up.  A few years ago, they bought their current home – one built in 1878 at the edge of Newton’s historic district.

I remember when she called to express their excitement after they got the house.  A big family home on a deep lot with mature trees – sweeping front porch, 12-foot ceilings, five fireplaces.  Yes, it needed some work, but it would be both their family home and their newest project.

I drove up to see the house.  I pulled up to the address, looked over their new beloved, prize possession, and thought, “What a dump!”  But as I got out of the car, I thought, “Maybe it will get better on the inside.”

It did not get better on the inside.  “Don’t stand there!  You might end up in the basement!”  “Don’t use the upstairs shower, because it will rain in the main hall if you do!”  “Don’t mind the 20-foot hole in the foundation; we’re planning to have someone come and take a look at it.”  The tour through this funhouse of residential obstacles continued, and when it was over, I said the kindest thing I could think of and say honestly: “I am so happy for you!!!”

Truer words have never been spoken.  I see a heap, but she sees something different: a precious jewel that just needs to be cleaned up, polished, and restored to its original beauty, and because she loves the house, the intense labor of love is totally worth it.

I wonder – if God sees us the same way. 

Our Scripture reading today from 2 Corinthians 5 rests in a promise of how God sees us and, therefore, how we are called to see others.  If the saying is true, that “seeing is believing” or “perception is reality,” how we are seen by God and how we see others is no small thing.

You’ve seen those drawings where if your eyes focus one way, it looks like one thing, and if your eyes focus another, it looks like something else.  Here is one of the more well-known examples of that – what do you see here?

Now – which one is right?  Is this a picture of an old woman facing you looking down, or is this a picture of a young woman turning her head away from you?  It’s both, of course, but what you see depends on your perspective – it depends on what you focus on.

Put a half-glass of water on the table: some of us will say it is half-empty, some of us will say it is half-full, others of us will wonder where the Diet Pepsi we ordered is.  What you see depends on your perspective.

Today, when you came into worship, my guess is that everyone noticed the painting that’s been done in here over the last two weeks – but, what did you focus on?  Did you notice the warm and inviting colors that were chosen, how the cracks in the plaster walls have been repaired, how the beautiful woodwork that’s always been there just pops out, how the original beauty of this room has been restored?  Or, did you notice the dust that’s still on the floor, that something didn’t get put back exactly as it was, or the paint fumes?  How you see this particular project will depend on your perspective.  Our perception shapes our reality.

That’s what Paul was getting at in today’s Scripture reading.  There is more than one way of looking at something.  For his purposes, it’s a contrast between seeing things from a human standpoint and seeing them from God’s point-of-view.

It’s really a question of vision – not so much what we see, but how we see. Without Christ, we see other people from a human perspective – we see and we make judgments through the lenses of color or creed, of nationality or economic status, of gender or sexual orientation – every time we look at another human being through these lenses we are looking at them from a human perspective.

What we realize, particularly from today’s Scripture, is that our human vision is so much less than what God desires; that my vision, your vision, our human vision requires correction so that we will see as God sees.

When we talk about the fall of humanity, of the role of sin in the world, one compelling way to think of it is that we no longer see correctly.  We have lost our God vision, and must rely on our faulty human vision, full of its ungenerous judgments toward others and our presumptuous prideful claims about ourselves.

What we must realize is that seeing other people in this way is not the perspective God desires for us, indeed, it is far from how God created us in the first place.  We must never lose sight of the reality that God created us in God’s image – that doesn’t mean that we physically look like God, but that we are created in love as God is love, and with the capacity to love as God loves.

The image of a loving God is marked indelibly on each human heart; it just needs to be restored.

How we see things becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy in that what you see is what you get.  If you are always looking for the negative, then guess what, you’re going to see the negative 100% of the time.  If you’re always looking for the best, then that’s what you’ll see.  Here in the church, we’re always looking for people who see more of the positive than the negative, whose vision is in synch with God’s perspective, who contribute more than they complain.  These are the people we look to for leadership and direction; these are the people who can help us see more like God sees; these are the people who can help us become the kind of visionary community God wants us to be.

Come back with me to my sister’s house.  Whereas some folks would gut it or even tear it down and start from scratch with something new, which would be easier, faster, and, in the long run, probably cheaper, the work her family has done and continues to do on their house is a restoration project.  It’s not renovation or remodeling, it’s restoration – they see the beauty that is already there and just waiting to be exposed.

So they don’t throw away and start over.  Original fixtures are salvaged – doorknobs, hinges, pieces of trim, windows, switchplate and vent covers.  Layers of accumulated stuff are removed – dirt, grime, paint, rust, all of it.  Repairs are made.  Whatever can be reused is.  They scour salvage stores and restoration warehouses looking for just the right door or lighting fixture, or faucet handle.  When they do have to put in new components, they carefully research their options and find those that best match the period and character of the house.

When they’re done, it will feel like a new house, but they will have simply revealed what was there all along.

So it is for those who are in Christ and part of God’s new creation.  Life in Christ feels brand new, but in reality, it is the restoration of the image of God that was there all along, but for whatever reason, couldn’t be seen. 

What’s more, the restored image of God gives us the ability to no longer see people from a human perspective, but from God’s.  That’s pretty huge, folks.  Because, if God sees us as precious and beautiful, if God sees us as beloved children who bear God’s image – what would it mean for us to do the same?  To do as the Bible tells us, to serve as “ambassadors who represent Christ,” – seeing other people more like God sees them.

God looks on us with love even when we aren’t all that lovable, and that even when we felt like worthless trash, in God’s eyes, we have always been priceless treasure.

Human vision sees a heap; Godly vision sees a precious jewel that needs to be cleaned up and restored to its original beauty – and what you see is what you get.

May your sight be worthy of the loving God whose image you bear, and in whose name you are sent.  It’s an intense labor of love; and it’s totally worth it.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Jesus is OK with Doubt (John 20:19-31)

It was still the first day of the week.  That evening, while disciples were behind closed doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities, Jesus came and stood among them.  He said, “Peace be with you.”  After he said this, he showed them his hands and side.  When the disciples saw the Lord, they were filled with joy.  Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you.  As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.”  Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you don’t forgive them, they aren’t forgiven.”
Thomas, the one called Didymus [or the twin], one of the Twelve, wasn’t with the disciples when Jesus came.  The other disciples told him, “We’ve seen the Lord!”  But he replied, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds left by the nails, and put my hand into his side, I won’t believe.”
After eight days his disciples were again in a house and Thomas was with them.  Even though the doors were locked, Jesus entered and stood among them.  He said, “Peace be with you.”  Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here.  Look at my hands.  Put your hand into my side.  No more disbelief.  Believe!”
Thomas responded to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!”
Jesus replied, “Do you believe because you see me?  Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.”
Then Jesus did many other miraculous signs in his disciples’ presence, signs that aren’t recorded in this scroll.  But these things are written so that you will believe that Jesus is the Christ, God’s son, and that believing, you will have life in his name.

Has anyone wished you a happy Easter today?  If not, then let me be the first.  Happy Easter!  Christ is risen! (Christ is risen indeed!)  May the reality of new life in Christ be yours today, may you be filled with joy, because it is still Easter.  We know that technically, Easter is a season, a 7-week-long season of celebration and joy that stretches from Easter Sunday to Pentecost Sunday.  But even more than that, Easter is an everyday reality for the followers of Jesus - every day is an opportunity to behold that all things are being made new in Christ, every day is an opportunity for the newness of life in Christ to spring up in the cold and dead places of our own lives - for those in Christ, every day is Easter.

And so yes, today is still Easter.  Christ is risen!  (Christ is risen indeed!)   God is still transforming hollowed out tombs into places bursting with new life, and today, no less than last week, we continue to have life-giving encounters with the living Christ.  May we pray.

A Story for the Faithful Few
The Scripture reading we read a few minutes ago is John’s account of what happened on the evening of the very first Easter Sunday.  If this story is familiar to you, you are likely one of the few but faithful who regularly attend worship on this Second Sunday of Easter.  On this Sunday each year, the lectionary brings us one account or another of this particular story - of fearful disciples who have barricaded themselves in an upper room, how the resurrected Jesus stood among them, and of Thomas, more commonly known as “Doubting Thomas,” who wasn’t there, and refused to believe until he saw it for himself.

Doubting Thomas - he is portrayed as a kind of stick-in-the-mud, the disciple who comes to the party just a little bit late and is a total buzz-kill when he finally gets there.  If the disciples were Winnie the Pooh characters, Thomas would play the part of Eeyore.

Futher, we have tended to teach that, of all the disciples, there are two not to be like - don’t be like Judas, who sold Jesus out for a few silver coins, and don’t be like Thomas - because he had doubt instead of faith.

Do you mind if I stick up for Thomas for minute?  Thomases are very practical, down-to-earth, rational people.  Thomases are nuts and bolts people who like concrete ideas and concepts.  Thomases tend to be a bit skeptical, a bit cynical, and a bit difficult to convince.  I should know - I am a Thomas myself.

Like Thomas, doubt itself gets a bad wrap, too.  I don’t think doubt, questions, or uncertainty bother Jesus at all.  They may bother us, especially if we prefer absolutes, but friends, you can doubt and question Jesus all you want - trust me, the risen Jesus can take it.

Besides, doubt is often an important part of the journey toward faith.  The great reformer, Martin Luther, talks about working through his own doubts, and how those doubts became part of the process of faith and of being a Christian.  John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, frequently spoke of “degrees of faith,” much like the thermostat in your home is not simply “on” or “off,” but has the ability to heat up or cool down incrementally, so too is our faith not simply a matter of “Yes, you have it,” or “No, you don’t.”  In my own life, periods of doubt and questioning have led to some of my most profound experiences of faith.
Doubting  Absent Thomas
The resurrected Jesus appeared to the rest of the disciples at a time when Thomas wasn’t there - we don’t know why he wasn’t there or where he was.  Maybe he went out to get groceries or maybe he was keeping watch or maybe he just wasn’t as afraid as everyone else, but for whatever reason he wasn’t there.  Instead of calling him Doubting Thomas, maybe we should think of him as Absent Thomas.
In fact, I find it sort of funny that the lectionary brings us the story of Absent Thomas on a Sunday when the vast majority of our congregation is also absent!  I am so glad you are here this morning, and I hope and pray, as I do every Sunday, that you experience the living presence of Jesus in worship today.  But, I can’t help but wonder how we who have gathered today might live in such a way that the transforming presence of the living Jesus is shared with those who are not here, whether they are part of the crowds who were here last Sunday and are absent today, whether they are those who live within sight of our steeple but aren’t part of any faith community, whether they are those who - out of pain, or fear, or loneliness, or hopelessness - are living behind locked doors, or even those who are physically here today, but haven’t shown up spiritually in years.

In the life of Thomas, his doubt speaks out of the genuine reality that the risen and living Jesus hasn’t yet made an appearance in his life.

Thomas: Not Unlike His Peers (And Us!!)
Another reason not to single him out is that the rest of the disciples aren’t much of a prize at this point in the story, either.  How easy it is for us to forget that the first followers of Jesus didn’t have any more a clue what they were doing than we do!

On the evening of the first Easter Sunday, perhaps only 12 hours or so after Jesus first appeared to the women outside the empty tomb, you would have expected to find his followers out in the streets, shouting the Easter proclamation that Christ is risen!  Christ is risen, indeed!  It was Easter, it was victory day, it was time to shout and celebrate and share the good news that Jesus was alive - he is alive, indeed!

But that’s not where they were.  On what should have been their most defining and celebratory day, they were locked away, hiding, paralyzed by fear, hunkered down and expecting the worst.

Nothing Going For Them
If ever there was a church with a PR problem and a bad reputation to overcome, it was this church we have read about today - these first followers of Jesus in the hours just after he was raised to new life.  If ever there was a church in need of transformation or a congregational vitality study, this was it.  They were a church that any district superintendent would have described as a “unique and challenging opportunity.”

Sometimes I have wondered how such a church might promote itself to the community - “the church where all are welcome?”  Well, probably not - locked gates are not a sign of hospitality.  “The church with a warm heart and bold mission?”  Well, no - more like sweaty palms and shaky knees.
In short, the followers of Jesus on the first Easter night didn’t have anything going for them - they didn’t even have the luxury of arguing about the petty things churches today often argue about - no building, no music, no programs, no leadership team, no mission statement, no parking spaces, no fellowship hall, no money.
They were a church without any joy, and they didn’t even have a sense of purpose or direction. They were, as Tom Long says, “a picture of church at its very worst - scared, disheartened, defensive” - they were the most miserable little conglomeration of people that have ever gathered and called themselves a church.  Their entire long-term strategic plan had completely fallen apart, they had no plan B, no conviction about anything except their own fear; they had absolutely nothing going for them except for one thing:
When they gathered, the presence of the risen Christ was made real in their midst.
They were a breath away from giving up; but the risen and living Jesus breathed on them with the breath of new life, gave them the life-changing gift of the Holy Spirit, and commissioned them to breathe his new life into the world around them.
And that little rag-tag group of disciples, who were the church at their worst, who were the most miserable little gathering of people who ever called themselves a church - the presence of the risen Christ was made real when they gathered.  They found their joy, they found their purpose, they found their meaning.  Instead of giving up, they forever changed the world.
And so, even when we have nothing going for us, even when we’re at our worst, even we’re absent, God is still present.
Friends - that’s church.  What matters most?  The presence of the risen Christ made real in our midst.  It’s what changes our fear into hope, and our sorrow into joy.  Encountering the risen Christ - that’s what makes all the difference.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Getters and Givers

Your attitude as a part of the congregation has a lot to do with how vital and fruitful the church will be.  I have noticed there are two general attitudes that people can have about their church, framed in terms of two questions:

·         “What can I get out of being part of this church?”

·         “What can I give out of being part of this church?”


Vibrant, healthy, kingdom-building churches are those in which more of their constituents are seeking to give rather than to get. 



·         Are worried about their own needs

·         Are concerned with “What’s in it for me?”

·         Want their own way

·         Withhold (time, talent, or treasure) when they don’t get what they want

·         Think more of themselves than they do of others

·         Think the church is there to serve them

·         Fear loss of control, comfort, or convenience



·         Are worried about what’s best for everyone

·         Are concerned with “What does God need of us?”

·         Want God’s way

·         Continue to give (time, talent, treasure) even when they don’t get exactly what they want

·         Think more about others than they do of themselves

·         Think the church is there to serve its community

·         Are willing to sacrifice control, comfort, or convenience for the sake of the mission


So ask yourself, “Am I a giver, or am I a getter?”